Interview with Massimo Pigliucci about Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am the K.D. Irani professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. My background is in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science, and my professional interests include the logical structure of evolutionary theory and the nature of pseudoscience.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

Funny thing. I was going through a bit of a midlife crisis a few years ago, as well as doing my PhD in philosophy. Had figured out that virtue ethics was in the right ballpark of what I needed, but neither Aristotle nor Epicurus clicked with me. Then one day I saw this on my Twitter feed: “Help us celebrate Stoic Week!” And I thought, who on earth wants to celebrate Stoic week, and why? But I signed up, and the rest is history, as they say…

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

Massimo PigliucciThat even the most powerful man in the world can benefit from philosophical reflection, although of course just doing so does not make him a sage. Reading the Meditations one gets the palpable impression that Marcus was a man honestly trying to do his best with the incredibly onerous task he had assumed. And it’s clear he got comfort from his philosophy, from reflecting on Heraclitus and Epictetus, among others. But, understandably, he was also a man incapable of escaping the constraints of his own culture (e.g., he couldn’t conceive of questioning the institution of slavery), as well as a fallible man (e.g., though there are, as you know, attenuating circumstances, the choice of Commodus as his successor wasn’t exactly the most brilliant move of his life). That’s why we common folks, almost two millennia later, can relate to him. He is thoughtful, and human. As we all aspire to be.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

Yes: “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (II.1) It has so much wrapped in it! (Especially if you look up the full quote.) It is a realistic assessment of life and people. And yet a compassionate one. It is humble, and eminently reasonable. It kind of embeds, for me, the very best of Stoic philosophy.

How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

I use Stoicism at work and in life in general. I find basic Stoics precepts, and pithy phrases to remind me of them, incredibly useful to navigate the small and sometimes big problems of life. I get less angry at people by telling myself “it seems so to him”; I keep in mind that my plans might need to be changed because of contingencies by saying “fate permitting”; and I try to steer away from damaging thoughts by repeating (usually internally) “you are just an impression, and not at all the thing you portray to be.” Reading the Stoics and studying their philosophy has also changed my priorities in life and at work, making me focus on what is really important, as well as prompting me to question whether something is, in fact, important. I spend more time with my best friends, because friendship is crucial to cultivate one’s virtue and become better people. It is no exaggeration to say that Stoicism has changed my life since I started studying and practicing it.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

Write your own philosophical diary, which is, in an important sense, what the entire Meditations is. While one can extract several other exercises from the text (see here), I found that writing an evening journal of reflection is helping me immensely in being more attentive to what I do and why, and in trying to do better the next time around. And after all, since sages are as rare as the mythical Phoenix, doing better is really all we can strive for.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

How to be a StoicYou mean other than downloading your book, which has been waiting on my queue for a few weeks? On Marcus specifically, I really like William Stephens’ Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury). It has a nice structure, which includes a look at Marcus’ life and time, an in-depth discussion of its main influences (the above mentioned Heraclitus and Epictetus), but also an informative analysis of the main philosophical themes of the Meditations. Turns out, Marcus was a pretty decent philosopher in his own right, and Stephens manages to actually reconstruct some of the formal arguments scattered throughout the Meditations, and which may not be apparent to the casual reader.

In terms of Stoicism more broadly, I’d say to get hold of a good translation of the three major authors. I suggest Robin Hard’s version of Epictetus’ Discourses, Enchiridion, and Fragments (Oxford Classics), Hard’s version of the Meditations (also Oxford Classics), and the recent complete series of Seneca put out by University of Chicago Press (seven books, including the tragedies and the Natural Questions, though someone interested in Stoicism as an ethical philosophy might do without these latter).For modern texts, I’d say your Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (the first book I read on modern Stoicism!), for the advanced students Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism, and – if I may – my own How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

I would also suggest to join or get started a local group of practitioners, perhaps using the meetup.com platform, and making sure to use the resources of the Stoic Fellowship. Finally, your Stoicism Facebook Group is a great, and very large, virtual community. But as you know, it’s not for the faint of heart: while one can find excellent advice and support, there is more than the occasional troll or snarky commenter. Then again, I guess that’s one way to practice Stoic patience and endurance…

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Well, I have already plugged my book above. My informal writings on Stoicism can be found at howtobeastoic.org, but I’m especially happy with my recently launched mini-podcast, Stoic Meditations (13 platforms so far). At last count it had 500,000 downloads, which I’m frankly astounded by. Each episode lasts about two minutes, and is basically a short meditation, based on a quote from Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, or Marcus, which I then explain and elaborate upon.


