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.  (Maybe that explains why he seems to think most other people are stupid.)   I don’t think I’m the only one, though, 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 touches on “Social Darwinism”, if only 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.  Avoiding exposure to criticism or attacking your critics to shut them down would, by contrast, be fragile – indeed, we often say someone like that has a fragile ego.

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: learning. 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, “antifragile”?)  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 probably 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 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. 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 ordinary 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, and therefore not short of a bob or two.

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 about 330,000 legionaries. At a very rough estimate, that would be maybe nine billion US dollars today.  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 seems to be another mistake, albeit a trivial one.

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 acerbic style probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  His interpretation of Stoicism, though, is unusual and interesting.  It also seems to me to be incorrect.  He’s  got a lot to say, nevertheless, 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.

Socrates versus Roger Stone

Stone's Rules Book CoverNB: This articles a rough draft.  I’m still working on it but I wanted to put it out there on my blog anyway. 😉

This is an article about Greek philosophy and contemporary US politics. Recently, I’ve started looking more closely at the views expressed by certain political figures and comparing them with the ethical teachings of ancient philosophy. They don’t necessarily have to be people whose politics I agree with. My own views are basically centre-left (democratic socialist) but I prefer to look at what people who are politically conservative have written. I don’t hold opinions about politics strongly wherever there’s room for uncertainty and debate, although I do hold some moral values that have political implications. Stoicism has taught me to remain emotionally detached from questions about which external states-of-affairs are preferable to which. For instance, I believe that a broadly state-run NHS is preferable to the privatization of British healthcare services.  Nevertheless, if a health economist showed me solid evidence and a rational argument to persuade me otherwise I’d happily change my mind.

Once, it’s said, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school heard a pretentious young man exclaim that he disagreed with everything the (long-deceased) philosopher Antisthenes had written. It’s easy to make yourself seem clever by dismissing something out of hand or doing a hatchet-job on the author. However, Zeno asked him what there was of value to be learned from reading Antisthenes. The young man, caught off guard, said “I don’t know.” Zeno asked him why he wasn’t ashamed to be picking holes in a philosopher’s writings without having first taken care to identify what might be good in his works and worth knowing. That’s not unlike what philosophers call the Principle of Charity today. We arguably gain more benefit from reading a book if we look for the good bits first. Otherwise, if we indulge in criticism straight away, we risk missing what’s most important entirely. So it was with that in mind that I decided to read Stone’s Rules, the latest book from political strategist, and Trump-loyalist, Roger Stone.

Get me Roger Stone!

Stone’s story is now permanently entwined with that of President Trump. Stone claims he started calling on Trump to put himself forward as a presidential candidate back in 1988, although Donald wasn’t interested at first. “I launched the idea of Donald J. Trump for President”, he says. However, he later qualifies this by saying,

Those who claim I elected Trump are wrong. Trump elected Trump—he’s persistent, driven to succeed, clever, stubborn, and deeply patriotic. I am, however, among a handful who saw his potential for national leadership and the presidency.

Roger Stone Nixon TattooStone is a specialist in negative campaigning. His political career began way back in 1972 when, aged twenty, he joined Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign team. Nixon became his lifelong hero. Indeed, Stone collects Nixon memorabilia and actually has a large tattoo of the former president’s face on his back. However, after the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Stone was left with a reputation as a professional “dirty trickster”. He successfully turned this into a selling-point, though, and survived to have a long, albeit controversial, career in politics. In the 1980s he worked on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and formed the political consulting firm Black, Manafort and Stone, along with Charlie Black and Paul Manafort.

Black, Manafort and Stone’s first client was, in fact, Donald Trump. Later, in the 1990s, Stone began working with Trump in a variety of other capacities. In 2000, he was appointed campaign manager for Trump’s first, albeit abortive, presidential campaign. Trump sought the nomination for the Reform Party but quit during the presidential primaries. It wasn’t surprising then that Stone later served as an advisor to Trump during the initial stages of his 2016 presidential campaign. He resigned in August 2015, although Trump said that he had been fired. However, Stone continued to support Trump and according to some reports to serve in an informal capacity as one of his political advisors. Stone and several of his associates have now come under the scrutiny of the Mueller investigation, mainly due to Stone’s communications with Julian Assange of Wikileaks and a team of hackers using the online identity Guccifer 2.0, who were revealed to be acting as agents of Russian military intelligence (GRU).

