Listen to my interview on Marcus Aurelius and Alexander the Great for the new Modern Stoicism podcast.
Comparing the Lyrics of Imagine to Zeno’s Republic
People often tell me that they’ve heard a song the lyrics of which seem “kind of Stoic” to them. Usually they’re referring to songs about enduring hardship heroically, and so on. However, there’s a very different type of song that strikes me as uncannily reminiscent of ancient Stoicism. It happens to contain some of the most famous lyrics ever written by one of the most celebrated songwriters in recent history.
Imagine by John Lennon describes a shamelessly Utopian vision of society. I’m going to discuss the lyrics below, comparing them to the Utopian dream described in Zeno’s Republic, the most influential early Stoic text. The Republic was, in part, a scathing critique of Plato’s book of the same name, written while Zeno was aligned with the Cynic philosophy. Unfortunately, it has long been lost but we do have several fragments and commentaries, which allow us to make a comparison, as you’ll see.
Interview with Kasey Pierce of Source Point Press
I recently had the pleasure to talk to Kasey about her passion for Stoicism and how it helped her both personally and in her career as a comic book writer and editor.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
Absolutely! First I would like to thank you for this interview. This is truly an honor. I’m a writer from the Metro Detroit area and my prose horror novella, Pieces of Madness (Rocket ink Studios), gave me residency on the comic convention circuit in 2015. This book of short horror stories (about the insane, cultist, and paranormal) picked up a bit of a subterranean following.
Shortly after, I joined the ranks of Source Point Press and created the Norah comic series (illustrated by Sean Seal). I’m so grateful to say this hand-painted sci-fi noir was met with great reception, became film-optioned, and made me one of flagship creators of the company. Pieces of Madness saw a deluxe rerelease in 2018 and my Viking witch one-shot series, Seeress, was released in 2019 (illustrated by Jay Jacot). This year, we introduced the next four-issue arch to the Norah series, illustrated by Kelly O’Hara.
Up until this book, I was only familiar with the term “stoic” with a lowercase “s”; an adjective to describe someone as strong and silent. As I listened, I realized what was being said was reinforcing an overall perspective I’ve exercised in my own life.
However, a large part of my brand was built on inspiring fellow comic creators. I’ve presented my panel on direct selling in indie comics, Good Luck with That, at many shows in the US, Canada, and overseas. This talk gives insight into not only how to sell your work, but how to summarize and pitch it to both the con-goer and potential publisher. Part memoir, it also sheds light on many misconceptions new creators have coming into the industry.
Currently, I run editing company, Red Pen Media; offering editing, copywriting, and creative advising.
The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2nd edition) was reviewed in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience by Andrea E. Cavanna. Dr. Cavanna is Honorary Reader in Neuropsychiatry and Consultant in Behavioural Neurology at the Department of Neuropsychiatry, Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation NHS Trust. He is also Deputy Director for the MSc in Clinical Neuropsychiatry. You can view the original article here. Also see my article from The Behavior Therapist on Stoicism as a form of cognitive psychotherapy.
Some excerpts below:
What do ancient Stoicism and cognitive behavioural therapy have in common? As shown by Scottish psychotherapist Donald Robertson, they might well share the very core principles. The new edition of The philosophy of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): Stoic philosophy as rational and cognitive psychotherapy sees the light ten years after its first edition, the first detailed account of the influence of Stoic philosophy upon modern psychotherapy (Robertson, 2010).
Robertson’s excellent work joins a growing number of recently published academic books that mark the revival of interest in ancient Western philosophy, especially Stoicism, as a guide to modern living… Overall, Robertson’s exploration of the relationship between ancient Greek philosophy and cognitive-behavioural therapy has provided evidence-based support to the idea that philosophy and psychotherapy were not always separate disciplines (Gill, 1985, 2013). Among mental health specialists, this book appeals particularly to practitioners working in the field of neuropsychiatry, where cognitive behavioral therapy interventions can have a significant positive impact on the health-related quality of life of patients with chronic conditions.
The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. — Marcus Aurelius
Greek and Roman youths typically engaged in combat sports, including wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, which combined elements of both. It should be no surprise that we find many references to these sports in the writings of ancient philosophers, many of whom must have had personal experience engaging in them, as well as watching others compete.
