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

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

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

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

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme Attitudes

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

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

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

Awfulizing

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

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

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

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

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

Discomfort Intolerance

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

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

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

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

Devaluation and Acceptance

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Socrates versus Roger Stone

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

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

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

Get me Roger Stone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Socrates?

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

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

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

Make Your Own Luck

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

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

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

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

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

Hate Trumps Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hypocrisy is Bad

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Stone prefaces his rules by explaining:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Gregory Lopez about Marcus Aurelius

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

Greg LopezI’m on the Modern Stoicism team, founder of the NYC Stoics, co-founder of The Stoic Fellowship, co-facilitator of Stoic Camp NY, and was co-organizer of Stoicon 2016, where I presented a workshop on Stoic versus Buddhist mindfulness and wrote an article for Stoicism Today on the topic. I also presented at Stoicon-x Toronto 2017 on the whys and hows of starting your own Stoic community.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I’ve always had an interest in philosophy, but somehow missed the Hellenistic period during my studies. I volunteered for, and ultimately became president of, SMART Recovery NYC. There, I was trained in aspects of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and discovered that its founder, Albert Ellis, was heavily influenced by Stoicism. I decided to fill the gap in my philosophical knowledge, and discovered online communities, like the New Stoa (now The Stoic Registry) and The International Stoic Forum that were attempting to practice this philosophy in the modern world. Given the lack of in-person meetings about Stoicism at the time, I decided to start one in New York City to help myself and others learn more about Stoicism and how it could be applied in the modern world.

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

That keeping your own Meditations-style journal is a powerful Stoic technique. It can be easy to slip into the mindset that Marcus is speaking to you as a reader in The Meditations. But if you keep in mind that it was his personal diary, the techniques he was using there, and why he was writing what he was writing, become more apparent. Framing The Meditations in this way can unveil Stoic techniques that Marcus was using, and that you can attempt to mimic. Marcus’ entries follow several patterns, including reminding himself of basic Stoic theory, arguing with himself, and reframing situations. If you carry your own journal or writing app around with you, you can do the same and see how it works out!

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

I find “Let no act be done without a purpose” (Meditations, 4.2) is useful to keep at hand.

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

In terms of books, my favorite overall intro to Marcus and The Meditations is currently William O. Stephens’ Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed. It gives a solid biography of Marcus along with a useful analysis of themes within The Meditations. After having taken your online course on Marcus, I suspect that your upcoming How to Think Like a Roman Emperor will be very worthwhile, too. But since it’s not out yet and I haven’t read it, that’s not a kataleptic impression, so I’ll withhold judgement. 😉

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Stoic community is very important for practicing Stoics in my view. If you’re looking for an in-person Stoic community in your area, or want to start your own, check out The Stoic Fellowship. We’ll also help you throw your own Stoicon-x if you want a homegrown Stoic conference near you! Or, if you like supporting Stoic things, sign up to volunteer or throw a few tax-deductible bucks our way.

Also, if you’re in New York City, feel free to check out the NYC Stoics.

In addition, I’ll be at Stoicon 2018 in London on September 29th giving a (hopefully practical) workshop on prolepseis, or “preconceptions”. This is a core concept in Stoic psychology, and a major theme in Epictetus’ Three Disciplines, but it doesn’t get much press. If Epictetus is to be believed, though, the misapplication of preconceptions is at the core of all human ills, so it’s kind of a big deal!

Finally, Massimo Pigliucci and I are co-writing a book tentatively entitled A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control—52 Week-by-Week Lessons. It’s expected to be released in Spring 2019 by The Experiment.

Detailed Review: How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

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

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

The Author

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

The Journey

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

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

What is Stoicism?

