Now Enrolling: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

We’re pleased to announce that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) will be running this year starting on Sunday 25th November.   This is a free course, open to everyone.

The course lasts four weeks and enrollment has just opened but will close shortly.  So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part.

About SMRT

SMRT is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  We therefore advise people not to enroll unless they’re sure they can commit the time and effort to complete the program.

SMRT was designed in 2014 by cognitive therapist, Donald Robertson.  Over 500 people took part in the initial program, and thousands more have completed SMRT since then.  It runs once or twice per year.

We collected data and analysed it, which showed fairly impressive improvements in established psychological measures of mood and quality of life.  Recent follow-up data show these improvements were maintained at three months.

SMRT was deliberately designed not as a general introduction to Stoicism but as focused skills training, modelled on the type of protocols used in clinical trials on CBT.  Stoic Week, our seven-day course provides more of a general introduction to Stoicism, if that’s what you want.  SMRT is for people who really want to focus on developing basic Stoic psychological skills through daily practice, over a sufficient period of time to show significant changes.

Free Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management (Beta)

Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management

The beta version of my new Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management is now available for those who want to enroll, test it out, and provide feedback.  Just follow the link to enroll – everyone is welcome.

This is a free mini-course on Stoic techniques for pain management. It’s designed to provide a simple introduction to Stoic psychological techniques for coping with physical pain or discomfort.

The main resource is an 18 min. audio recording of a guided Stoic exercise for pain management. You’ll learn about how the ancient Stoics coped with pain and how those techniques can be adapted for use in the modern world.

Book Review: Unshakeable Freedom by Chuck Chakrapani

Chuck Chakrapani, Unshakeable FreedomUnshakeable Freedom:Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life (2016) by Chakrapani is a recent book on Stoicism, written as in introduction to applying the philosophy as a form of self-help or self-improvement.  Chuck’s also published his own editions of several Stoic classics and a book about the origins of the philosophy called A Fortunate Storm (2016).

The first thing I wanted to say is that this book is probably one of the best introductions to Stoicism that I’ve read.  I think it’s very well-written.  The philosophy seems crystal clear and the use of examples from various famous philosophers and modern role models makes it engaging and easy to read.  I really think Chuck has a way of expressing Stoic ideas that’s very clear and concise.  I would definitely recommend that people who are new to the subject start with a book like this.  I read the whole book in an afternoon, on my Chromebook Flip, while wandering around Athens.  (Between chapters, incidentally, I had a chance to visit the Benaki Museum, where they have a statue of an unnamed Athenian philosopher from the reign of Marcus Aurelius.)

Unknown Athenian PhilosopherI find that some self-improvement books have one idea, which they flog to death.  Chuck’s book manages, though, to present lots of different ideas very simply and effectively.  Some books on Stoicism also short-change the reader, I feel, when it comes to the actual psychological techniques used in the ancient philosophy.  Chuck includes quite a variety of Stoic exercises, though, both old and new.  I’m not sure how he managed to cover so much ground so well in so few pages but he did, and I find that very impressive.  He even includes a review of the ground he’s covered, and the exercises, in the final chapter.

The whole book revolves around the central theme of inner freedom, and what that means for Stoics.  For instance, the six “Big Ideas” he lists in the book include:

  1. Problems are only problems if you believe they are.
  2. Leave your past behind.
  3. Don’t let the indifferents rob your freedom.
  4. Where there is fear, freedom is not.
  5. You can never lose anything because you don’t own anything.
  6. Life is a festival.  Enjoy it now.

The twelve psychological exercises he includes are called:

  1. The anticipatory prep technique (“Morning Meditation”)
  2. Course correction (“End-of-day Meditation”)
  3. Passion counter
  4. Pause and examine
  5. Two handles (not to be confused with fork handles)
  6. Entitlement challenge
  7. Praemeditatio malorum (“Negative Visualization”)
  8. Impersonal projection
  9. Cosmic view
  10. Marcus’ Nine
  11. Sunbeam visualization
  12. South Indian monkey trap visualization

Chuck ChakrapaniI also wanted to mention that despite being a fairly simple (I suppose “non-academic”) introduction this book presents Stoicism in a pretty accurate manner.  Some of the introductory books and articles really bastardize Stoicism pretty badly, unfortunately, and that spreads a lot of confusion among people in online communities.  But Chuck’s book is spot on because it’s written by someone who actually cares about the philosophy and has taken time to try to understand how to live in accord with its principles.  I always feel you can tell whether an author is just winging it or if they’ve really put their own ideas into practice.  A lot of self-help books, including some on Stoicism, don’t pass the smell test in that regard.  You can tell that Chuck’s book is based on his experience of Stoicism, though, and that he’s sincere in his attempt to look at life through a Stoic lens.