Roger Stone JokerStone’s a difficult man to describe. He revels in controversy. For example, he posed for a photo shoot dressed as the Joker from Batman. I find that, paradoxically, people who aren’t very familiar with him often assume that others are “attacking” him when in fact they’re just repeating his own claims. He became more widely-known outside of political circles in the summer of 2017 when the Netflix documentary Get me Roger Stone was released.  The film is structured around ten of Stone’s “rules” for success in life and politics.

Roger Stone's Rules PosterThis idea was then expanded into his new book Stone’s Rules: How to Win at Politics, Business, and Style (2018).  The blurb compares Stone to a combination of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. However, the book actually consists of 140 rules, described in a few paragraphs each, written in a fairly casual and often humorous style. There are many short anecdotes about Nixon and other US politicians. As the title suggests, some of the rules are more about succeeding in life, some are more specific to politics. A considerable number of them are about sartorial advice, such as Rule #18: “White shirt + tan face = confidence” or Rule #36, which claims “Brown is the color of shit”. He also includes his mother’s recipe for pasta sauce (or rather “Sunday Gravy”). There are instructions on how to prepare martinis just like Nixon did – who, according to Stone, used to say of them, “More than one of these and you want to beat your wife.”

In the book’s foreword, political commentator Tucker Carlson of Fox News acclaims Stone “the premier troublemaker of our time” and “the Michael Jordan of electoral mischief”. However, Carlson also describes his friend as “wise” and “on the level”. Stone is happy to celebrate his notoriety as the “high priest of political mischief”, “slash-and-burn Republican black bag election tamperer” with “a long history of bare-knuckle politics” and the title “Jedi Master of the negative campaign”.

Why Socrates?

Stone himself believes that “To understand the future, you must study the past” (Rule #4: “Past is fucking prologue”) and that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. So I want to approach his rules for life from the perspective of ancient Greek philosophy, which began addressing similar ideas almost two and a half thousand years ago, in the time of Socrates.  Some of the underlying assumptions about the best way to live, or to govern, haven’t changed much. Stone’s Rule #69 likewise acknowledges that “everything is recycled” in the political arena:

All the ideas today’s politicians present to the voters are simply recycled versions of the same basic formulae that have been employed by political hucksters and power-accumulating government careerists for nearly a century.

Indeed, the arguments Socrates and the Stoics deployed against ancient Sophists address difference of value so fundamental that they’re still just as relevant today. Stone’s rules contain several echoes themselves of perennial philosophical debates about the best way to approach life. Sometimes he says things that resemble Socrates or the Stoics and sometimes he sounds more like their opponents the Sophists. So let’s have a look at a few key examples…

Make Your Own Luck

Stone’s Rule #5 quite simply advises “make your own luck”. This is a sound piece of age-old wisdom. Socrates likewise argues, in the Euthydemus, that wisdom is man’s greatest gift because it allows him to turn bad fortune into good. In Plato’s Republic, Book Ten, Socrates also says that unlike the majority of people the true philosopher isn’t perturbed by apparent setbacks. He realizes that we can never be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad in the long-run – there are many reversals of fortune in life. If we stop to complain about every apparent setback, we do ourselves more harm than good. In these passages, Socrates sounds very much like a forerunner of the Stoics. For example, Epictetus, the most famous Roman Stoic teacher would later say that wisdom, like the magic wand of Hermes, has the power to turn everything it touches into gold – he means that the wise man knows how to turn apparent misfortune to his advantage.

Stone’s Rule #60 is his version of the wand of Hermes: “Sometimes you’ve got to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.”

In politics and in life, you play the cards you are dealt. Sometimes you have to take your greatest disadvantage and turn it into a plus. Lyndon Johnson called it “changing chicken shit into chicken salad.”

According to Stone, Donald Trump particularly exemplifies this philosophy of life. Likewise, Rule #13 “Never quit” cites Donald Trump, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon as exemplars of psychological resilience and persistence in the face of setbacks. Stone quotes Nixon as saying “A man is not finished when he is defeated, he is only finished when he quits.”

