Completing SMRT 2014

SMRT 2016 has now finished – thanks for taking part!

If you haven’t already done so, please read the final Postscript section.  We’d also be very grateful if you just took a minute to complete our (very) brief course evaluation form online.  (Many thanks to those of you who have already submitted your feedback!)

Course Evaluation Form

Some donations have already been received from participants via the PayPal button that’s been added to the site. We’re extremely grateful for even the smallest donations because they help to fund continual development of the site and cover ongoing expenses like our web-hosting costs. You can contribute an amount of your own choosing right now by using this PayPal link.  Thanks for your support!

Some quick facts and figures: Over 2,500 people registered to take part in SMRT 2016.  Over 930 comments were posted in the discussion areas by participants during the course.  Over 970 people submitted SABS questionnaire forms, allowing us to analyse their data.  75% of participants in this course were male, which is higher than some of our previous online courses.

As always, if you need any help, please feel free to contact me.

Regards,

Donald Robertson
Course Facilitator

Announcing Stoic Week 2016

Announcing International Stoic Week 2016, which takes place from Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd October. The theme for this year will be: Stoicism and Love.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum.  Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

Stoic Week is an annual event aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy, by applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living.  Stoic Week is an international and online event: anyone can take part.  It is now in its fifth consecutive year and has grown steadily in popularity year on year.  Stoic Week is organized by a multi-disciplinary team we call Stoicism Today.

Stoic Week 2016 will take place from Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd October.  The theme for this year will be: Stoicism and Love.  It follows the Stoicon conference, which will take place in New York on Saturday 15th October.  During Stoic Week, participants will have the opportunity to live like a Stoic by following our seven-day Stoic Week Handbook, which contains reading, audio, video, and group discussions.  It includes daily practical exercises, which combine elements of ancient Stoicism and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).  The main version of Stoic Week is an online course.  However, offline versions are also made available, which can be used on mobile devices, using the PDF, EPUB, and MBI (Kindle) e-book formats.

Last year, over 3,200 people from around the world took part in Stoic Week.  We collected data from over 2,500 participants, which was published by Tim LeBon in the Stoic Week 2015 Report available online.  Since it began, Stoic Week has been covered extensively by the media around the world and features heavily in social media discussions and blog posts.  You can follow Stoic Week and Stoicism Today on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

SMRT Week Four: Stoic Resilience

Welcome to Week Four of SMRT 2016: Stoic Resilience

Week Four: Stoic Resilience

The big question for this week is:

What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?

Please take a moment to post your thoughts about this question in the Comment section of the final page in Week Four, after doing reading for this week.

Some donations have already been received from participants via the PayPal button that’s been added to the site. We’re extremely grateful for even the smallest donations because they help to fund continual development of the site and cover ongoing expenses like our web-hosting costs. You can contribute an amount of your own choosing right now by using this PayPal link.  Thanks for your support!

As always, if you need any help, please feel free to contact me.

Regards,

Donald Robertson
Course Facilitator

Paconius Agrippinus

Execution of ThraseaThe Stoic philosopher Epictetus liked to present his students with examples of Stoic role models from recent Roman history.  One of his favourite moral exemplars appears to have been the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher, Paconius Agrippinus.  Epictetus tells this anecdote in which Agrippinus exhibits a typical Stoic attitude toward justice:

When Agrippinus was governor, he used to try to persuade the persons whom he sentenced that it was proper for them to be sentenced.  “For,” he would say, “it is not as an enemy or as a brigand that I record my vote against them, but as curator and guardian; just as also the physician encourages the man upon whom he is operating, and persuades him to submit to the operation.” (Epictetus, fr. 22)

Agrippinus lived during the reign of the Emperor Nero, in the middle of the 1st century AD.  He was exiled from Italy around 67 AD following the execution of the Stoic Senator Thrasea, by Nero.  He sounds like a formidable character.

