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Announcing Stoic Week 2015

Announcing Stoic Week 2015

Modern-day Meditations on Marcus Aurelius

2nd – 8th November

‘Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years … while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person’ (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)

What is Stoic Week?

Stoic Week is an online and international event taking place this year from Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th November.  2015 will be the fourth year in a row that Stoic Week has run.  Anyone can participate by following the daily instructions in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook, which will be published online. You will be following the practice of Stoic philosophers for seven days.  You will also be discussing the experience of adapting Stoic ideas for modern living with other participants in our online forums. The aims of the course are to introduce the philosophy so that you can see how it might be useful in your own life and to measure its psychological benefits.  This year’s  theme is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the most widely-read of all Stoic authors.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is an ancient Graeco-Roman school of philosophy.  It has an emphasis on practical training and lifestyle changes aimed at improving our moral character and psychological wellbeing.  The Stoic school was founded around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium.  At the core of Stoicism is the idea that virtue, or strength of character, is the most important thing in life. The  central doctrine of Stoicism is that we should ‘follow Nature’.  This means perfecting our own rational nature as human beings, through developing the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.  It also entails expressing our social nature as human beings,  by involvement in family life and society and by treating all human beings as brothers and sisters. So Stoicism is simultaneously a philosophy of inner strength and outer excellence.  Many people today are interested in Stoicism because of its similarities to modern self-help literature and its influence upon the evidence-based psychological strategies employed in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

What sort of Course is it?

The course guides you through all the basic ideas of Stoicism. Each day has its own theme, exercises to practise,  and reflections from original Stoic texts to consider. It has been written by the Stoicism Today team, an interdisciplinary group of academics and psychotherapists. You are also encouraged to take wellbeing surveys before and after the week, so we can measure the effectiveness of the course.

How do I Register to Participate?

To take part in Stoic Week 2015, follow us on social media and subscribe to the blog, and you will be updated with all our material, such as the handbook and survey links.  As well as subscribing, follow our Twitter account @Stoicweek or see our Facebook group. See below for further contact details.  You’ll be able to register about a week before Stoic Week begins when we publish the link for the online intake questionnaires.

How can I Share my Experience of Stoic Week?

There will be very active discussion boards during Stoic Week on the course website. You can also share your reflections  via social networks via our Stoicism Twitter account, and our Facebook and Google+ groups.

How can I Meet Other People Interested in Stoicism?

If you live in the UK, there is a one-day conference being held at Queen Mary, University of London, on Saturday  November 7th. There are 300 places available, so you should book now to avoid disappointment.  Videos and audio recordings of this event are planned, and will be uploaded on to the Stoicism Today website in the weeks that follow Stoic Week. You can see a video of last year’s London event: Stoicism Today Conference.

Tickets are available here. Further details are available on the relevant post, to be found here.

There are also other events being organised around the world. Get in touch  if you are organising an event and would like it listed on the blog.

What Were the Findings of Last Year’s Study?

Last year, around 2,500 people took part in Stoic Week worldwide. Our findings supported the view that Stoicism is  helpful. Participants reported a 16% improvement in life satisfaction, a 10% increase in flourishing, a 11% increase in positive emotions and a 16% reduction in negative emotions. We developed a special Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), which showed increases in Stoic attitudes (12%) and behaviours (15%) in the course of the week. It also showed a consistently positive relationship between adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours and improvements in well-being.

What about Stoicism in Schools and Universities?

Are you a teacher or lecturer who might be interested in Stoic Week?  Why not download the Stoic Week booklet and share it with your students to try out Stoicism for a week, and invite them to write up their experience for the blog….

Stoicism in the Media

In previous years there has been a lot of media interest in Stoic Week and Stoicism in general.  If you would like to run a feature on Stoic Week, please get in touch. You can read of the previous media interest in Stoic Week on our Stoicism  Today blog.

Please share this page with anyone you think might be interested.  You can post it on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks.

How can I Contact the Stoicism Today team about Stoic Week 2015?









Subscribe to the Stoic Week 2015 calendar for updates:

Right here – WordPress


Make sure to subscribe to the blog (subscription box in the upper right-hand corner of the blog) to ensure you receive further information about how to register for Stoic Week and to download the 2015 booklet closer to the time.

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STOICON 2015 – Tickets Now Available To Book


The third annual conference from the Stoicism Today team


Click HERE to book your tickets!

Important information

Date: 7th November 2015

Location: The Francis Bancroft building, Queen Mary University Mile End road campus. See map here – it’s building number 31.

Registration starts at 8.15 AM and the first talk commences at 9 AM.

Speakers and Workshop Leaders

William Irvine, author, A Guide to the Good Life

Bettany Hughes, presenter of BBC series ‘Geniuses of the Ancient World‘

Massimo Pigliucci, author of How To Be A Stoic blog, organizer of New York Stoic Camp, and author of forthcoming book on modern Stoicism

Emily Wilson, author of The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca

Vincent Deary, author of How We Live trilogy

Christopher Gill, editor of editions of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius

John Sellars, author of Stoicism

Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT

Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy

Others will be announced soon!