Stone also admires G. Gordon Liddy who lived by Nietzsche’s maxim “That which does not kill me can only make me stronger.” Liddy might appear a surprising choice of role model. He was the man who, under orders from Nixon, led the Watergate burglary of the DNC headquarters, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison for doing so. Stone’s right to say, though, that in many cases “Today’s defeat can plant the seeds of tomorrow’s victory.” For example, as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I often heard clients tell me that, paradoxically, losing their job turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Psychological endurance isn’t a virtue in itself, though, as Socrates points out in the Laches and elsewhere. It really only deserves praise when it’s in the service of something good rather than evil. Crooks can be very resilient. Toughness in the service of vice is arguably just another form of weakness.

Hate Trumps Love

Rule #54 “Hate is a stronger motivator than love” appears to be one of the fundamental premises of Stone’s entire political philosophy. It’s the basis of his favourite strategy: negative campaigning. Hatred is, he thinks, the most powerful motive incentivizing voters in US elections:

Only a candy-ass would think otherwise. People feel satisfied when there is something they can vote FOR. They feel exhilarated when there is something—or someone—they can vote AGAINST. Just ask President Hillary Clinton about all of the people who rushed out to vote FOR her.

Stone argues that Trump’s central campaign theme was extremely positive “Make America Great Again” but that he was nevertheless “the beneficiary, and an extraordinarily deft amplifier, of a deep, and frankly much-deserved, loathing” for Hillary Clinton.

Do-gooders and disingenuous leftists who decry the politics of fear and negativism are simply denying the reality of human nature, and only fooling themselves. Emotions cannot simply be erased or ignored, and to believe they can is a suicidally-naive approach to political competition.

There’s undoubtedly some truth in this but is it the whole truth? Stone’s Rule #52 “Don’t get mad; get even” arguably hints at a contradictory observation about human nature:

Be aggressive but don’t get angry. Nixon would get angry and issue illegal orders then reverse them when he calmed down.

So why isn’t the same true of voters?  Hatred and anger are certainly powerful motivators but so are fear and regret. When people act out of hatred they’re not usually thinking rationally about the wider implications or long-term consequences of their actions: it’s more of a knee-jerk response. That often leads to a pendulum swing when the negative consequences of decisions motivated by anger become apparent.  Perhaps, just like Nixon, voters might act out of anger (as a result of negative campaigning) but then come to regret their decision once they’ve calmed down again.

The danger of negative campaigning is that in voting against someone they have been encouraged to hate voters end up electing someone else, not on the basis of merit or competence, but just because they symbolize opposition to the hate figure. That can backfire dramatically, though, if it turns out the winning candidate’s shortcomings have been overlooked. Indeed, as we’re about to see, Stone is quite candid about employing his trademark negative campaigning strategy to create a smokescreen and divert attention away from potentially damaging criticism of his allies.

The Big Lie

Stone’s Rule #47 “The Big Lie Technique”.

Erroneously attributed to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, the “big lie” manipulation technique was actually first described in detail by Adolf Hitler himself. […] Nonetheless, the tactic of creating a lie so bold, massive, and even so monstrous that it takes on a life of its own, is alive and well all through American politics and news media. Make it big, keep it simple, repeat it enough times, and people will believe it.

Arguably, a classic example of this would be the “birtherist” conspiracy theory, which falsely claimed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya in order to cast doubt on his eligibility to serve as US president. Stone previously stated in an interview that although he didn’t plant the idea of birtherism in Donald Trump’s mind he did encourage him to keep spreading it. However, although Stone proudly advocates this technique it obviously doesn’t serve his interests to place examples of his own handiwork under the spotlight so he doesn’t actually mention birtherism anywhere in his book.

Instead, he focuses on the claim that the Democrats propounded a “Big Lie” by claiming that the Russian state helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election and that Stone himself had played a role by colluding with Wikileaks. So despite  writing about his mastery of this art in this book he’s also claiming that his enemies are the ones really perpetrating it. Of course, you can’t credibly admit that you’re telling Big Lies and then, in the next breath, go on to accuse your opponents of doing so unless you back that up with some pretty compelling evidence. Stone’s assumption, though, is that enough people won’t notice or don’t care about that. In some respects, he may be right.

