Leo Bowder, who’s a philosophy teacher doing some research on Stoicism, gave me some interesting questions to answer about popularizing Stoicism. So I thought I might as well share my responses online because answering them properly helps me to think through my opinions about Stoicism. I find that’s both beneficial for me and also useful when people ask me similar questions in the future, which happens more and more these days…
Q1: There is still a certain connation of the word ‘stoic’ that might take some time to shift, if it ever does. How can we make Stoicism more appealing for a wider audience, and go beyond the dictionary definition of the term?
Yes. I think there are several things we can and should do to remedy this. You can tackle problems directly or indirectly. Often it’s a good idea to begin by trying the direct approach but actually I don’t think we’ve given that a fair crack of the whip. So I’m thinking of writing a series of blog articles myself directly addressing the most common misconceptions about Stoicism, one at a time. I’d encourage other people to do the same thing, if possible. Those are things like the misconception that it’s about being repressed or unemotional, that it’s overly-masculine, that it’s politically passive, and so on. Some of your other questions below touch on related issues.
I also think that we can address this problem more indirectly by teaching Stoicism in different ways. My new book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (in press), tries to do that by focusing on metaphors, anecdotes and the person of Marcus Aurelius, the most famous Stoic. I think we should be doing more of that by talking about the lives and personalities of ancient Stoics, and perhaps also modern examples. For instance, if someone thinks that Stoic acceptance means being a doormat or overly-passive, that misconception is more easily dispelled by talking about the very disciplined and active life that Marcus Aurelius led as Emperor. He was actually a workaholic and, with no military experience whatsoever, took command of the largest army ever massed on a Roman frontier – about 140,000 men strong – in order to defend Rome during a crisis, after a huge invasion. By telling these stories and then linking them to what he says about Stoic philosophy we can blow some of the misconceptions about it out of the water. That often seems easier than just trying to debate them in a more dry and philosophical way, by poring over the texts to discuss doctrines in abstraction from real life. So if we start with stories about Stoic individuals, such as Marcus, and then bring in the philosophy, I think we arrive at a more rounded and human conception of the philosophy. We put a human face on Stoicism.
Q2: (Related)- Stoicism has a reputation for upholding somewhat ‘macho’ approach to life- how can it be made more attractive to both men and women, as an approach to life?
Perhaps by talking more about the few women we hear about who were associated with Stoicism, such as Fannia (wife of Thrasea) or Porcia Catonis (daughter of Cato). There’s slender pickings in the histories, though. So looking at the work of modern female authors on Stoicism is important and maybe also non-Stoic role models whose example might be relevant to women.
I believe the overly-masculine misconception of Stoicism can also be addressed head on, as I mentioned earlier. I’m thinking about writing a book on what I call “Compassionate Stoicism”, for example. (Yes, I know it seems like an oxymoron, perhaps it’s not the best word to use although I find it starts a good conversation – the title How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is a bit of a puzzle that gets people thinking as well.) Stoicism, in my view, is a philosophy of love. That’s a perspective I’d like to develop more fully. There are many good quotes in the literature that help to support this view. Marcus Aurelius, for instance, says that real manliness consists not in anger but in the virtue of kindness. He says that the Stoic ideal embodied by one of his favourite tutors, a man he greatly admired, is to be “free from [irrational] passions and yet full of love” or natural affection (philostorgia). Marcus also refers many times to empathy and forgiveness as important aspects of Stoicism and he exemplified this in his own life when he shocked everyone by pardoing Avidius Cassius, the usurper who tried to intitiate a civil war against him to seize the throne. This is what I mean by “Compassionate Stoicism”. I think if we had a few books and articles that approach the whole philosophy through the lens of compassion, or if you prefer “kindness”, that would help to restore some balance and address the overly-macho caricature of Stoicism that people feel can be misleading.
Q3: How might Stoicism deal with modern technology and particularly social media- with the emphasis that many Stoic thinkers put on modesty and the simple life, as well as its shortness (re. Seneca)?
