Stoic Book Review: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

AntifragilePeople have been telling me to read Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder (2014) by Nassim Taleb since the book came out because  he’s into Stoicism. I’ve finally had a chance to read it so here’s my latest quasi-review. I say that because rather than talk about the whole book I’m just going to write a bit more informally about my impressions, mainly regarding what he says about Stoicism.

First of all, though, a caveat. Taleb’s writing has a reputation for being hard to review.  His style (it seems to me) is idiosyncratic, disorganized, bombastic, refreshing, confrontational, iconoclastic, etc.  Arguably that makes the book more engaging, although it can also be frustrating at times.  Maybe in smaller doses. (Likewise, I don’t mind the occasional song by Björk but I don’t know if I could sit through a whole album.)

Nassim Taleb

Although you can kind of get a rough sense of what he’s talking about fairly easily, on close inspection it’s often surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly what he means. I don’t think it’s just me being thick because other reviewers seem to have the same problem. Also when I spoke to some fans of his work about bits that seemed confusing it turned out they couldn’t make any more sense out of it than me. Having read the book fairly closely, it seems to me that Taleb is often quite unclear about key concepts and sometimes he does appear to use arguments that are incomplete or not entirely convincing.  He doesn’t seem to like copy editors because their “interventionist” approach stifles his creativity, which is fair comment.  Although like most things in life there are pros and cons to that strategy, and in a few places an editor’s corrections might potentially have been helpful to the reader.  Then again, that’s the guy’s writing style so take it or leave it.

I think it’s fair to say that Taleb has become notorious for his rather scathing attacks on people (e.g., “Fragilistas”) who he thinks are idiots.  (Or who happen not to agree with him, depending on how you look at it.)  Well, you know, call me old fashioned but, whatever he thinks, that doesn’t really seem to me to be the healthiest attitude for an author to adopt.  I’m pretty sure it just stifles discussion and proper evaluation of his writing.  Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people out there, including plenty of academics, who say things so stupid it barely seems worth anyone’s effort to respond.  However, there’s got to be a better way of dealing with people who get on your goat.  Anyway, that actually leads into the first thing I wanted to say about Antifragile…

Taleb’s basic concept is that although we all know roughly what it means for something to be fragile we don’t have a word for its opposite. We say that something that isn’t fragile is “robust” or “resilient” but that’s just the absence of fragility, says Taleb, not its opposite. Something fragile is easily broken by knocks, something robust is impervious to knocks. Something that’s the opposite of fragile, though, would actually benefit from knocks and grow stronger. So he coins the term “antifragile” to denote this new concept – voila! 

(I’m still undecided about whether this basic premise actually makes sense, to be honest, because, to cut a long story short, whereas Taleb talks about something going from being “fragile” to “antifragile”, I wonder whether we’d not find it more natural, at least in some of these cases, to relabel the stimuli that we were formerly fragile toward as having gone from being “harmful” to “beneficial” – it’s a two-term relationship after all that we’re describing and yet Taleb is focusing on how we label one side but not really how we might shift our way of labelling the other instead.  A normal serpent is fragile with regard to having its head chopped off but the mythical Hydra, to borrow an example from his book, is antifragile because it grows two heads for each decapitation, and just gets stronger.  Fair enough, but wouldn’t it be just as easy, if not easier, to say that whereas decapitation is harmful for most creatures it’s actually quite beneficial for the Hydra, who, paradoxically, gains strength as a result?  That doesn’t require a neologism: it’s just the way we label the stimulus that’s changed not the way we label the subject.  Like I said, though, I’m still mulling this over…)

Anyway, that’s really the main theme that runs through the entire book, with a lot of interesting digressions, anecdotes, and other bits and pieces of advice: from weight-lifting to holiday itineraries and beyond.

Now, Taleb says repeatedly that nature herself is the best example of something antifragile. Presumably, in part, because species adapt to adversity and grow stronger as a result. So although he doesn’t say this himself, or explain why he doesn’t say it, a number of reviewers seem to have noticed that “antifragility” resembles the concept of evolution or survival of the fittest through natural selection. The difference is that antifragility is being used more broadly as a way of understanding life and society in general, on many different levels. So it’s surprising that Taleb never compares what he’s saying to “Social Darwinism”, perhaps just to clarify the distinction between his new concept of “antifragility” and the various philosophical ideas that fall under that heading.  (Note: I should mention that Taleb has an ethic that says it’s wrong to maintain your own antifragility at someone else’s expense.)

Throughout the book Taleb marvels at how others have completely failed to grasp the concept underlying his neologism even though it’s been staring them in the face all along. That’s fair enough in a way. However, from the outset, as someone who’s worked and written in this area, I couldn’t help but think that the concept of emotional resilience and the closely-related idea of posttraumatic growth (PTG) in modern psychology are surely kind of similar to what he’s talking about. In psychology the concept of “resilience” sometimes covers both what Taleb means by it and what he calls being antifragile.  We also talk about the concept of “thriving”, which seems akin to what he has in mind.  Eventually, Taleb says he discovered the concept of posttraumatic growth (when someone grows stronger following a trauma) and he concedes that this at least constitutes one example, in psychology, of what he meant by antifragility.

However, he never really returns to the subject and basically ignores all of the scientific research on posttraumatic growth, and related findings in psychology. Surely some of his readers must be left thinking: “Huh? So if this is what you’re talking about, what do all the scientific studies actually tell us about it?” A quick search of PubMed, incidentally, shows that there are currently 843 books and scientific journal articles listed that mention posttraumatic growth.

Now, I understand that Taleb has an ambivalent relationship with empirical research – sometimes he uses it, sometimes he criticizes the whole idea.  However, I still think we’ve a right to expect more than a fleeting mention of the fact that there’s a whole field of research already dealing with this subject. It seems to me that overall the findings don’t really correspond very closely with what he’s written about it. For example, one of the most consistent findings both from studies on resilience and posttraumatic growth is that the presence of strong social support is a predictor of good mental health and wellbeing following trauma, either through resilience or growth. However, Taleb barely mentions the role of social support in his discussion of antifragility. Perhaps he would happily dispute the relevance of psychological studies in this area or challenge their findings but then he should probably be more explicit about that, for the sake of his readers.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is his use of Stoic philosophy. First, though, another (minor) digression. As I was reading Antifragile, although it contains many interesting examples, it struck me that there seemed to be other obvious examples of the central concept that I was surprised Taleb didn’t mention. The main one is this. For most of my adult life I’ve been a trainer of sorts, in various different contexts. I’ve always gathered very detailed feedback from students and read it very closely. When running a new course, I’ll gather quantitative and qualitative feedback mid-course so that I have the opportunity to make changes on the fly. Some of my colleagues (and competitors) don’t do that.  I’ve always felt that by avoiding the (perceived) harm (to one’s fragile ego) of reading negative comments they’re basically paying a huge price by missing out on the opportunity to grow and improve as a trainer. It prevents their teaching style and their course content from evolving. Put another way: inviting criticism is antifragile. (It seems to me anyway.)  It can be painful but it makes you stronger.

As I read Taleb’s Antifragile I noticed that I kept thinking of the following maxim from Epicurus: In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. It seems to me that someone who lives by that philosophy will be antifragile, at least in one important respect. He actually turns what looks like failure into victory and considers himself to have benefited every time he’s defeated in an argument.  He turns chicken shit into chicken soup, to borrow an expression from, of all people, Roger Stone.  Or as Epictetus put it, like the magical wand, the caduceus, of Hermes, through his philosophy he touches misfortune and turns it into good fortune.

Let’s repeat that: “In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most.”  I think we’d all be able to admire that guy.  Who would deny that genuinely being able to look at things that way would demonstrate tremendous strength of character, humility, and wisdom? For an Epicurean who really assimilated that maxim, in Taleb-speak, there would be no downside to being proven wrong and losing an argument, only an upside. I was half-expecting Taleb to mention that quote, as it’s reasonably well-known. Here’s the question, though.  Does Taleb’s own fairly aggressive style of debate, his way of forcefully putting-down “Fragilistas” and idiots that he disagrees with, run contrary to that nugget of philosophy?  I’ll leave it to others to decide. I do think it would be a very interesting quote for him to get his teeth into, though.  It seems to be the sort of thing he likes.

Addendum in the Middle

I’m just going to arbitrarily inject this sort of addendum or footnote that occured to me after I finished…  Bear with me because this might seem like an odd question but: Why is this a noun?  (“Antifragility”, “the antifragile”, or an adjective?)  I’d rather it was a verb, to be honest.  Maybe Taleb’s book reminded me slightly of Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (yes, we’re going back a bit now!).  I’m constitutionally suspicious of nouns and adjectives are just as bad.  I’d rather talk about what someone is doing than what they are.  We tend to find in psychotherapy that makes a crucial difference: “I am tense” versus “I tense my…”    (What are you tensing?  How?  Where and when?  Why don’t you stop?)

Verbification or verbing we call it, the most famous example is probably the way therapists teach clients to say they’re actively “catastrophizing” a situation or “decatastrophizing” it rather than just “this is a catastrophe!”  If I was going to coin a new term for the opposite of fragile, I’d start by verbing it somehow.  This guy is fragilizing himself… at these times, in this way, etc.  Now he’s beginning to antifragilize his investments or his relationships or whatever…  (I know people hate that but I’m not sorry because I find it actually works quite well as a way of clarifying our thinking, like Korzybski’s General Semantics claims.)

Come to think of it, insofar as decatastrophizing in cognitive therapy goes beyond reduction of threat appraisal and into constructive re-appraisal of our coping ability, it probably already transgresses into what Taleb calls being antifragile.  People start to see situations they worried about excessively not only as bearable but also as potentially having some positive aspects or opportunities for them.  That reminds me of another little-known Stoic technique.  Epictetus said that one of his political heroes, Paconius Agrippinus, a member of the Stoic Opposition against Nero, used to write “eulogies” to himself actually praising the misfortunes that befell him, such as being exiled from Rome.  He not only moderated the downside of adversity but actively sought out an upside, even in the face of extreme situations, and he did it in the form of a semi-formal exercise, like writing a Stoic “consolation” letter to himself re-appraising both the downside and upside.

Anyway, back to the quasi-review…

Taleb on Stoicism

Taleb is quite into Stoicism, or at least Seneca’s Stoicism. He doesn’t mention Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. Some people have even told me that they were introduced to Stoicism by reading his books. Antifragile has references to Stoicism scattered throughout but Chapter 10, which is entitled “Seneca’s Upside and Downside”, is largely dedicated to Taleb’s interpretation of Stoicism.

Antifragile features a (fictional) Italian-American character called Fat Tony. Taleb opens his chapter on Seneca by stating that “A couple of millennia before Fat Tony, another child of the Italian peninsula solved the problem of antifragility.” That’s one for the editor: Seneca wasn’t born on the Italian peninsula. He was actually a child of Cordoba, in the Roman province of Hispania, or modern-day Spain. Anyway, that’s trivial.  What matters is that Taleb makes it clear that, in his view, Seneca exemplifies antifragility. Indeed, he says that Seneca “solved the problem of antifragility […] using Stoic philosophy”.

Taleb thinks that academics have generally dismissed Seneca as “not theoretical or philosophical enough” because of his practical focus. Not a single commentator, he says, has noticed that Seneca articulated the concept of “asymmetry”, which is the key both to robustness and antifragility.  Taleb thinks that most other philosophers begin with theory and then try to apply it to practice. However, he’s a big fan of Seneca because he believes that he did the opposite and started with practice before developing his theory. “To become a successful philosopher king”, Taleb says, “it is much better to start as a king than as a philosopher”, which is quite a nice way of putting it.

I think most people would find that a reasonable, and not entirely novel, point. However, I’m not really convinced that it describes Seneca any more than any number of other philosophers, especially his fellow Stoics. Taleb doesn’t really provide any explanation for why he believes Seneca stood apart from the rest in this regard, except that he was very wealthy.

Much of Seneca’s wealth, perhaps most of it, was given to him by Nero, and if you were cynical you might say it took the form of massive bribes in exchange for Seneca writing propaganda speeches, etc., in support of an oppressive and tyrannical political regime. Seneca later panicked when Nero began killing more people and tried to give the money back – the most obvious explanation being that he was worried Nero was about to have him killed in order to seize it back anyway. That’s presumably always a threat that hangs over your head when you’re paid millions by a dictator who’s carrying out summary executions of his political enemies – he may be tempted to claw back the money later by having you put to death.  Are there other interpretations of Seneca’s actions?  Sure but the point is that Taleb’s maybe a bit hasty to class him as a pragmatic hero.

Taleb describes the “traditional” understanding of Stoicism as being about “indifference to fate – among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos”, which is true. He sets that aside, though, to focus more on what the philosophy says about handling our material possessions.

It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions. When Zeno of Kition [or Citium], the founder of the school of Stoicism, suffered a shipwreck […] he declared himself lucky to be unburdened so he could now do philosophy.

Zeno had several famous teachers before he founded the Stoic school. One was Stilpo the Megarian. (Taleb calls him Stilbo, which is just an alternate spelling used by Seneca.) When Stilpo was told that his city had been sacked, his property seized, and his wife and children killed, he reputedly said “I have lost nothing”, nihil perditi, “I have all my goods with me.” Like the Stoics, He also believed that virtue is the only true good. Taleb says that this “I lost nothing” reverberates through Seneca’s writings as though it’s the cornerstone of his whole philosophy.

That’s partially true but not entirely so.  For Stoics in general, wealth is “nothing” in one sense, in terms of the supreme goal of life, but in another sense it has an inferior sort of value, for practical purposes.

Zeno introduced this distinction between two types of value, which formed the basis of Stoicism and distinguishes it from the Cynic school that preceded it, and perhaps also from the Megarians like Stilpo. Only virtue and vice, qualities of our own character and voluntary actions, can be intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense of the word. Everything else is “indifferent” in that regard. However, said Zeno, it is reasonable to prefer life over death, friends over enemies, wealth over poverty, within certain bounds, as long as we never sacrifice wisdom or virtue for the sake of these “external” things.

He therefore described them as having an inferior sort of “value” (axia), incommensurate with our supreme good in life. I don’t think Taleb’s aware of this, although it’s arguably the central doctrine of Stoicism, and so he perhaps misinterprets Seneca and the Stoics slightly as a consequence of this omission. As Cicero points out in De Finibus, Stoic Ethics without any distinction between the value of different externals would effectively just be a rehash of Cynicism. What made Stoicism what it is, a distinct school of philosophy that went by a new name, was Zeno’s introduction of this doctrine of “preferred indifferents” or “selective value”.

For example, one of our most important sources for information on the early Stoic school is Diogenes Laertius, who explains the doctrine of “preferred indifferents” as follows:

Of things indifferent, as they express it, some are “preferred,” others “rejected.” Such as have value, they say, are “preferred,” while such as have negative, instead of positive, value are “rejected.” Value they define as, first, any contribution to harmonious living, such as attaches to every good; secondly, some faculty or use which indirectly contributes to the life according to nature: which is as much as to say “any assistance brought by [NB:] wealth or health towards living a natural life”; thirdly, value is the full equivalent of an appraiser, as fixed by an expert acquainted with the facts – as when it is said that wheat exchanges for so much barley with a mule thrown in.

Diogenes gives the following examples of things (including wealth) classed as having value or being preferred by the founders of Stoicism:

Thus things of the preferred class are those which have positive value, e.g. amongst mental qualities, natural ability, skill, moral improvement, and the like; among bodily qualities, life, health, strength, good condition, soundness of organs, beauty, and so forth; and in the sphere of external things, [NB:] wealth, fame, noble birth, and the like. To the class of things “rejected” belong, of mental qualities, lack of ability, want of skill, and the like; among bodily qualities, death, disease, weakness, being out of condition, mutilation, ugliness, and the like; in the sphere of external things, [NB:] poverty, ignominy, low birth, and so forth. But again there are things belonging to neither class; such are not preferred, neither are they rejected.

Cicero confirms that it was Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, who coined the term “preferred things” (ta proegmena) for use in this technical sense, although later generations of Stoics seem to have been free to argue over the fine details of which things were classed as “preferred” and the precise hierarchy of their value.

Taleb quotes Seneca as saying of a man who lived lavishly “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.” According to Taleb, this aspect of Stoicism, that discourages us from becoming too enslaved to wealth and luxury, is the key to maintaining resilience in the face of adversity.

Stoicism, seen this way, becomes pure robustness – for the attainment of a state of immunity from one’s external circumstances, good or bad, and an absence of fragility to decisions made by fate, is robustness.

Random events don’t affect someone who is robust, according to Taleb’s definition, one way or the other. They are too strong to suffer from the losses incurred by misfortune. However, they are also not greedy for the rewards of good fortune. They remain impassive with regard to the ups and downs of fate.

Whereas the Stoics describe many techniques to help attain this state of mind, though, Taleb is more interested in advocating the outlook on life, and doesn’t actually say as much about how to actually get into that frame of mind. He mainly describes a method favoured by Seneca, which is usually known as the praemediation malorum or premeditation of adversity.  We could say “premediation of bad things” but that’s slightly more misleading, as the whole point for Stoics is that we should train ourselves to realize the’re not really intrinsically bad at all but things indifferent, in their technical sense of the word mentioned above.

Seneca on Premeditation

Taleb says that we should first learn robustness from “the great master” Seneca, or “how he advocated the mitigation of downside” and “protection against harm from emotions”. Then we can proceed to learn how Seneca teaches us to go beyond robustness and actually achieve antifragility.

Taleb says that success brings a kind of asymmetry in the sense that you have more to lose than to gain, which constitutes an important form of fragility.

There is no good news in store, just plenty of bad news in the pipeline. When you become rich, the pain of losing your fortune exceeds the emotional gain of getting additional wealth, so you start living under continuous emotional threat.

Rich people, he says, are trapped by their wealth, which causes them emotional stress.

Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. [sic, surely he intended to write this the other way around?]

Taleb adds that our dependence on external circumstances, or rather the emotions arising from this dependence, constitutes a form of slavery.

He quotes the Roman poet Livy to illustrate this asymmetry: “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad.” Suppose you’re a millionaire. The potential benefit of gaining another half a million dollars would now be small compared to the pain caused by losing exactly the same amount. That’s a negative asymmetry, which Taleb says makes your situation fragile.

Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).

Taleb says that before starting his last job he wrote a resignation letter and kept it locked in his drawer, which allowed him to feel a sense of psychological freedom. He also says that as a trader, each morning he would assume that the worst possible thing had happened, so that he could view the rest of the day as a bonus, something he describes as the “discipline of mental write-off”. He reckons that an “intelligent life” entails emotional positioning through exercises like these in order to remove the sting of pain caused by losses. That’s the secret of being emotionally robust in the face of “volatility”, i.e., uncertainty and risk.

Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.

That’s the quote from Taleb on Stoicism that people seem to cite most often, incidentally.  He’s right that Stoicism is not actually about the elimination or “extirpation” of all emotions but rather the transformation of irrational and unhealthy emotions into rational and healthy ones. You could call that their “domestication”, as he does.

He mentions two more Stoic psychological strategies in passing:

Seneca proposes a complete training program to handle life and use emotions properly—thanks to small but effective tricks. One trick, for instance, that a Roman Stoic would use to separate anger from rightful action and avoid committing harm he would regret later would be to wait at least a day before beating up a servant who committed a violation. We moderns might not see this as particularly righteous, but just compare it to the otherwise thoughtful Emperor Hadrian’s act of stabbing a slave in the eye during an episode of uncontrolled anger. When Hadrian’s anger abated, and he felt the grip of remorse, the damage was irreversible.

Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us—not good deeds and acts of virtue.

That’s how Taleb believes Stoics in general “domesticate emotion” and achieve robustness. So how does he think Seneca goes beyond that to “domesticate risk” and achieve antifragility?

Seneca’s Money

Taleb claims that psychologists and intellectuals in general have a mental block that prevents them from recognizing the concept of antifragility: “I don’t know what it is, but they don’t like it.” (Apart from the hundreds of scientific texts in the field of psychology that refer to posttraumatic growth?) The same mental block, he says, prevents them from considering that Seneca “wanted the upside from fate”, and that there is nothing wrong with that.