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

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

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

The Discipline of Desire

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

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

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

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

The Discipline of Action

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

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

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

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

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

The Discipline of Assent

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

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

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

Pigliucci concludes by describing a dozen valuable Stoic exercises:

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

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

Conclusion

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

Interview: Justin Vacula on Marcus Aurelius

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

Justin VaculaI’m Justin Vacula, host of the Stoic Solutions Podcast where I offer practical wisdom for everyday life focusing on topics including gratitude, acceptance, overcoming adversity, finding meaning in life, moderation, dealing with change, friendship, loneliness, and anger.

Podcast guests include counselors, academics, authors, mixed martial artists, and musicians. I currently serve as counselor-in-training intern working with elementary school students in a community and school-based behavioral health program while pursuing my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I found Stoicism through the Rationally Speaking Podcast formerly co-hosted by Massimo Pigliucci and the Thinking Poker Podcast hosted by Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis. Andrew and Nate spoke of Stoicism as a tool to improve one’s mental fortitude at and away from Poker tables following encountering many adverse events in Poker. I stated to read Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic and began applying Stoicism to my life.

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

Marcus’ work continually touches on themes of acceptance – that things we view as misfortunes in life, negative experiences, are inevitable and should not lead us to despair. We can question our impressions, our opinions about happenings in the world, and work to change our mindset to not be consumed by intense negative emotions. We can see death as a part of change in life and be grateful for having been born making the most of the precious time we have. We can recognize many situations, death included, in which we lack a large degree of control, and be content with outcomes focusing on what we have power over. Rather than overly blaming ourselves, lamenting the state of the universe, or being resentful, we can work to come to peace with the world seeing a larger picture including positive happenings in our lives.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

Marcus encourages us to take action in the world, to be an active participant in our lives and society not squandering the time we have on a day-to-day basis – “have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm?” We can rise to face challenges in our lives to better ourselves and the world around us – learning, growing, working toward self-mastery, and enthusiastically taking on roles performing to the best of our ability finding purpose in what we do rather than viewing our lives as miserable toil.

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

Stoic Solutions PodcastI would encourage people to take a critical evaluation of their own lives and discover areas in which they can find improvement. Identify goals and work toward a modest plan of making progress. Examine your thoughts and see if they are productive or self-defeating. Progress is possible especially when considering areas of life where you can shine – particular skills where you can experience joy and accomplishment.

Free Facebook Live Webinar: Friday 27th 7.30pm EST – The Secret of Stoicism in Marcus Aurelius

I’m doing a free webinar on the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius tonight (Friday) at 7.30pm EST. Everyone is welcome! It’s a deep dive into the fundamental psychological technique of The Meditations, drawing on some aspects of Marcus’ life and my experience as a cognitive psychotherapist, etc. Look forward to seeing you there!

🦉 Join my Free Webinar on the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Tonight (Friday) at 7.30pm EST. Deep dive into one of the most fundamental psychological techniques found in ancient Stoicism. Everyone welcome! 😉 Hit the “GET REMINDER” button on Facebook.

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Course Enrolling Now: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

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How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, my online course about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, is now enrolling and begins Sunday 5th August 2018.  Click the button below to learn more or enroll right now…

This is a huge course containing lots of different resources: videos, live webinars, quizzes, discussions, articles, infographics, and more.  It runs over four weeks, although you also have the option of completing it self-paced if you want.  (Recordings of all the webinars can be viewed in your own time.)

This course is designed to be suitable both for individuals who are new to the subject and those who are well-read in Stoicism.  It approaches the subject of Stoic philosophy, and its practical applications in daily life, from a new angle, by using many stories from the life of Marcus Aurelius to illustrate Stoic concepts and techniques.  It deals with emotional issues including coping with anger, pain and illness, fear, and loss.

Thanks Donald for your personal perspectives, the anecdotes and breadth of applied experience with Stoicism; the practical and historical perspectives, using Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations , were very insightful and valuable also for long-term retention. Lots of thought-provoking material here to read and re-read. Many thanks. The course concept and contents are highly recommended. (I came close to turning this course down – but am greatly relieved now that I registered at the last minute!) – Sachigo

You can read more testimonials from students on the main course page.  Course evaluation forms were completed by over a hundred previous students. They rated their satisfaction with the course content 93% on average.

