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Press Release: Stoic Week 2018

On October 1, 2018, the seventh annual Stoic Week takes place and Modern Stoicism are inviting people in the UK and from around the rest of the world to participate and learn how to live like a Stoic for a week.

The idea behind the week is to give people an opportunity to see whether Stoic philosophy can help them live a more fulfilling life today.

In order to achieve this, a free online course with step by step exercises and audio meditations has been created and anyone wishing to take part can sign up here.

Enroll on Stoic Week 2018

Participants will be provided with wellbeing questionnaires before and after the seven days, so they can measure their progress.

The Stoic Week Handbook consists of seven chapters, one for each day of the week.

It gives people the opportunity to join thousands of other participants around the world as they learn to apply Stoic concepts and techniques in their daily lives.

The week uses the teachings of the three well-known philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus.  Each year the event adopts a new theme.  This year the theme is “Living Happily”.

What is a happy life? It is peacefulness and lasting tranquillity, the sources of which are a great spirit and a steady determination to hold fast to good decisions. How does one arrive at these things? By recognizing the truth in all its completeness, by maintaining order, moderation and appropriateness in one’s actions, by having a will which is always well-intentioned and generous, focused on reason and never deviating from it, as lovable as it is admirable. Seneca, Letters, 92.3

Last year, more than 7,000 took part in the online course during Stoic Week and on September 29th, a special event called Stoicon will be happening in London, and will be attended by people from around the world.

Participants are encouraged to schedule their own Stoic Week events and share that information with Greg Sadler, the editor of Stoicism Today, which publicizes Stoic Week events worldwide.  Here is a listing of Stoic Week events and Stoicon-X events happening around the world.

Find out more about Stoic Week and Stoicism Today by following Modern Stoicism on Twitter.   To support Modern Stoicism via donation, visit their Patreon page.

Members of the Modern Stoicism organization are available to discuss Stoic philosophy, Stoic Week, and other related topics via interviews, lectures, and other appearances.   Media Inquiries about the Stoicon conference are best directed to Donald Robertson. Those about  Stoicism Today are best directed to Greg Sadler. You can find the full roster of the Modern Stoicism
team on the main website.

Download Stoic Week 2018 Press Release as a PDF.

Stoic Book Review: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

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

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

Nassim Taleb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum in the Middle

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

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

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

Anyway, back to the quasi-review…

Taleb on Stoicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca on Premeditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He mentions two more Stoic psychological strategies in passing:

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

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

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

Seneca’s Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Taleb introduces his discussion of Seneca as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is expressed in Taleb-speak as follows:

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

Whereas:

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Book Review: Happy by Derren Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy on Stoicism and Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy on Stoicism and Tranquillity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism and Accepting Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Mini-Course on Socrates

Socrates billboardI designed my Crash Course on Socrates to be a fairly concise introduction to his life and philosophy.  It only takes about fifteen minutes to complete.

You’ll learn the basics and hopefully a few things even students of philosophy and the classics might not have heard before.  My goal was to make sure there’s something for everyone.

It includes a video, quiz, favourite quotes, recommended reading, and other resources.  All completely free of charge.

Thank you, Donald! Your presentation on Socrates was excellent as an introduction and it’s well worth the short amount of time required to learn of the influences Socrates had on the ancient world, as well as modern societies in the West. 🙂 – Bill Hewitson

Concise and enlightening resource, Socrates was such an important catalyst for western philosophical thinking. – Andrew Cowan

Amazing and deeply inspiring lecture about my favorite philosopher. 🙂 What a meaningful way to start a day, thank you so much, Mr. Robertson. – Noemi Wasserbauer

I will never look at the market in the same way again. – Bob Vermoolen

Enroll now for Stoic Week 2018

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You can enroll now for Stoic Week 2018, which will officially begin on Monday 1st October this year.

Everyone is welcome to take part and it’s completely free of charge.  Last year seven thousand people enrolled so don’t miss out!

Stoic Week is  a seven day introduction to Stoic theory and practice, applied to modern living.  It’s been designed by Modern Stoicism, a multi-disciplinary team of academic philosophers, classicists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists, including some well-known authors in the field.

Enroll now and you’ll have access to the preliminary materials in preparation for the official start of the course on Monday 1st October, which will be accompanied by a live webinar at 9pm BST.  (You’ll be able to watch a recording if you can’t make it along.)  If you want to attend please follow the link below to set a reminder on YouTube, where you can also subscribe to our channel.

Set Reminder for Stoic Week Webinar

Stoic Week is now in its seventh year.  See our main website for more information on the history of Stoic Week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About Stoic Physics and Logic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large Stoicism versus Minimal Stoicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Psychiatry?