As we’ve seen, though, Taleb is arguably overestating the difference between Seneca and other Stoics in this regard.  More or less every academic text on Stoicism (that I’ve ever read) acknowledges that the Stoics assigned value (axia) to externals, and considered wealth preferable to poverty. So it’s not really that every academic is stubbornly denying or overlooking that Seneca saw some value in wealth.  It’s just that Taleb, as far as I can tell, seems to be unaware of the aspect of Stoic Ethics that, from Zeno on, assigned an, albeit inferior, sort of value to money, and preferred it to poverty, within reason.

It’s true that the Stoics did sometimes embrace “voluntary hardship”, like the Cynics before them, and lived like beggars.  They describe this more ascetic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue”, though, not suited for everyone.  (Much as Christians thought of monasticism as suited only for some.)  If that seems paradoxical, it’s not really.  Just remember that although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up.  That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent.  It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue to some extent. Indeed, Taleb does note that Stoicism can make you actually desire catastrophes, which you can embrace as a challenge in life.  (“Bring it on!”)

So if the Stoics renounced wealth, sometimes, it wasn’t because they thought it was “bad” but because they thought that doing so could potentially strengthen their character.  Wealth, in general, is viewed by them as potentially useful in life.

Taleb is more interested in Seneca than the other Stoics partly because he was one of the super-rich.  He says that Seneca speaks to him because he “walked the walk” and focuses on the practical aspects of Stoicism such as how to take a trip, how to handle committing suicide, and how to cope with adversity in life such as poverty.  Taleb recommends reading Seneca to his friends because he’s an eminently practical philosopher. (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, of course, also deal with very similar practical advice.)

However, Taleb says that “even more critically” Seneca speaks to him, and his friends, because he describes how to handle immense wealth. That’s perhaps a fair comment, although it’s probably not the reason most people give for reading Seneca.  Indeed, Taleb says that although “on paper” Seneca followed the Stoic tradition, in practice he did something slightly different, which, Taleb claims, “commentators have completely missed”.

If wealth is so much of a burden, while unnecessary, what’s the point of having it? Why did Seneca keep it?

Taleb says that Seneca called wealth the slave of the wise man and master of the fool. That’s something most of the other Stoics could have just as easily said, as we’ve seen. However, Taleb assumes that Seneca is unique among Stoics in holding the view that wealth can potentially be an advantage.

Thus he broke a bit with the purported Stoic habit: he kept the upside. In my opinion, if previous Stoics claimed to prefer poverty to wealth, we need to be suspicious of their attitude, as it may be just all talk. Since most were poor, they might have fit a narrative to the circumstances […]. Seneca was all deeds, and we cannot ignore the fact that he kept the wealth. It is central that he showed his preference of wealth without harm from wealth to poverty.

As I noted earlier, I think this idea that Seneca was unique in preferring wealth to poverty stems from something Taleb seems to have missed.  He’s right that Zeno and more or less all Stoics taught that wealth isn’t necessary, and is ultimately indifferent with regard to the supreme goal of life.  Nevertheless, more or less all Stoics agreed that in another sense wealth is “preferable” to poverty, and therefore has value (axia), just not comparable to that of our supreme good.  Seneca isn’t unique in this regard, in other words.

Taleb says in the passage quoted above that “most [Stoics] were poor”.  Sometimes he even appears to believe that Seneca was exceptional among them for being very wealthy.  That’s not quite right, though. Zeno was a wealthy Phoenician merchant who lost his fortune at sea, by some accounts. However, by other accounts he was later quite wealthy. One explanation for that apparent contradiction is that we know one of Zeno’s most devoted students, later in life, was King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia. He’s reputed to have donated a huge sum of money to the school after Zeno’s death, when his successor Cleanthes was the head. So Zeno had an extremely wealthy and powerful friend.

King Antigonus was seemingly very devoted to Zeno, whom he admired above all other philosophers, but he played the following trick on one of his favourite Stoic students, Persaeus:

And Antigonus once, wishing to make trial of [Persaeus] caused some false news to be brought to him that his estate had been ravaged by the enemy, and as his countenance fell, “Do you see,” said he, “that wealth is not a matter of indifference ?”

Whether or not Zeno accepted patronage from Antigonus we’re told Cleanthes later did. Later Stoics were not all poor. Many subsequent Roman Stoics came from the elite equestrian and senatorial classes, most of whom were comparable to modern millionaires or billionaires. Marcus Aurelius, of course, was emperor of Rome.

In any case, Taleb notes that Seneca was (allegedly) the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. Seneca’s net worth of 300 million sesterces was equivalent to the annual salary of 330,000 legionaries. At a rough estimate, that would be about nine billion US dollars today, and perhaps much more depending on how we try to convert it into modern currency.  Of all the famous Stoics, Seneca has the most mixed reputation because of his perceived love of money and luxury, his adultery, and his involvement with Emperor Nero’s violent and oppressive regime.

He was criticized for being a hypocrite by the historian Cassius Dio, for example. Seneca has been banished for alleged adultery with Julia, the sister of the Emperor Claudius. Dio says he didn’t learn his lesson or show much wisdom on his return as he later had an affair with Agrippina, the mother of Nero, “in spite of the kind of woman she was and the kind of son she had.” He adds:

Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises — a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame. Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them. In stating thus much I have also made clear what naturally went with it — the licentiousness in which he indulged at the very time that he contracted a most brilliant marriage, and the delight that he took in boys past their prime, a practice which he also taught Nero to follow. And yet earlier he had been of such austere habits that he had asked his pupil to excuse him from kissing him or eating at the same table with him.

So Taleb introduces his discussion of Seneca as follows:

We start with the following conflict. We introduced Seneca as the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. His fortune was three hundred million denarii [sic] (for a sense of its equivalence, at about the same period in time, Judas got thirty denarii, the equivalent of a month’s salary, to betray Jesus). Admittedly it is certainly not very convincing to read denigrations of material wealth from a fellow writing the lines on one of his several hundred tables (with ivory legs).

Again, one for the copy editor. A denarius was a silver coin worth about four sesterces, which were minted from brass during Nero’s reign. According to Cassius Dio, Seneca was already super-rich but Taleb’s just quadrupled his wealth. That’s a trivial mistake, though.  I doubt Taleb would allow errors like that to creep into his technical writings about the analysis of financial risk, and whatnot.

Taleb also says that the following passage from Seneca’s On Benefits shows that he was engaged in a cost-benefit analysis:

The bookkeeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure; if any one returns it, that is clear gain; if he does not return it, it is not lost, I gave it for the sake of giving.

So, according to Taleb who highlights the expression “clear gain”, Seneca adopted an attitude of disregarding the pain of the downside while retaining enjoyment of the upside.

So he played a trick on fate: kept the good and ditched the bad; cut the downside and kept the upside. Self-servingly, that is, by eliminating the harm from fate and un-philosophically keeping the upside. This cost-benefit analysis is not quite Stoicism in the way people understand the meaning of Stoicism (people who study Stoicism seem to want Seneca and other Stoics to think like those who study Stoicism). There is an upside-downside asymmetry. That’s antifragility in its purest form.

On the contrary, though, it sounds very typically Stoic to me. As we’ve seen, right from the outset, Zeno and other Stoics considered wealth preferable to poverty, within reason. Wealth typically (but not always) gives us more control over other externals, so it’s natural and reasonable to prefer that as a means of exercising wisdom and justice in life. However, if we happen to lose our wealth, like Zeno, that’s not worth getting upset about because all that ultimately matters is that we do the best we can in life, whatever our circumstances.

Overall, Taleb interprets Seneca as meaning something that he sums up in a single rule called “Seneca’s asymmetry”. If you have more to lose than to gain from volatility, the ups and downs of the proverbial Wheel of Fortune, that’s a negative or bad asymmetry, and you are fragile, according to Taleb. However, if you have nothing to lose and only things to gain then you have a positive or good asymmetry and you are antifragile.

This is expressed in Taleb-speak as follows:

Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry.

Whereas:

Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry.

In his glossary at the end of the book, Taleb specifies that he calls this both the “Fundamental Asymmetry” and “Seneca’s Asymmetry”, and defines it as follows:

When someone has more upside than downside in a certain situation, he is antifragile and tends to gain from (a) volatility, (b) randomness, (c) errors, (d) uncertainty, (e) stressors, (f) time. And the reverse.

Conclusion

Well we made it!  Sorry if that was hard going in places, gentle traveller.  I’ve included more quotes than normal because I thought they were necessary.  I’d rather let Taleb speak for himself than risk putting words in his mouth and being accused of getting it wrong.  So you can see what he says above.

Overall, I quite liked Antifragile.  I do enjoy reading an author with a distinctive voice.  It’s impossible surely to read Taleb, though, without thinking from time to time “Surely this doesn’t make sense!”, closely followed by “Oh shit, I can already imagine him shooting me down in flames and calling me an idiot and a Fragilista for disagreeing with him!”

Well tough luck because he deserves to have people disagreeing with him, in my opinion.  He’s definitely not always right.  His interpretation of Stoicism is unusual and interesting.  It also seems to me to be incorrect.  He’s  got a lot to say, though, and he’s worth reading, and that’s probably what matters most at the end of the day.

Book Review: Happy by Derren Brown

Derren Brown Happy CoverI wanted to write a quick review of Derren Brown’s recent book called Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine (2016) because I think it’s very well written and worth reading. I’ve decided to focus on what he says about Stoicism because, well you know, that’s what I’m into. Stoic philosophy has obviously been a major influence on his own philosophy of life and it’s a theme that runs through most of the book. If you’re interested in Stoicism, in other words, I’d recommend reading this book, although there’s certainly a lot of other good stuff in there as well.

Brown is a celebrity in the United Kingdom but people in other parts of the world may not be as familiar with his work. He’s basically a mentalist. (That’s not an insult, it’s a type of illusionist.) He’s well-known from British television for shows that combine elements of mentalism and stage hypnotism, and stuff about the psychology of suggestion. They’re done in a pretty creative and modern style.

Derren BrownNow, at the outset, I should probably explain that I actually hate magicians. Or rather, I hate magic; I’ve met a few magicians over the years and I get along with them surprisingly well in person. And “hate” is too strong a word – I just find people pulling rabbits out of hats, etc., mildly annoying. And as soon as someone pulls out a pack of cards and says “Watch this…” I begin secretly planning my escape route from the building. (So, yes, magic is something I have to learn to cultivate Stoic indifference toward.) I quite like Derren Brown, though, even though I’m not really into magic, because I get the impression he’s as much of a nerd about the history of philosophy and psychology as I am. That said, I’m one of those cynical (small c) people who reckon you can’t just take everything that professional illusionists say at face value. (I know, right?) If you’re in that game you’re basically the boy who cried wolf. “Ha ha! I tricked you!”, “Ha ha! I tricked you!”, “No honestly, this time I’m telling you the truth.” Perhaps because of that, though, what Brown’s written is actually a more personal, thoughtful, and sincere book than you’d normally expect from (broadly speaking) the self-help genre.

Overall, I see Happy as being one of a growing number of books that adopt a sort of contrarian or skeptical approach to traditional self-help, especially toward positive thinking. Brown diplomatically uses Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) as an example because most reasonable people seem to agree that’s basically mumbo jumbo but he presumably has in mind a much broader category of self-help and New Age hokum. Another example of the emerging skeptical-about-self-help genre would be Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012), which also finds Stoic philosophy a more palatable alternative to positive thinking. As it turns out, Stoicism particularly appeals to people who are disillusioned with conventional self-help literature, especially the more Pollyannaish end of the spectrum.

Anyway, Brown’s book explores the concept of happiness from a number of angles, drawing on a wide range of influences from philosophy, literature, and modern psychology. He relates many vivid anecdotes from his own life and shares his thought processes as he works through various questions about the meaning of happiness. I thought the style of writing was very appealing and the author really finds a distinctive voice, which is sometimes difficult when discussing these subjects.

There’s a great deal I could say about Happy. I like books that contain a lot of ideas – I tune out when an author just draws out one idea for hundreds of pages. This book is stuffed full of Brown’s musings about happiness and the meaning of life and his attempts to weigh up and assimilate the implications of various bits and pieces of psychological research and philosophical wisdom. So there’s too much to choose from as a reviewer! I’d love to say more about the psychological observations in the early chapters or the later ruminations about death but, for now at least, I’ll focus on what he actually says about Stoicism.

Basically, he’s obviously really into Stoicism but he also says that “to merely label oneself a ‘Stoic’ is to renounce one’s own voice.” I can see his point but I feel that’s an overgeneralization. It depends on your personality. Some people identify too much with labels and are restricted by them. For other people it’s just a convenient way to describe conclusions they’ve arrived at for themselves, like calling yourself a “vegetarian” because that happens to be the simplest way to explain the fact that you’ve decided not to eat meat. Names don’t have to be a prison for us unless we turn them into one. There’s an important difference between believing something because it conforms to a label you’ve attached to yourself and doing it the other way round by using a label for yourself because it happens to describe what you believe. Consider the following interaction… “Hello, is that Fred Fawcett the plumber? I’ve got a bit of an emergency here. There’s water gushing through my ceiling and I can’t swim.” “Well, yes, this is Fred but I don’t really like to attach labels to myself… I prefer to think of myself more as someone who’s exploring a range of creative existential possibilities…” [Phone hangs up.] Labels aren’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes they’re helpful. Calling yourself a Stoic, IMHO, doesn’t have to mean renouncing your own voice. It just means you happen to agree with their core values.

Anyway, labels or not, I’m going to argue that Derren Brown is actually more of a Stoic than he seems to realize. So here goes…

Happy on Stoicism and Happiness

The seventeenth and final chapter of the book opens with the following words:

The Stoics have given us a means of increasing our happiness by avoiding disturbance and embracing what they called ‘virtue’. Through taking to heart their pithily expressed maxims, echoed in future generations by subsequent philosophers, we might move in greater accordance with fate and align ourselves more realistically with the x=y diagonal of real life, where our aims and fortune wrestle with each other constantly. We have seen the wisdom of not trying to control what we cannot, and of taking responsibility for our judgements. Otherwise, we harm ourselves and others by becoming anxious, hurtful or intolerable. We have learnt to approach happiness indirectly, concentrating instead upon removing hindrances and disturbances and achieving a certain psychological robustness.

Then he weighs up some criticisms of Stoicism as a philosophy of life:

Stoicism offers us great lessons and helpful threads to weave through our lives. As I hope I’ve shown, it is at its best neither cool nor detached but rather open, porous and connected easily to life. Yet if we have a lingering doubt about its all-encompassing wisdom, it is perhaps because some part of us remains unmoved. It may seem an odd question to ask at this point in the book, but is happiness truly what we should seek? And if so, is it in its richest form synonymous with an avoidance of disturbance?

In other words, he’s asking whether “happiness”, construed in terms of tranquillity, is the real goal of life.

Now, the Greek word conventionally translated as “happiness” is eudaimonia, which literally means having a good relationship with our daemon, our divine inner nature. It doesn’t mean “happiness” in the modern sense of merely “feeling good” but rather in the now archaic sense of being blessed or fortunate, the opposite of the word “hapless”, meaning wretched or unfortunate. The old translation of eudaimonia as “happiness” is therefore the source of much confusion.  Nowadays it’s often rendered as “flourishing” instead. (I sometimes also translate it as “fulfilment”.)

The easiest way to define what eudaimonia meant in ancient Greek philosophy is to point out that it denotes the condition of someone living “the good life”, i.e., the best possible life. Put another way, it describes someone who possesses all the things we consider intrinsically good in life. Sometimes that may have been thought to include positive feelings like joy and tranquillity but for the Stoics the main, and usually the only, constituent of eudaimonia is “virtue” (arete), another confusing word by which they actually mean a sort of moral or practical wisdom that causes us to excel as human beings, and which we typically admire in others when we see it.  (So sometimes arete is better translated as “excellence”.)  It’s about reaching our potential, not just feeling good.

Psychotherapists used to talk to clients about the difference between merely “feeling better” and actually “getting better” – they’re not necessarily the same thing. That’s an important distinction because feelings can be misleading. In fact, one of the recurring strategies employed by Socrates in the dialogues was to ask people to distinguish between appearances and reality, e.g., between people who merely appear to be our friends and people who actually are our friends. Happiness, as people tend to mean the word today, i.e., “feeling good”, is merely the appearance of flourishing. The Stoics believe our goal is to attain real flourishing, though. That requires using reason to evaluate our lives rather than just allowing our feelings alone to guide us. Of course, sometimes our feelings are a good guide but often they’re not, especially when we happen to be depressed, angry, or anxious. Sometimes appearances are misleading.  Sometimes people who seem friendly turn out to be our enemies, and vice versa. It’s the gift of reason, of course, that allows us to question appearances and try to look beyond them.

Happy on Stoicism and Tranquillity

Whereas the Epicureans equated eudaimonia with feelings of pleasure (hedone) or tranquillity (ataraxia), the Stoics disagreed and equated it directly with wisdom and virtue. Moreover, they firmly believed that virtue must be its own reward. As the philosopher Julia Annas puts it:

If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)

However, Brown presents Stoicism as a “formula for tranquillity” and I think that lies at the heart of his reservations about it as a philosophy of life. He may be influenced, in doing so, by William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009), one of the bestselling books on the subject. You have to be looking quite closely perhaps to spot this but Irvine himself actually mentions in passing that his version of “Stoicism” is not Stoicism as conventionally understood because he replaces the goal of virtue with that of tranquillity.

The resulting version of Stoicism, although derived from the ancient Stoics, is therefore unlike the Stoicism advocated by any particular Stoic. It is also likely that the version of Stoicism I have developed is in various respects unlike the Stoicism one would have been taught to practice in an ancient Stoic school. (Irvine, 2009, p. 244)

Notably, he claims that he’s doing this because, in his words, it is “unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word” (2009, p. 42).

I have to say that my own experience has been different. Remember that Stoic virtue actually means living rationally and in accord with practical wisdom. I’ve spoken to countless people about Stoicism over the past twenty years or so – last year, for example, seven thousand people enrolled on Stoic Week and many provided us with detailed feedback on their experiences and attitudes toward the philosophy. I’ve found that they’re typically drawn to the philosophy precisely because it offers a rational guide to life, and promises a sense of deeper fulfilment. People for whom tranquillity or peace of mind is the main goal are more drawn to Epicureanism, as you might expect. In fact, I’m certain that if we asked the community of Stoics online a great many would say, pace Irvine, that “virtue” in the ancient sense of the word is actually something they’re very interested in. I’d say it’s more unusual for people to approach Stoicism purely as a means of securing mental tranquillity.

Irvine, as we’ve seen, acknowledges that ancient Stoicism was more concerned with virtue. I think people realize that when they turn to the primary sources, such as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and, in fact, that’s part of their enduring appeal. If Irvine is right about it being unusual for people today to be interested in virtue, in the ancient sense, then why do so many of them still love reading Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius? And why aren’t they all just reading the Epicureans instead?  (Side note: Sometimes people assume that I hate Irvine’s book when in fact I’ve been recommending it to people for years, with the caveat that they should take note of the bit where he says himself that it’s “unlike” what we normally mean by Stoicism – there’s a world of difference between disagreeing with something and disliking it!)

Now, here’s the thing: based on what he’s written in Happy, I suspect that Brown is one of those people who would, on reflection, come to see wisdom and virtue (getting better) as healthier goals than tranquillity (feeling better). Particularly toward the end of Happy, when he mentions his reservations about Stoicism, his thinking seems to be heading in that direction. Ironically, though, that would be more in agreement with ye olde Stoicism as conventionally understood by all the famous Stoics: the “virtue is its own reward” philosophy described above by Julia Annas rather than Irvine’s more tranquillity-centric version.

One of the issues with making tranquillity (or indeed anything except virtue) the supreme goal of life is that virtue then becomes merely an “instrumental” good, i.e., a means to some other end. If circumstances arise, though, where tranquillity (or whatever) could be achieved without virtue then, according to that philosophy, virtue potentially loses all value.  However, that seems to fly in the face of most people’s moral intuitions. For instance, if generally being nice to people happened to lead to lasting tranquillity that might seem workable as a philosophy of life. Suppose we suddenly discovered a drug that could induce a healthy state of tranquillity, though, with no side-effects. Wouldn’t that make being nice to people become redundant in the eyes of this philosophy? (This notion that virtue might just be a means to an end was originally associated with the Sophists, incidentally, although it was later reprised by the Epicureans, whereas virtually every other school of Greek philosophy treated virtue as an end in itself.)