One of the main reasons Stone gives for using the Big Lie is to create a smokescreen to defend yourself against criticism. Stone’s Rule #41 “Attack, attack, attack – never defend” and #42 “Let no attack go unanswered” hammer home the point that the best form of defence is attack. Stone’s argument is that, in life generally but especially in politics, if you try to defend yourself against criticisms rationally you simply risk educating more people about the accusations against you. Mud sticks. So instead launch a “devastating” counter-attack to divert attention away from the charges against you, and ignore them or at least say as little as possible in rebuttal of them. It doesn’t matter, of course, whether the criticisms you face are actually valid or not. Hence, Stone’s Rule #81 “Never Admit Mistakes”. He mentions briefly in passing that people will probably say that’s what he’s doing in response to the allegations that he colluded with Russia during the 2016 election campaign but he denies this and focuses instead on claiming that it’s all part of a Democrat / Deep State conspiracy against him.

In a nutshell, Stone believes that if someone attacks you in politics you should focus on attacking their character even more aggressively than they’ve attacked yours, and avoid having to defend yourself rationally. This is what philosophers call the ad hominem fallacy, being deployed as a deliberate rhetorical strategy. It’s also similar to the fallacy of “Whataboutism” or changing the subject – Never mind Russian collusion what about Hillary’s email server?! The hope is that everyone will forget about the criticisms made against you and focus on the allegations, true or false, that you’re making against your opponents.  If it works, you’ve thrown them off your trail completely and instead sent them down an endless rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Of course, that doesn’t prove you’re innocent, it just diverts attention away from the problem by changing the subject. Try that one in court: “Never mind that I robbed a bank what about the judge – everyone knows he’s a Communist and I heard he’s also the head of a weird sex cult!”

However, as Jon Meacham says “Lies are good starters but they’re not good finishers.” The truth usually comes out eventually. Stone is probably right that, rhetorically, it’s a very powerful strategy to attack the character of your critics instead of answering their criticism. However, that won’t keep working forever. Sooner or later your credibility will begin to wane as a result and people will stop taking you seriously, just like the proverbial boy who cried wolf. It might take months, or it might take years, even decades, but the more “Big Lies” you tell the more people will eventually begin to question your credibility.

Worse, although the Big Lie strategy may work quite well in the political arena, at least in the short-term, it has the potential to come back to haunt you in the law courts. For instance, some reports suggest that Stone is likely facing indictment as part of the Russia investigation. What would happen if the prosecution chose to read certain passages from this book aloud before a judge and jury? Once you admit to using deceit on a massive scale to deflect criticism, and never admitting to wrongdoing as a matter of principle, how can anyone ever again trust anything you try to say in your own defense?  What goes around comes around.

Book One of Plato’s Republic features a Sophist called Thrasymachus (literally “fierce fighter”).  Stone sometimes sounds a bit like him.  Thrasymachus adopts the cynical position that justice is for losers and that true wisdom is possessed by those courageous enough to become unjust, by lying, cheating, and getting away with it.  He particularly admires tyrants, who hold absolute political power and can do what they want.  He looks down on the sheep who bleat about morality as naive simpletons.  Might is right, in other words.  The honest and just man, he thinks, is bound to be exploited by the dishonest and unjust.  Socrates claims that the unjust seek power because they want to gain from it.  However, truly good men do not seek political power for its own sake but are more often motivated by the desire not to allow tyrants to rule.

Socrates doesn’t say this explicitly but he strongly implies the view that the motivation of good and honest people to become involved in politics will wax and wane, reaching its peak in response to the threat of tyrants seizing power.  History, in other words, may consist of a pendulum swinging between periods of political complacency, when corrupt leaders are allowed to take power, and periods of moral outrage when the people realize they’ve been duped and become motivated to set things right.

Thrasymachus is convinced that the unjust are always stronger than the just.  However, Socrates argues that injustice breeds division and hostility, creating enemies within and without the state over time.  Justice, by contrast, breeds harmony and friendship, and creates stronger alliances, although we might add that justice often moves more slowly than injustice.  So although the unjust may prevail in the short term, over time their power is bound to crumble as they increasingly find their associates turning against them.  Their problem is that they can’t really trust anyone.