For this reason it is right to praise Agrippinus, because, although he was a man of the very highest worth, he never praised himself, but used to blush even if someone else praised him.  His character was such, said Epictetus, that when any hardship befell him he would compose a eulogy upon it; on fever, if he had a fever; on disrepute; on exile, if he went into exile.  And once, he said, when Agrippinus was preparing to take lunch, a man brought him word that Nero ordered him into exile; “Very well,” said he, “we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” (Epictetus, fr. 21)

The town of Aricia was apparently the first stop outside of Rome, for those travelling south and east.  Epictetus likewise concludes the first of his Discourses, ‘On what is under our control and what is not’, with the following anecdote:

Wherefore, what was it that Agrippinus used to remark?  “I am not standing in my own way.”  Word was brought him,

“Your case is being tried in the Senate.”

“Good luck betide! But it is the fifth hour now” (he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then a cold bath at that hour); “let us be off and take our exercise.”

After he had finished his exercise someone came and told him,

“You have been condemned.”

“To exile,” says he, “or to death?”

“To exile.”

“What about my property?”

“It has not been confiscated.”

“Well then, let us go to Aricia and take our lunch there.”

This is what it means to have rehearsed the lessons one ought to rehearse, to have set desire and aversion free from every hindrance and made them proof against chance.  I must die.  If forthwith, I die; and if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time.  How?  As becomes the man who is giving back that which was another’s. (Discourses, 1.1.28-30)

Epictetus also tells a story about Agrippinus giving advice to another Roman politician, who was swithering about whether to contribute to a festival in honour of Nero, by performing some part in a tragedy.  (Possibly Gessius Florus, the notoriously unpopular procurator of Judea.)

Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero’s festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it Agrippinus said to him, “Enter.”  And when Florus asked, “Why do you not enter yourself?” he replied, “I? why, I do not even raise the question.”  For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their proper character.

Come, what is this you ask me?  “Is death or life preferable?”  I answer, life.  “Pain or pleasure?”  I answer, pleasure.  “But unless I take a part in the tragedy I shall be beheaded.”  Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part.  “Why not?”  Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment.  What follows, then?  This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads.  But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, “Be like the majority of people?”  And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?  (Discourses, 1.2.12-13)

 

Interview: Michael Connell, Stoic Comedy

Interview with Michael Connell about his use of Stoicism in stand-up comedy.

Michael ConnellQ: How do you make use of Stoic philosophy in your comedy?

The Stoic Comedy special I just released was a bit of a passion project for me. I’d been doing stand up for a long time, discovered Stoicism and been delighted with how it had improved my life. Whenever I’m passionate about something I want to talk about it in my routine, but with Stoicism I found that hard at first.

Stand up is usually focused on the outside – cats are weird, mother in laws annoying – and all about getting emotional. Stoicism is so focused on being rational and not being lead astray by emotions that I couldn’t find the jokes at first. Eventually though I figured out the comedy was in my irrationality. I’m a long way from being a Sage and find myself acting unstoically all the time, and by looking inward (as Stoicism teaches) and laughing at my foolishness I found the funny. In the special I make fun of people for getting upset when the trains are late, but if I’m honest those “people” were me.

Outside of my material I use Stoic philosophy in my comedy career all the time. The Stoic approach of looking for solutions from within yourself, has been a huge help in dealing with the tough crowds and fickle gatekeepers of the comedy business. Stoicism helps me focus on what’s important – being a better comedian and improving my act – and ignore the rest. If I’d discovered it sooner I may have saved me years trying to win over industry figures I was never going to win over.

Q: How did you first become interested in Stoicism?

Comedy is such a competitive field that I’m always looking for ways to improve myself. I heard somewhere that Stoicism was a useful philosophy that could make you more effective at business (I think it might’ve been in a blog post by Tim Ferriss), and picked up a copy of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good life.

Reading the book I was surprised at how familiar many of the ideas were; learning to do stand up I was taught to focus on what I could control, hardships made me a better performer, etc. What I’d never considered though was that these principles that I’d been using in my art could be made into an entire philosophical system and applied to my life.

Q: What’s your favourite Stoic saying or idea, and why?

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live” – Marcus Aurelius

In my life I’ve often played it safe, I was looking for security. I thought if I just did all the right things one day I’d find myself in a perfect position from where could do all the things I wanted to, or knew I should, do. I wanted to be secure because, ultimately, I was afraid of death. For example I was afraid of starting a business because I might lose money, and if I lost money I wouldn’t be able to buy food, and if I couldn’t buy food I’d starve and die. No, better to avoid all that and play it safe. What I’ve learnt though (partly through studying Stoicism) is that you can never really achieve security; there is no permanence in an impermanent world. Death is an inevitable part of live and will come one day no matter how much little risk I expose myself to. The “safe option” is actually not the safe option, it just stops you from fully engaging with the ever changing universe (which is really the only security you can have in this world). All this tends to be hard for me to remember though, so this quote is really useful.

