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Book Review: Backbone by Karen Duffy

Karen DuffyKaren 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.”

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The Stoics on Phocion the Good

Phocion the GoodPhocion the Good was an Athenian statesman and general who was born a few years before Socrates was executed.  He was executed at Athens himself around 318 BC, perhaps shortly after the arrival there of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.  Plutarch wrote a chapter on him in Parallel Lives, citing him as a Greek counterpart to the famous Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica.  Plutarch mentions Zeno of Citium in relation to the laconic style of speaking that Phocion shared with Cato:

For, as Zeno used to say that a philosopher should immerse his words in meaning before he utters them, so Phocion’s language had most meaning in fewest words.

He also says that Phocion was a “pupil of Plato when he was still a stripling, and later a pupil of Xenocrates, in the Academy” and he therefore “cultivated the noblest behaviour from the very beginning”.  We’re also told that Phocion  had been a follower of Diogenes the Cynic, in the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius.

In a fragment from a lecture by Musonius Rufus “on whether a philosopher will file a suit against someone for assault”

Socrates obviously refused to be upset when he was publicly ridiculed by Aristophanes; indeed, when Socrates met Aristophanes, he asked if Aristophanes would like to make other such use of him. It is unlikely that this man would have become angry if he had been the target of some minor slight, since he was not upset when he was ridiculed in the theater! Phocion the Good, when his wife was insulted by someone, didn’t even consider bringing charges against the insulter. In fact, when that person came to him in fear and asked Phocion to forgive him, saying that he did not know that it was his wife whom he offended, Phocion replied: “My wife has suffered nothing because of you, but perhaps some other woman has. So you don’t need to apologize to me.”

Marcus Aurelius may have heard this story because he also mentions Phocion in relation to enduring the contempt of others.

Will someone feel contempt for me? Let him look to that. But I for my part will look to this, that I may not be discovered doing or saying anything that is worthy of contempt. Will someone hate me? Let him look to that. But I will be kind and good-natured to everyone, and ready to show this particular person the nature of his error, not in a critical spirit, nor as if I were making a display of my tolerance, but sincerely and kindheartedly, like the great Phocion (if he really meant what he said). For that is how one should be within one’s heart, to show oneself to the gods as one who is neither disposed to be angry at anything nor to make any complaint. For what harm can come to you if you are presently doing what is appropriate to your nature, and you welcome what is presently appropriate for universal nature, as someone who is supremely anxious that by one means or another the common benefit should be brought to fruition? (Meditations, 11.13)

What books to read next on Stoicism

Mock up of books by StoicsPeople 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.

Plato’s Apology

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.

Honourable Mentions

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.

The Stoic Socrates: Four Emotional Resilience Strategies

Socrates billboardThere’s a remarkable series of passages in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is portrayed describing four reasons why wise men don’t allow themselves to indulge in excessive grief when faced with misfortune.  We can also view these as four cognitive (thinking) strategies for coping with adversity, and building emotional resilience.  These appear to foreshadow Stoic advice for coping with adversity or themes found in the Hellenistic “consolation” (consolatio) literature written by both Stoics and Platonists, most notably including Seneca and Plutarch.   (If you want to learn more about Socrates, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on his life and philosophy.)

This first comes up in Book 3 of the Republic, where Socrates argues that the heroes depicted in tragic poetry often provide people with negative role models, insofar as they’re made to give pitiful speeches lamenting their misfortune to excess (387d-e).  He says that a good man doesn’t regard death as a catastrophic thing for someone to suffer, even the death of one of his friends.  A wise man, therefore, will not grieve as terribly over the loss of his loved ones as tragic heroes did such as, say, Achilles.  The wise and good man is surely someone as self-sufficient as can be, Socrates says, and the least dependent on others of all men.  So to lose his son, brother, possessions, or any such thing, would seem less dreadful to the wise and good man than it would to other people.  Therefore, concludes Socrates, he will give way to lamentation less and bear misfortune more calmly and quietly than others.  He doesn’t, though, say that the wise man would not grieve or lament at all.