The Historia Augusta says that in his youth the Stoic philosopher, and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius was “fond of boxing and wrestling”, and that he had been trained to fight in armour. However, we’re told that over time he became more physically frail, suffering from chronic health problems, and his interest in philosophy came to distract him from these physical pursuits.
Nevertheless, Marcus’ early enthusiasm for combat sports perhaps inspired him to write of boxing, wrestling and pankration in The Meditations. In the quote above, he describes the whole “art of living” as resembling the art of wrestling. The Stoic philosopher must be psychologically resilient, he’s saying, and prepared in advance to meet the blows of fortune, like a wrestler facing his opponent.
[Socrates] was so orderly in his way of life that on several occasions when pestilence broke out in Athens he was the only man who escaped infection. — Diogenes Laertius
In 430 BC, Athens was devastated by plague. We don’t exactly what caused it but it’s been speculated that it was a form of typhus, typhoid, or possibly smallpox. What happened during the Athenian Plague seems to foreshadow aspects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our own experiences probably also help us to better understand what the ancient Athenians must have been going through. I won’t labour the obvious parallels but rather I’ll just tell the story and mention some comparisons briefly along the way…
The epidemic spread throughout the Mediterranean but Athens, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the region, was hit hardest of all. Attica, the area encompassing Athens, had a total population of roughly a quarter of a million, including thousands of foreign residents and maybe a hundred thousand slaves. The disease was apparently brought into the Greek port of Piraeus by travellers and merchants, from whence it quickly escalated into an epidemic, tearing through the population of neighbouring Athens.
After the first outbreak began to relent, the Athenians must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, though, there were two further major outbreaks of the plague in Athens, occurring in 429 and 427 AD. Altogether, it killed approximately one third of the population, including Pericles himself, their most senior statesman and general. Even worse, the plague struck at the outset of the lengthy Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), in which Athens and her allies, known as the Delian League, faced Sparta at the head of the rival Peloponnesian League.
The Spartans and their allies had just invaded Attica, the area surrounding Athens, when the plague struck the city, but it didn’t really affect the Peloponnese region, where Sparta is located. The Spartans occupied Attica for 40 days, we’re told, before departing, possibly frightened off by the plague affecting Athens. So the plague’s effect on the war was very one-sided. As we’ll see, the philosopher Socrates, was caught right in the middle of all this.
Below are links to two new articles that I wrote for The Guardian newspaper and the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). They were both shared by thousands of people online. I wanted to try to explain very simply why Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism might be relevant to people struggling with the psychological challenges of the pandemic.
Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear… and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history. — Emerson, Self-Reliance
The American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leading figures of the Transcendentalist movement in the mid 19th century. There is some basic theoretical common ground between Stoic philosophy and Emerson’s writings, most notably that Emerson appears to believe that virtue is its own reward, a fundamental doctrine of Stoicism. For instance, he wrote:
The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. — Heroism
That “virtue is enough” is something an ancient Stoic could easily have written. For the Stoics, virtue is the only true good and the belief, which they inherited from Socrates, that it is sufficient in itself for the good life is a cornerstone of their distinctive ethical position.
The quote above from Self-Reliance makes it clear that Emerson admires the Stoics. He also says in the same excerpt that Stoicism teaches “that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him.”
Rather than carry out a detailed analysis of the parallels between Emerson’s thought and Stoic philosophy, though, I want to begin by accomplishing the more modest task of summarizing what he explicitly says about them. There are probably more references to the Stoics in his writings than most people realize. Emerson frequently mentions important precursors of Stoicism such as Socrates, Xenophon, and Diogenes the Cynic, as well as Academic philosophers influenced by them such as Cicero and Plutarch. He mentions the Stoics Epictetus and Seneca. However, the one he says most about is Marcus Aurelius, or as he sometimes calls him, using the cognomen of his imperial dynasty, Marcus Antoninus.
One of my main areas of research is the relationship between Stoic philosophy and modern psychology. I’m particularly interested in the promise that Stoicism appears to hold as a form of what psychologists today call “resilience training”. As we’ll see, there are some interesting data emerging from initial research on Stoicism as a form of resilience training.
Emotional or psychological resilience basically refers to our ability to endure stressful events, without being overwhelmed by them. Through cognitive and behaviour skills training we can improve resilience and prepare ourselves to cope better with future adversity.
In a sense, Stoicism has long been virtually synonymous with resilience. Indeed, one modern expert, Michael Neenan, refers to the Stoic teacher Epictetus as the “patron saint of the resilient”.