Another difficult thought experiment for philosophies that make tranquillity the number one goal in life is how they’d feel about the possibility of being a happy brain in a vat.  Suppose we could just stick your brain in a vat and pump it full of tranquillizers.  You’d be guaranteed a perfectly tranquil existence and as an added bonus let’s say you’d live twice as long as normal.  Shouldn’t we all be falling over ourselves to opt for that if tranquillity is the supreme goal in life?  Another worrying thought experiment for this philosophy is: what if it turned out to be more conducive to your tranquillity to collaborate with an oppressive regime like the Nazis than to defy them?  It boils down to the underlying issue that if you’re going to say that something is the supreme good in life then, by definition, you have to be willing to say that you’d sacrifice everything else for the sake of it.  Stoicism arguably gets round the Nazi-colllaborator problem, incidentally, because its supreme goal encompasses social virtues (justice, kindness, fairness) that entail being nice to other people, etc., and not just throwing them under the bus for the sake of a quiet life. Of course, this is a massive can of worms so having cracked it open just enough to be annoying, I’m going to move on to something else because I don’t have space to deal with it properly…

I should emphasize that there’s a big difference, as we’ll see, between making it our goal to achieve tranquillity, in the sense of total peace of mind, and wanting to overcome the troubling desires and emotions the Stoics call “passions”. I hate to break it to you but a certain amount of pain, discomfort, grief, and anxiety, is perfectly natural in life and not necessarily bad for you, in the grand scheme of things. Stoic virtue, in part, means not worrying about it any more than is necessary, but not completely avoiding or eliminating those feelings because, after all, to some extent they’re not “up to us”, as Epictetus puts it. Sometimes that’s described as the difference between ataraxia and apatheia. Ataraxia is usually translated “tranquillity” and it literally means “not disturbed”, pure and simple. It’s true that Epictetus sometimes used this word but it’s more associated with the Epicureans who made it the goal of life. Apatheia, on the other hand, is the word more associated with Stoicism and it’s a bit harder to translate because it’s a more nuanced concept. (It’s the root of our “apathy” but forget that because it’s not really what it’s about.) It literally means, very simply, “freedom from passion”, which for the Stoics was about not indulging in worrying or ruminating about things in an unhealthy and irrational sort of way. As we’ll see, though, the apatheia of the Stoic Sage, or wise man, does not exclude ordinary feelings of pain, anxiety, grief, frustration, etc., insofar as these are natural and occur automatically. It’s not a complete absence of unpleasant feelings, in other words. Personally, I’d say it’s a much healthier and more realistic goal than perfect tranquillity, which, as a therapist, sets alarm bells ringing for me because it sounds like a classic perfectionism and a recipe for neurosis.

Some reviewers, myself included, have argued that Irvine’s version of Stoicism ends up being, in some respects, more like Epicureanism. The ancient Stoics, especially Epictetus, do refer to tranquillity as a good thing in life. However, it’s generally understood that positive feelings like these were a byproduct of wisdom, for Stoics, rather than the goal of life itself. That’s important because trying too hard to be tranquil tends to backfire psychologically, mainly because it seems to be an attempt to control feelings over which we lack control. Over the past few decades a growing body of psychological research has pointed toward the risks associated with “experiential avoidance” or the intolerance and avoidance of unpleasant feelings. So encouraging clients to actively accept automatic feelings of anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings has become a mainstay of what we call the “third-wave” of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). There’s good reason therefore to believe that making your supreme goal in life tranquillity, i.e., the avoidance of unpleasant feelings, actually undermines emotional resilience and increases the risk of developing psychological problems such as anxiety and depression in the long-run.

I can’t go into this in full here because it would take far too much space so I’ll try to very briefly describe some of the reasons for this concern. First of all, there’s just the fact that we have an emerging body of research converging on the finding that emotional suppression can be counter-productive. However, we can also try to explain this problem in everyday terms to some extent. When we view something as very “bad” we tend to instinctively focus more attention on it, and we do so more frequently and for longer periods of time. We’re hard-wired to pay attention to threats. That makes sense if there’s an angry sabre-toothed tiger on the horizon – you should forget about everything else and keep your eye on him until he leaves. However, that instinct goes pretty haywire if we do something that probably only humans can do and start viewing our own inner thoughts and feelings as bad or threatening. Paying attention to our inner experiences tends to amplify them, creating a vicious cycle. If your whole philosophy of life is that tranquillity is supremely good that implicitly (or explicitly in the case of Epicurus) commits you to the view that disturbances or unpleasant feelings are supremely bad. For instance, agreement with the statement “anxiety is bad” has been found to correlate with a number of psychological problems. So following the kind of philosophy that views anxiety and other unpleasant feelings as supremely bad potentially constitutes very toxic  advice.

Likewise, the Stoics would perhaps say that the Epicureans and others who make feelings the goal are confusing cause and effect, by mixing up being healthy with its typical consequence: feeling healthy. One of the problems with that is that we might come to view other causes as having the same or similar effects – and providing a convenient shortcut. Again, I’m having to simplify for the sake of brevity but if you wanted tranquility more than anything you could potentially get it more quickly and easily from (futuristic) tranquilisers.  At least in theory, one day you may be able to get it by such artificial means more safely and reliably. Alcohol and narcotics are also tempting ways to get there.

However, undoubtedly the quickest and surest path to short-term tranquillity – the veritable royal road – is good old-fashioned avoidance. Agoraphobic? Just don’t step outside your front door. Problem solved! Of course, now you’ve got a much bigger problem but if you’re intolerant of anxiety you can bet that from time to time avoidance is going to feel like a very appealing solution despite the fact that it probably strikes everyone else as obviously pathological. You might feel less anxious, but your quality of life is going to suck, and in reality you’re vulnerability to panic attacks is probably just being made much worse. Scared of public speaking? Just throw a sickie when you have a looming presentation at work. Problem solved. Not really, though; you’re likely heading for even bigger problems if you keep that up. It’s maladaptive coping.  Somewhat paradoxically, therefore, Brown ends up worrying that Stoicism might actually lead to avoidance:

The Stoics tell us to ‘remove disturbances’, but for some this might come to mean ‘hiding away safely’ where nothing can harm them. This is a meagre substitute for flourishing. Our ultimate aim is maybe not so much to be happy as to live fully and make sure we are moving forward.

The former, again, sounds much more like Epicureanism to me than Stoicism. In fact it sounds like a Stoic criticism of Epicureanism. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, paced up and down lecturing in a public space near the Athenian agora where he would engage strangers and philosophers of other schools in debate. Epicurus stayed outside Athens doing philosophy in a secluded private garden with a close circle of friends where the motto was reputedly “live in obscurity” (lathe biosas). At least according to some accounts he advised his followers not to marry or engage in public life whereas the Stoics did the opposite and advised their students to marry, have children, and engage in public life, for the common good, if nothing prevents them. If you have a philosophy that makes preserving your own tranquillity the most important thing in life it might seem logical to live like a monk. However, if your philosophy makes flourishing as a human being and fulfilling your potential the main thing then you’re probably going to want to engage with other people and the world around you.

The priority for Stoics, indeed, is not the avoidance of disturbances but the cultivation of wisdom and the other virtues, such as justice, courage, and temperance. Ironically, to exercise those virtues, as Seneca realized, we have to actually have unpleasant feelings. To exhibit the virtue of temperance we need at least a glimmer of desire to overcome. To exercise courage we have to actually experience some anxiety.

There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)

I think Brown noted earlier in the book that the Stoics were known for being courageous political and military leaders. They didn’t typically seek to hide away in seclusion, quite the opposite, because theirs was a philosophy of action. Epictetus, for instance, asked his students: “Would Hercules have been Hercules if he’d stayed at home snuggling under his blankets instead of going forth to endure vicious men and defeat the most fearsome monsters?” (I’m paraphrasing him slightly.) That’s precisely because virtue, fulfilling our potential, is infinitely more important to the Stoics than maintaining their inner peace or tranquillity.

Stoicism and Accepting Anxiety

Brown concludes by arguing that “the Stoics can’t always be right” in the sense that sometimes, rather than seeking tranquility, we should be willing to accept anxiety and other unpleasant feelings. One reason he gives is that sometimes we can learn from these feelings. However, he also implies that it can be healthy just to sit with anxiety rather than trying to fix it, and he rightly observes that the need to fix or control it is one of the things that actually fuels our anxiety in the first place.

Wholeness cannot be found in the mere avoidance of troubling feelings, however helpful the tools of the Stoics are for reassessing attachments and finding one’s centre of gravity. To live without anxiety is to live without growth. We shouldn’t try to control what we cannot, and we must take responsibility for our feelings. But the reason for this is to walk out into the world with strength, not to hide from danger.

If you feel anxiety, let it sit. See if it is amenable to the lessons we have learnt from the Stoics. You don’t need to fix things that lie outside of your control. You also don’t need to fix the anxiety: it is a feeling that you have; it is therefore not you. The need to fix, to control is what fuels the anxiety in the first place. Let it be, and it will lose its excessive force. Then, once you are no longer running away with it, or trying to remove it, you might even welcome it.

Why? Because the Stoics can’t always be right. We cannot demand from them a formula for our happiness, because no such formula exists; happiness is messy and fuzzy and active. […] The final call, then, is not to merely seek tranquillity but, from its strong shores, to welcome its opposite.

I think what’s missing from this is the distinction the Stoics make between voluntary and involuntary emotions (propatheiai). That’s not well explained in many books on the subject but it’s extremely important if we want to understand Stoicism as a psychological therapy, and I think it probably answers some of Brown’s criticisms. Our main sources for this are Seneca’s On Anger and a remarkable anecdote about an unnamed Stoic teacher during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, told by the Roman author Aulus Gellius, in which he quotes a one of the lost Discourses of Epictetus. There are also references to this notion scattered throughout other sources, including The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)

He’s talking about accepting painful sensations, with studied indifference, rather than trying to resist them as something bad or harmful, but the same point applies to the first flush of anxiety or grief.

Put very simply, the Stoics thought there were good, bad, and indifferent emotions, or at least that’s one way of putting it. Good emotions are based on underlying wisdom and justice, courage, and moderation. They include a healthy aversion to wrongdoing, a sense of deep joy in things that are truly good, and feelings of affectionate goodwill toward ourselves and others. Bad emotions, the ones the Stoics have most to say about, are irrational and excessive feelings of hatred, greed, indulgence, fear, anguish, and so on. These “passions” are not really emotions as we normally think of them today, though. They refer to feelings that we’re allowing ourselves to indulge in. The best analogy would be the difference between feeling anxious versus actively worrying or feeling down versus morbidly ruminating about things from a negative perspective. Although they often feel out of control, in a sense they’re voluntary and conscious processes, which we can learn to stop. The Stoics contrast these “passions” with the propatheiai or “proto-passions”, also called the “first movements” of passion. These are our automatic emotional reactions to events, such as blushing, shaking, stammering, turning pale, sweating, jumping out of our skin, and so on. Seneca compares them to blinking when a finger is moved toward our eye. They’re reflex-like and involuntary. I tend to call them involuntary “reactions” as opposed to voluntary “responses”.

We’re told these automatic emotional reactions (propatheiai) are inevitable, and because they’re not “up to us” we’re not to view them as bad or harmful but rather to actively adopt an attitude of “indifference” toward them. We’re to accept them as natural. I think the Stoics would also say that these are analogous to the sort of emotions exhibited by some non-human animals, particularly other higher mammals. Problems arise when we amplify, distort, or perpetuate our natural emotional reactions, though, by ruminating about them. Seneca says a deer may be startled by a predator and flee in terror but it relaxes and returns to grazing as soon as the threat has gone. Man, by contrast, would still be worrying about it weeks later. The ability to use language and reason, as he puts it, is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse in this respect.

Gellius concludes his story about the anonymous Stoic teacher caught in the storm, summing up what he’d read in the lost Discourse of Epictetus:

That these were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named [such as being caught in a storm] chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness [a natural reaction] than because we believe [foolishly] that those [frightening] things are what they seem. (Aulus Gellius)

Of course, nothing is truly frightening for a Stoic because death is an indifferent. So he would naturally turn pale and feel anxiety in a storm like everyone else, but he would realize that the thing he’s anxious about isn’t worth fearing, and he’d therefore recover more quickly afterwards by not dwelling on it or lamenting the experience too much.

So, basically, the Stoic philosophy teaches us to accept automatic emotional reactions, such as grief or anxiety, as natural in life.  We’re to view them as neither good nor bad, but indifferent. What we’re to avoid doing is adding to them by imposing more negative value judgements. We should accept them and then let go of our response to them. That means neither struggling to suppress them nor indulging in them and perpetuating them but just allowing them to run their course naturally.  The Stoics refer to giving our “assent” to our initial automatic thoughts and feelings and being “swept along” or “carried away” by them into full-blown passions.  The wise man, though, suspends his assent, and avoids going along with these initial automatic impressions and proto-passions, although he accepts their occurrence as natural and indifferent.

So that’s the Stoic theory of emotion. There’s a trigger, followed by automatic thoughts and feelings, which we should accept as natural and indifferent because they’re not “up to us”, and then there are the more conscious and voluntary thoughts we have in response, adding layers of value judgements to the original experience – that’s the part we should learn to prevent because it’s potentially under our control. That’s a more nuanced interpretation of Stoicism than you find in most books on the subject but it’s actually what the philosophy taught. I’m still in awe of how far ahead of its time it was because it happens to resemble, in particular, Aaron T. Beck’s “revised” model of anxiety, which is kind of state-of-the-art cognitive therapy.

So, in conclusion, I’m sorry this review is four times longer than it should have been but, you know, that’s what happens when the book’s interesting and it’s about my pet subject. Hopefully, somebody somewhere will find something of value in the ramblings. In case you’ve forgotten, I said I liked this book and I’d recommend that you read it, especially if you’re interested in Stoicism.

Book Review: Stoicism, A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Stoicism by Brad Inwood CoverBrad Inwood is professor of philosophy and classics at Yale University.  He is the author, or co-author, of several academic works on Stoicism and other forms of Hellenistic philosophy, including The Stoics Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (2008), an invaluable resource for anyone interested in early Stoicism.

His latest book, though, applies his scholarly credentials to the task of providing a short layman’s introduction to the subject of Stoicism.  First of all, I’d like to say that I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about Stoicism.  It’s a great little introduction.  There are more books and articles appearing on Stoicism now, many of which can be quite unreliable.  However, this is an authoritative introduction written by an academic philosopher and classicist specializing in the subject.  Inwood gives a balanced overview of Stoic Ethics, Physics and Logic.  As he describes, Physics and Logic are areas of Stoicism often neglected by modern students of Stoicism.  It does perhaps become slightly more “academic” in places, which might not suit everyone’s tastes.  This is inevitable to some extent, though, especially where he’s attempting to explain concepts  in ancient logic.  Nevertheless, overall, I think most intelligent readers will follow this book and benefit from it as an introduction.

Because he’s writing for a wider audience, Inwood also discusses the current resurgence of interest in Stoicism.  He mentions my writing and the work of the Modern Stoicism organization, of which I’m a member, as well as others who have been involved with our work on Stoicism or who are part of the wider movement, such as Ryan Holiday and Lawrence Becker.  For example, referring to the modern-day growth of interest in Stoicism as a guide to self-improvement he writes:

Some relatively recent books underline the point: Elen Buzaré’s Stoic Spiritual Exercises (explicitly building on the work of Pierre Hadot) and Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (the author is a psychotherapist specializing in cognitive-behavioural therapy and has published an essay in Stoicism Today: ‘Providence or Atoms? Atoms! A Defence of Being a Modern Stoic Atheist’). Add to that The Daily Stoic website and the book of the same title by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman offering sage advice for every day of the year and it seems that Stoicism is all around us.

That brings me to one of the central questions that Inwood raises in the book.  The vast majority of people today who embrace Stoic ethics as a guide to life have little or no interest in ancient Stoc Physics and Logic.  These are topics still being researched by academic philosophers like Inwood but they’re largely neglected by modern followers of Stoicism and the self-improvement literature in this area.

What About Stoic Physics and Logic?

In Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, I stated my belief that Stoic Ethics can be of value today without belief in the dogmas of ancient Stoic Physics or studying Stoic Logic.  Inwood points out that some of the earliest and most influential authors to have influenced the modern resurgence of interest in Stoicism as a guide to life also placed more emphasis on the practical applications of Stoicism than upon the ancient theories underlying it:

[Pierre] Hadot is at times quite frank about his belief that the underlying theories don’t matter to philosophy as a way of life, claiming that the spiritual exercises come first and the doctrines are worked up later to support them (Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 282). [James] Stockdale doesn’t even mention underlying doctrines in physics, logic, and ethics—he wouldn’t have found any in the Handbook and it served his purpose well just as he remembered it.

Inwood notes that the early Greek Stoics appear to have stated that Ethics, Physics and Logic were closely  interconnected.  (At least some of them, that is, but we can’t say for certain that all Stoics would have agreed with this.)  However, the bulk of the surviving Stoic texts come from the Roman Imperial period, several centuries after the school was originally founded.   The “Big Three” Stoic authors most people are familiar with today are Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.  Their works focus primarily on applying Stoic ethics as a guide to life.  They do mention other aspects of Stoicism – Seneca wrote about Stoic Physics to some extent – but most of their surviving writings focus on applying ethics.  That has perhaps contributed to the modern perception of Stoicism as primarily an ethical discipline, and the closely-related conception of it as a psychological therapy.  These writings also represent the most accessible aspects of Stoicism. By contrast, most of the evidence relating to ancient Stoic Physics and Logic is fragmentary and more abstract or technical in nature, requiring greater scholarly effort to interpret.

Inwood notes that even these three Stoics appear to place varying degrees of importance on the more theoretical aspects of philosophy:

Marcus that technical expertise in logic and metaphysics is dispensable for the true Stoic. In general, where Marcus encourages the idea, adopted enthusiastically by Pierre Hadot, that the fundamental message of Stoicism, a moral creed, is somehow independent of physics and seriously argued theoretical enquiry, Seneca does just the opposite.

Inwood notes that although scholars are still fascinated by the fragments on Stoic Physics and Logic, for most people today “it would be hard to make the case that learning the details of ancient Stoic cosmology or mastering Chrysippus’ syllogistic theory would be part of a plan for living a better life, for achieving happiness or balance or contentment.”

Large Stoicism versus Minimal Stoicism

Inwood argues in this book that even early Greek Stoicism, in a sense, accommodated this sidelining of Physics and Logic.  From the time of Zeno, the founder of the school, Stoicism appears to have been divided into at least two distinct strands.  Zeno taught a threefold curriculum based on Ethics, Physics and Logic but one of his most famous students, Aristo of Chios, rejected the value of studying Physics and Logic.  Inwood calls this the Minimal Stoicism strand.  About a generation later, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school argued for a broader and more scholarly approach, which came to exemplify the reinvigorated Large Stoicism branch of the school, as Inwood calls it.

Modern Stoics aiming primarily to improve human lives through moral betterment, setting aside physics and logic, can see themselves as the heirs of Aristo’s tradition, one that goes back to the early days of the school. It’s not just our modern reliance on Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca that feeds this movement; a narrow focus on ethical improvement is also an authentic component of ancient Stoicism.

So modern Stoics, according to Inwood, are in good company in this respect and stand in a tradition that formed an important part of the early Greek Stoa before the time of Chrysippus.  However, as Inwood observes, although Aristo’s Minimal Stoicism was somewhat eclipsed in popularity by Chrysippus’ Large Stoicism, it certainly didn’t disappear without a trace.  His influence was felt throughout the entire history of the ancient Stoic school, right down to the time of Marcus Aurelius, almost five centuries later.  Indeed, one of Marcus Aurelius’ private letters suggests that he became fully converted to the life of a Stoic philosopher after reading Aristo’s writings.  If that’s correct, it would help to explain his relative lack of interest in Stoic Physics and Logic.