Massimo is the author of How to be a Stoic.  You can read many articles on his blog and website, and his new podcast.

Interview: Chuck Chakrapani on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Chuck ChakrapaniI am a psychologist by education and a data scientist by profession. I have also been a long-term, inconsistent Stoic practitioner of no particular distinction or significance.

I’m reluctant to call myself a Stoic for two reasons: One, I feel it’s presumptuous on my part to claim such a lofty title. Two, I feel labels discourage crossing boundaries and hamper free thinking. It is really interesting to note that the beloved Stoic Marcus Aurelius does not refer to himself as a Stoic. As the Stoic scholar Brad Inman (2018) points out, Marcus refers to Stoics as “they” rather than “us”.

My work in Stoicism centers around making Stoicism accessible to those who could benefit from it. For the past 18 months, I have been writing plain English versions of the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Musonius Rufus. Substantial parts of my work are available for free as blogs and as book extracts from my Stoic website, thestoicgym.com.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

When I was still in my teens, I happened to pick up a book called To Himself (now more commonly known as Meditations) by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I had no idea who he was but when I read the first paragraph of the second chapter, where he talks about preparing himself for the day and says that no one can force him to choose ugliness by their unpleasant behavior, I was hooked. I kept returning to this book for several years. Then I discovered Enchiridion. I was captivated by the very first paragraph where Epictetus talks about what is in our control and what is not and why it makes no sense to worry about things not under our control. It was probably the single most powerful idea of Stoic philosophy. However, many years passed before I realized that they were talking about a philosophy known as Stoicism.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a curious document. Its tone is melancholic, yet the message is upbeat. Different people can easily take different things from reading Marcus Aurelius. The recurring theme of Meditations, as I see it, is this:

Don’t get hung up on reputation, fame and fortune. They are so fleeting and so insignificant when you contemplate the infinity of time before and after you. You are less than a speck in the vast universe. Don’t wonder whether the world is controlled by the gods or by randomness. So,
a. Do what needs doing.
b. Be just in your dealings.
c. Be kind – even to those who are unkind to you.

And relax, everything is, has always been, and will be, as it should be.

By putting our lives in such a perspective, Marcus Aurelius shows how comical our sense of self-importance is.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

No, I don’t have a favourite quote from Meditations. I have many. So here is one of my many favourite quotes:

The cucumber is bitter? Then cast it aside. There are brambles in the path? Step out of the way. That will suffice, and you need not ask in addition “Why did such things ever come into this world?”

How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

My website (thestoicgym.com) describes me as “an embarrassingly inconsistent practitioner of Stoicism.” I don’t think I am a good example. I am not big on practicing Stoicism when things go well and I don’t practice premeditatio malorum. I figure, for instance, if I starve myself for a day to practice being hungry, it may never come to pass and I would have unnecessarily passed up an opportunity to eat well. But If I didn’t practice being hungry and if I am forced to starve, then I can always use that as my practice session. Or I can go back to Epictetus – some things are not in our power, so there’s no point in worrying about the discomfort. In my work I remind myself that things are not under my control when they go wrong. This keeps me from getting upset. I presume this is not how most people practice Stoicism. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to follow my model.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

See the stretch of time behind you and ahead of you. Realize that in a blink your life will be over. Contemplate the hugeness of the universe. Realize that you are not even a speck. When you see that clearly you will not get upset by anything that life presents you with. You will not complain or be in conflict with anyone and you won’t be unjust.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

I am not sure if I am in a position to advise anybody. But if someone asked me, perhaps I would suggest to them to start slowly. Don’t try to learn about Stoicism. Pick up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Epictetus’ Handbook. If you have choice, pick up a translation or rendition that is easy to follow. Read it slowly and see if any of it applies to your own life. If it does, read more of it. Once you find these principles make sense to you, try to understand more about Stoicism by reading a simply written book such as Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inman. If you are interested in Marcus Aurelius, you may want to read How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson. (As I write this, this book is not out yet. But I am presuming that this book will be similar to his other well-written books.)