The idea that good (or wise) men somehow cope better than others with misfortune is finally picked back up again in Book 10 of the Republic (603e-604d).  Socrates now appears to claim, unsurprisingly, that training in philosophy can contribute to emotional resilience.  He begins by recalling his earlier assertion that a good man who has the misfortune to lose his son, or anything else dear to him, will bear the loss with greater equanimity than others would.  Although such a man cannot help feeling sorrow, he will moderate his sorrow.  There is, he says, a “principle of law and reason” in man that bids him resist being overwhelmed by the feeling of misfortune, although grief pulls him in the other direction.  (He then proceeds to use this observation in order to provide support for Plato’s tripartite division of the soul, which the Stoics rejected, and which was probably an alien notion to the real Socrates.)

Socrates claims that the intellect of the wise and good man is willing to follow the law of reason, which tells us it is best to be patient in the face of suffering.  He adds that reason (or presumably also philosophy) tells us that we should not give way to impatience for the following reasons:

  1. There is no way to be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad for us.  (Many of our greatest setbacks in life turn out to be for the best, and they’re often opportunities or blessings in disguise, but what matters most is whether we respond wisely or foolishly to events.)
  2. We gain nothing by taking misfortunes badly, grieving overmuch simply adds another layer to our problem.
  3. No human affairs are of great importance anyway, in the grand scheme of things, so they’re not worth taking seriously enough to get highly upset about them.
  4. Grief actually stands in the way and prevents us from exercising reason, the very thing that would help us most when faced with adversity.

Socrates elaborates upon the last point by saying that the thing most required when facing misfortune is that we take counsel with ourselves and deliberate rationally about the problem, “as we would the fall of the dice”.  We should plan the best response under the circumstances, or as psychologists today often say we should employ a rational problem-solving response.

We mustn’t, like children who have taken a fall, he says, keep hold of the part hurt and waste our time wailing.  Instead, we should train our minds to apply the psychological remedy as quickly as possible, healing what is sickly, fixing the problem, and banishing our cries of sorrow through the healing art.  That’s easily recognizable as a description of what we call today “emotional resilience”, or the ability to rebound after experiencing some misfortune.  That is how we should meet the attacks of fortune and not by indulging those irrational emotions, agrees Glaucon, his interlocutor.  On the other hand, those who indulge their unruly passions never tire of recalling troubles and lamenting over them, says Socrates, in an irrational, useless, and even cowardly manner.  That sounds like a description of what we would call “morbid rumination” in modern psychotherapy.

We might compare these reasons or cognitive strategies to four exercises found in Stoic literature:

  1. Remembering that external things, beyond our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but rather indifferent with regard to the goal of life.
  2. Contemplating the consequences of responding rationally versus passionately, which I call Stoic “functional analysis”.
  3. Grasping events from a broader and more comprehensive perspective, such as the “View from Above”.
  4. Asking ourselves what “What virtue has nature given me to deal with this?”, bearing in mind that the virtues of courage and moderation, which we praise in others, are designed to limit the emotion of fear and unruly desires, in accord with reason.

The foundation of this argument in Plato’s Republic, though, is undoubtedly the first of these, which amounts to the argument that external things are neither good nor bad in themselves, but should be viewed as indifferent.  What matters is whether we make use of them wisely or foolishly.  That basic notion crops up several times throughout the Socratic literature and becomes central to Stoic therapy of the passions.

Three Strategies of the Stoic Socrates

When confronted by the troubling behaviour of others, there were three main strategies or ideas that Socrates employed, which were later assimilated into Stoic philosophy.  (If you want to learn more, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on Socrates.)

1. Other people’s behaviour is indifferent

Socrates liked to remind himself and others that external events, including the actions of others, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but only insofar as we respond to them wisely or foolishly.   Events that are neither good nor bad are indifferent.  For example, he explains to his eldest son Lamprocles that the notorious tongue-lashings they receive from Socrates’ wife Xanthippe are no worse than those delivered by actors on the stage.  But one actor is not upset when another yells abuse at him.  So the behaviour in itself is indifferent, it’s our interpretation of it that upsets us, and we should remind ourselves of that.