This is a subject close to my heart as I’ve recently finished writing a new book about Marcus Aurelius.  The course is an opportunity to explore his life and philosophy in more detail, though, and using the interactive possibilities of modern e-learning such as webinars, quizzes, and discussions.  The discussions in this course are very active – previous students have posted over 800 comments about the course materials in total.  I’m sure you’ll find this a great way to gain even more benefit from Stoicism and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in particular.

If you have any questions about the course, please feel free to get in touch.  I read every email and promise to get back to you with a response.

Look forward to seeing you there,

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Interview: Walter J. Matweychuk on Marcus Aurelius

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

Walter J. MatweychukI am a clinical psychologist and work at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice psychotherapy and train psychologists to do psychotherapy. I teach, at New York University, a graduate-level course on cognitive behavior therapy. I author books on this therapy and maintain a website REBTDoctor.com aimed at disseminating this useful philosophy and psychotherapy. I also am a consultant on a project with the United States Navy where we are teaching rational thinking and problem-solving skills to enlisted personnel. What all these roles have in common is I teach people how to help themselves and others to cope with adversity.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I practice a form of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). It is the original form of cognitive behavior therapy. Dr. Albert Ellis, a famous psychologist now deceased, created REBT. I studied with Ellis for many years. He based REBT on ancient and modern philosophy and behavior therapy. REBT heavily borrows from Stoicism. I am always looking to improve my effectiveness as a psychotherapist and communicator of REBT. I assumed that by studying the underlying ancient philosophy upon which Ellis built REBT, I could deepen my understanding of it, better communicate its core ideas and perhaps enhance my clinical effectiveness.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I integrate quotes from Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius into my REBT sessions. Stoicism mixes nicely with REBT, and the aim of using these quotes is to induce a philosophical shift that helps the patient cope with the adversity that originally leads them to seek psychotherapy. I also use these same quotes to assist me in coping with the adversities I face and to develop my character and lead a meaningful life.

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

To prepare ourselves in advance for adversity, especially adversity caused by others. To expect it to happen so as not to be thrown by it. To see that when obstructed by others, we can more effectively address the challenge by not disturbing ourselves about what has happened. Marcus teaches that humans largely hurt ourselves. I agree. We hurt ourselves largely by the attitudes we choose to hold towards what others do to us. Marcus reminds us to remember that people do bad things largely out of ignorance or emotional disturbance not because they are bad people. I believe this about people. Seeing people as flawed, ignorant and emotionally disturbed makes sense to me. I then go on to remind myself that I too am a flawed human. With this mindset, I work to control and improve my behavior and also resist what people do so that I can accomplish my goals. In so doing I try very hard to work with people as opposed to work against them. I try to accept people and not condemn them, although I may very much dislike what they are doing. Not condemning people as people allows me to avoid self-defeating anger and to deal with them constructively. Aurelius also helps me to see and remember that I live in a social world and it is important that I try to get people to work with each other rather than against each other. As I see it, people too easily work against each other. He helps me maintain the perspective that it is good and natural to see ourselves as part of a whole, not isolated individuals. With all this said, I try to keep other people’s interests a close second to my interests.

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

There is great value in holding ourselves responsible for our emotional reaction to other people rather blaming them for our reaction. Others may obstruct us, but we hurt ourselves about what they do. We control our emotional destiny regardless of what others do or fail to do. When we master this simple idea, we liberate ourselves.

Do you have a favorite quote from The Meditations?