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

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

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

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

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

General Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflicting Attitudes & Coping Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harsher Words, Violence & Aggression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolves and the Sheep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stoic Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Interview: Tom Butler-Bowdon on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m Tom Butler-Bowdon, author of the “50 Classics” books (Hachette) which look at the key writings in self-help, motivation, spirituality, psychology, and philosophy.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

Tom Butler-BowdonI first learned about Stoicism, as many people do, through The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The edition I had was one of the tiny Penguin 60s. At the time I didn’t realise it was only a few extracts from The Meditations, not the whole text, but it still blew me away.

At the time I was writing a book called 50 Self-Help Classics, about the key texts in the personal development genre. Naturally I looked at titles like How To Win Friends and Influence People, and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, but I was also looking around for older wisdom. This pulled me towards Marcus Aurelius. Later, it was interesting to see Marcus depicted in the film Gladiator.

It just amazed me that a Roman emperor could have this kind of philosophical insight. But the more I learned about Stoicism, from other books and authors, I could see that Marcus Aurelius was simply a great exponent of a whole body of thought.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

I see a lot of similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism, and one of the key ones is the emphasis on impermanence. Stoics, and some schools of Buddhism, like to focus on death, knowing it brings some clarity about our purpose while alive. It stops us from getting too prideful, or obsessed with wealth, fame or glory, or take ourselves too seriously. We know these things are so ephemeral. There’s a passage I love from The Meditations:

Expressions that were once current have gone out of use nowadays. Names, too, that were virtually household words are virtually archaisms today. All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as to the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer’s words, they are ‘lost to sight alike and hearsay’. What, after all, is immortal fame? An empty, hollow thing. To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

As well as that one just mentioned, I love this one:

Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny. For what could more aptly fit your needs.

Marcus Aurelius’ reign was a difficult one. He was constantly at war with Germanic tribes to try to protect Rome, and had to deal with all the usual intrigues and crises that came with being Emperor. Yet he did not shirk from his role. This line also reminds me of the existentialist view of Jean-Paul Sartre. Whatever happens to you, even if it is finding yourself in a war, don’t resist it. Because it is happening, it is yours. Own it, and make the most of it.

Today it’s fashionable to say that “everyone has a purpose”, and to “pursue your dream”, but this pursuit is not always easy or fun. My reading of Stoicism is that it is not so much about looking for happiness, but being sure your life is meaningful. Duty is a big part of that. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

Everything – a horse, a vine – is created for some duty. This is nothing to wonder at: even the sun-god himself will tell you, ‘This is a work I am here to do,’ and so will all the other sky-dwellers. For what task, then, were you yourself created? For pleasure? Can such a thought be tolerated?

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Just start reading The Meditations, or Seneca, or one of the other Stoics. Writing honestly and simply was part of the Stoic ethos, in contrast to the sometimes complex and flowery rhetoric of the classical world. This means that Stoic books are very accessible and easy to read today.

When you’re reading The Meditations, it doesn’t seem possible that Marcus Aurelius was sitting by a campfire penning it close to 2,000 years ago. Humans have not changed much in that time. We are still social, emotional animals that seek to live by higher moral standards.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

This technique is more from Epictetus than Marcus I believe, but I learned it from Massimo Pigliucci’s How To Be A Stoic. It’s called “dichotomy of control”, and simply means that some things are up to us, and other things are not. All we can do is focus on what we can actually do, and resign ourselves to the unfolding of everything else. The result is that we will waste less mental energy worrying, projecting, and fearing, and are able to focus on the task at hand.

To create the future, we have to accept reality fully in the present, and not be too swayed by emotion and circumstances. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest.

In short, don’t get caught up in trivia or pettiness; appreciate your life within a larger context.

Tom Butler-Bowdon

Tom Butler-BowdonTom is the author of eight books including 50 Economics Classics (2017), 50 Psychology Classics (2017, second edition), and 50 Philosophy Classics (2013). His 50 Classics series has sold over 400,000 copies and is in 23 languages. Tom’s ninth book, 50 Business Classics, was published in 2018.

Bringing important ideas to a wider audience, the 50 Classics concept is based on the idea that every subject or genre will contain at least 50 books that encapsulate its knowledge and wisdom. By creating a list of those landmark titles, then providing commentaries that note the key themes and assess the importance of each work, readers learn about valuable books they may not have discovered, and save a lot of time and money. Tom’s work began in the personal development and success fields with his bestselling titles 50 Self-Help Classics and 50 Success Classics. Second editions of these titles were published in 2017.

Tom is a graduate of the London School of Economics (International Political Economy) and the University of Sydney (Government and History). He lives in Oxford.

Website: www.Butler-Bowdon.com
Twitter: @tombutlerbowdon