Nevertheless, Inwood wrestles somewhat with this question as to whether or not philosophers who insist that the goal of life is to live according to nature could ignore the study of nature.  How else, he asks, can we know what to follow?  And how can we embrace reason and philosophy as a way of life without studying logic?

A modern Stoic, then, might well be missing something if they are too steadfastly devoted to Minimal Stoicism or to practical ethics alone. Here, then, there are interesting questions to ask about the relationship between our two ways of engaging with Stoicism. How much of ancient Stoic logic does the modern Stoic need? Arguably none, as long as they are dedicated to living a fully rational life and have embraced today’s current best canons for reasoning as a guide and constraint. To the extent that Stoic logic played a supporting role in the ancient school we should be able to replace it with modern theories and practices of reasoning—as indeed many modern Stoics in practice do.

Things are more complicated, he admits, when it comes to the question of Stoic Physics.

Ancient Stoics, from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, thought of ethical progress within the context of a natural philosophy that rested on a kind of cosmic holism, deterministic and providential, guided by a divine intelligence with which human beings need to align themselves. Stoic physics claimed that humans have access to a godlike rationality which mirrors the reason that runs the world, that as a species we are superior to everything else in nature, that all other animals exist to serve our interests. All of nature is made of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and consists of a unique and finite cosmos with our earth at the centre. And so on. Ancient Stoic physics, then, is clearly obsolete and no reasonable person can believe in it any more. (italics added)

Modern Stoics, he says, surely cannot aspire to follow ancient Stoic Physics and theology in their daily lives!  Inwood thinks “no reasonable person” today would endorse ancient Stoic Physics as he concludes that it provides “no fit guide for modern rational life”.  Nevertheless, there are certainly a handful  of people around who claim to do so.  (Perhaps he’s unaware of them.)  So I’d qualify that slightly by saying that the vast majority of people today probably don’t agree with the whole of ancient Stoic Physics, or even its most prominent doctrines.  Those today who do believe that the universe is governed by a benign Provident being don’t usually refer to him as Zeus, don’t sing hymns to him like Cleanthes’ and don’t normally practice divination rituals.  Clearly even they feel the need to modify ancient Stoic Physics and theology quite substantially to adapt them to modern tastes.

So modern Stoics may be understood as heirs of Aristo and his ancient followers, who adhered to Minimal Stoicism.  However, Inwood wonders whether there’s still a possibility of salvaging Large Stoicism for an agnostic or atheistic worldview by replacing Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus’ belief in a universe ordered by Zeus, the divine father of mankind, with a modern scientific view of nature.  He refers readers to the work of the philosopher Lawrence Becker whose A New Stoicism (1998) attempts to provide a contemporary reworking of Stoic Ethics founded on modern logic and scientific psychology rather than ancient theological Physics.

If the fulfilment of a rational human being is to be found in using our reason to understand the world and to navigate our way within that world, then many if not most of us could embrace that aim. The Stoic ‘life according to nature’ could still be with us after all; it’s just that our modern conception of the natural world, our sense of what ‘the facts’ really are, has matured. Perhaps we don’t have to abandon natural philosophy to connect with Stoicism today; perhaps we just have to live according to our current understanding of nature rather than the obsolete cosmology that gave such comfort to Marcus Aurelius.

As Inwood points out, if we did retain the notion of following nature as an adherence to science and facts, we might retain determinism but we’d lose the ancient world’s comforting belief in Providence, the notion that we have a place assigned to us in the universe organized by a benevolent divine plan.  “But would the result still be Stoicism?” he asks.  His answer is that Becker’s version of Large Stoicism is certainly very different from that of Chrysippus but he leaves it up to the reader to decide if his philosophical project is successful or not.

We could, he says, just accept ancient Minimal Stoicism and just embrace Stoic Ethics without worrying too much about the other parts of the Stoic curriculum.  However, Inwood thinks it’s still worth striving for an updated version of Large Stoicism, like Becker attempted, which finds some role, albeit a fundamentally transformed and modernized one, for Physics and Logic.

Even if Stoicism for the modern world were significantly transformed by swapping out an obsolete understanding of the natural world for one based on our current best science, it would, I contend, still be worth doing. The intellectual attraction of ancient Stoicism as we’ve come to understand it in modern academic study lies above all in its integration, in its vision of a way of life rooted in the use of reason to navigate life and fulfil our nature as human beings, in the context of the best available understanding of our place in the world. Ancient Stoics believed, and so perhaps may some of us, that the good life is better to the extent that it encompasses everything that we can know about our place in the world. That, of course, is the vision of Large Stoicism, the vision of Cleanthes and Chrysippus, not of the Minimal Stoicism we discover in the philosophy of Aristo. Even for those of us who limit our exploration of Stoicism to Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca, this should still be the vision that inspires. For despite their apparently lop-sided focus on ethics they were nevertheless all adherents of Large Stoicism, believers in the providentially organized world that passed for the best science of their own day. It would be a lost opportunity if we were to respond to the obsolescence of ancient Stoic physics by pulling in our horns and settling for Minimal Stoicism. If there is any value in the arcane reconstructions of the ancient school for the modern thinker intrigued by Stoicism, it lies in this grand, integrative vision of a good human life, guided by the relentless and unsentimental use of reason in a quest for the best available understanding of the orderly world around us.

Book Review: Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure by William Ferraiolo

William Ferraiolo Book CoverWilliam Ferraiolo was kind enough to send me a copy of his recent book Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercises for Mental Fitness to review back in December 2016.  So I have to begin by apologizing for the fact that it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about it.  (I’ve just been catching up with a backlog of books I had to review.)

Ferraiolo is a professor of philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California.  This book consists of 30 passages which I’d describe as being written in a style resembling The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and often dealing with similar Stoic themes.  There’s a lot of sound advice in here about applying Stoic principles to daily life.  In some ways, I think it leans a bit more toward Cynicism than Stoicism, and indeed Ferraiolo’s previous book was entitled Cynical Maxims and Marginalia (2007).

It’s a difficult book to review in some ways because one of the major recurring themes is the author’s own emotional struggle and inner turmoil.  Given the ambiguous nature of many of these passages, I think it’s better to quote more than I would normally from the text and let the author’s words speak for themselves.  For example:

You have never been terribly confident about your psychological stability either. The Sword of Damocles has hovered over your head since long before you understood the reference. Somehow, you have not yet broken down—not quite all the way. It seems that you are faring reasonably well. This is not to suggest that there is anything impressive about you, but only to note the very common cruelty with which the world afflicts us all. Your time will come, of course. For all you know, it may come long before you actually expire. Try not to get too comfortable. You have no idea when, where, or in what manner the bottom will drop out.

He also describes his anxiety surrounding sleep, how it often only comes to him with significant difficulty, as his mind becomes flooded with imaginary conversations at night.  Elsewhere he appears to describe his struggle to cope with worry and generalized anxiety:

Are you afraid? Do you fear illness? This is irrational. Do what you can to control your diet, exercise, and hygiene (both physical and psychological). […] Do you, on the other hand, fear the future and its contingencies? If so, there seems a simple solution, does there not? Either take that way out, or face the future like an adult, with reason and fortitude. Shake off your dread and get to work. Do not waste your life in pointless worry and anxiety. Do not become a bleeding ulcer.

He seems to lean toward the view that the emotional problems he’s facing may be caused by a “biochemical imbalance or abnormality” that he must learn to live with:

What is keeping you awake at night? It cannot be any form of material need. Most of the human race has never had access to the comforts that you take for granted. Looking around you, it is clear that you want for nothing—yet, you manage to feel ill at ease somehow. Perhaps you are subject to some biochemical “imbalance” or abnormality that renders you especially susceptible to anxiety and distress. If so, what do you intend to do about it? The condition is not likely to be remedied by one discreet exertion of will. The problem may well be inside of you. Your brain may be defective. Thus, if your condition proves to be innate or congenital (though you do not know this to be the case), your only option is to endure, assiduously increase your tolerance of this form of discomfort and, gradually, improve your resistance to the ill effects of this disordered neuro-chemical condition.

In other places, he worries what will happen should medication become unavailable to him at some point in the future.

You have long suspected that daily rituals of civility and reflexive dependence upon modern conveniences has made you softer than you ought to be. You also know that you carry a vestigial dysfunction in your head. The well-functioning limbic system seems not to have made its way fully into your ancestry. Descended from lizards, you are. Medications may be necessary, for the time being, but their future availability cannot be assured. Should a disruption of distribution systems occur, you must be prepared to proceed without pharmaceutical assistance. You must develop means of psychological sustenance that will remain readily available, come what may. Cultivate mental rectitude. There are methods.

This candour about the problems he’s facing makes it a very stimulating read and so I think people facing similar psychological issues will find it particularly interesting.  (Probably not for therapy clients suffering from GAD, OCD, depression, or health anxiety, though, for the reasons explained below.)  So I would recommend it as a general self-improvement guide, although there are a handful of caveats I do need to attach.

Anti-Psychiatry?

The first is that near the beginning, in the Introduction, the author writes:

The psychiatrists are doing pretty well for themselves, but their patients seem about as fouled up after “getting help” as they were before.

That seems like the author is making an over-generalization, perhaps based on his own negative experience.  However, in reality, it’s not true that every patient is “as fouled up” after getting psychiatric help as they were before.  What about all the ones who actually benefit?  I felt the need to comment on this, from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist because it would potentially be a breach of the professional codes of ethics of a mental health professional to make a misleading claim like that in a book.  It’s true that Ferraiolo doesn’t work in that field so he’s free to make this statement.  However, I still feel that it’s unwise to write something in a self-help context that could potentially discourage individuals with mental health problems from seeking professional diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, people suffering from psychological problems are often all too easily discouraged from seeking help.

Let me be clear: there are indeed many problems in the field of psychiatry.  Some psychiatrists are incompetent or don’t care about their clients.  There are many clients who aren’t helped and some may even become worse.  However, the vast majority of people working in mental health whom I’ve met over the years – not only psychiatrists but also nurses, social workers, counsellors, therapists, etc. – seemed to me to be ordinary men and women who have chosen to spend their lives in a very challenging field, sincerely trying to help others.

Some people, it’s true, don’t benefit from psychiatry or psychotherapy.  However, most patients do improve and for some “high risk” individuals obtaining psychiatric help is actually a life or death matter.  Psychiatrists work with self-harming and suicidal patients every day and do their best to manage risk and care for their well-being, which may often be a fairly stressful and thankless task.  By profession, therefore, I’m very wary of authors over-stating criticisms that could potentially deter someone who needs psychiatric help from seeking it.  I’m sure that’s not really Ferraiolo’s intention.  As we’ve seen, he says that, for him, “medications may be necessary, for the time being” and expresses concern about the supply ending, which surely implies that despite what he said above he’s currently being helped by a psychiatric prescription.  (Assuming he’s referring to psychiatric medication, although the passage is slightly ambiguous.)  However, if there’s a second edition of this book, I’d urge him, whether or not he retains his criticisms of psychiatry, to acknowledge that some individuals may benefit from obtaining psychiatric help and should not feel put off doing so.   Ferraiolo is committed to a rational philosophy, which should lead him to be more cautious and present a balanced account of psychiatry.   That would be one that acknowledges both its good and bad sides but encourages people who are suffering, especially those at high risk, to seek professional help rather than go it alone.

General Observations

Now, I would have added this concern as a footnote to my review, but I’ve chosen to address it first for the following reason.  It seemed to me to foreshadow a more general concern that I have about the rest of the book: what I’d describe as a pronounced and strongly negative (cognitive) bias on the part of the author.  The overall tone seems to me to come across as much more harsh or cynical (small c) than most Stoic philosophy. There’s also considerable emphasis on the virtue of self-discipline but less about social virtues like kindness and tolerance toward others, or about natural affection, as we find in ancient Stoicism.  (Recently, some people have started to call this approach “Broicism”.)  As Socrates points out in the Phaedo, though: What virtue is there in courage or self-discipline if they’re used for the wrong reasons?  The lowest criminals, perhaps the “terrorists” Ferraiolo talks about, may exercise far more courage and self-discipline than he does.  The Stoics believed all the virtues were one and inseparable, in part, because courage and self-discipline without wisdom and justice are not virtuous.  In fact, they’re just another form of vice in disguise.  There’s more to Stoicism, in other words, than just being a tough guy.  Perhaps the easiest way to remind people of this is to draw their attention to the fact that Christian ethics appears to have been influenced in this regard by Stoicism:

It cannot, then, be said that “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” is a specifically Christian invention. Rather, it could be maintained that the motivation of Stoic love is the same as that of Christian love. […] Even the love of one’s enemies is not lacking in Stoicism. (Hadot, 1998, p. 231)

However, the whole “love thy neighbour” and social dimension of virtue in Stoicism is arguably sidelined in Ferraiolo’s book.  Instead of attempts to cultivate goodwill toward others we get a lot of the author ruminating about his feelings of cynicism and hostility.  Ferraiolo’s main preoccupation is his own inner struggle whereas, for example, Marcus Aurelius has far more to say about social virtue, exercising tolerance and forgiveness, and his profound sense of kinship with the rest of humanity.  Anger, for Marcus and other Stoics, is a toxic passion and symptomatic of a deeper sense of alienation from the rest of humanity.  There are probably about a hundred passages we could cite from The Meditations alone to illustrate this.  However, a good starting point seems to me to be the opening passage of Book Two.  In a sense, this is the real beginning of the book because it’s widely believed that Book One was written later and placed at the front as a kind of prelude to the exercises and contemplations that follow.  It’s also one of Marcus’ best-known and most widely-quoted sayings:

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad. But I, who have observed the nature of the good, and seen that it is the right; and of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that his nature is akin to my own—not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares as I do in mind and thus in a portion of the divine—I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away from him is surely to work against him. (Meditations, 2.1)

To be Stoic, in other words, is to grasp that the nature of the good entails one’s fundamental sense of kinship with others, even wrongdoers, as opposed to becoming angry and feeling alienated from them.  However, Ferraiolo seems to me to dwell on the sort of thinking exhibited in the first sentence here – anticipating men’s flaws – and largely to ignore the deep sense of kinship and natural affection for mankind emphasized in the second part of this passage, and throughout the rest of Stoic philosophy in general. As a consequence, what comes across as a philosophical attitude toward other people’s vices in Marcus Aurelius comes across in this book, arguably, as the basis of a fundamentally more negative and cynical outlook, in which there seems to be little or no place for kindness, compassion, or fellowship with mankind. The feelings of anger and resentment toward others, which Marcus views as weakness and seeks to replace with love and friendship, pervade Ferraiolo’s version of Stoicism, and at times, as we’ll see, he gives the impression that anger and violence are being celebrated as if they’re signs of strength rather than weakness.

However, Ferraiolo is very candid in describing his inner rage, anxiety, and even darker feelings.  That level of self-disclosure is to his credit.  Nevertheless, it’s frequently unclear whether he’s describing a struggle against those tendencies or actually endorsing and indulging in the cynical, hostile beliefs associated with them.  Put simply, this seems to me to be a very angry book.  Ferraiolo often uses quite harsh language to criticize himself.  People with whom he finds himself at odds are discounted out of hand, and labelled as (in his words) “imbeciles”, “nitwits”, “blockheads”, “idiots”, “intellectual deficients”, “buffoons”, “liars”, “charlatans”, etc.  There’s a lot of cynicism (small c) not only about psychiatry but about politics and society in general, which he labels “pathetic”, “corrupt”, and “disgusting”, etc.  So not only is this expressed in much harsher language than Marcus Aurelius but there’s not much kindness or empathy there to compensate for it.   Ferraiolo’s philosophy of life doesn’t look like Stoicism as Seneca knew it either:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. (Seneca, On Clemency, 3.3)

There’s nothing about that in this book.  What we get instead is the author repeatedly fantasizing about inflicting “brutal” physical violence on other people, something that feels quite alien to the values, and the spirit, of the Stoic philosophy described by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others.  Moreover, according to the Stoics, the person we ultimately harm the most through such hostile tendencies is ourselves.  “Our soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any other person or moves against him with the intention of causing him harm, as is the case with those who lose their temper” (Meditations, 2.16).

Conflicting Attitudes & Coping Strategies

How serious is Ferraiolo, though?  It’s hard to be certain because at one point he actually tells us that he takes “perverse satisfaction” in alienating and offending others by saying shocking things that he doesn’t necessarily believe.

What kind of person struggles so mightily just to behave in a fashion that others find barely tolerable? The questioning and second-guessing of your words and deeds seems nearly ceaseless. How many mornings will you wake up and try to discern whether you have, or have not, needlessly alienated someone due to the previous evening’s conversation? Admit that you take a perverse satisfaction in saying things that most people would prefer not to hear. You enjoy writing things that confound the reader. You often seek to be misunderstood, or understood only partially. Why this impulse to shock and push the limits of civility? Why the frequent resort to sarcasm, irony, and double entendre? Perhaps it is a manifestation of insecurity. Perhaps you find it comforting to hide behind semantic trickery. You have no good excuse for that. Grow up. Say what you mean, but do not speak for the purpose of meanness.

So it’s often hard to tell if his more extreme comments throughout the book fall into this category of “hiding behind semantic trickery”, designed to shock the reader, or if we’re to take the author at his word.  In particular, there’s a basic conflict that runs throughout the whole book between the struggle he says he’s engaged in to refrain from cynicism and negativity and the fact that he, often in the same breath, seems to be indulging those very traits.  The line is often blurred therefore between the wisdom he’s trying to impart and the very attitudes that he’s struggling against.  Having confessed that part of this struggle is against his persistent urge to mislead others by trying to shock them he leaves the reader unsure what to make of the rest of the book, particularly the harsher and more violent themes.  Of course, people, such as Internet trolls, who compulsively try to scandalize others achieve their goal far less often than they like to assume.  In my experience, their victims are more likely to be left feeling slightly bemused by their behaviour and perhaps even sorry for them.  To his credit, though, Ferraiolo is honest about this sarcasm and verbal trickery, his regret over the social alienation it causes him, and his “mighty” struggle against it.  Like the boy who cried wolf, though, once he’s admitted that he’s frequently overwhelmed by the powerful urge to deceive and provoke others, it’s difficult to know whether or not he’s being honest throughout the rest of the book or just trolling us.  (It’s also like the Cretan Liar paradox: “Honestly, I’m a liar!” – do you trust him or not?)

Nevertheless, often he expresses a sincere desire to overcome the cynical and contemptuous aspects of his own personality, which appear to underlie this compulsion:

Always afford others the fairest hearing that you can manage. Avoid contempt as far as is, for you, possible—and work diligently on expanding your forbearance in this area. Do not “smirk” internally when those with whom you initially disagree explain their point of view. You are no less fallible than they are

Elsewhere he also acknowledges that his anger sometimes gets out of control and has led to problems:

Your temper has gotten the better of you once again, has it not? Imbecile! Ape! It makes no difference that you were provoked by a liar, or by a corrupt cheat, or by a pompous windbag. The failure is yours—again!

This reminds me of someone spanking a wailing toddler hard and repeatedly screaming at them to “Stop crying!”  It’s not going to work, for obvious reasons.  Angrily denouncing yourself like this and putting yourself down for losing your temper is definitely not good therapy or self-help.  It’s what therapists call a maladaptive coping strategy.  As you might guess, when clients do that too much it tends to just make them feel more depressed and angry.  So they criticize themselves even more harshly, and become stuck in a vicious cycle.

You might as well bang your head against a wall to cure a headache, right?  Ferraiolo, though, continues to angrily berate himself about his anger-management issues:

Once again, your temper has gotten the better of you, has it not? You are like a shrew combined with a snake. What excuse are you prepared to offer this time? Someone made a derogatory comment about you? Oh, poor baby. Someone made noise with a face other than your own. Is this “too much” for you? Their words are none of your business. Everyone is free to speak as they wish. If they choose to disparage you, how does this justify an outburst of emotion? There is nothing sacrosanct about you. You are not special! Your name, your reputation, and your (overly delicate) sensibilities are irrational objects of concern. Can you not bear up under the onslaught of words? Weakling. Taking “offense” (whatever that means) is just another form of feebleness. Go soak your head.