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

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

Take your online course on Marcus Aurelius and read the Meditations.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I believe people are well advised to study both Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. They complement each other nicely because Ellis crafted REBT from Stoic ideas and sentiment. Stoicism is a wonderful philosophy, but REBT can be more accessible, at least initially. Use both tools. To this end go to my website REBTDoctor.com and watch my free audios and videos and learn about REBT and how to put it to use in your life. Register for my Intermittent Reinforcement emails, and you will receive on an intermittent basis useful emails on how to deepen your understanding of REBT and how to use it to cope with adversity and change your unwanted behaviors. If you are a mental health practitioner, coach, or philosophical counselor, consider reading my book Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – A Newcomer’s Guide. It will teach you how to use REBT in your counseling and coaching work with others. Finally, I will be doing a workshop at Stoicon 2018 in London which I have titled “Stoic and Rational Thinking in an Irrational World.” I plan to show how both Stoicism and REBT and be used in today’s challenging world and to facilitate a lively discussion with those who attend!

Interview: Jules Evans on Marcus Aurelius

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

Jules EvansI’m a British writer, author of Philosophy for Life (2012) and The Art of Losing Control (2017), and one of the original organizers of Modern Stoicism.

I’ve done Stoic-themed workshops with lots of audiences, including Saracens rugby club, who I’ve worked with for the last four seasons.

I blog at www.philosophyforlife.org

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I got into Stoicism via Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helped me when I suffered from PTSD and social anxiety in my early 20s. CBT reminded me of Marcus Aurelius, who I had read as a teenager. I went to interview the founders of CBT, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, and heard how they had been directly inspired by Stoicism. Then I started to interview contemporary Stoics, writing up the interviews for an online magazine called the Stoic Registry. Through that, I helped organize the first gathering of Stoics – in San Diego, in 2010.

I also met Donald during that time – we must have met in, like, 2010 or something. We were researching along similar lines, both very inspired by Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. Anyway, I wrote up my stories of modern Stoics in the book Philosophy for Life in 2012, and then in 2013 the Modern Stoicism project started and Stoicism really started to revive. I don’t consider myself a card-carrying Stoic, but I still think it’s an incredibly helpful and wise philosophy with some excellent methods for transforming the self.

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

I guess two things. First, how our emotions come from our opinions or perspective. And second, to remind oneself of the limit of one’s control over the universe, and focus on our own moral agency. It’s fascinating how Marcus constantly reminds himself that he’s not a God, he can’t control the universe – unlike his predecessor, Caligula, who declared war on the sea and made his soldiers attack it!

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

Our mind becomes dyed with the colour of our habitual thoughts.

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

Well, read the Meditations or Epictetus’ Discourses. They’re very accessible. Find a modern translation. And then, try a modern intro to Stoicism like those by Donald or me!

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Philosophy for LifeI’d like to speak up for an eclectic approach to Greek wisdom – that’s my approach. I don’t think Stoicism has to be an ‘all or nothing’ philosophy. I find some of its insights into the mind and reality deeply wise, but other philosophical approaches are also very helpful for me, particularly Buddhism at the moment. I think Stoicism can sometimes lead to an overly self-reliant and overly-rationalist approach to life. We’re flawed humans with messy emotions and that’s OK – it’s better to admit that rather than pretending to be some super-rational sage.

I find Buddhist loving-kindness meditation is a good supplement to Stoicism, so one practices being kind and gentle to oneself and others. How kind was Marcus? I feel he related to other beings with a sense of fastidious duty, but I don’t get a sense he was a tremendously warm person, do you? Maybe that’s what his son Commodus felt!

Interview with Massimo Pigliucci about Marcus Aurelius

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

I am the K.D. Irani professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. My background is in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science, and my professional interests include the logical structure of evolutionary theory and the nature of pseudoscience.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

Funny thing. I was going through a bit of a midlife crisis a few years ago, as well as doing my PhD in philosophy. Had figured out that virtue ethics was in the right ballpark of what I needed, but neither Aristotle nor Epicurus clicked with me. Then one day I saw this on my Twitter feed: “Help us celebrate Stoic Week!” And I thought, who on earth wants to celebrate Stoic week, and why? But I signed up, and the rest is history, as they say…