I think we should be trying to turn Facebook into Zeno’s ideal Republic. One step at a time, of course, and obviously in a looser modern sense. We should reconceptualize the ideal Stoic community to fit modern Stoic values and we should try to dedicate every keystroke to that goal, pursuing our external values under the Stoic “reserve clause” by adding the caveat “Fate permitting”. Facebook is the modern equivalent of the Athenian agora, where Socrates talked with tradesmen about philosophy, or even the Stoa Poikile itself where Zeno lectured in public before strangers. It’s not Facebook (or other social media) that upset us but our (value) judgements about them. It’s neither good nor bad in itself but what matters is the use we make of it. Social media by nature, though, is as neutral as the proverbial pot of water that can be used either to boil an egg or to boil your granny alive. It’s a testing or training ground for Stoicism, if we approach it the right way. We just have to remember, and be mindful, that every keystroke is an opportunity to exercise either virtue or vice. We should, for example, ask ourselves before sending a Tweet whether it is in accord with reason and virtue and whether it contributes to our own welfare and the common welfare of mankind, or not.
Q4: (Related) aside from online communities, and occasional meet ups- how can Stoicism be manifested in ‘real world’ communities?
Resilience training for children and other groups, for prevention of mental health problems. Self-help book clubs. I talk to people in shops about Stoicism quite a lot. Yesterday I was chatting to a man I’d met for the first time about something Socrates reputedly said concerning reversals of fortune. I tell my daughter stories about philosophy and I’ve written some of them up and published them online. We should also be developing stronger links between the local meetup groups (through the Stoic Fellowship) and the Stoicon-x local annual conferences that Modern Stoicism encourages people to run, and helps them to promote. Those two things are reciprocally beneficial. People might attend a small conference in a nearby city run during Stoic Week and then decide to join the local meetup group, or vice versa. I also think there’s a lot more scope for art to be used in disseminating Stoic ideas and I’m particularly interested in the use of metaphors from classical philosophy for this purpose. (I’ve also been working on comic strips with an artist recently and I should mention that Rocio de Torres, our graphic designer for Modern Stoicism, has developed some very creative Stoic objects, as have other artists.) This year, of course, we had an art installation inspired by Epictetus at the Stoicon conference venue in Senate House Library, in the University of London.
Q5: (And this is very much tied into my project P4A- Philosophy for Adults) What is it that might appeal about Stoicism- and particularly Roman imperial Stoicism- to the over 40s, or those later on in life?
Well, when people reach the venerable age of forty, and decrepitude takes hold, they should be read Book One of Plato’s Republic, which funnily enough is all about that very subject. Youngsters should read it too. I read it when I was about sixteen and for some reason it always stuck in my mind. It begins with a short dialogue between Socrates and a wealthy old metic, an immigrant, called Cephalus, who ran a succesful business outside Athens. Ironically, in this dialogue it’s Cephalus who’s the proto-Stoic, although elsewhere similar arguments are put into Socrates’ mouth. Cephalus says that he knows lots of other old men who complain about their aches and pains, and so on, but he’s quite content. So if old age isn’t a burden to everyone, he concludes, it must be our judgements rather than the thing itself that upsets us. Socrates chides him about the fact that people will say it’s easy for him because he’s very wealthy. Cephalus replies with a lovely anecdote, which I won’t explain here, but the upshot is that wealth may indeed be an advantage to the wise but it won’t help the foolish very much – they’ll just be rich fools instead of poor ones, and still miserable.
There are lots of anecdotes and sayings in the Socratic and Stoic literature that directly relate to old age, and such challenges in life. (And texts such as Cicero’s On Old Age.) So I think it’s helpful to discuss those and focus on issues that might be relevant such as how to deal with children, or grandchildren, and perhaps how to cope with pain and illness, or our changing circumstances in life as we make the transition through different stages of life.
Q6: (Bearing in mind the answer to the above question) Alternatively, how can Stoicism appeal to youngsters?