In cognitive therapy, when a client says something like this, the therapist might ask them if that’s how they’d speak to a loved one who was experiencing the same problems.  How would that way of coping with losing your temper work out in the long run?

At times, to his credit, Ferraiolo recognizes that his inner rage could skew his judgement:

The bile within you rises from your gut and seems to pervade your entire body. Your brain appears not to be immune from the influence of this ubiquitous bile of yours. This response is neither unnatural nor is it among the worst imaginable vices. It is, however, irrational and detrimental to your central purpose. The principle around which you allegedly organize your mental life is not well served by this tendency. It is unwise to allow an impulse or involuntary visceral response to take hold and drive your behavior or your train of thought. Indeed, you are obligated to suppress and ultimately expurgate this reflexive revulsion. Think with your brain, not with your spleen.

Once again, though, if his only solution is to “suppress” his reflexive sense of anger and disgust that may not work out so well in the long run.  There’s a large volume of psychological research that shows emotional suppression tends to backfire, especially with very strong feelings like these.  Cognitive therapists normally find that clients who arrive in their consulting room have been trying to do this for years and one of the first tasks of therapy is often to help them stop using emotional suppression as a coping strategy.   It’s usually fine to suppress mild feelings but with strong emotions it’s not recommended for a number of reasons.  One is that the harder people try to suppress feelings the more attention they end up allocating to them, which typically makes them become excessively self-focused and tends to amplify the same unhealthy feelings in the future.  Suppression also interferes with natural emotional processing and can prevent people from working on the underlying attitudes and beliefs that are the real cause of the feelings.  I need to stress that because while Ferraiolo is describing his own inner struggle, he’s doing so in a self-help book and, despite his caveats at the beginning, could also be taken as modelling or implicitly recommending these strategies to his readers, and it might not be a healthy example to set in many cases.

Again, to his credit, at one point the author acknowledges the importance of empathic understanding:

Empathy is a valuable inclination of character and well worth cultivating. It affords insight into the causes and consequences of our psychological tendencies and behavioral inclinations. Accurately predicting general responses to events is useful in dealing with friend and foe alike. It is also indispensable for determining the likelihood of future occurrences of significant social scale. You cannot have much of an idea of how people are going to behave unless you have a reasonably judicious understanding of their motivations, desires, and aversions. Your purpose is not to govern, or even to influence, anyone to behave this way or that. Your purpose is to prepare for contingencies arising from events that you perceive on the horizon. You need to understand what drives most people to behave as they do. Understand others without becoming what you behold. When the time is right, do what you must. Do not hesitate due to sentimentality or empathy.

This is an isolated remark, though, and as is often the case, it seems to clash with his behaviour throughout the rest of the book where he speaks of others very unempathically and dismissively as “imbeciles”, and so on.  Labelling people, over and over again, as idiots isn’t usually a sign that you’ve taken very much time to understand where they’re coming from.  At least it doesn’t come across that way to me.

Overall, he seems to view his underlying attitude toward people in general as one of contempt, although he recognizes that this is not healthy.

You have occasion to experience contempt for other people— almost certainly more often than is healthy. In most cases, this attitude is both unwise and unwarranted. Consider how much more frequently you experience contempt for yourself, and for your many flaws. Is this attitude equally unwise and unwarranted? If so, you clearly overindulge to your own detriment. If not, what is it about you that warrants excess disdain? Can it be that your contempt attaches to the human condition in general, or to the all too common maladies and dysfunctions to which it is susceptible? That might explain why your scorn alights upon your own character more often than those of all others put together. You have far more frequent experience of your own pathologies, stupidities, and weaknesses, than you do with the similar faults of others. Perhaps you are getting a bit sick and tired of yourself. Is this really so surprising? You have spent your entire life irritating yourself with your whining, whimpering, petty anxieties, and incessant busy-bodying. Can you not leave yourself alone for a moment?

The Stoics have a tradition of confessing their own character flaws a bit like this but the difference it that they place much more emphasis on changing them whereas Ferraiolo often seems, as he writes, to be actively indulging in his cynicism and contempt toward others.

So although he seems to recognize that this fundamental “contempt for other people” and his harsh criticisms are unhealthy rather than directly challenge those attitudes he continues to express them throughout the book.  For example, here again he stops to acknowledge that he’s judging other people “too harshly” but nevertheless goes on to call them “pigs” in the next breath, having already labelled them as “imbeciles”, “liars” and “blockheads”.

Attempting to reason with an imbecile or a liar is a fool’s undertaking, and nothing of value is likely to result from the effort. Why then do you persist in this quixotic endeavor? Why do you keep presenting arguments and evidence to those who have conclusively demonstrated their lack of interest in the truth, or in honesty? Misplaced hope is hardly a legitimate excuse. How much inductive evidence must you compile before you finally admit that this project is as near to hopelessness as you will find this side of the grave? Every moment spent in the company of a blockhead is a moment wasted in a futile enterprise. Do not judge the imbecile too harshly, but do not continue to waste your limited time and energy trying to teach pigs to play the piano. Just let them be pigs. They cannot help it. Neither can you be better than you are.

So the note of concern about criticizing others too harshly ends up coming across as insincere or at least very self-contradictory, in the context of his other remarks.  Likewise when he warns himself against his tendency to berate others:

Do not bludgeon those around you with excessive moralizing. Your disapprobation should be reserved primarily for yourself and your own transgressions. No one wants you constantly hounding them about their every flaw and failing. If your offers of guidance are appropriate, make them clear, and make them brief, but make them also as gentle as the subject matter permits. Do not repeat yourself unnecessarily. This tends to dull the impact of your words, and also sets up needless obstacles to future communications. Very few people respond to a message delivered ad nauseam. The expression is quite apt. Repetition becomes sickening at some point. Be as hard on yourself, and as relentless with yourself, as you like. Do not subject other people to similar treatment. They are not yours to govern.

Even here, though, he encourages himself to continue engaging relentlessly in harsh self-criticism.  In my experience, though, the aggressive attitudes people exhibit toward themselves often become mirrored in the attitudes they exhibit toward other people.  It’s difficult to keep these things compartmentalized.  The better solution for most people is to learn to find a healthy balance of assertiveness and compassion in general, i.e., both toward themselves and other people.  A good teacher or therapist is very seldom one who’s relentlessly harsh.  As we’ll see, often this way of coping can often backfire and make the problem worse.

Harsher Words, Violence & Aggression

Despite the fact that Ferraiolo sometimes acknowledges his tendency to condemn “too harshly”, he continues to use very harsh language throughout to describe other people, himself, and society in general.  I’ve given quite a lot of examples above but they are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The rhetoric escalates quite dramatically in other parts of the book.  So again, I’m going to have to quote more than normal to illustrate the point and to avoid misrepresenting what the author’s saying.  I’ll let him speak in his own words.

Because there are so many passages like those quoted earlier, the overall tone of the book definitely comes across as being quite angry.  Quite often, though, this actually crosses the line from angry feelings into the contemplation of aggressive and frequently quite violent behaviour.  For example, Ferraiolo acknowledges having spontaneous thoughts and urges to “imperil [himself] needlessly” or “harm the innocent for no reason”:

Have you not contemplated stepping out into the void off of a mountain ridge path, or steering into oncoming traffic, or calling out obscenities at some somber ritual? You should take no pride in any of that, but you must admit to having these experiences. What is this strange urge to do what ought not to be done, to imperil yourself needlessly, or to harm the innocent for no reason other than the illogic and willfulness of doing so?

It may surprise some readers to learn that those are examples of very common and completely natural automatic thoughts, shared by the vast majority of people.  Surveys conducted by psychologists have shown that most people have spontaneous violent or antisocial thoughts but just ignore them and aren’t troubled by them.  However, individuals with certain types of mental health problem may become highly preoccupied with them, in which case they may become obsessions.  Sometimes, Ferraiolo appears to be saying that he struggles against these violent urges to harm himself or someone else.  However, at other times he seems to positively revel in fantasies of a graphically violent nature.

Indeed, he repeatedly imagines using “brutal” physical violence, as he puts it, against other people, or even killing those he perceives as a threat to his family or culture.  Sometimes he appears to be thinking of specific individuals.  At other times he seems to envisage the catastrophic breakdown of American society and having to defend his culture against an unnamed mass of enemies, perhaps related to his  worry about “mass immigration” and “terrorists”.  He muses to himself that the “collapse of your nation appears to be irreversible”, American culture is “bent on suicide” and can only be saved if it’s “shaken out of its moribund haze”.  But he says there’s no visible sign of that happening.  Instead, the USA is a “imploding” and “self-immolating” nation.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, these are very sweeping negative statements.  It’s easy to imagine someone else describing the same events in more sobre and less emotive language, in a more rational and balanced way.  This is an example of what cognitive therapists call “catastrophizing”.  The Stoics, by contrast, tend to decatastrophize their thinking by training themselves to view such events from different perspectives, and describing them in more objective matter-of-fact language.  However, Ferraiolo’s philosophy often sounds more like “the end is nigh!” – it’s our future viewed through the lens of alarmism rather than Stoicism.

Perhaps as a result of catastrophizing, Ferraiolo often dwells on the feeling that he needs to be prepared to use the most extreme measures, “brutal” physical violence as he puts it, against those he perceives as threatening him or his family:

Violence is not always avoidable without resort to cowardice, or without shirking your responsibility to protect the innocent in your charge. When it is necessary, strike without hesitation or compunction. Strike to incapacitate as quickly as possible, and terminate the threat with brutal decisiveness. Be always prepared and always armed with appropriate means. Decisions made under duress are subject to dysfunction, and the mind and body tend to respond poorly to sudden danger. Make the most fundamental decisions before the critical moment arises. Act with urgency. Brutality may be called for. If so, be brutal. Kill if necessary. This is to be avoided if any viable alternative is available. If none presents itself, however, strike to kill. Sentimentality has no proper function in response to a clear and present danger. Be the wolf, not the sheep.

“Decisions made under duress are subject to dysfunction”, for sure, but perhaps even more so are decisions based on catastrophic thinking, having been fomented in a state of chronic fear and anger.  Or put another way, when people are continually talking about their feelings of contempt for other people and their violent urges in such strong language, well, their decisions are bound to be affected by that, especially those made in the heat of the moment.

In another passage, he goes a step further and actually imagines himself becoming “brutality incarnate”.  These and other references to a “bestial” and “savage” element in his nature that lies hidden, “smouldering beneath the surface”, waiting for an opportunity to be unleashed, reminded me of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Do your best to learn the most effective methods, and to master the most reliable weapons, to be deployed in defense of your family, yourself, and innocents under your care. It is not permissible to leave this responsibility to anyone else, or any government agency. The police will arrive in time to scrape your carcass off of the pavement. They are not really designed for the prevention of violent crime. You never know where or when the critical situation may arise. Be always prepared to become protector and defender—in less than the blink of an eye. Become brutality incarnate if necessary. Do not deny this element of your nature. You have always been aware of what smolders beneath your façade of civility. The matter is not for public consumption, but you must be able to access the bestial element within you, should the moment present itself. Control it, but do not hesitate to let slip the savage if the time comes. He will, unfortunately, prove a handy fellow.

Perhaps he’s right, of course.  Maybe the sort of people he’s talking about are pure evil and deserve to be destroyed.  Of course, the danger with this type of thinking lies in someone using “the most reliable weapons” and unleashing “brutality incarnate” against the wrong person: someone they mistakenly perceive to be an enemy, rather than a genuine enemy.  Nevertheless, Ferraiolo seem more than happy to imagine himself being someone else’s judge, jury, and executioner.  I assume these remarks are completely hypothetical.  Nevertheless, My wholehearted advice would be that given what he’s actually stated throughout the book about his inner conflict, struggle with rage, and violent urges, he should be extremely wary unless those feelings cloud his judgement and lead him to harm the wrong person one day.  To be frank, I don’t believe anyone reading this book would  feel confident in the author’s ability to exercise sound judgement regarding the use of physical violence against others.

Moreover, in addition to the problem of rage clouding his judgement, Ferraiolo says that he tends to experience “wrath” and to “enjoy the suffering” of the “large category” of people for whom he has contempt:

Your unhealthy and irrational inclinations do not seem to abate readily. How easily you are given to wrath, selfishness, and enjoyment of the suffering of those for whom you have contempt. This last is a rather large category, is it not? Like a malignancy, you return to these vicious habits of thought, even after you thought they had been excised, thereby polluting your character and reinforcing precisely what you allegedly hope to expunge. Do you really wish to cleanse yourself of these flaws? If so, why do you persist in their reinvigoration? It seems that it can only be depravity or weakness. Perhaps it is both. Do not excuse yourself in this matter, but redouble your efforts to make something decent of yourself. Remain vigilant where sickness of the psyche is concerned. Surely, you recognize that the greatest and most recalcitrant enemy lies within your own heart and mind. Waiver [sic.] in this, and you invite desolation.

In this passage, once again, he clearly speaks of struggling against these feelings.  However, as always, elsewhere he contradicts this by seeming to positively indulge in similar attitudes.  So the struggle is inconsistent: sometimes these violent and aggressive attitudes are being suppressed, other times, as we’ve seen, it sounds more like they’re being relished.

I think most people would agree that someone wrestling with these sort of feelings should probably not be contemplating whether they are  justified in inflicting brutal physical violence on others or preparing to use “the most reliable weapons” to kill anyone, even hypothetically.  Again, to his credit, Ferraiolo has the courage to wonder whether he might be as “degenerate” as the very people in society with whom he’s disgusted:

You may, as it were, turn away from this increasingly filthy culture and the reprobates who dominate it. First, be sure that you are not composed of the same degenerate character as they are. How certain are you concerning this last issue? Was that a slight chill up your spine just now? There is, after all, a degenerate in nearly every mirror.

However, perhaps surprisingly, these recurring doubts about his own character and motives don’t stop him from repeatedly describing scenarios, or indulging in fantasies, in which he feels completely justified in using weapons and brutal violence to harm others.  He looks in the mirror and gets these chills up his spine but, for some reason, it doesn’t alter his desire to learn “the most effective methods, and to master the most reliable weapons” to kill people.  My advice would be that he should seek help dealing with these underlying issues and take a time-out from the violent fantasies and preparations for war.

Anger and violence are a toxic combination because, as the Stoics pointed out long ago, anger is temporary madness.  People do stupid things every day because they’re angry.  Modern psychological research confirms that strong emotions like anger do indeed bias our judgement to a shocking extent, and cause us to do foolish and sometimes dangerous things.  That’s how innocent people get hurt.

Sometimes the enemies he imagines himself pitilessly “butchering” are described as “terrorists”.  He believes that the people he labels “terrorists” are not really human beings but “mere things, masquerading as persons” so killing them, he believes, is not like killing real people.  (That’s not something a Stoic would ever have said.)

When blood is already being spilled, and more is forthcoming, do not kid yourself that all butchery is equal. Killing terrorists is not evil. They have jettisoned their humanity, and removed themselves from what Kant called “the kingdom of ends.” They are mere things, masquerading as persons. Pitiless brutality is their lot.

The problem with this, once again, is that of mislabelling.  (Not the only problem, to be sure, but perhaps the simplest one to address.)  Even if we agreed that genuine terrorists forfeit their right to life, Ferraiolo seems to have put himself, once more, in the position of their judge, jury, and executioner.  What gives him that right, though?  How can we trust his judgement, or character, when he throughout the book he keeps questioning it himself?  Again, I assume these scenarios are completely hypothetical, although he does appear to state that he’s actually preparing himself for them.

Indeed, at other points he refers not to hypothetical terrorists but to situations that sound closer to home.  These appear to be squabbles with neighbours whom he considers to have somehow encroached on the “good health” of his own family by adopting a “dissolute” lifestyle:

If your neighbor chooses a dissolute life, this is none of your business. Your neighbor’s life was never delivered into your hands. Let him be. If, however, the neighbor’s lifestyle begins to encroach upon your family’s safety or good health, then address the issue swiftly and unambiguously. Be utterly clear about your concerns, and about the proposed remedy. Half measures will only stave off the inevitable for a short while (if that). Make it clear that you are both willing and able to rip out the threat, roots and all, if it must come to that. If this means the deterioration of good neighborly relations, so be it. You have nothing to gain through association with those who cannot be counted on to at least attempt neighborly decency. Never allow the miscreant to rule your home turf.

He doesn’t spell out what he means by no “half-measures” and “ripping out the threat” in his neighbourhood but it does sounds like he’s contemplating the use, once again, of physical violence. We’re pretty far removed here from the Stoic principle of “love of one’s neighbour” (Meditations, 11.1).  Lest we forget, this is how the ancient Stoics actually talk about conflict with their neighbours:

It is impossible to cut a branch from the branch to which it is attached unless you cut it from the tree as a whole;* and likewise, a human being cut off from a single one of his fellows has dropped out of the community as a whole. Now in the case of the branch, someone else cuts it off, but a human being cuts himself off from his neighbour of his own accord, when he comes to hate him and turns his back on him; and he fails to see that by doing this, he has cut himself off from society as a whole.  (Meditations, 11.8)

Given what he’s said about his struggle with inner rage, though, and contempt for other people, how can he be certain that his use of physical violence is actually justified?  How confident is he that he’s not going to harm an innocent person when he’s in this frame of mind?  Given the emotional problems he’s described, is he really the best judge of what constitutes a “dissolute” neighbour and whether they deserve to be “ripped out”?  Who are the these people he’s raging against anyway?

In a couple of places, Ferraiolo appears to blame “unassimilable” migrants for his anxiety about the collapse of American society:

Mass migration seems almost designed to make life unlivable for the native inhabitants of the nations on the receiving end. No culture can absorb the unassimilable in their millions, and remain what it once had been. Yes, but what is all of that to you? Can you forestall any of this by the sheer force of your will? If so, get to it! If not, why allow yourself to be distracted from the task of self-rectification? Society will either fly apart, or it will not. Take notice of events, prepare for a future without law, order, or easy access to necessities—and then get back to the real work. Attend to material affairs so that you can turn your attention back inward where it belongs. Do not weep for your dying society. It was never built to last.

I’m a first-generation immigrant living in Canada.  Just like Canada, America was founded through “mass immigration”.  Ferraiolo’s ancestors presumably included migrants.  The current US President, like most of the population, is descended from foreign immigrants.  Most prosperous countries have evolved over the centuries, through immigration.  There’s no mention here of any positive aspect to immigration, though.  Just the catastrophic fear that a mass of unassimilable migrants threaten to render life “unlivable” for people like the author.  A rational philosophical attitude, I think it’s fair to say, would recognize both the good and bad aspects of immigration.  However, much like his early remark about psychiatry, we only get the negative, so you can’t help but get the impression that negative bias is colouring his feelings in general.  If he stopped to articulate things in a more balanced way, taking in different aspects of the situation, wouldn’t he inevitably end up experiencing more moderate feelings rather than the anxiety and rage he seems to be continually struggling against?

Some of his thoughts have an apocalyptic character to them.  There’s a “scent of blood in the air”.  He feels called to prepare for some impending external catastrophe:

Something draws ever nearer. You are not certain exactly what it is, or when it shall arrive, but you detect signs of it all across a horizon that closes in, that constricts and darkens, that rumbles vaguely in this direction a little louder each day. It does not seem to have the character of your own mortality [sic.]. That is an inevitability you have long recognized, and long since ceased to fear with any sincerity. Whatever it is that draws near, it is not properly to be feared (no external circumstance is), but it demands your notice, and it bids you to prepare—for what, you do not know. It will not be forestalled much longer. There are blackening skies, gathering clouds, and a scent of blood in the air. You find it baffling that so few seem to perceive its approach. You are no prophet, after all. What then are you to make of this? Is this a morbid strain in your character? Are most others simply loath to acknowledge this darkness at the edge of their perception? Perhaps it is a bit of both. In any case, the truth will become apparent sooner or later. By that time, of course, it may well be too late to do anything about it.

Given everything else that he’s said, my advice would be that he carefully weighs up whether this premonition is more likely to be a reflection of his own mood or of external reality.