Hypocrisy is Bad

Stone’s Rule #84 says “Hypocrisy is what gets you”, so he actually does recognize the danger of losing credibility. However, throughout the book he refers countless times to the deliberate use of hypocrisy, insincerity and deceit. For example, Stone’s Rule #55 “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em”:

This technique was one of Dick Nixon’s best. The veteran political pugilist would praise his opponent’s sincerity and commend the opponent’s genuine belief in what are, nonetheless, terrible ideas and repugnant ideologies. […] “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em—makes the hit seem more reasonable and even-handed, and thus more effective,” said the Trickster.

Likewise, Stone’s Rule #39 “Wear your cockade inside your hat” by which he means that it can be advantageous to conceal your true affiliations from everyone except your allies. He writes “sometimes it is best to cloak your real political intentions, so you are able to accomplish more without being under suspicion.”  But once you’ve told everyone that, in a book, you’ve kind of let the cat out of the bag haven’t you?

There’s undoubtedly some truth to the idea that deceit can be expedient in politics and Big Lies can have powerful effects. However, these aren’t qualities we normally praise or admire in other people, which makes it hypocritical to adopt them ourselves. That might work in the short-term but, once again, in the longer-term more and more people are likely to figure out what’s going on and you risk losing credibility as a result.  If your philosophy is based on deceit you also run the risk of surrounding yourself with fair-weather friends who share similarly ruthless values.  So you better hope that when a crisis looms they don’t just decide it’s expedient to throw you under the bus to save their own skin.  For instance, that’s typically what happens when defendants agree to plea bargains and turn state’s evidence against their erstwhile “friends” during criminal investigations.

Conclusion

Stone prefaces his rules by explaining:

To me, it all comes down to WINNING. It comes down to using any and every legal means available to achieve victory for my friends and allies, and to inflict crushing, ignominious defeat on my opponents and, yes, enemies.

I can’t read this without thinking of Conan the Barbarian who, when asked what is best in life, replies: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!” I doubt Stone would object to the comparison. He describes his book as a “compendium of rules for war” and “the style manual for a ‘master of the universe’”.

So from the outset winning is everything. Although, a couple of pages later in Rule #1 he also says “There is no shame in losing. There is only shame in failing to strive, in never trying at all.” That attitude interests me because it’s more consistent with the values espoused by Socrates and the Stoics. If we invest too much value in outward success then we inevitably place our happiness, to some extent, in the hands of fate. The philosophers thought wisdom and resilience came from avoiding that and learning to place more importance on our own character and less on the outcome of our actions. It’s one thing to aim at a particular outcome, such as winning an election. It’s another thing to make it so all-important that we’re willing to sacrifice our own integrity in pursuit of it. That’s a recipe for neurosis because it makes our emotions depend upon events that are never entirely up to us. Stone’s good off to a good start with Rule #1 and it should make us wonder what would have happened if he’d developed that thought further and incorporated it into a more rounded philosophy of life.

That’s how the book begins. It concludes with Stone’s Rule #140 “He who laughs last laughs heartiest”:

I will often wait years to take my revenge, hiding in the tall grass, my stiletto at the ready, waiting patiently until you think I have forgotten or forgiven a past slight and then, when you least expect it, I will spring from the underbrush and plunge a dagger up under your ribcage. So if you have fucked me, even if it was years ago, don’t think yourself safe.

That brought to my mind something his hero Richard Nixon once said:

“I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he’s told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

Those are the words of Nixon giving instructions to his aides about the appointment of a new commissioner of internal revenue, caught on tape in the Oval Office on May 13, 1971. As part of this attempt to persecute his opponents, Nixon later handed his notorious “Enemies List”, containing 576 names in its revised version, to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He assumed political power was a weapon to be wielded, a way of harming his enemies and helping his friends.