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Unshakable FreedomNow that you ask, here are my books in the Stoicism in Plain English series:

  • The Complete Works of Epictetus, a set of five books covering Discourses, Fragments and Enchiridion. (Stoic Foundations, Stoic Choices, Stoic Training, Stoic Freedom and Stoic Inspirations)
  • The Complete Works of Musonius Rufus in a single volume (Stoic Lessons)
  • The Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius (Stoic Meditations, The Unknown Marcus Aurelius)

In addition, I have also written a primer on the application of Stoic philosophy to modern life, Unshakable Freedom.

Interview: John Sellars on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

John SellarsI’m an academic who writes about Stoicism and the later reception of Stoicism. My first book The Art of Living (2003) was about the way in which the Stoics saw philosophy as something expressed in one’s way of life. My second book Stoicism (2006) was a general introduction to Stoicism, aimed at university students rather than general readers. My most recent book Hellenistic Philosophy (2018) is an overview of philosophy in that period; an academic introduction, but hopefully accessible to general readers, that also stresses the practical dimension in much of Hellenistic philosophy.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

It was while I was an undergraduate student of philosophy. I was reading a wide variety of things and references to Stoicism kept cropping up. It soon started to feel like the secret thread connecting all my disparate interests. Independently I was also reading Marcus Aurelius around this time, not necessarily thinking of him as a Stoic. He was certainly the first Stoic author I read.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

I think there are a couple of things. First is the resolutely practical attitude. He’s not talking about philosophy, or even about how one might put philosophy into practice in his own life; he’s directly confronting difficulties in his own life. His response draws on Stoic philosophy, which is sometimes only implicit, but it’s not a book explicitly outlining philosophical ideas; instead it’s a model of how one might go about shaping one’s life in the light of philosophy. I think this is one of the reasons why Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus complement each other so well: Epictetus gives you the philosophical ideas, while Marcus gives you a practical example of how someone might try to act on them.

The second thing is his intellectual modesty. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He suspends judgement on some issues where he is not sure. There’s no dogmatic ‘this is what a proper Stoic would do’ rhetoric. There’s no claim to be a sage. Instead he’s just a flawed human being trying to work out how to become better. It’s also worth noting that he doesn’t seem to be primarily motivated by overcoming his own distress, becoming happier, or any of those things: the focus is primarily on being a good, ethical human being, doing the right thing, behaving decently to those around him, and so on. The project isn’t self-centred self-help; it’s ethical self-improvement.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

It’s hard to choose, but I think it must be this (2.17): “Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.” It’s pretty blunt stuff and when I first read it, many years ago now, it felt like a slap across the face! We are all merely momentary accumulations of matter, soon to be dispersed and forgotten.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

If you’ve already read Marcus, then I’d say read Epictetus, for the reason I gave earlier. If you want an account of how the two fit together, then Pierre Hadot’s book The Inner Citadel makes the case for Marcus’s debt to Epictetus. I’ve tended to resist biographies of Marcus because inevitably they tend to focus on his career as Emperor. If you are more interested in learning how to put Stoicism into practice then you should try Stoic Week (of course!) and look at some of the many popular books on Stoicism. Of these I’d probably recommend A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by some guy called Donald Robertson!

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Hellenistic Philosophy Book CoverThere are lots of things coming up. At the moment I’m in the final stages of organizing Stoicon 2018, which will take place in London on 29th September.