A collapse has begun, and you do not know how precipitous or calamitous it will be. Perhaps something will emerge from the wreckage. Perhaps the wasteland awaits. You cannot know. Control the supply of necessities for your family, and marshal resources wisely. This is no time for unnecessary engagements or entanglements. It is too late for collective efforts to produce any useful outcome. Cultural self-immolation is well underway. Stand away from the flames.

He could be right of course.  I don’t live in his neighbourhood so I don’t know what he sees around him every day.  Then again, it could just be catastrophizing that’s fuelled by the sort of negative thinking patterns that he’s been describing struggling against throughout the book.

The Wolves and the Sheep

Part of this apocalyptic vision of the world involves Ferraiolo’s assumption that society is neatly divided into “wolves” and “sheep”.

In the final analysis, it may be that some people just are, so to speak, “wolves,” and others are just “sheep.” Is it wrong for wolves to feed upon sheep? If so, what is a wolf to do?

The wolves prey upon the helpless, bleating sheep.   What else could they do?  Unless of course he’s wrong, this is just an arbitrary metaphor, reality is more complex, and society isn’t actually polarized between wolves and sheep.  What if maybe we actually get to choose whether we act like wolves or sheep?

This is actually an age-old political metaphor, which goes back to the Stoics and to some extent all the way back to Socrates, the Sophists, and beyond.  However, I found Ferraiolo’s way of talking about it puzzling.  Normally philosophers equate the wolves with political tyrants or individuals who are cruel and exploit others.  As Boethius wrote: “You could say that someone who robs with violence and burns with greed is like a wolf.”  The whole idea derives from ancient commentaries on the story of Circe in Homer’s Odyssey.  Circe was an enchantress.  When Odysseus’ crew arrived at her secluded mansion they indulged greedily in a feast laid before them and were magically transformed into pigs.  Her previous victims had become lions and, indeed, wolves.  This was widely interpreted as an allegory for the way in which our character is transformed by strong desires and emotions, until we become a caricature of ourselves, more like an animal than a rational human being.

Plato, and later the Stoics, adopted this metaphor.  For the Stoics there were two main personality types: one resembling domesticated animals, like sheep and cattle, and the other wild animals, like wolves and lions.  We become like sheep or cattle when we’re ruled by pleasure, and our lives revolve around greed and hedonism.  We become like lions or wolves when we’re ruled by anger, and we’re alienated from other people or contemptuous of them.  Epictetus tells his Stoic students to be neither as “silly” as sheep nor as “savage” as wolves.  The Stoic goal of life is to rise above these passions and be ruled by reason, like a philosopher.

It were no slight attainment, could we merely fulfil what the nature of man implies. For what is man? A rational and mortal being. Well; from what are we distinguished by reason? From wild beasts. From what else? From sheep, and the like. (Epictetus, Discourses)

When we abandon reason and allow ourselves to be ruled by irrational passions, such as anger, we degrade our souls, according to the Stoics, into something less than human.

By means of this kinship with the flesh some of us, deviating towards it, become like: wolves, faithless, and treacherous, and mischievous; others, like lions, wild and savage and untamed; but most of us foxes, and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderous and ill-natured man but a fox, or something yet more wretched and mean? Watch and take heed, then, that you do not sink thus low. (Epictetus, Discourses)

The philosopher doesn’t normally identify himself with either the role of a wolf, a predator on society, or that of a gormless sheep, with its head buried in its fodder.  Marcus Aurelius likewise says he should aspire to be the sort of man who “makes himself neither a tyrant nor slave to anyone” (4.31).

Ferraiolo sometimes reprimands himself for worrying that he’s actually a sheep:

You begin to wonder if you really are more wolf than sheep. This is not a good sign. Wolves show no indication of similar self-doubt.

However, in several other places he seems to fantasize about becoming a predatory wolf himself:

You are well aware that wolves roam the quiet countryside. You know what the wolves want. There is more than just a little of the wolf in you, is there not? You know how predators choose their prey. Teach those who are willing to listen how to avoid looking like lambs waiting to be taken to the slaughter. No plan is perfectly reliable, and anyone can fall victim at just about any time and place. Do not use this as an excuse for laziness in the arenas of planning and preparation. If necessary, you may have to become a wolf yourself. Can you unleash that predatory spirit at will? If not, learn how to do so. The need will, almost certainly, arise.

At one point he just straight-up tells himself: “Be the wolf, not the sheep.”  This is the moral opposite of Stoicism.  For the Stoics, indeed, this aggressive, predatory attitude toward those who are more vulnerable would  exemplify not strength but moral weakness. The image that automatically popped into my mind while I was reading these passages was of some young guy who has to look in the mirror before he leaves the house going: “Who’s the wolf?  I’m the wolf!  I’m the big bad wolf… Grrrrrrr!“, trying to convince himself he’s a wolf not a sheep.

Perhaps this is, or should be, so obvious it almost goes without saying but why can’t we just be human beings?  Because it’s too difficult?  Diogenes the Cynic went around with a lamp in broad daylight looking for a man because he couldn’t find one anywhere.  It’s not easy taking full responsible for thinking rationally and living accordingly.  It’s a lot easier to lapse into following our instincts or primitive feelings.  But it’s a rational human being that Stoics aspire to be, not a wild animal.  Marcus says that the strength of real men, the sort of men that most people really admire at the end of the day, doesn’t consist in anger and aggression but in the ability to rise above it and show calm and gentleness toward others instead (11.18).  He’s dead right about that.

Marcus also says that nothing is more “odious” than the hypocrisy of a wolf who pretends to be friends with lambs, while preying upon them (11.15).  He means that we should aspire to overcome the cruelty in our nature so that we can be open and sincere with other people.  Indeed, the animal the Stoics most admired was not the wolf but the bull, who uses his horns to protect the weaker members of his herd from predatory lions.  (Some people may not be aware that bulls can toss lions on their horns and kill them.) Maybe Ferraiolo comes closer to this when he’s talking about protecting his family, but he goes off in the opposite direction in these passages where he fantasizes about being a wolf preying on lambs.  The bull represents the value placed by Stoics on kinship and courage which is virtuous because it’s in the service of something noble: protecting the weak.  The “courage” of the metaphorical wolf, by contrast, who preys on the weak, would actually be nothing more than cowardice in disguise.

A Stoic Response

The introductory sequence to one of the skits in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? depicts a caricature of a “self-hating” liberal activist who we’re told has been “cycling through our fractured nation listening respectfully without prejudice to Republicans… with the hope of changing their racist and childish views, to try and heal the divide.”

It’s poking fun, of course, at the character’s lack of insight into his own judgemental stance and hostile  prejudices.  Over and over again, in this book, though, Ferraiolo sounds like he’s doing more or less the same thing by berating himself for his impulse to angrily belittle all the people he labels as “imbeciles”, “windbags”, etc.  For example, the passage I quoted above:

Your temper has gotten the better of you once again, has it not? Imbecile! Ape! It makes no difference that you were provoked by a liar, or by a corrupt cheat, or by a pompous windbag. The failure is yours—again!

It seems obvious to say that he’s got that back to front, though.  As long as he continues to use a barrage of derogatory terms to describe people he doesn’t agree with then he’s bound to feel angry and react negatively to them.  He’s poisoned the well right from the outset, just like Sacha Baron Cohen’s caricature who’s trying to make nice and “heal the divide” with people he labels from the outset as “ignorant racists”.  In a sense it’s hypocritical, or at least self-contradictory.  It’s one step removed from saying: “I’m going to stop having so many negative feelings toward this fucking bastard!

It’s a psychological strategy doomed to failure from the very get-go.  So I’m going to stick my neck out and hypothesize that this is one of the main reasons for the inner struggle with feelings of anger and frustration that this author repeatedly describes.  If you talk about people in an angry way, and ruminate about violence, you’re bound to feel angry.  If you talk about yourself in an angry and harsh way you’re likely to feel depressed.

Reading this book reminded me of something that therapists often do during the initial orientation (“socialization”) phase of treatment.  Most people are very reluctant to admit that what they’re doing might be causing their problem, even if the connection seems fairly obvious.  People who suffer from insomnia often drink lots of coffee “because I feel really tired the next day and it’s the only way I can stay awake”.  The therapist might say, “Well, if I drank fifteen cups of coffee every day, I would imagine that I’d probably start to have problems sleeping as well, don’t you think?”  That basic principle holds true for most problems in therapy.  For instance, therapists might ask depressed clients to draw up a list of activities they used to enjoy but don’t do anymore.  (Depression is often associated with social withdrawal and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.)  The therapist might casually observe, “I suppose if I made a list of all the activities I enjoy and I stopped doing most of them, after I while I might start to feel kind of depressed, do you think?”

Well, when I’d finished reading this book, I felt like saying: “You know, if I started calling people I don’t like imbeciles and liars and charlatans, over and over again, and began fantasizing about inflicting brutal physical violence on my enemies, I’d probably start to feel quite angry, don’t you think?”  It’s a good recipe for cooking up anger, in fact.  I don’t think that cause-effect relationship is very obvious to Ferraiolo, although it’s something he could potentially have learned from the Stoics.  I would hope that he might begin to think about whether that’s part of the problem because he makes it clear that he feels quite stuck.  Being honest about his feelings probably took a lot of courage and it’s likely to be an important step in finding a solution.

One of the reasons people don’t notice this sort of thing, although it might seem glaringly obvious to onlookers, is that they assume the cause-effect relationship runs the other way.  People say “I called him a bastard because I was so angry!” or “I kept telling myself I was a worthless weakling and an imbecile because I felt so depressed!”  And there may well be some truth to that.  Feeling upset probably does make people more inclined to make negative value judgments of this kind and to express their feelings in insults toward themselves and others.  However, it’s also true that it works the other way as well.  Using language like this, and thinking this way, is bound to affect our feelings.  We might think of it as a vicious cycle or circular relationship between aggressive or negative language and angry feelings.  People often struggle to suppress the feelings but they’re not easy to control that way.  The good news is that the other part of the cycle, the language we use, is something that’s almost entirely within our sphere of voluntary control: we can just choose to stop doing it.  That’s where our leverage is, not in direct suppression of the feelings.  As long as we notice when it’s happening, which may take a bit of practice but is definitely achievable, we can just stop ourselves from using emotive language or throwing around insults.  That’s what the Stoics would recommend.

As we’ve seen, Ferraiolo makes very extensive use of language that certainly comes across as very emotive.  Just like the Stoics before us, in modern cognitive therapy for depression, anger, or other emotional problems, one of the first things we’d often do is question the client’s use of emotive language.  If I’m always referring to other people as “bastards” or “bitches”, I’m probably going to feel angry because that’s that sort of language is basically designed to evoke strong negative emotions.  So if I’m not careful, I become a victim of my own emotive rhetoric.  When we call people names we’re usually judging them negatively and when we do that we’ll usually feel angry or depressed or anxious, etc.

The Stoics were wise to this and realized that one of the foundations of their approach would have to be the suspension of strong value judgements.  They called this phantasia kataleptike, a mental representation of events, and other people, that grasps reality in a completely rational and objective manner.  Pierre Hadot translated this term “objective representation”.  It literally means “an impression that grips”, which Zeno symbolized by clenching his fist.  We could also say it’s about “having a firm grip on reality” by not projecting our values onto things and allowing our emotions to distort our thinking.  So although the Stoics may sometimes use emotive rhetoric they generally avoid it and try to describe things in a more matter-of-fact way.  It strikes me that Ferraiolo’s doing the opposite, though.  There’s a clear rhetorical effect caused by all the references to his frustration with other people and society in general and the harsh words he has for them, as well as for himself.

Like Socrates and the Stoics, Ferraiolo recognizes that the goal of philosophy is to purify our minds of hypocrisy and inconsistency.

Competing, and sometimes conflicting, purposes or interests make for a muddled and untrustworthy character. How is anyone supposed to take you at your word, or entrust to you any significant responsibility, if you allow your goals to drift, or to become caught up in periodic flights of fancy? Keep the rules that govern your behavior simple and reliable. In this way, you will make yourself dependable and trustworthy.

However, as we’ve seen, throughout most of the book he displays an ongoing struggle between his angry feelings and a more balanced, reasonable, way of relating to himself, other people, and society in general.  He takes that cynical, or what he calls “contemptuous”, attitude toward other people and uses it against himself, beating himself over the head with a stick in order to instil self-discipline.  However, modern therapists have found evidence that when people do that they often make their problems worse.  When we’re angry or depressed it’s often much more effective to speak to ourselves more gently and compassionately, although we can still be assertive.  As I mentioned above: no good therapist would speak to vulnerable clients in a scathing and contemptuous manner.  Ferraiolo is trying to act as his own therapist, using a club as his main tool, though.

You failed again yesterday. Is there a single day of your life that you have lived entirely in accordance with the principles and values that you espouse, both publicly and within the confines of your own consciousness? When was the last time you practiced what you preached for more than a few moments? Your hypocrisy is deep and abiding, is it not? Without adherence to maxims founded in reason, virtue, and sincerity, you know that your life will devolve into wretchedness and ignominy. You have seen the unprincipled life up close. You have watched the wake of destruction it leaves both within and without. You have beheld the malformations of character, the moral disfigurement, and the self-abasement that ensue when decency is jettisoned, or subordinated to licentious self-indulgence. Do you fear any condition more than dishonor, dissolution, and degeneracy? No one could tell as much by observing your behavior. These fates all await you should you stray far or long from the proper path. Perhaps your greatest fear is that you are not up to the rigors of the righteous life. Perhaps this fear is well warranted. Do you know that this course is not too difficult for you? There is, it seems, only one way to find out. Get moving.

Although sometimes they also sound harsh in their self-criticism, the Stoics were well aware that our communication, even when speaking plainly, needs to be appropriate to be effective, and often that requires tact and gentleness.  Seneca describes the Stoic attitude to self-criticism as more gentle and forgiving:

I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.” A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.  (Seneca, On Anger)

That’s an example of the Stoic way to do self-therapy.  Read it again because this passage happens to deal with virtually identical issues to some of those in Ferraiolo’s book but it obviously does so in a completely different manner.  The content of Seneca’s admonitions is not only gentle but also quite specific and constructive in nature.  He begins by gently pardoning himself for the mistake and then calmly tells himself what to do differently next time, rather than just berating himself for being an imbecile.  Seneca also happens to be advising himself to be more gentle in admoniting other people.  It’s one of the “virtues” of Stoic rhetoric that our communication should be both honest and appropriate to the other person.  There’s no point speaking plainly if it doesn’t actually help anyone.  Any idiot can blurt out the truth, or criticize other people, the difficult thing is to say it in a way that can actually benefit them.

Marcus Aurelius says that correcting another person’s flaws is like telling them they have bad breath – it usually has to be done tactfully.  For example, Marcus says that his own Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, came across as a very kindly man, who was patient with the unlearned, and ill-informed.  He could adapt himself to any sort of person, in fact, so that even when he was disagreeing with you, his conversation was more pleasant than any flattery.  Marcus describes him as the ideal of a Stoic teacher: full of natural affection and yet free from irrational passions, particularly anger (Meditations, 1.9).  There are many passages describing the art of gentle admonition in The Meditations.  This is how Marcus was instructed by his Stoic tutors and how he dealt with the many troublesome people he was faced with in his later life, as emperor.  The gentleness, politeness, and freedom from anger or irritation for which Marcus was renowned was part of what made him an exemplary Stoic and it came directly from his use of Stoic principles:

It is a man’s especial privilege to love even those who stumble. And this love follows as soon as you reflect that they are akin to you and that they do wrong involuntarily and through ignorance, and that within a little while both they and you will be dead; and this above all, that the man has done you no harm; for he has not made your “ruling faculty” worse than it was before. (Meditations, 7.22)

Conclusion

I enjoyed this book, although I’ve criticized it in part. I’d like people to read it.  I don’t think the sort of approach modelled here in terms of self-help is for everyone, though.  I’m pretty confident there won’t be any cognitive therapists who advise their clients with depression or generalized anxiety, etc., to copy the coping style of the author, to be completely honest.  I’m fairly certain my words of caution would be echoed by most of them.

I think the author was very courageous to self-disclose to this extent and I think that will be a huge step in his own self-improvement journey, with which I certainly wish him good luck.  As several people have responded to this article looking for more advice, I’d like to end by recommending the work of one  of the UK’s leading psychotherapy researchers, Prof. Paul Gilbert.  Gilbert developed a “third-wave” CBT approach called Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), drawing on developments in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.  It attempts to directly addresses the problems reported by individuals suffering from high levels of self-criticism.  It’s still a young therapy but studies have already indicted its effectiveness for a range of psychological issues, including quite severe mental health problems.  Gilbert’s research on “compassion”, though inspired by Buddhist philosophy, perfectly complements the virtue of “kindness” (eugnômosunê) in Stoicism.

Book Review: REBT a Newcomer’s Guide by Matweychuk and Dryden

REBT Newcomer's Guide CoverRational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is the main precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). (Or the earliest form of CBT, depending on how you look at it.) It was developed in the late 1950s by Albert Ellis, who subsequently wrote dozens of books on the subject. Ellis had a forceful and engaging personality.  In addition to writing textbooks for therapists he wrote some very popular self-help books for a wider audience. He also happens to have referred more often to Stoicism than any other famous figure in the history of psychotherapy. (The now almost forgotten Paul Dubois perhaps comes a close second.)  My own background is in philosophy and CBT, so the relationship between REBT and Stoicism particularly interests me.

In Ellis’ first major publication on what would later become known as REBT, he wrote that its central principle “was originally discovered and stated by the ancient Stoic philosophers”. He meant the REBT principle that emotional disturbances, and associated symptoms, are not caused by external events, as people tend to assume, but mainly by our beliefs and attitudes about such events. Ellis would often teach this principle to therapy clients by showing them a famous quote from the Stoic Handbook of Epictetus: “It’s not events that upset us but our judgments about events.” However, many more references to Stoicism can be found scattered throughout Ellis’ writings. Indeed, even when he makes no explicit mention of Stoicism, traces of its signature ideas can arguably be found in other aspects of REBT theory and practice.

I’ve always felt therefore that Ellis was, quite possibly, more influenced by Stoic philosophy than he actually realized. Perhaps because he read the Stoics quite early in life, as a teenager, he underestimated the extent to which their writings may have inspired various ideas he developed many years later as part of REBT. My first book on Stoicism, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010), reviews the parallels between Stoicism and REBT in depth, both in terms of theory and technique. So I won’t be providing another broad survey like that in this short article. Rather I’ll focus on what I think are some notable similarities between the fundamental principles of both Stoicism and REBT.

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide

Walter J. MatweychukWalter Matweychuk is an REBT expert who is also very knowledgeable about Stoicism.  Walter gave a talk about their relationship at Stoicon 2017 the international conference for Modern Stoicism. He recently published a neat little introduction to REBT called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide (2017). It’s co-authored by Prof. Windy Dryden, a prolific author on REBT and, by my reckoning, the most famous psychotherapist in the UK. Their book is a concise account of REBT for complete newcomers. So it provides a great way for those who are interested in Stoic philosophy to begin learning more about REBT, and I believe they’ll soon grasp the obvious relevance of Ellis’ psychotherapeutic approach to Stoicism.

It starts, naturally enough, by introducing the famous “ABC Model” developed by Ellis. This provides a very simple way to illustrate the difference between healthy (rational) and unhealthy (irrational) ways of responding to any given situation.

A: Activation, meaning you find yourself in a situation or facing certain events about which you draw various inferences
B: Beliefs, you respond by imposing your underlying beliefs on the situation, in this case rigid, irrational demands
C: Consequences, you experience various consequences, particularly emotional distress, but also thoughts and behaviours

For example:

A: I’m giving a presentation at work and someone frowns, so I infer that they think I’m boring
B: I have the inflexible and irrational belief that everyone must find me interesting and if they don’t it’s absolutely awful and unbearable
C: As a consequence, I feel depressed and maybe drink alcohol and distract myself to cope

However, not everyone faced with the same activating event (A) will experience the same emotional consequences (C).  Some individuals might have a more healthy and adaptive response.  Why? Because they have more flexible and rational underlying beliefs (B), akin to preferences rather than rigid demands. This simple model is the foundation stone on which REBT is built. It’s therefore normally taught to clients during the initial orientation (“socialization”) phase of treatment. In more technical terms, it’s used to teach clients a simplified “cognitive” theory of emotion, in which the pivotal elements are their own beliefs (cognitions).