Nixon’s words happen to echo an ancient Greek definition of justice as “helping your friends and harming your enemies”, which Socrates vigorously attempted to refute nearly two and a half thousand years ago. In Book One of Plato’s Republic, Socrates basically points out that to genuinely harm your enemies, by definition, is to make them worse than they are already. Just making them weaker by removing certain external advantages such as wealth, friends, or status doesn’t necessarily harm them deep down. As Stone himself conceded: the wise man can “make chicken shit into chicken soup” and turn setbacks into opportunities. We can only really harm others, according to Socrates, by corrupting their character and turning them into foolish and vicious people, if that’s even possible. He concluded that, paradoxically, the wise man will actually help both his friends and his enemies. That doesn’t mean giving his enemies external advantages, which would be foolish because they’d probably use them against us other others. Rather it means educating them and helping them to become wiser and better individuals, perhaps one day becoming our friends instead of our enemies as a result. Of course that’s idealistic, but it’s arguably a much healthier goal than simple revenge.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that I think the future of American politics should perhaps involve greater bipartisanship.  People would do better to try to understand their political enemies, in my view, rather than simply attack them.  The law of retaliation (lex talionis) is “an eye for an eye” but as Gandhi reputedly said, that leaves the whole world blind. Socrates argues that revenge harms us more than it does our enemies because it degrades our character and tricks us into investing far too much importance in external things. I’ll therefore leave the last word to him:

“Then we ought to neither return wrong for wrong nor do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. Be careful though, Crito, that by agreeing with this you do not agree to something you do not believe. For I know that there are few who believe this or ever will. Now those who believe it, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but they must necessarily disdain one another because of their opinions. You should therefore consider very carefully whether you agree and share in this opinion. Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return.” (Crito, 49c)

Book Review: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Review of The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday (2014).

The Obstacle is the WayThe Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) by Ryan Holiday is a book about overcoming apparent setbacks and by turning them to our advantage.  It’s not exactly a book about Stoicism but it does contain a great many references to Stoicism, which reinforce the central message that every adversity is potentially an opportunity.

Ryan was the keynote speaker at the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York, where he talked about the profound influence that reading the Stoics had on his life.  The book he subsequently co-authored with Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, focuses exclusively on Stoic wisdom, presenting quotations from the classics for each day of the year.

Indeed, the title of The Obstacle is the Way is inspired by a famous quotation from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which reads:

The impediment to action advances action.  What stands in the way becomes the way.

This is a quote from the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations 5.20, which Marcus begins by reminding himself that in one respect other people are of concern to us and that we have a duty to help them, alluding to the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, or identifying with the welfare of others.  In another respect, though, he says other people are as indifferent to us as sun or wind, or wild animals, being external to our own mind and volition.  We shouldn’t place too much importance on what they think of us, as long as we’re aiming to do what’s right and acting wisely.

Ryan’s book contains a plethora of anecdotes about historical figures who have persevered in the face of social and material obstacles, under conditions that would make many people abandon hope.  In that respect, it stands in a venerable tradition of self-help books, one that goes back indeed to the Victorian classic Self-Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles.  It also harks back, as Ryan notes, to Plutarch’s Lives, the express purpose of which was to be simultaneously both an ethical and historical treatise by focusing on what can be learned from the characters and virtues of numerous great men.

There’s plenty of good advice in The Obstacle is the Way; it’s an interesting and entertaining read.  It will perhaps also inspire many people to study Stoicism in more depth and also to explore the range of psychological skills and strategies used by the Stoics to overcome such obstacles, and maintain their equanimity in the face of adversity.  That’s something I’ve written about but unfortunately I still don’t think there’s a really good popular introduction that covers the range of Stoic doctrines and practices.

I was pleased that the book made me realise the beautiful simplicity and appeal of the story of Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator.  I told my five-year old daughter this tale after reading about him in the book, and she made me tell it to her again and again, two or three times the same day.  There were many stories from American political history that I wasn’t very familiar with, which were also fascinating to read.

The most important thing about the book, though, is its message that a formula for turning obstacles into opportunities can be learned from the examples of these great (and in some cases not so great) men and women.  From Marcus Aurelius to Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Erwin Rommell, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.  Most of these individuals had their strengths and weaknesses, of course.  (As a Scot, my flesh crawls at the sight of Margaret Thatcher’s name, and Steve Jobs was a notorious bully who exploited his own friends and workers in ways that many people would balk at as unethical.)  However, what Ryan’s doing is trying to model specific examples of resilient behaviour and attitudes from these recognisable figures, not their whole lives and characters, which are inevitably a mixed bag.