The day’s talks and workshops will run from 9 to 5, with lunch and tea and coffee provided. Then, from 5.30 to 7.30 there will be a drinks reception in the beautiful Octagon Room at Queen Mary. All food and drink is inclusive in the £30 ticket price.

There will be an opportunity for delegates to present their own work on modern Stoicism / practical philosophy in a poster session during lunch. If you’d like to do that, email Jules Evans at jules.evans@mac.com.

There are also a limited number of free tickets for volunteers to help us out with the running of the day – email Jules Evans at the address above to get involved. 

Note: Stoic Week the online course will also be running that week. More details soon.

Click HERE to book your tickets!

‘”Are Stoics Ascetics?” A Rebuttal’ by Kevin Patrick

“ ’Are Stoics Ascetics?’  A rebuttal.”
by Kevin Patrick

Editorial Note: This piece has been written as a response to the previous post by Piotr Stankiewicz. The numerals in square brackets refer to the author’s footnotes.

In an article previously posted by the Stoicism Today blog [i], Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz makes his case for a modern, hedonic Stoicism by asserting the ancient Stoics were not ascetics.  I will be rebutting that claim as ungrounded in the Stoic literature by showing that in fact the opposite was argued by our classical sources, and more specifically that the ideas contained in Dr. Stankiewicz’s article are a divergence from the Stoicism of Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus.  I suspect that his position also entails a misunderstanding of the purposes of ascetic practice as an end in and of itself, rather than as a means to an end.

Stankiewicz’s argument lies in something which he calls the “ascetic misinterpretation.”  While he is correct that there are several stereotypes of Stoicism, he misidentifies those stereotypes and uses that as an argument.  Since nowhere does he actually support this ascetic misinterpretation, at best it’s an unsubstantiated assertion.  The most common stereotype of Stoics is that they are emotionless and unfeeling, not that they were ascetics.  It’s incorrect to call the asceticism of the classics a stereotype, as I will support, because it was a stated truth.

Stankiewicz states that modern Stoics have not “done all that is possible” to combat these stereotypes.  Contributors to this blog and others have made an effort to discuss eupathe [ii] and focus on the actual doctrinal positions of impressions, judgments, and emotions.  While is probably true that not “all that is possible” has been done, a good faith effort has been made by modern Stoic writers to combat the stereotype of the unfeeling philosopher.  But ultimately, the views of others are not “up to us,” and we live our lives and follow our philosophy attentively regardless of the stereotypes… or at least we should.

“Stoicism is often (way too often!) perceived as a philosophy of frugal, simple or even austere life.  A Stoic, according to this view, is someone who quashes their earthly desires and imposes significant restrictions upon themselves when it comes to food, drink, sex, rock and roll, spending money and other pleasures of life. In a word, a Stoic is someone who refrains from indulgence.”

Setting aside that such rhetorical flourishes (like parentheticals!) are not an argument; why might this be the common conception of Stoicism?  I would suggest, in this specific case, that it is because this is precisely what the classical Stoics themselves have told us it is.  Let’s look at some examples in the order Dr. Stankiewicz lays out.  We will first start out with Musonius Rufus.  Additionally, there is no quashing of proto-impressions, but the assent to adequate impressions and thus judgments according to our nature, an important distinction.  On to the rigors of the philosophic life…

Musonius’ suggestions are the end-result of a process through which he attempted to apply his philosophy to real issues of human life.  It is not mere academic musing, but the process of “doing” philosophy as a way of life.  This process of training for virtue carries through from Musonius, to Epictetus, to Marcus; and, if we’re open to it, down to the modern Stoic prokopton as well.

In Lectures XVIII A [iii] and B [iv], Musonius lays out clear prescriptions for philosophers.  They include abstaining from the consumption of animal-flesh, eating foods which are simple, inexpensive, easy to acquire, and fitting for humans.  The issues with food are paramount, since we are presented with this choice several times a day.  Unlike some of the other, less frequent pleasures of life, this one is ever-present and so require extra diligent attention.

“Thus the oftener we are tempted by pleasure in eating, the more dangers there are involved. And indeed at each meal there is not one hazard for going wrong, but many.”

Not only is the danger of immoderation present, but there is also the danger of not acting in accordance with nature.  While the specifics of what that means are debatable, it is fair to say that the manner, the material, and the setting of our eating are all opportunities for non-virtuous habits to be formed.  Musonius is particularly concerned with the formation of habits, so something we engage in twice or three times a day is ripe for his notice.

Musonius also counsels us on the virtuous use of human sexuality, which is best put in context of seeing the family unit as foundational to society.  Musonius was living in a decadent and turbulent time, not too unlike ours.  For him, a bolstering of the family has consequences in the community, the state, and the world.  Musonius’ ethics are often communitarian in focus, and noting that context often shows his suggestions in a slightly different light than at first glance they might appear to be.  Musonius argues for what likely seems to us a very socially conservative view of virtuous sexual practice in Lectures XII [v] and XIII A [vi] and B [vii]:

“Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.”

Musonius doesn’t have much to say about rock ‘n roll, he does mention frugal living in Lecture XIX [viii] and XX [ix].  The following well captures the spirit of the piece:

“[I]t is possible for us to eat quite safely from a wooden table without longing for one of silver.”