He addresses some common misconceptions.  For example, he makes it clear that Stoicism isn’t about repressing all of our emotions but rather replacing unhealthy emotions with healthy ones.  And he clearly explains the tricky Stoic concept of “preferred indifferents”.  Although things like health, wealth and reputation are “indifferent” in the sense that they don’t contribute to the goal of life nevertheless it’s natural and rational to prefer health over sickness, wealth over poverty, and so on, within reasonable bounds.  Stoics do care about these “externals”, in a sense, but not enough to get upset about losing them.  Many people ignore that concept although it’s really the very essence of Stoic Ethics and therefore the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.   That leads them to exaggerate the “indifference” of Stoicism in a way that invites criticism (and is really more like earlier schools of philosophy such as Cynicism).  Chuck’s book presents a more accurate, balanced, workable, and realistic version of Stoicism, though.  That’s another reason why I think it’s a good introduction.

So I better conclude…  I once had a friend who worked in the British Library who thought that there were far too many books in the world and it would be better if most of them were just shredded.  Although I can’t bring myself to advocate book burning nevertheless I have felt myself becoming ever so slightly more sympathetic toward his point of view over time.  I’m in good company at least, because our Stoic friend Marcus Aurelius also thought he’d do well to put his books away for a change and get on with life.  I’ve had to read too many books as a student and then for my research as a writer and trainer.  This one was not a chore, though, but a pleasure to read.

Professional film critics, I notice, are rather preoccupied with the length of films.  Just as the time flies by in some movies, though, some books are quicker and easier than others to read.  I read this book in a few hours because it was worth reading, and a pleasure to read, and not overly-long either.  That matters to me because I know that if I recommend The Road Less Travelled to someone, they’re unlikely to get past the first few chapters.  (And that’s a hugely overrated book anyway, IMHO.)  Chuck’s book is a page-turner that gives you more bang for your buck.  Sorry to have wasted your time but it’s probably easier to read than my review to be honest!  I know that if I can persuade someone to read this – and they should – then they’ll probably get through it in a few hours, enjoy the whole thing, and come away with an accurate and workable idea of Stoic philosophy.  So please do just go and read it. 

(After watching this video of Chuck talking at Stoicon in Toronto….)

Stoicism Program on The Forum (BBC World Service)

Older MarcusI recently took part in a radio program titled Calm in the Chaos: The Story of the Stoics.  It’s an episode of a show called The Forum on the BBC World Service.  Profs. Nancy Sherman and Massimo Pigliucci were fellow guests on the panel, hosted by Bridget Kendall.  I’m currently living in Athens, so I travelled across town to the studios of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERP) to take part in the recording.  It went out on the radio yesterday so you can now listen online.

Listen to Calm in the Chaos: The Story of the Stoics

You can also download the recording as a free podcast from the BBC website:

Download the Podcast from the BBC

Here’s the link to the recording on  iTunes:

Download the Podcast from iTunes

You can follow The Forum on Facebook and Twitter.

Script: Stoicism for Pain Control

Porcia CatonisUpdated: I’ve recorded the demo version of the audio exercise and constructed the beta version of the free mini-course.  All the draft materials from this post have been revised and moved to the e-learning site now.  You can still view the transcript via the link below, underneath the demo audio download.

Demo Audio Exercise for Stoic Pain Management

Action Plan

  1. Write draft script for audio exercise, obtain feedback, and revise. – DONE
  2. Record demo version of audio exercise. – DONE
  3. Prepare e-learning site to host free mini-course. – DONE
  4. Prepare draft instructions and other resources. – DONE
  5. Record demo introductory video.
  6. Publish beta version of mini-course.
  7. Obtain feedback from beta testers via online questionnaires.
  8. Revise content.
  9. Re-record final versions of audio and video at higher quality.

Roundup: Women in Ancient Stoicism

Porcia CatonisWere any ancient Stoics women?  That’s a question that comes up periodically.  I’ll keep updating this article because there are lots of bits of information worth adding.  It’s a complex question so there’s a lot more to say.  I’m just going to say a few words by way of an introduction, though.  Then I’ll link to several articles on women in Stoicism:

In ancient Athens, before the time of Socrates, philosophers and Sophists mainly taught aristocratic, or at least very wealthy, young men.  Philosophical discussions often took place in the grounds of Athenian gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. Socrates was reputedly a stonemason who lived a very modest life, and was a man of modest means.  He could be described as a lower middle class Athenian, although one who lived very simply.  However, he had several very wealthy and powerful friends.  We’re told his childhood friend Critias, a wealthy agriculturalist, removed Socrates from his father’s workshop and became a sort of patron, helping him to commit his life to the study of philosophy.