2. Nobody does evil willingly

Socrates famously argued that no man does evil knowingly, which means he cannot do it willingly.  Everyone believes what he is doing to be right, he says, in other words he does what he does for the sake of achieving what he considers to be good for himself.  Socrates therefore argued that when people act viciously or unjustly it’s because they’re making an error of judgement about the course of action that will lead to their own good.  Realizing this we should pity the unjust, if anything, rather than feeling anger toward them.  They’re making the same sort of mistakes that children often make before they’ve learned to see beyond the misleading initial impressions we have of certain things.

3. Other people provide us with an opportunity to exercise our own virtue

Once we realize that other people’s actions are neither good nor bad and that injustice is due to ignorance, it becomes apparent that what matters most is whether our own response is good or bad.  Challenging situations, where our initial impressions are potentially upsetting, give us an opportunity to exercise wisdom and virtue, and doing so repeatedly strengthens our own character.  Socrates was often asked by his friends why he put up with Xanthippe scolding him, throwing cold water over him, and even ripping the shirt from his back in the street.  Socrates said that the best trainers choose to work with spirited horses knowing that by doing so they improve their own skills and become more confident dealing with whatever type of horses they may encounter in the future.  (Xanthippe’s name means yellow or golden horse in Greek.)

In the same way, Socrates said that putting up with Xanthippe was good training to strengthen his own character.  He knew that she was a good wife and mother, fundamentally, it was just that her quick temper sometimes created a negative appearance but he considered that misleading and saw beyond it.  Socrates liked to say that as small children we at first fear others wearing scary masks (think Halloween costumes).  When we realize that underneath the mask, it’s just other children having fun, the fear is eliminated.  He said we should view other events in the same way as adults, treating our initial impressions like bugbear masks.  The wise man pauses to remove the mask, examining what’s really behind it rationally, and thus his fears are often eliminated by greater knowledge and understanding of the truth.

Help Support the Modern Stoicism Non-Profit Organization

Hi everyone,

Today we set up a new Patreon page for Modern Stoicism Ltd., the non-profit organization that puts  on Stoic Week and the annual Stoicon conference.  Modern Stoicism is an international philanthropic organization run by a multi-disciplinary team of volunteers.

I was one of the original members who joined the project in 2012, when it was started by Christopher Gill, professor emeritus of Ancient Thought at Exeter University in England.  Since then our organization has grown exponentially.  Some of the best-known authors in the field of Stoicism have been involved in our team or have spoken at our conferences.  Stoic Week, our original online course, has grown from 700 participants in its first year to 7,000 last year!  I was asked to organize the Stoicon conference last year in Toronto, which attracted 400 attendees from around the world.

Become a Patron!

Here are just some of the Modern Stoicism organization’s activities:

  • The annual Stoic Week online course, in which 7,000 people participated last year.
  • The Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) research project, testing the effectiveness of training in core Stoic psychological strategies, in which thousands of people have participated around the world.
  • The Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) research project, which gathers and analyzes data on Stoic questionnaires in order to make comparisons with established psychological measures.
  • The Stoicism Today blog, edited by Greg Sadler, which contains over 500 articles on Stoicism from people all over the world, applying Stoic principles in different walks of life.
  • The annual Stoicon conference on Stoicism in modern life, which took place in Toronto last year, attended by four hundred people from around the world, and is an opportunity for people engaged in Stoicism as a way of life to hear from leading academics in the field.
  • The annual Stoicon-x mini-conferences, which take place around the world each year, giving newer speakers an opportunity to discuss Stoicism with a wider audience.
  • Publishing books containing articles from our contributors as well as detailed online reports explaining our research findings.

It may surprise you to know that Modern Stoicism does not receive any ongoing funding.  As the organization has grown, and reached more people, its expenses have also grown.  We’ve managed to raise money in the past by charging for conference tickets or accepting sponsorship from individuals via PayPal.  However, it would certainly help us to continue our work  if we could raise a little bit more money, on a consistent basis.

You can now help by visiting our new Patreon page and becoming a patron or sponsor of the organization.

As always, thanks for your support,

Donald Robertson Signature

PS. Here’s a video of our original workshop at Exeter University, back in 2012.

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Second Edition)

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised)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.

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised) on Amazon

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:

  1. Amazon US
  2. Amazon UK
  3. Hodder & Stoughton (Publisher)
  4. Barnes & Noble
  5. Book Depository
  6. Google Books
  7. GoodReads

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,

Donald Robertson Signature