I’ve just been asked to write a short book on Roman Stoicism for a general audience, which I hope to do this summer, and should be out next year. I also have a long-standing contract to write a book on Marcus Aurelius, which I hope to complete this coming year, the aim of which will be to make explicit all the philosophical ideas that lurk beneath the surface in the Meditations.

Interview: Scott Perry on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Scott PerryI’m a husband, father, teacher, and musician from Floyd, VA USA.

My lifelong study and affection for Stoic philosophy benefits my life, relationships, and work including my book, The Stoic Creative Handbook, my coaching practice, my membership site, my podcast, and my work as a coach in Seth Godin’s The Marketing Seminar. You can learn more about me and all these projects at BeCreativeOnPurpose.com.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

My adventures in Stoicism began in a 7th grade Latin class where I was introduced to Marcus through translating passages from Meditations from Latin to English from my textbook (although Marcus originally wrote them in Greek). Encouraging my interest, my teacher gave me his copy of Meditations. I read and reread it until the book was tattered.

At the time, I didn’t know I was reading a definitive ancient Stoic text. I just loved the way Marcus spoke to himself. It was the same way I talked to myself. This is one thing purposeful work can do, it connects people disconnected by time and place.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

This has changed over time. As a teenager, I was most affected by Marcus’ reminders to curb unhealthy desires and impulses. As a young adult, Marcus’ urging to apply oneself intentionally and generously to meaningful work became more important. As I enter middle age, it is the call to approach mortality with grace and to serve others while I still can that most resonate.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

I have dozens of favorite quotes from Meditations, but the one I cite most frequently is, “Love the humble art you have learned and take rest in it.” – Meditations, 4.31

It is the art of living that I believe we are here to learn. Crafting our excellence through meaningful endeavors that serve others and a greater good is not the work we have to do, but the work we get to do. For this gift, we should be grateful and approach it with humility and purpose. This quote by Marcus above helps me keep this top of mind.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Although there are many great modern works about Stoicism, I find the primary ancient texts of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are easy to access and understand. Why not begin with those?

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

Again, for me, this has changed as I’ve aged. As a young man premeditatio malorum, Hierocles Concentric Circles of Influence, journaling gratitudes and lessons, and other Stoic exercises helped me immensely. As a middle-aged person, memento mori has served as a call to action to focus on the here and now and do everything I can to enhance the lives of others while I still can. I reflect on my mortality and am inspired to do work that matters during my daily cemetery run.

Recently, I’ve meditated on this advice from Marcus, “People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them.” – Meditations, 8.59 This has lead me to begin a new project called Wicked Conversations. Wicked Conversations challenge our beliefs and assumptions, but instead of spiraling into arguments, Wicked Conversations help us set aside agendas and cultivate understanding and the pursuit of deeper truths.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

The lessons of Stoicism are as pertinent today as they were in ancient times. Through the millennia, we’ve asked the questions “What does it mean to be human?” “What does it mean to be happy?” and “How can I be more of both?” Stoicism encourages us to answer these questions not just with ideas, but with action. In this way, we are afforded the opportunity to improve ourselves and enhance the lives of others.

All of my work at BeCreativeOnPurpose.com is informed by my longtime interest and study of Stoicism in general and Marcus Aurelius in particular. I’d love to have you join my newsletter and stay in touch there!

The digital age has added innumerable new Stoic resources, some more worthy than others. I advise starting with a thorough and thoughtful reading of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and applying this wisdom to your daily life, work, and relationships.

That said, here is a document where I share links to some of my favorite Stoic-related books, blogs, sites, videos, and apps. I’m always happy to connect via email with fellow Stoic travelers. You can reach me at scott@becreativeonpurpose.com.


The Stoic Creative Book CoverFor more information check out Scott’s Creative on Purpose website and podcast, which has featured interviews with me and other members of the Modern Stoicism team.

His book The Stoic Creative Handbook is available from Amazon.  Look out for his upcoming Stoicism Today article on Stoicism & Creativity publishing, due to be published in August 2018.

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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)