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

Massimo PigliucciThat even the most powerful man in the world can benefit from philosophical reflection, although of course just doing so does not make him a sage. Reading the Meditations one gets the palpable impression that Marcus was a man honestly trying to do his best with the incredibly onerous task he had assumed. And it’s clear he got comfort from his philosophy, from reflecting on Heraclitus and Epictetus, among others. But, understandably, he was also a man incapable of escaping the constraints of his own culture (e.g., he couldn’t conceive of questioning the institution of slavery), as well as a fallible man (e.g., though there are, as you know, attenuating circumstances, the choice of Commodus as his successor wasn’t exactly the most brilliant move of his life). That’s why we common folks, almost two millennia later, can relate to him. He is thoughtful, and human. As we all aspire to be.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

Yes: “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (II.1) It has so much wrapped in it! (Especially if you look up the full quote.) It is a realistic assessment of life and people. And yet a compassionate one. It is humble, and eminently reasonable. It kind of embeds, for me, the very best of Stoic philosophy.

How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

I use Stoicism at work and in life in general. I find basic Stoics precepts, and pithy phrases to remind me of them, incredibly useful to navigate the small and sometimes big problems of life. I get less angry at people by telling myself “it seems so to him”; I keep in mind that my plans might need to be changed because of contingencies by saying “fate permitting”; and I try to steer away from damaging thoughts by repeating (usually internally) “you are just an impression, and not at all the thing you portray to be.” Reading the Stoics and studying their philosophy has also changed my priorities in life and at work, making me focus on what is really important, as well as prompting me to question whether something is, in fact, important. I spend more time with my best friends, because friendship is crucial to cultivate one’s virtue and become better people. It is no exaggeration to say that Stoicism has changed my life since I started studying and practicing it.

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

Write your own philosophical diary, which is, in an important sense, what the entire Meditations is. While one can extract several other exercises from the text (see here), I found that writing an evening journal of reflection is helping me immensely in being more attentive to what I do and why, and in trying to do better the next time around. And after all, since sages are as rare as the mythical Phoenix, doing better is really all we can strive for.

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

How to be a StoicYou mean other than downloading your book, which has been waiting on my queue for a few weeks? On Marcus specifically, I really like William Stephens’ Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury). It has a nice structure, which includes a look at Marcus’ life and time, an in-depth discussion of its main influences (the above mentioned Heraclitus and Epictetus), but also an informative analysis of the main philosophical themes of the Meditations. Turns out, Marcus was a pretty decent philosopher in his own right, and Stephens manages to actually reconstruct some of the formal arguments scattered throughout the Meditations, and which may not be apparent to the casual reader.

In terms of Stoicism more broadly, I’d say to get hold of a good translation of the three major authors. I suggest Robin Hard’s version of Epictetus’ Discourses, Enchiridion, and Fragments (Oxford Classics), Hard’s version of the Meditations (also Oxford Classics), and the recent complete series of Seneca put out by University of Chicago Press (seven books, including the tragedies and the Natural Questions, though someone interested in Stoicism as an ethical philosophy might do without these latter).For modern texts, I’d say your Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (the first book I read on modern Stoicism!), for the advanced students Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism, and – if I may – my own How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

I would also suggest to join or get started a local group of practitioners, perhaps using the meetup.com platform, and making sure to use the resources of the Stoic Fellowship. Finally, your Stoicism Facebook Group is a great, and very large, virtual community. But as you know, it’s not for the faint of heart: while one can find excellent advice and support, there is more than the occasional troll or snarky commenter. Then again, I guess that’s one way to practice Stoic patience and endurance…

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Well, I have already plugged my book above. My informal writings on Stoicism can be found at howtobeastoic.org, but I’m especially happy with my recently launched mini-podcast, Stoic Meditations (13 platforms so far). At last count it had 500,000 downloads, which I’m frankly astounded by. Each episode lasts about two minutes, and is basically a short meditation, based on a quote from Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, or Marcus, which I then explain and elaborate upon.


Massimo is the author of How to be a Stoic.  You can read many articles on his blog and website, and his new podcast.