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Socrates Stoicism

Socrates and the Plague of Athens

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[Socrates] was so orderly in his way of life that on several occasions when pestilence broke out in Athens he was the only man who escaped infection. — Diogenes Laertius

In 430 BC, Athens was devastated by plague. We don’t exactly what caused it but it’s been speculated that it was a form of typhus, typhoid, or possibly smallpox. What happened during the Athenian Plague seems to foreshadow aspects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our own experiences probably also help us to better understand what the ancient Athenians must have been going through. I won’t labour the obvious parallels but rather I’ll just tell the story and mention some comparisons briefly along the way…

The epidemic spread throughout the Mediterranean but Athens, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the region, was hit hardest of all. Attica, the area encompassing Athens, had a total population of roughly a quarter of a million, including thousands of foreign residents and maybe a hundred thousand slaves. The disease was apparently brought into the Greek port of Piraeus by travellers and merchants, from whence it quickly escalated into an epidemic, tearing through the population of neighbouring Athens.

After the first outbreak began to relent, the Athenians must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, though, there were two further major outbreaks of the plague in Athens, occurring in 429 and 427 AD. Altogether, it killed approximately one third of the population, including Pericles himself, their most senior statesman and general. Even worse, the plague struck at the outset of the lengthy Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), in which Athens and her allies, known as the Delian League, faced Sparta at the head of the rival Peloponnesian League.

The Spartans and their allies had just invaded Attica, the area surrounding Athens, when the plague struck the city, but it didn’t really affect the Peloponnese region, where Sparta is located. The Spartans occupied Attica for 40 days, we’re told, before departing, possibly frightened off by the plague affecting Athens. So the plague’s effect on the war was very one-sided. As we’ll see, the philosopher Socrates, was caught right in the middle of all this.

Read the rest of this article on Medium.

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Stoicism

Two New Articles on Stoicism and the Pandemic

Below are links to two new articles that I wrote for The Guardian newspaper and the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). They were both shared by thousands of people online. I wanted to try to explain very simply why Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism might be relevant to people struggling with the psychological challenges of the pandemic.

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Stoicism

Emerson on Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius

Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear… and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history. — Emerson, Self-Reliance

The American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leading figures of the Transcendentalist movement in the mid 19th century. There is some basic theoretical common ground between Stoic philosophy and Emerson’s writings, most notably that Emerson appears to believe that virtue is its own reward, a fundamental doctrine of Stoicism. For instance, he wrote:

The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. — Heroism

That “virtue is enough” is something an ancient Stoic could easily have written. For the Stoics, virtue is the only true good and the belief, which they inherited from Socrates, that it is sufficient in itself for the good life is a cornerstone of their distinctive ethical position.

The quote above from Self-Reliance makes it clear that Emerson admires the Stoics. He also says in the same excerpt that Stoicism teaches “that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him.”

Rather than carry out a detailed analysis of the parallels between Emerson’s thought and Stoic philosophy, though, I want to begin by accomplishing the more modest task of summarizing what he explicitly says about them. There are probably more references to the Stoics in his writings than most people realize. Emerson frequently mentions important precursors of Stoicism such as Socrates, Xenophon, and Diogenes the Cynic, as well as Academic philosophers influenced by them such as Cicero and Plutarch. He mentions the Stoics Epictetus and Seneca. However, the one he says most about is Marcus Aurelius, or as he sometimes calls him, using the cognomen of his imperial dynasty, Marcus Antoninus.

Read the full article on Medium.

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Resilience

How to Cope with Self-isolation Like an Astronaut

Lessons on Emotional Resilience from the Dartmouth PATH Program

Are you looking for something to do in self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic? How about completing the same training in emotional resilience used by astronauts?

The PATH Program is an online course developed at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, USA. During the pandemic, while a lot of us are locked down, it has been made available free of charge to the general public.

It’s not easy for most astronauts to adapt to living for prolonged periods in space, in a confined space, with limited social contact, surrounded by danger. The authors of the PATH program figured that individuals struggling to cope with the stress of self-isolation during the pandemic might benefit from the same kind of psychological techniques used by NASA to prepare astronauts for a mission. It’s already been tested on researchers stationed in Antarctic, another group facing the stress of isolation in a daunting environment.

Jay Buckley, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth, is one of the creators of the program. As a former NASA astronaut himself, who spent sixteen days in space on the shuttle Columbia, Buckley has first-hand knowledge of these stressors. He recently told The Guardian newspaper:

It’s challenging to be isolated with a small group of people and to not be able to get away. Outer space and your own living room might be drastically different physically, but emotionally the stressors can be the same.

Read the full article on Medium.

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Stoicism Video

Video: Stoicism, the emotions, and psychotherapy

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Resilience Stoicism

Stoicism and Psychological Resilience

One of my main areas of research is the relationship between Stoic philosophy and modern psychology. I’m particularly interested in the promise that Stoicism appears to hold as a form of what psychologists today call “resilience training”. As we’ll see, there are some interesting data emerging from initial research on Stoicism as a form of resilience training.

Emotional or psychological resilience basically refers to our ability to endure stressful events, without being overwhelmed by them. Through cognitive and behaviour skills training we can improve resilience and prepare ourselves to cope better with future adversity.

In a sense, Stoicism has long been virtually synonymous with resilience. Indeed, one modern expert, Michael Neenan, refers to the Stoic teacher Epictetus as the “patron saint of the resilient”. 

Read the rest of this article on Medium.

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Stoicism Video

Video: Stoicism and Resilience in the Time of Pandemic

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Interview Podcast Stoicism Uncategorized

Stoicism at the US Marine Corps University

In February, I had the pleasure of being invited to give a talk on Stoicism and mental resilience to the US Marine Corps University in Quantico. While I was there I went into their studio to record an interview for their podcast Eagles, Globes and Anchors. You can listen via any of the links below. (There’s a short clip embedded here with a waveform and links underneath to the full show.)

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Stoicism

Stoicism and Islam

Al-Kindi’s Device for Dispelling Sorrows

I will describe what I hope will be suffiŽcient for you, and may God protect you from all worries. — Al-Kindi

People often ask me whether there’s any relationship between Stoic philosophy and Islam. Islam probably shares some common themes with Stoicism, as do certain strands in Jewish and Christian thought. There may also be subtle indirect influences, which are hard to trace. However, scholars believe that the writings of arab Muslim scholar Al-Kindi may provide the best example of a more direct link between Islam and Stoicism.

Read the rest of this article on Medium.

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Books Stoicism

Piensa como un emperador romano

I’m delighted to announce that How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is now available in Spanish from the publisher Planeta.

Me complace anunciar que Cómo pensar como un emperador romano ya está disponible en español en la editorial Planeta.

ISBN 9786070767050.