That’s something I think he’s achieved admirably and I’m very pleased the book has already become so successful.  Every day, it seems to bring more people into the Stoic community, who say they “got into Stoicism” after reading The Obstacle is the Way, and now have a thirst to learn more.  That’s a good thing.  As the founders of the Stoa taught: the wise man has a duty and natural calling to write books that help other people.  Though none of us are indeed wise, we can help others by writing about the lives of people who exemplify virtues to which we might all aspire.  That’s why I think this is a book worth reading.  It gives people hope that they might be able to learn how to live like that, with admirable resilience and tenacity, and it surely motivates them to engage in self-improvement in the same direction.

Book Review: The Daily Stoic

Review of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

The Daily Stoic Cover

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living is a new book, co-authored by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.  The authors generously provided free copies to everyone attending the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York City, where Ryan was keynote speaker.

The book consists of new translations, by Stephen Hanselman, of passages from ancient Stoic authors, with accompanying commentary.  Each month is assigned a different theme, with daily readings on its different aspects.  Although book designed to provide material for daily contemplative practice, I read it straight through, mostly on a long flight back from London to Canada.  I found the new versions of the ancient texts very valuable, and especially the technical glossary of Stoic technical terms at the back of the book.  The commentaries were also very readable and worthwhile, and a wide range of literary and philosophical references, especially to famous figures in American history.  These will undoubtedly help to make the Stoic texts appear more relevant and accessible to modern readers.  The passages included are mainly from the philosophical writings of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus (via his student Arrian), and Marcus Aurelius.  However, there are also several gems from the Stoic sayings of Zeno included in Diogenes Laertius, and from the often-overlooked plays of Seneca.

I’ve no doubt many people will find this very-readable collection of Stoic sayings, a great introduction to the philosophy.  It stands in a long tradition: anthologies of philosophical sayings were common in the ancient world.  Indeed, it’s mainly thanks to compilations of philosophical sayings such as those found in the Anthology of Stobaeus and the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius that passages from the early Greek Stoics survive today.

Some Reviews of Teach Yourself Stoicism

Initial reviews of the new book, Teach Yourself Stoicism (2013) by Donald Robertson.

Teach Yourself Stoicism Cover 2013Teach Yourself Stoicism was released a few months ago in the UK and is now available in the USA and other countries in both paperback and ebook format.  Here are some quotes from the initial reviews posted by readers on Amazon and Goodreads.

“If you’re new to Stoicism, get this book. If you’re a long-time Stoic, get this book. (Just get this book.) […] this is far and away the best introduction to the modern-day practice of Stoic philosophy you’ll find. Even those who have been practicing Stoics for a while are likely to find plenty of useful reminders and helpful suggestions in these pages. In other words, if you’re a Stoic, or you’re interested in Stoicism, you should get this book.” [Five stars] Michael Baranowski on Amazon.com

“A good read that makes a difficult topic comprehensible. Accurate with the modern emphasis on Stoicism as a way of life. Highly recommended.” [Five stars] “John” on Amazon.com

“Donald Robertson has written a great book. […] It is clearly written and packed with fascinating information about this ancient philosophy. As the ‘Teach Yourself’ name suggests, it is not simply and explanatory text but it provides practical advice and exercises which help a person put Stoic teachings to use in the modern world. If you are interested in how you can apply Stoicism to your life then I would recommend this book.” [Five stars] “Matt” on Amazon.co.uk

“Accessible and practical rather than academic. As such a worthwhile read.” [Five stars] “P” on Goodreads

“Extraordinary. Really recommend reading this book. Particularly liked the practical exercises for applying stoic philosophy to every day challenges. [Five stars] By Luis Antonio Marin Noriega
on Amazon.com

Review: CBT for Work (2012) by Gill Garratt

Review of Gill Garratt’s CBT for Work: A Practical Guide (2012)

CBT for WorkCBT for Work:
A Practical Guide (2012)

Gill Garratt

ISBN 978-184831419-1

This is a handy little practical guidebook for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) self-help in the workplace, containing exercises and example case studies.  It’s about overcoming specific worries but also building a more general psychological resilience toward future adversities.  It’s written in plain English in a very readable and accessible style but the emphasis is on evidence-based practice, and how research can help us cope better with problems at work, as well as improving workplace happiness and wellbeing.