It’s also fun to drop into conversations to make everything seem more dramatic.

Co-worker: “I want to go get a coffee.”

Me: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

How long have you got?

I love the “now what?” attitude that Stoicism has. When I was younger I used to get quite angry when things were unfair. After completing my university degree I was left owing quite a bit of student debt. I sat around thinking how unjust the world was that I, a brilliant artist, was saddled with this burden that stopped me from going out and enjoying life. Through reading Stoicism I came to see that complaining the situation was unfair didn’t help me solve it. I had this debt – now what?

I went out and got a job, moved into a very run down share house, and started living off rice and beans. I kept thinking about Epictetus’ advice (“Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror.”) and Seneca’s habit of practicing poverty. The job was hard, the share house scary and the rice and beans pretty bland, but rather than feeling depressed I felt like I was slowly overcoming a mountain.

After a few years I managed to pay off the debt. I was very happy, not because I’d paid off the debt, but that I’d lived through this period of hardship without becoming depressed or angry (at least not for any significant amount of time). If I could live through gruel work, bad food and street crime (the share house was in a very rough area) I could face anything. By applying Stoicism I began to feel that no matter what the world throws at me I’m going to be OK.

Q: Chrysippus reputedly died laughing at one of his own jokes, about a donkey. Do you find much humour in the ancient Stoics’ sayings/writings?

Yes, I think the ancient Stoics are quite funny at times.

I often laugh at Epictetus because he’s so direct, he really doesn’t sugar coat any of his advice. He calls his students fools and blockheads (depending on your translation), and I imagine he’d be a pretty harsh teacher.

Marcus I think is funny when he’s making insights into human nature. He really didn’t seem to have a very high opinion of the people around him (“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness” etc.), and anyone reading today might get a few chuckles of recognition. Seeing that he was emperor and had to put up with all these people pestering him for something all the time, I’m sure a good sense of humour about the foibles of his fellow man must’ve been part of his Stoic toolbox.

I’m sure the ancient Stoics had a sense of humour. The story you mention about Chrysippus has always fascinated me. If I’m remembering this correctly he is supposed to have got a donkey drunk on wine then fed it figs while joking about it. I don’t know what was so funny about that (kind of sounds like animal cruelty to me), but I plan to find out in my next comedy festival show; “Michael Gets your Ass Drunk”.

Q: If he could time-travel to the present day, what do you think Marcus Aurelius would make of your act?

I think he’d be surprised to see his face on the t-shirt I’m wearing during the special, but he’d be immune to the flattery. He’d probably be a pretty tough audience; as I was telling the good jokes he’d be mentally preparing for the bad ones that were inevitably coming.

Q: What have you learned from audiences’ reactions to your Stoic routines?

That people have a hard time letting go of the idea that external events cause their emotions, rather than their interpretations of the events.

Whenever someone starts heckling or talking during one of my Stoic bits, nine times out of ten it’ll be this idea they’re taking issue with. It’s a bit wearying, I always feel like saying “Sir, philosophers have been pointing this out for over two thousand years now, I doubt you’ve got anything new to bring to the table…”

For a long time I was working on a routine about how people think others can shape their emotions; “He made me mad”, “she’s making me depressed”, etc. I never quite figured it out because I just can’t seem to find a funny way to explain that no one can make you feel anything unless they’ve got some sort of mind control powers. It seems people just don’t want to accept that truth.

I suspect this is partly because people don’t want to see the truth. It’s easier to say that someone else is making you feel bad, and therefore it’s up to them to change, than to go through the messy process of dealing with your own thoughts and emotions. This might be why Stoicism isn’t more of a mainstream philosophy, people don’t want to take full responsibility for their lives.

Having said that there are people who DO get it and they are wonderful. Some of the messages I’ve got through Facebook and YouTube are really wonderful, and I’m very glad that I could create something so many people have found useful.