Socrates was therefore able to study the works of philosophers and Sophists and, in a paradoxical manner, he became a sort of teacher himself.  He didn’t lecture, though, or charge a fee.  He asked questions and told stories.  However, that meant that he was able to do philosophy with anyone.  He became famous for discussing philosophy with the young and old, rich and poor, citizens and immigrants alike.  For instance, Phaedo of Elis, had reputedly been enslaved and forced to work as a male prostitute until Socrates had Critias buy his freedom.  He went on to become one of Socrates’ most famous followers.  Xenophon also depicts Socrates engaging in philosophical discussion about the art of love with a female high-class prostitute (hetaira) called Theodote.

The fact that Socrates discussed philosophy with women would probably have been controversial to many Athenians.   However, he went further.  Socrates liked to describe how his approach to philosophy had been inspired by several women.  First of all, he mentions that his mother Phaenarete, who was a midwife, influenced him because she taught him about matchmaking.  In Plato’s Apology, of course, his entire philosophical mission  derives from the pronouncement of the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia or priestess of Apollo.  She told his childhood friend Chaerephon that “no man is wiser than Socrates”.  Socrates was also inspired by two of the famous maxims inscribed in her temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess” (all things in moderation).  In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates famously describes how he was taught about love and philosophy by a mysterious and otherwise unknown priestess called Diotima of Mantinea.  Curiously, Socrates also seems to portray her employing his own trademark question and answer method (“Socratic questioning”).  Moreover, some scholars have wondered whether Plato made this name up to disguise the fact that he’s actually referring to Aspasia, the consort of Pericles.  Socrates was known to have been a member of her intellectual circle and also learned about love from her.  So either these two women played a similar role in his life or they’re different names for the same woman, which would make her influence appear even more significant.

Some Sophists and philosophers argued that different virtues are appropriate to different types of people.  Socrates, however, believed that all the virtues are forms of wisdom and therefore also that virtue is essentially the same in men and women.  That suggests that women are capable of learning wisdom and virtue, just like men.  Indeed, he’s committed to that view because he admits having learned about wisdom and virtue from several women.

The Stoics were heavily indebted to Socrates and by some accounts were regarded as a Socratic school of philosophy.  Epictetus, for example, tells his students repeatedly to emulate Socrates.  It’s probably under the influence of Socrates, therefore, that Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic School, wrote a book entitled: On the Thesis that Virtue is the same in Man and in Woman.  We have several surviving lectures from the great Roman Stoic, Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, including two on the role of women in philosophy entitled: That Women Too Should Study Philosophy
and Should Daughters Receive the Same Education as Sons?  The Stoic doctrine in these lectures is clearly the same as Socrates’ position: girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys.

Musonius believed that women are capable of the same virtues as men, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, although they may express them differently, given their different roles in society at that time.   So it would be going too far to call Musonius Rufus a proto-feminist, although it’s to his credit that people have even looked at his writings from that perspective.  He certainly had a much more progressive attitude toward women than many other Roman intellectuals.  Nevertheless, I think this attitude probably goes all the way back to Zeno and Cleanthes, and that they inherited it largely from Socrates.  In Zeno’s ideal Republic, we’re simply told that anyone can become a philosopher, rich or poor, citizen or immigrant, man or woman, etc.  Men and women, in the ideal Stoic society, appear to be viewed as equals.

There’s very slender evidence, though, about real women who were actually practising Stoicism in the ancient world.  Nevertheless, here are some links to articles from my blog on women who appear to have, perhaps, been Stoics:

  • First of all, an honourable mention should go to Hipparchia of Maroneia, a female Cynic philosopher, and wife of Crates of  Thebes, the teacher of Zeno of Citium – she’s likely to be someone Zeno knew given the influence Crates had over him.
  • The mysterious old woman who looked after Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic School, and was possibly his sister.
  • Porcia Catonis, the daughter of the famous Roman Stoic Cato of Utica.
  • Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, and seemingly a member of the movement herself.
  • Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor, one of the daughters of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

(You may notice I’ve placed them in chronological order here, rather than the sequence in which they were published.)

NB: Please comment below if you can think of any other references to women in ancient Stoicism.  Thanks.

Athens: The Delphic Oracle

Panorama Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Today, I visited the Delphic Oracle.  I asked her if there was anyone wiser than Socrates.  I just wanted to double check, to make sure.  Well, that’s what I’m going to tell my seven year old anyway. 😉

There’s so much to say about the importance of this site for the history of philosophy…  I think it might take more than one blog post.  The Delphic Temple of Apollo is in the mountains, roughly 2-3 days’ walk from Athens.  In the ancient world, the journey there was like a sort of pilgrimage.  Apollo was the god of prophecy and his priestess and oracle, known as the Pythia, was arguably the most important women in the whole of classical Greece.  People travelled to Delphi to ask the Oracle a question and she was known for giving cryptic answers that came true in unexpected ways – just ask Oedipus.