I think young people are often more interested in stories and characters, because they’re often seeking role models. So that brings me back to what I said earlier about another way of approaching Stoicism, by telling stories about famous Stoics, such as Zeno, Cato of Utica or Marcus Aurelius, as well as honorary Stoics (Stoic heroes) such as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic, or even the mythic heroes Hercules and Odysseus, who were admired by the ancient Stoics. Maybe even other fictional characters could be discussed from a Stoic perspective and I suppose a half-way house would be doing a Stoic reading of the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, for example. These are ways I think we’re more likely to engage people in their early teens. Stoicism has an advantage over CBT here as many young people are put off by the whole notion of “therapy” or “counselling” whereas Stoicism might achieve similar things (or resilience-building) without the associated stigma, at least for some people.
Q7: What are the advantages of this philosophy over (a) particular religion(s) AND/OR can it be used alongside faith when it displays a range of interpretations as to the existence/nature of the divine?
Well the Neostoics show that Stoicism and Christianity can be combined, of course. So I think Stoicism has already, over centuries, shown itself to be flexible enough to accomodate different religious views. The ancient Stoic school was alive for nearly five centuries, in Greece, Rome, and the near east. From Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, a lot changed in the culture and language, and values, but Stoicism survived and adapted. I know from experience that many people today will say that their perception, put crudely, is that Stoicism offers a secular alternative to Christianity, or a more Western alternative to Buddhism, or a more down-to-earth alternative to academic philosophy, or a more philosophical alternative to CBT, and so on. So although these comparisons are simplistic, that’s how people tend to relate to the subject, at least to begin with.
So Stoicism appeals to people above other religions, in my experience, because they see it as being more philosophical and based upon reason rather than upon faith, revelation, or tradition. Westerners also sometimes say they relate to it if they like Buddhism, or other eastern religions, but find them a bit too exotic or obscure. Stoicism has its obscurities but people (Westerners) often say it feels more familiar to them somehow, and more relatable. It resonates with ideas they perhaps recognize from their education and the culture they’ve absorbed, from influences such as Christianity or the legacy of Greek and Latin poetry, and the influence of the Renaissance on the arts. So, for example, people have probably seen Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull and they “get” the idea of a memento mori. So when Epictetus talks about the origin of this concept – slaves riding in chariots behind triumphing generals and emperors, reminding them of their own mortality – it often rings a bell somehow. So I find people often have a déjà vu moment when they first learn about Stoicism because they suddenly join the dots between lots of fragments of wisdom they’ve absorbed from their culture. It’s as though they’d been standing among rubble and suddenly realized those rocks and stones were actually once the foundation of a magnificent ancient temple. They might not get that from Daoism, though, for example.
Q8: Very briefly: how can we use Stoicism in actual, day to day living?
Do Stoic Week to find out about that. There’s no substitute for reading the Stoic texts, and trying to put it into practice, though. Start where the Stoics tell us to start. Consider very deeply indeed what qualities you admire in other people. Socrates asks Critobulus: What qualities would you look for in the ideal friend? Then turn the tables and ask what you’re doing today to acquire those virtues yourself. Change your behaviour and improve your character one small step at a time. Review your progress. When you feel your emotions are getting in the way, ask yourself what’s actually under your direct control and what isn’t. Take more responsibility for the things you can change, and learn to accept other things, which are, to some extent, in the hands of fate. Think of the bigger picture, to get things back in perspective when you feel as if life is getting on top of you. Try to understand other people as acting out of weakness, or ignorance, rather than malice, so that you can forgive them and either tolerate them or set them right. Remind yourself that it’s not things that upset you but your judgements about them. And view them as transient in the grand scheme of things, because one day you’ll be gone yourself, and so these passing moments that seem like a nuisance should be nothing to you, in a sense. Make the most of the opportunity you have to fulfil your potential in life, by thinking clearly and exercising reason: dare to be wise.