However, when the majority of clients arrive for their first therapy session they tend to talk and think as though certain situations (A) lead directly to emotional distress (C). “She criticized me and that made me feel depressed”, for example. They’re usually missing the cognitive link in the middle, the irrational beliefs (B) that really explain why they’re responding the way that they do. (“People absolutely must not criticize me, because if they do it’s unbearably awful.”)  At first, people often try avoiding or changing the activating event (A), or suppressing the disturbing emotional consequences (C).  However, REBT posits that in most cases the healthiest long-term strategy is to identify the rigid, irrational beliefs that create the emotional response, dispute them, and replace them with flexible, rational beliefs instead.

Ellis always saw his approach as being, in a sense, philosophical because it targets very fundamental beliefs. Indeed, often it could be described as an attempt to transform our underlying “philosophy of life” by disputing irrational beliefs and adopting more rational ones instead. Socrates was arguably the first person to really introduce the notion that rationally disputing our beliefs about what’s good or bad could be construed both as doing philosophy and also as a sort of psychological therapy.  He liked to quote Homer, saying that it was the business of philosophy, not to speculate about the heavens, as previous thinkers had done, but to investigate “Whatso’er is good or evil in a house”, by asking questions of practical significance to our daily lives.  It was the Stoics, though, who really developed this therapeutic aspect of Socratic philosophy the most.

The ancient Stoics actually had a similar three-stage model to Ellis but their emphasis was slightly different. For instance, Epictetus describes this process:

A: There’s an event, such as being caught in a storm at sea, that automatically triggers certain reflexive emotional reactions (propatheiai) and automatic thoughts (phantasiai), such as feelings of anxiety and seasickness, etc.
B: We respond with the belief, or rather value judgement (hupolepsis), that what is happening is intrinsically bad and harmful to our very nature
C: Our initial thoughts and feelings then escalate into a full-blown irrational desires or emotions (called “passions”) and we become excessively upset about the situation

For Stoics, it’s therefore a specific kind of value judgement that’s the root cause of emotional disturbance, and certain behavioural problems in life. For simplicity, we could describe it as judging things outside of our direct control to be strongly good or bad. However, they actually based their therapeutic approach on a more subtle qualitative distinction between two different types of value judgement: one which causes distress and one which does not. They had to introduce jargon to express this, making a distinction between judging something to be supremely “good” (agathos) or “bad” (kakia) versus merely assigning a lighter kind of value (axia) to it for the purposes of planning future actions.

The Stoics believed that only our own character should be judged supremely “good” or “bad”, making these terms synonymous with “virtue” and “vice” respectively. Everything external to our character or acts of will is at best lightly “preferred” or “dispreferred”, advantageous or disadvantageous, but not truly “good” or “bad” in this strong sense.  We can articulate this distinction between something being “good” versus merely “preferred” in several ways because the Stoics employed several definitions of the “good” and a variety of arguments to support their theory. One is that the “good”, in this key technical sense, is synonymous with what is truly beneficial for us, and the “bad” with what is genuinely harmful.

We may rationally value some external things over others, such as preferring wealth over poverty, as long as we don’t actually confuse the value of such things with our supreme good or what is ultimately beneficial for us in life. Money might be useful or advantageous, according to the Stoics, but it’s not really the goal of life.  Likewise, poverty might be a disadvantage that we prefer to avoid but in itself it doesn’t necessarily ruin our life.  Assigning so much value to external advantages such as wealth or status, as if they were a “life or death matter”, is a recipe for neurosis, and the Stoics believed that it was also the root cause of certain vices, i.e., of immoral or antisocial behaviour and even crimes.  In their view, external advantages like having wealth, good looks, or friends, merely gives us more opportunity or control over external events in life.  Whether that’s ultimately good or bad, though, depends on how we use it.  Political tyrants have immense wealth and power but, observed the ancient Stoics, that merely gives them more opportunity to exercise folly and vice.  We go wrong, the Stoics say, when we’re duped into believing that fame, wealth, and other external advantages in life, are somehow more important than wisdom and virtue.

There’s another interesting way of expressing the Stoic qualitative distinction between what is supremely good (or beneficial) and the lighter value placed on externals such as health, wealth, and reputation. They believed that unhealthy passions (desires and emotions) are not only irrational but also excessive. They overreach themselves by demanding that they get what they want despite the fact that their aim is to get (or avoid) external things beyond our direct control. Nothing, say the Stoics, is truly under our direct control except our own will, or our ability to choose one thing over another (prohairesis). It’s therefore madness, or simply irrational and unphilosophical, to desire things in this demanding way.

‘What is it, Passion, that you want? Tell me this.’
‘What I want, Reason? To do everything I want.’
‘A royal wish; but tell me it again.’
‘Whatever I desire I want to happen.’ – Cleanthes

That’ll be an irrational, rigid type of demand then. By contrast, the philosophical attitude aspired to by Stoicism would require embracing the fact that our desires can always be thwarted by external events. Epictetus actually tells his Stoic students that there’s only one thing that they should rigidly demand in life, that they refrain from voluntarily engaging in vice, because that’s always, by definition, within their power to accomplish.

Epictetus called the first stage of training in Stoicism the “Discipline of Desire and Aversion”, which he says is the most urgent for his students to master. It’s basically the Stoic therapy of the passions. He says it boils down to the doctrine that irrational passions are fundamentally due either to being thwarted in getting what we desire or in getting what we seek to avoid in life (Discourses, 3.2). The frustration of certain desires, he says, is necessarily the cause of emotional disturbance, genuine misfortune, sorrow, lamentation, and even envy. He’s clearly talking about a particular type of desire that’s intolerant of being thwarted or remaining unfulfilled. He addresses this demanding quality of unhealthy desires at the very beginning of the Stoic Handbook:

Remember that [this type of] desire contains in it the profession (hope) of obtaining that which you desire; and the profession (hope) in aversion (turning from a thing) is that you will not fall into that which you attempt to avoid: and he who fails in his desire is unfortunate; and he who falls into that which he would avoid, is unhappy. If then you attempt to avoid only the things contrary to nature which are within your power, you will not be involved in any of the things which you would avoid. But if you [rigidly] attempt to avoid disease or death or poverty, you will be unhappy. Take away then aversion from all things which are not in our power, and transfer it to the things contrary to nature [i.e., irrational and unhealthy] which are in our power. (Handbook, 2)

Nevertheless, he adds that his students are to refrain from passionately desiring wisdom and virtue for the time being, in this strong sense, because that would be setting their sights too high at the beginning of their education in philosophy. He concludes by explaining that instead of employing this demanding, passionate form of desire and aversion his students should instead employ a light preference in selecting one external goal over another.

Moreover, Epictetus ends this passage by saying that even when pursuing things lightly in this way, Stoics should also remember to do so “with exceptions”. The meaning of this is usually lost in translation but he’s actually using a Stoic technical term: hupexhairesis. This is often translated as “with a reserve clause”. It means something very specific: undertaking our actions while calmly accepting that they might be thwarted. In plain English, the Stoic reserve clause is like saying: “I want to do xyz but if I don’t succeed, that’s not the end of the world.” Sometimes the “reserve clause” is expressed by qualifying desires and intentions with the clause: “if nothing prevents me”, “Fate permitting” or “God Willing”. Epictetus and other Stoics would also imagine specific setbacks thwarting their desires, which they practised accepting with equanimity and indifference. It seems to me that the addition of the “reserve clause” might be compared to what REBT means by holding “flexible” as opposed to “rigid” beliefs about what we want in life. It’s the subtle knack of being able to say “I want this but if I don’t get it – so what? – it’s not the end of the world” rather than “I must have this!”

REBT likewise shows clients that their irrational beliefs (B), in the form of rigid demands, are the key to their problem and that’s what the therapy focuses on helping them to change.

Note that failing to gain what we value is insufficient for emotional disturbance. REBT does not target unfulfilled values; rather it targets rigid attitudes that suggest the values we have absolutely must be fulfilled. Flexible attitudes specify a preference for what is valued and explicitly negate a demand for it. (p. 16)

For example, they might turn the rigid demand “I absolutely must succeed in valued areas of my life” into the flexible preference “I would prefer to succeed in valued areas of my life but do not have to do so.” In REBT it’s assumed that the strength of a desire alone isn’t what makes it into a rigid demand but nevertheless very strong desires are more likely to mutate into rigid demands.  This distinction can be compared to the one made thousands of years earlier by the Stoics: between the sort of excessive desires or aversions that inevitably cause emotional disturbance when frustrated and the sort of light preferences that seamlessly adapt themselves to being thwarted.

REBT also distinguishes between three domains in which people hold such beliefs: about themselves, other people, or life in general.  Stoicism actually employed exactly the same distinction.  The early Stoics apparently began by employing a twofold distinction between internal and external nature, or ourselves versus the rest of the world.  (This is probably the origin of Epictetus’ famous “dichotomy of control”, which distinguishes what is up to us, our own actions, from everything else.)  However, at least by the time of Marcus Aurelius, this had evolved into a threefold distinction between ourselves, the rest of humankind, and the universe (or nature) as a whole.

Extreme Attitudes

This newcomer’s guide also covers three common “extreme attitudes”, which REBT believes are derived from rigid demands.

  1. Extreme awfulizing
  2. Discomfort intolerance
  3. Extreme devaluation

These also have parallels in the Stoic literature, although for the Stoics, as we’ve seen, the root cause of suffering is the belief that external things, which are not entirely up to us, are supremely good or bad. Sometimes, to be fair, it’s difficult to separate these sort of toxic attitudes as they’re very closely intertwined. For that reason, the difference in emphasis between Stoic therapy and REBT is arguably less significant than what they have in common. Both approaches agree that broadly-speaking a nexus of irrational, evaluative, demanding beliefs are at the core of our emotional distress.

Awfulizing

REBT holds that extreme “awfulizing” attitudes often derive from rigid demands. For example, if I believe “People must treat me with respect” then as a consequence I may also have an extreme attitude that says “It’s awful when people don’t treat me with respect.” What’s meant by “awful” is defined as:

  1. Nothing could conceivably be worse in terms of this situation
  2. It’s worse than what we’d normally think of as 100% bad – it’s off the scale
  3. Absolutely no good can be derived from something as intrinsically bad as this
  4. There’s no way to transcend something this awful by responding constructively to it

The opposing attitude in REBT consists of asserting that the situation may be bad but it’s not awful, e.g., “It’s bad when I don’t succeed in valued areas of my life but it’s not awful”. We might also say “I don’t like it but it’s not the end of the world.”

As we’ve seen, the Stoics view rigid, irrational desires as the corollary of irrational value judgments. The two things are basically synonymous. What Ellis meant by awfulizing can be compared to what the Stoics meant by someone judging an external event to be supremely “bad” and “harmful”, in their special technical sense. This involves the belief that some external misfortune is so bad that it harms our fundamental interests, striking at the very core of our being. The Stoics believe this attributes a form of extreme “badness” to external events that they simply cannot possess: only the corruption of our own character, by folly and vice, can actually ruin our lives in this way.

To paraphrase one of their metaphors: imagine a set of scales with folly and vice on one side. No matter how many external misfortunes we pile up on the other side, it should never be enough to tip the scales. The form of “badness” attributable to external misfortune, no matter how severe, is inherently inferior and qualitatively different from the sort of “badness” possessed by our own descent into inner wretchedness. In plain English, both Stoicism and REBT agree that much of our emotional disturbance is caused by the belief that apparent misfortunes in life are not only “bad”, in the ordinary sense, but terrible or awful in an exaggerated and disproportionate sense. It’s right off the scale, in fact, and the Stoics would say that’s because it makes the error of conflating two different sorts of value.

Discomfort Intolerance

REBT believes that many problems are due to the belief that discomfort is unbearable, which causes people to feel overwhelmed and give up prematurely when perseverance is required. Tolerance of discomfort happens to be essential to most psychotherapy, though. For example, treatment for many forms of anxiety requires repeatedly confronting our fears, which is impossible without a willingness to accept and tolerate a certain amount of emotional discomfort. Put crudely, we usually have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone in order to achieve significant changes. In fact, discomfort intolerance can be a severe handicap in many areas of life. When we tell ourselves “I can’t bear it”, we’re usually wrong. It’s often just fear or laziness speaking. We can bear a lot more than we tend to assume.

The Stoics remind themselves of this quite frequently. One of the recurring themes in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the claim that we are, by nature, capable of bearing more discomfort than we realize. For example, Marcus tells himself not to overwhelm his mind with exaggerated worries but to divide troubling events into small parts and focus on one aspect at a time. I call this the Stoic technique of “Depreciation by Analysis.” When we calmly ask ourselves “What is there about this particular aspect that’s actually unbearable?” we come to realize how absurd that question is because there’s almost always a way to cope.

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: ‘What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?’ You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own. (Meditations, 8.36)

By focusing on the here and now, and one aspect at a time of a larger situation, Stoics learn to cope with even the most challenging misfortunes in life. Marcus, like other Stoics, also frequently asks himself what “virtue” or coping ability nature has given him that he could use to deal with the situation he faces. This is related to the Stoic emphasis on studying role models and learning coping strategies from them, which Marcus does extensively in Book One of The Meditations. One way of increasing our appraisal of our ability to cope with adversity and tolerate discomfort is by reminding ourselves how other people have managed to cope with similar situations.

Devaluation and Acceptance

REBT holds that a great deal of emotional disturbance is caused by beliefs rigidly deprecating oneself, other people, or life in general. This is typical in clinical depression but it can manifest in many other types of emotional problem as well. These extreme attitudes are interpreted as derivatives of rigid demands. For example, someone who rigidly believes “You must not ignore me” may conclude “You are a bad person if you do ignore me.” The essence of this attitude is a global rating of negative value. Something is judged to be bad as a whole, whereas in reality most things have a mixture of positive and negative qualities. It’s a form, therefore, of over-generalization. REBT recommends that these attitudes should be replaced with more flexible ones that actively refrain from attaching a global negative rating to oneself, other people, or life in general.  Even better, we should learn to accept ourselves and others unconditionally even if we object to specific attitudes or behaviours.

This sort of extreme negative evaluation is similar to what the Stoics mean by judging externals, including life as a whole or other individuals, to be bad in the strong sense described above. Epictetus actually says that when you fail to distinguish between things that are up to you and things that are not, and invest too much importance on the latter, as a consequence “you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men”, i.e., railing against life in general (Handbook, 1). The Stoics repeatedly warn us not to indulge in judging other people to be “good” or “bad” in the strong sense they’re concerned with, similar to a global rating of value.

Epictetus says that someone who is uneducated in philosophy blames other people, someone who is partially educated blames himself, and someone who has completed his education blames neither himself nor others (Handbook, 5).  Human nature is fundamentally something sacred to the Stoics because, despite our flaws, our very nature contains the seeds of wisdom  and virtue, the potential for good.  Rather than condemning themselves others in this global deprecating sense, therefore, the Stoics encourage us to view our many passions and vices as, ultimately, being irrational mistakes made by beings that are fundamentally capable of doing good as well as evil.

Conclusion

There are many more comparisons we could make between REBT and Stoicism.  For example, one of the methods of Socratic disputation employed in REBT, known as “functional disputation”, involves evaluating the consequences, emotional and otherwise, of holding rational versus irrational beliefs.  That’s very similar to one of the most common methods cited by the Stoics, which involved comparing the consequences of living rationally versus those of being ruled by unhealthy passions, i.e., desires and emotions based on irrational beliefs.  The Stoics often allude to this through the shorthand method of stating the paradox that irrational fears typically do us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid – highlighting the harmful consequences of irrational beliefs.  Anger, they say, does us more harm than the person with whom we’re angry ever could, because it poisons our very character with temporary madness.

I’ve only been able to touch briefly on some similarities between REBT and Stoicism here. So I’ve focused on some of the key similarities in their conceptualization of emotional disturbance because that’s of absolutely fundamental importance, underlying as it does most of the other concepts and techniques employed in both approaches. As I mentioned at the beginning, my book The Philosophy of CBT attempts to provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the similar concepts and techniques found in REBT and Stoicism. So, in particular, if you’re interested in looking at the practical therapeutic techniques that go with the theory described above that would be worth reading.

However, this newcomer’s guide by Matweychuk and Dryden explains the core techniques of REBT more thoroughly, in plain English, in a way that I think will be of interest to those studying Stoic philosophy. For anyone looking for a quick introduction to REBT, it’s perfect in that respect because it’s very concise and yet covers the key concepts of the approach very well.

Detailed Review: How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

How to be a StoicNB: See my video below for a discussion of the twelve practical techniques listed at the end of this book.

Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, once said that while its philosophical doctrines may well be contrary to popular opinion they are surely not contrary to reason. He was speaking of “paradox”, which literally means contrary to opinion in Greek. Stoic philosophy, like the philosophy of Socrates, was known in the ancient world both for its famous paradoxes and for its rigorous appeal to reason. It’s worth clearing up from the outset that the word “stoicism” (lower case) denotes a personality trait, having a stiff upper lip, whereas “Stoicism” (capitalized) is an entire school of Greek philosophy. The relationship between these two things is pretty tenuous, although they’re often mistakenly conflated. Stoicism was meant to shake things up by challenging its followers to swim against the tide and embrace a moral worldview radically at odds with the values implicitly accepted by the majority of ordinary people. In doing so, it explicitly cast itself as a form of psychological therapy (therapeia) and self-improvement. It’s experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent decades because its emphasis on “philosophy as a way of life” appeals to a growing number of people as an alternative to Christianity and other religions. However, Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion. Its conclusions were based solely on reason rather than faith, tradition, or revelation. Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic provides a restatement of Stoic philosophy and practices that takes the form of a self-help guide but one that attempts to update Stoicism in terms of a contemporary scientific worldview.

The Author

Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College of New York but he also holds PhDs in genetics and evolutionary biology. He credits his background in both philosophy and science as explaining the desire to find a rational philosophy of life and worldview that, in turn, led him to ancient virtue ethics and eventually to Stoicism. He says he was raised a Catholic but abandoned belief in Christianity as a teenager and like many others today was left looking for something else to replace religion as a guide to life. Pigliucci found that Stoicism satisfied the same needs as religion in that it could provide him with a practical philosophy of life. However, it was also fundamentally rational and science-friendly. The Stoics were materialists who believed in a God that was synonymous with Nature, a forerunner of the philosopher’s God of Spinoza and subsequently Einstein. Pigliucci found this appealing as a scientist because it allows us to find a place for spirituality, alongside reason, and without any form of superstition. The final thing that drew him to Stoicism was the way it directly engages with the existential problem of our own mortality. The Stoics neither reassure us with the promise of an afterlife nor simply turn away from the problem and ignore it, burying their heads in the sand. “A man cannot live well”, said Seneca, “if he knows not how to die well.” Having recently turned fifty, Pigliucci found himself, midway upon life’s journey, re-evaluating things and turning to Stoic philosophy as a way of coming to terms with the crude fact of his own mortality. He found himself in agreement with the core tenets of Stoicism but was also reassured that as a rational philosophy it was open to revision in areas where modern science or philosophy has made progress. So he states quite frankly “I have decided to commit to Stoicism as a philosophy of life”.

The Journey

The book opens with an account of Pigliucci’s personal journey. It describes how, faced with a bewildering array of religions and philosophies to help us make sense of life, he chose to become a Stoic. He immediately explains, for readers unfamiliar with the philosophy, that this does not mean being unemotional like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Stoics have feelings too. They just seek to reduce the hold unhealthy and irrational ones have over the mind and to replace them with more healthy and rational ones. One of its central practical components is the habit of distinguishing rationally between what is under our direct control and what is not in any given situations, especially ones that might be expected to upset us. Stoics learn to take more responsibility for their own thoughts and actions not to accept the reality that other things in life are not entirely under their control. Ancient Greek philosophy refers to the state of mind someone has when they fulfil their potential and live in accord with reason as “virtue” (arete). That word can sound overly pompous and moralizing to some modern readers but it can also be translated using the slightly broader term “excellence”. Pigliucci says he was drawn to Stoicism because of its emphasis on trying to flourish by living rationally and virtuously. He emphasizes from the outset that although Stoicism involves cultivating a special kind of indifference (apatheia) and acceptance toward external events, beyond our direct control, that does not make it passive or apathetic, in the modern sense of the word. The very thing that attracted him most was the way it attempts to square this circle by combining emotional acceptance with a commitment to positive action in the world. He does readers a service by making these simple points in the opening pages because it’s a common misconception that Stoics are unemotional and passive or disinterested in external events. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Pigliucci was raised in Rome and says that since high school, where he studied Greek and Roman history and philosophy, he had an awareness of Stoicism as part of his cultural heritage. Many other people who “discover” Stoicism today have a kind of deja vu experience as they notice its ideas seem strangely familiar. Traces of its influence crop up throughout Western art and literature. In some ways, Stoicism is also the great grandaddy of the modern field of self-improvement.