Temple of ApolloFor philosophers, though, the most important event was when Chaerephon, the childhood friend of Socrates, asked the Delphic Oracle “Is any man wiser than Socrates?”  She replied “Of all men Socrates is most wise.”  Chaerephon was a bit of a character and the very fact he dared pose this question to the oracle seems to have been a cause for controversy.  When it’s mentioned during Socrates’ trial both Plato and Xenophon suggest that the jury of 500 Athenians reacted with uproar and had to be calmed down.  This is the version of the question and pronouncement in Diogenes Laertius, which is similar to Plato’s account in the Apology.

However, Xenophon gives a slightly different version in which the oracle says not only that Socrates is most wise of all men but also that he is more free and just than other men.

Once, when Chaerephon made an inquiry about me in Delphi, Apollo replied – and there were many witnesses – that I was the most free, just and wise [sophron] of all people. (Xenophon, Apology)

Socrates explains in this dialogue, in paradoxical fashion, that he is most free because he is less enslaved to bodily desires and does not accept gifts or payments, which would indebt him to others.  He says that he is most just because he accepts his immediate circumstances, having no need for anything more than he already has.  And he is most wise because he is always seeking to learn about everything good.  Notice that, ironically, Socrates is “wise” because he’s a committed student rather than because he claims to be an expert teacher like the Sophists.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates likewise interpreted the oracle’s answer in a paradoxical manner, claiming that his philosophical method of questioning exposed that men lacked wisdom, at least with regard to the most important things in life.  He was only a tiny sliver wiser than anyone else because he realized that he knew nothing, whereas they presumptuously assumed that they had wisdom they didn’t really possess.

The Temple of Apollo where the oracle gave her pronouncements had several inscriptions.  The most famous, of course, was “Know thyself”, which became somewhat associated with Socrates’ philosophy.  In one of his dialogues, for instance, Xenophon portrays Socrates asking a young student of philosophy called Euthydemus “Have you ever been to Delphi?” (Memorabilia, 42.).  Euthydemus says he’s been twice so Socrates asks: “Did you notice somewhere on the temple the inscription ‘Know thyself’?” This leads to a discussion about the nature of self-knowledge.  Socrates asks Euthydemus whether he paid heed to the inscription at Delphi and tried to consider who he was. The youth says that he ignored it, though, because he took it for granted that he already knew who he was, at least as well as he grasped anything else in life.

However, Socrates asks “What must a man know in order to know himself?”  Surely not just his own name.  Must he not consider more deeply what sort of person he is and what his abilities are in life?  Someone buying a horse, says Socrates, doesn’t just settle for a superficial glance but checks whether the animal is docile or stubborn, strong or weak, fast or slow, and in general whether he’s useful as a horse or not.  So he concludes that a human being who doesn’t know his own abilities, in a similar fashion, is ignorant of himself and lacking in the sort of knowledge that the Delphic maxim advocates.

Socrates tells Euthydemus that it’s clear that men come to much good through self-knowledge and much harm through self-deception.  Someone who knows himself also knows what is useful for him to obtain and where his strengths and weaknesses lie.  As a result of that knowledge they’re more likely to prosper and flourish in life because they will refrain from doing things beyond their power, and avoid mistakes and failure.  On the other hand, those who are ignorant in this regard and self-deceived, not knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, do not know what they want or need.  Not knowing what benefits or harms them they don’t really understand their interactions with other people either.  They miss what is good for them and stumble into what is bad, live in dishonour, and appear ridiculous.

By contrast, those who have self-knowledge achieve their goals more easily in life and are honoured by other men.  People respect them and those who lack understanding themselves turn to them for advice and protection.  So those who truly know themselves are loved, says Socrates, for their wisdom.   Euthydemus asks how he can begin learning this self-knowledge.  Socrates tells him to begin by questioning which things in life are good or bad, beneficial or harmful, and so on.  This soon leads Euthydemus into confusion (aporia).  However, we’re told by Xenophon:

Now many of those who were brought to this pass by Socrates, never went near him again and were regarded by him as mere blockheads. But Euthydemus guessed that he would never be of much account unless he spent as much time as possible with Socrates. Henceforward, unless obliged to absent himself, he never left him, and even began to adopt some of his practices. Socrates, for his part, seeing how it was with him, avoided worrying him, and began to expound very plainly and clearly the knowledge that he thought most needful and the practices that he held to be most excellent.