Gill is a psychologist and accredited CBT practitioner, with over twenty years’ experience using CBT in a variety of settings.  She’s part of the team responsible for the Stoic Week projects organized through the University of Exeter, which seek to apply Stoic philosophy to modern problems of everyday living, by combining it with elements of CBT.  She draws also on Positive Psychology, mindfulness-based CBT, and Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).  Indeed, Gill opens with the famous quotation from the Stoic Handbook of Epictetus, which became a kind of slogan of REBT:

Men are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them.

…or as Marcus Aurelius, also quoted here, put it: “life is opinion”.  CBT is based on the premise that, with training, we can learn to change our habitual emotional reactions by changing our voluntary thoughts and actions.  We do this by using our thinking and our behaviour to challenge the underlying beliefs typically responsible for our emotions.  Gill describes a broad armamentarium or toolkit for this purpose, specially adapted for managing workplace stress.  The basis is the fundamental CBT model, which Gill calls the “Think Kit”.  This helps us distinguish systematically between (A) the events that we’re reacting to, (B) the beliefs shaping our reaction, and (C) the emotional and other consequences that follow.

In sense, CBT encourages us to think like a scientist and to treat the beliefs underlying our emotional disturbances and problematic desires as if they were hypotheses, which deserve to be evaluated rationally, impartially, and objectively.  This metaphor of the individual as “scientist”, or rather as “natural philosopher”, was also central to ancient Stoicism.  Gill quotes Marcus Aurelius’ saying:

Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.

This little book provides a brisk overview of common psychological problems and solutions that arise in relation to your work.  It does so in a manner that I think will help the reader develop a generally more resilient attitude, grounded in this ancient Stoic advice to survey one’s whole situation calmly and rationally, facing challenges in a healthy “matter of fact” way.  It also includes a broad range of strategies, though, covering specific issues such as anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, low self-esteem, work-life balance, achieving happiness, and learning to relax, etc.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to learn CBT for self-help, especially if they’re new to the subject and looking for a good starting point.  Here’s a summary of the actual chapter headings:

  1. The CBT Think Kit
  2. You and your work
  3. Anxiety at work
  4. Anger and frustration at work
  5. CBT for guilt at work
  6. Depression at work
  7. CBT for low self-esteem at work
  8. Maximizing your happiness at work
  9. Balancing work and life
  10. And… relax

Stoic Week in the News

Some links to recent newspaper and magazine articles about Stoicism from around the world.

Teach yourself Stoicism Stoic Week 2013 is now over but there will probably still be more media coverage over the next few weeks.  My practical introduction to Stoicism is coming out in December 2013:

Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

Here are some links to recent newspaper and magazine articles…

Review: Stoic Spiritual Exercises by Elen Buzaré

A review of the book Stoic Spiritual Exercises by Elen Buzare.

Stoic Spiritual Exercises

Elen Buzaré

Review by Donald Robertson

Available on Lulu.com

Stoic-Spiritual-Exercises-Elen-BuzaréElen’s short book focuses on the practical psychological (or “spiritual”) exercises employed in ancient Stoicism, drawing mainly upon the seminal work of the French scholar Pierre Hadot.  She succeeds eminently in providing a very clear and concise account of a great many Stoic exercises.  These are described in such a way as to allow the average reader to make use of them.  However, those more familiar with Stoicism will undoubtedly find much of value within these pages.

The central part of Stoic Spiritual Exercises contains a superb description to a variety of Stoic techniques, including premeditation, physical definition, contemplation of impermanence, self-expansion, the view from above, action with reservation, and others.  It concludes with a section attempting to reconstruct a Stoic meditation based on the account of a Christian spiritual practice influenced by Stoicism, and drawing on analogies with Buddhist meditation.

According to the account preserved by Stobaeus, Zeno and the other Stoics said that the wise and virtuous “have an affinity to composing books, which can help those who encounter their writings”.  Elen’s book will undoubtedly be of tremendous help to those who encounter the writings of the ancient Stoics and wish to benefit from the Stoic art of living in their own daily lives.