Pigliucci is a member, along with me, of the multidisciplinary team that run a non-profit philanthropic organization called Modern Stoicism. Each year, Modern Stoicism puts on a free online course called Stoic Week, which helps people to try out different Stoic practices each day. It’s grown rapidly over the last five years and last Fall about seven thousand people from all around the world took part. Pigliucci cites this as one of several pieces of evidence pointing toward the conclusion that Stoicism is suddenly gathering popularity again. He rightly stresses that the data collected from Stoic Week and other research projects are tentative. These are merely pilot studies, nevertheless they consistently provide evidence that following Stoic practices can have a beneficial effect on mood and life satisfaction, as shown by results from established psychological measures.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a school of ancient Greek philosophy, founded at Athens by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium around 301 BC. For many years, Zeno had studied different schools of Athenian philosophy before founding his own. He’d embraced the austere lifestyle of a Cynic philosopher as well as studying in the Platonic Academy and with the dialecticians of the less well-known Megarian School. The Cynics and Platonists were often contrasted insofar as the former embraced a simple but extremely demanding approach to philosophy as a way of life whereas the latter were somewhat more, well, “academic” and scholarly. Zeno’s Stoicism tried to bring together the best of both traditions. Whereas the Cynics eschewed bookish studies, Zeno introduced a threefold curriculum for his Stoic students encompassing Ethics, Physics and Logic. However, like the Cynics, the Stoics remained wary of study or debate that did not serve the fundamental goal of life, defined as “living in agreement with nature”. As Pigliucci explains, this didn’t mean hugging trees but rather fulfilling our natural potential as animals gifted with language and reason. For Stoics this ultimately equates to living in accord with virtue, and the love of wisdom. The Cynics had taught the austere view that everything except virtue should be seen as indifferent whereas the Platonists had recognized a variety of things as contributing to the good life. Zeno adopted a compromise position by arguing that though virtue is the only true good, other things in life naturally have some value albeit of an inferior sort.

In 155 BC, the head of the Stoic school at that time, Diogenes of Babylon, went from Athens to Rome on an ambassadorial trip, along with two other philosophers. While he was there he also lectured on philosophy, introducing Stoicism to the Roman Republic, where it quickly took root as it resonated with traditional Roman values. Over the following centuries many influential Roman statesmen became associated with Stoicism. The last famous Stoic we hear about is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations survives today. From Zeno to Marcus, therefore, the history of the Stoic school as a living tradition spanned nearly five centuries, before it was gradually eclipsed by Neoplatonism and then by Christianity. Pigliucci begins by surveying the history of the school for those unfamiliar with the subject, although the main focus of his book is how Stoicism can be reprised in the modern world by providing us with a modern-day philosophy of life compatible with the current scientific worldview. He weaves his account of Stoic theory and practice into anecdotes drawn from his own life experiences, showing how the philosophy can be applied to everyday challenges.

Pigliucci was a relative newcomer to Stoicism when he began writing this book so he takes the famous Roman Stoic Epictetus as his guide along the way. Like Epictetus, he divides Stoicism into the three “disciplines” of desire, action, and assent. The main part of the book is divided into three sections. These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions.

The Discipline of Desire

Epictetus believed that we should learn to master our own fears and desires before focusing on the more theoretical aspects of Stoic philosophy. Pigliucci describes this discipline of desire as knowing “what it is proper to want or not want”. He therefore begins with the Stoic doctrine expressed in the opening sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook: some things are up to us whereas other things are not. The whole practice of Stoic philosophy, at least in Epictetus, revolves around this fundamental distinction between our own voluntary actions and everything else, i.e., what we do and what happens to us. Many people today are familiar with this aspect of Stoicism from the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” Pigliucci stumbled across this prayer himself in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five. It’s one of the central tenets of Stoicism that we should take greater responsibility for our own voluntary thoughts and actions while emotionally accepting the fact that other things are beyond our direct control. Bearing that simple distinction in mind has tremendous benefits in terms of building emotional resilience. However, people sometimes confuse it with an attitude of passive resignation, which it is certainly not. The Stoics explained this paradox through the metaphor of an archer who places great importance on the way he draws his bow, takes aim, and releases the arrow. However, once he’s done his part, he accepts that whether or not he actually hits his target is something ultimately in the hands of fate. It could move, for example, or a gust of wind could blow his arrow off course. The Stoic archer accepts this from the outset and although he has an external goal, or target, he focuses his will only on doing what’s under his control to the best of his ability, while accepting both external success and failure with equanimity. Pigliucci discusses how this kind of thinking helped him to cope with the stress of being surrounded by angry crowds on the streets of Istanbul following the failed 2016 military coup d’état against the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Pigliucci next appeals to modern biological science to explain the Stoic definition of the goal of life, “living in accord with nature”. This was meant as a call to fulfil our human potential as inherently social creatures, capable of reason. He argues that it’s a serious mistake for modern scientists and philosophers to reject the concept of human nature. Although Darwinism dealt a deathblow to the assumption that humans are somehow essentially unique compared to other animals nevertheless, Pigliucci argues, our capacity for complex grammar and reasoning is special enough to justify speaking about it as a defining characteristic of human nature. The Stoics also argue that although nature has given us instincts, like those of other animals, we’re capable of reflecting on whether we actually want to act in accord with them or not. Children with chickenpox feel a desperate urge to scratch their itching blisters. However, if they’re old enough to understand then reason is capable of stepping in and telling them that’s a bad idea and that their natural instinct should be resisted. That’s why the Stoics called reason the “master faculty” and believed that we had a duty to protect and cultivate our ability to apply it in daily life. Their goal was to learn the art of living wisely. However, they believed that human nature is both rational, meaning capable of reason, and social. Human infants are born relatively defenceless compared with those of other mammals. We have evolved a powerful parental instinct toward our offspring, which the Stoics called “natural affection”. They believed that when this pro-social aspect of human nature is developed in accord with reason it becomes the basis of social virtues such as justice, fairness, and kindness. Pigliucci explains that the Stoics believed reason guides us to extend this natural familial affection to others on the basis of their humanity, and capacity for reason. Stoics learn to care about humanity in progressively widening circles through a process called oikeiosis, which is notoriously tricky to translate but means something along the lines of metaphorically bringing others into our household. This leads to the famous ethical cosmopolitanism of the Stoics, who viewed themselves, like Socrates and the Cynics before them, as citizens of the whole world, and the rest of humanity are their fellow-citizens. This moral vision preceded the Christian notion of the “brotherhood of man” by four centuries.

Epictetus also said that external things are indifferent but how we handle them is not. The Stoics compared the way we deal with even the most serious life events to playing a ball game: death, bereavement, exile, poverty, etc. It’s not the thing itself that really matters, in other words, but the way we choose to deal with it. That’s what they mean by virtue. The ball is relatively worthless, in itself, but the game consists in handling it well. However, as we’ve seen, some external things are naturally “preferred” over others, according to Stoic ethics. Pigliucci explains the tricky Stoic concept of the value (axia) assigned to “indifferent” things by comparing it to the concept of “lexicographic preference” in modern economics. People are willing to trade money for a holiday because they place them both on the same lexicographic level but you probably wouldn’t trade your daughter for any amount of money or holidays. For the Stoics, health is preferred to sickness, wealth is preferred to poverty, and life is preferred to death, but wisdom and virtue should never be sacrificed in exchange for any of these external things because their value is of an entirely different order.

The discipline of desire is believed to be related to Stoic Physics and theology. The Stoics were basically pantheists and some aspects of their theology are unappealing to modern readers. The majority of modern Stoics, perhaps surprisingly, are atheists or agnostics. However, Pigliucci argues that Stoicism makes room for both religious believers and unbelievers. The founders of Stoicism leaned heavily on the Argument from Design, which holds that because the universe, in all its complexity, looks like it was planned by some divine craftsman it therefore must have been. Fewer people are persuaded by that argument today because Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides a plausible explanation for the diversity of animal life, which is simpler insofar as its based largely upon observable physical phenomena. Modern astrophysics likewise explains cosmological phenomena without reference to a divine creator. However, most modern Stoics find its central principles to be justifiable without reference to theology. Indeed, the ancient Stoics actually appeal quite seldom to the existence of God in the philosophical arguments they provided for their ethical doctrines. Moreover, they employed an argument based on agnosticism known as “God or atoms” to show that whether one believes in divine Providence or that the universe is created by the random collision of atoms, either way the core doctrines of Stoicism would still be justifiable. Marcus Aurelius actually refers to this ten times in the Meditations but Seneca and Epictetus also mention it in passing so it’s acknowledged by all three of the main Stoics whose works survive today. As far as we know, all of the ancient Stoics believed in God, and placed great value on piety, although they nevertheless disagreed about many important aspects of theology. What matters from a modern perspective is that Stoicism is, and always has been, flexible enough to accomodate atheists and agnostics as well as pantheists. It’s a philosophy, at the end of the day, and not a religion.

The Discipline of Action

Stoics were trained through the discipline of fear and desire to master their feelings, facing external misfortune without becoming upset. However, the discipline of action taught them to balance this emotional acceptance with vigorous moral action in the service of humanity, their fellow world-citizens. Pigliucci describes it as “how to behave in the world.” The word “stoicism” (lower-case S) has come to mean something like being unemotional and having a stiff upper lip, which doesn’t even do justice to the discipline of desire. However, it really falls short when it comes to the rest of Stoicism (capital S) as we’ll see.

Stoicism is all about virtue. Pigliucci explains this by referring to the importance of improving our character. For example, before he gained his freedom, Epictetus was a slave owned by the Emperor Nero’s secretary. He lived through the madness, corruption and tyranny of Nero. He also witnessed the Stoic Opposition to Nero, the criticism and resistance toward him and other autocratic rulers from principled republican Stoics, who were frequently exiled or even executed for speaking truth to power. Epictetus told his students anecdotes about several of these Roman Stoic heroes, who he appealed to as moral exemplars and role models. Pigliucci, while acknowledging that no role models can be perfect, refers to modern-day examples of principled individuals such as Malala Yousafzai. He also mentions the psychological research on virtues carried out by Martin Seligman, Christopher Peterson, and their colleagues, which shows a surprising amount of consistency in the values of different individuals around the world in this regard. Their model incorporates the four “cardinal virtues” of Socratic philosophy: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. This fourfold model provides Stoics with a broad template for understanding the character traits that define human excellence.

Another of the Socratic paradoxes embraced by the Stoics is that no-one does evil knowingly, or willingly. Pigliucci explains this tricky concept by introducing a very crucial word: amathia. It denotes a form of moral ignorance, the opposite of genuine wisdom. Someone can be very intelligent yet still exhibit moral ignorance or amathia. The Stoics liked to point to Euripides’ Medea as an example. However, Pigliucci draws upon Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” to show modern readers how it’s possible for ordinary people to do evil things through moral stupidity. Arendt coined the phrase while covering for The New Yorker the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi lieutenant-colonel and one of the organizers of the Holocaust. Like Socrates and the Stoics before her, Arendt argued that the evil of such men consists in a kind of moral ignorance or thoughtlessness. Eichmann wasn’t evil in his own eyes; he genuinely believed he was just “doing his job”. Whereas Christian forgiveness depends on faith, Stoicism achieves something similar by interpreting all evil as due to moral ignorance. As a consequence, Stoics place more emphasis on reforming those who do wrong rather than punishing them for the sake of retribution.

The role of positive role models in Stoicism is further explored by introducing readers to one of the most important examples of a modern-day Stoic: James Stockdale. Stockdale was a US Navy fighter pilot shot down over North Vietnam at the start of the war. He’d been introduced to Stoicism at college and as he ejected over enemy territory the thought flashed through his mind that he was leaving his world and entering the world of Epictetus. He spent over seven years as a prisoner of war in the so-called Hanoi Hilton where he was repeatedly tortured and found himself making more and more use of ancient Stoicism as a coping strategy. After the war Stockdale wrote and lectured about Stoicism and his experiences in Vietnam. Pigliucci sets his example beside that of Cato of Utica, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic, who opposed Julius Caesar’s rise to power.

He then turns to a discussion of how Stoicism has helped people more recently to cope with disability and mental illness. Larry Becker, a retired professor of philosophy, is the author of a highly-regarded academic book on Stoic ethics. He’s been suffering for decades from the effects of polio but Stoic philosophy has helped him to cope with some severe physical limitations. His strategy focuses on the need to reclaim our agency, focus on our abilities, develop a life plan, and strive for internal harmony. He also cautions us to beware of brick walls and to know when to quit. Pigliucci likewise provides examples of two more contemporary individuals who have used Stoicism to help them cope with clinical depression and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) respectively.

The Discipline of Assent

The disciplines of desire and action deal with our feelings and behaviour. The discipline of assent, however, is about our thoughts. It teaches us to suspend value judgements in response to our initial impressions and how to apply reason to evaluate them instead. Pigliucci describes it as “how to react to situations”. Stoics believe that by coming to terms with our own mortality and learning to adopt a philosophical attitude toward it, we overcome many other fears in life. Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, opted to die by the traditional method of euthanasia, refusing food, when he was very elderly and concluded his health was too poor to continue. Pigliucci notes the value that Stoic perspectives on death have in relation to modern questions surrounding the ethics of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

There are many other aspects of life, though, where our initial reactions can be unhelpful. When Epictetus’ iron lamp was stolen from outside his home he told his students about it and used it as an example of something to be shrugged off with indifference. Pigliucci compares this to his experience of being pickpocketed on the subway in Rome. His initial impression was one of shock and anger, naturally, but Stoicism had taught him how to take a step back from these automatic impressions. He told himself instead that what happened to him was not under his direct control but how he chose to respond was, and it was no longer worth getting angry about. In relation to anxiety, Epictetus says that we should always consider how it’s typically fuelled by placing too much importance on things beyond of our direct control. He also taught that the wise man is prepared to endure solitude without complaint as sometimes being a natural part of life.

This leads into Pigliucci’s discussion of love and friendship. The Stoic wise man prefers to have good friends but doesn’t absolutely need them. It’s more important to be capable of acting like a friend, something under our control, than to have lots of friends, something that’s partly in the hands of fate. For ancient Greeks, the line between friendship and love was more blurred than we tend to assume today, and the Stoics, indeed, viewed friendship as a kind of love. A good friend is a good person, someone whose character we admire and values we share. Perhaps one of the most highly valued externals, from a Stoic perspective.

Pigliucci concludes by describing a dozen valuable Stoic exercises:

  1. Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
  2. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
  3. The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
  4. How can I use virtue here and now?
  5. Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
  6. Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
  7. Speak little and well – the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
  8. Choose your company well.
  9. Respond to insults with humour.
  10. Don’t speak too much about yourself.
  11. Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
  12. Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.

I would suggest some people might benefit from reading these first before starting the book.

Conclusion

Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living. For that reason, I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book. The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.

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.”

Book Review: How to be a Stoic (2017) by Massimo Pigliucci

How to be a StoicNB: See my video below for a discussion of the twelve practical techniques listed at the end of this book.

Massimo Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living. For that reason, I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book.

The main part is divided into three sections.  These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions.  Pigliucci concludes by describing a list of a dozen Stoic exercises:

  1. Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
  2. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
  3. The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
  4. How can I use virtue here and now?
  5. Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
  6. Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
  7. Speak little and well – the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
  8. Choose your company well.
  9. Respond to insults with humour.
  10. Don’t speak too much about yourself.
  11. Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
  12. Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.

I would suggest some people might actually benefit from reading these first.

The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.

What books to read next on Stoicism

Mock up of books by StoicsPeople sometimes ask what books on Stoicism to read next after they’ve read the “Big Three”: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Of course, opinions are going to vary about this.  There are lots of things we could suggest reading.  Setting aside modern books on the subject, though, these are the first six I normally recommend…

Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions

You don’t need to read the whole book.  The long chapter on Zeno contains a summary of early Stoic teachings.   However, you may want to read the whole of books six (Cynicism) and seven (Stoicism).  This contains second or third hand information summarized from earlier texts in the 3rd century AD by a biographer who wasn’t himself a Stoic or even a philosopher.  Nevertheless it remains one of our most important sources for information on the teachings of the early Greek Stoic school.

The Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Musonius was the teacher of Epictetus and reputedly the most important philosopher of his lifetime.  He was the mentor of key members of the Stoic Opposition.  A collection of his lectures and several fragments still survive today, which are similar in some ways to the teachings of Epictetus.  If you like Epictetus, you should certainly read this, although it’s really an essential source for anyone interested in Stoicism.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates

Our other major source for information on Socrates, beside Plato.  Xenophon paints a simpler and more Stoic picture of Socrates’ philosophy.  It was reputedly hearing a reading of Book Two that inspired Zeno to become a philosopher and ultimately to found the Stoic School.  That part of the Memorabilia contains Socrates’ version of a famous oration by the Sophist Prodicus, called The Choice of Hercules, which was designed as an exhortation for young men to embrace philosophy as a way of life and places considerable emphasis on self-mastery.  Xenophon’s version of Socrates is more concerned with the virtue of self-discipline and it’s easy to see this as an important influence on Stoicism.

Plato’s Apology

We could cite all of the works of Plato as relevant but the dialogue that seems to have most influenced the Stoics is the Apology.  The concluding sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook, for example, paraphrases from it.  It provides a vivid example of Socrates’ commitment to philosophy and his courage facing execution but there’s also considerable discussion of his attitudes toward death and positive teachings about morality, which coincide very closely with later Stoic teachings.  Death is neither good nor evil and it’s important to overcome our fear of dying; wisdom and virtue are the highest goods and we should never value things like wealth more highly than them.  Stoic-sounding teachings can be found in many other Platonic dialogues – including the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Meno and Republic – but the Apology is the best place to start looking.

Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

Cato is one of the less well-known Stoics because we don’t have any writings by him today but he was a great hero of the Roman Republic because he defied the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Our best account of him comes from Plutarch’s Lives, which is a biography but contains several interesting anecdotes about his character and values, although not much philosophy.  If you’re interested in Stoicism, though, you should know about Cato, and also about the Stoic Opposition, which followed later, under the principate.

Cicero’s De Finibus

Cicero was an Academic philosopher but he had studied philosophy at Athens and was exceptionally well-read on the subject and very familiar with the teachings of Stoicism.  He’s also quite sympathetic toward the Stoics, though not one himself, so his writings provide one of our most important sources for early and middle Stoicism.  Stoicism is mentioned, or is an influence, throughout many of his works, but the most important is undoubtedly De Finibus, which portrays Cato the Younger summarizing early Stoic ethical teachings, which Cicero compares critically with those of the Epicureans and Academics.  This is our most systematic account of Stoic ethics, so it’s extremely valuable in providing a context for the more conversational and fragmented version we obtain from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Honourable Mentions

It should go without saying that this is the tip of the iceberg.  There are many other ancient texts of relevance to Stoicism.  Xenophon’s Symposium and Apology are also very important as are all of the Platonic dialogues and many other writings by non-Stoics such as Cicero and Plutarch.  There are many fragments from early Stoic texts available in several compilations.  There are also less well-known Stoic texts, which still survive today, like the Greek Theology of Cornutus and the Pharsalia of Lucan.  The poems of Horace also contain many Stoic influences.  The Roman histories are also extremely valuable, especially in relation to understanding the life of Marcus Aurelius.  My goal here isn’t to provide a survey of everything, though, just a quick introduction to the texts I normally advise people to read first, after finishing Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.