It may even be safer, as Epictetus would learn latter in regards to his lamp [x].

Epictetus picks up in this vein in Book III, Chapter 1[xi], as noted in Arrian’s Discourses.  Epictetus argues against finery in dress, and even uses his own bearded, cloaked figure as a counter-example to the figure cut by the dapper and fashionable young man in question.  While Musonius offers the most explicit suggestions, Epictetus takes up the motivation behind Musonius’ suggestions:  training.

To say that the Stoics were not ascetics, when their primary ethical focus was on training seems off to me.  Asceticism comes from the Greek ἄσκησις (áskēsis) meaning training [xii].  The Stoic philosopher is called προκοπτόν (prokoptôn)[xiii] or the ‘one making progress.’  Stoic asceticism is not an end in and of itself, but a means whereby one inculcates virtue.  As Dr. Stankiewicz notes, these things are external to us and necessarily indifferent from our moral will.  Yet, as those making progress, we train and make progress in part by manipulating those very indifferents[xiv].

Epictetus advises us to, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake in little things, and thence proceed to greater.”  In situations where we are not yet up to snuff, such as in weighing certain judgments and impressions, he advises us to abstain from those judgments all together.  There’s a lesson here.  We train by manipulating our externals, and we delay or abstain in situations above our practice.

Marcus notes in Book I of his Meditations[xv] that he is explicitly thankful for the opportunity “to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.”  Grecian discipline likely refers either to the paideia [xvi] or the agoge [xvii]; both of which contained clearly ascetic practices.  Despite living in a palace as emperor, the ascetic rigor of his youth, until the intervention of family member, stuck with Marcus for the rest of his life.

It is a far more arduous task to mine the Stoic sources for evidence of hedonism and sensuality than it is for asceticism.  The message of Stoicism for personal development, which is not a misinterpretation, is that even while engaging in the world and exercising our social roles that we can live conformably to nature.  We can be just, self-controlled, courageous, and wise in the here and now.  That does not mean that all of the trinkets, sweet and soft foods, luxurious items and decorations should be taken up by philosophers.  Just the very opposite!  While living in the world, we can dress for protecting of the body and modesty, not vanity.  We can eat healthy, natural, and fitting foods, not for the pleasure of the tongue but nourishment of the body and training for the soul.  We can exercise justice in our lives, not bend to political or social pressures.  We can be courageous every day in the practice of becoming better people, not coast on a misapprehension of indifferents.

We inculcate the virtue of self-control (σωφροσύνη/sophrosyne) [xviii] by actually regulating our passions [xix], i.e. saying ‘no’ to some things and using moderation for others.  How can we learn to be just unless we practice justice? How can we learn to be courageous unless we face down our fears relative to moral issues?  We must actually practice denying the impressions that indifferent things are goods by denying them.  It is one thing to say, “I don’t value all these adornments of sensuous living;” but the possibility for self-deception in that is high if one doesn’t also practice not-valuing them.  The Stoic Sage may be able to indulge in every earthly pleasure and maintain a philosophical outlook and a soul in a state conformable to nature.  But we are not Sages:  and our methods as prokoptontes are necessarily designed towards our own state.

In Enchiridion 34 [xx], Epictetus gives us nothing else but an endorsement to ascetic practice:

“[T]hink of the two periods of time, first, that in which you will enjoy your pleasure, and second, that in which, after the enjoyment is over, you will later repent and revile your own self; and set over against these two periods of time how much joy and self-satisfaction you will get if you refrain.”

Stankiewicz’s position falls into the more common trap and misinterpretation, that since externals are indifferent to us, we should go ahead and indulge in all of those things for which we have a proclivity.  Yet, indulgence also trains our moral will, and we must ask ourselves what that training is getting us.  Is it conducive to Stoic virtue, or is it conducive to something else entirely?  Is it within the rigors of the Stoic school, or is it merely a cover for our vices?  The Stoic conception of preferred indifferents are preferred insofar as they are conducive to virtue, not our mere liking or vicious desire.

The purpose of these examples is to show the tip of the ice berg relating to the advocacy for strict training in classical Stoic sources.  While it is possible to live well in a palace, it might not be advisable.  To suggest that since it is possible there is an open permission for the sensuous enjoyment of luxury misses the point entirely.  It’s possible to live well in a palace, only because living well has nothing to do with the palace.  It is only by training our ruling faculties to live in accordance with nature that we can have a flourishing and excellent life.

Stankiewicz’s article asked a core question, “Are Stoics Ascetics?”
That answer, for most modern Stoics, is “no.”

But they ought to be.

Kevin Patrick is a Tutor and Mentor at the College of Stoic Philosophers, and runs mountainstoic.wordpress.comWhen he’s not philosophising, he is a Statistician attached to the US Navy and a writer.

[i]   https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/10/03/stoic-avoidance-of-asceticism-by-piotr-stankiewicz/

[ii]  http://philosophy-of-cbt.com/2012/10/18/the-system-of-stoic-philosophy/

[iii] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/18-0

[iv] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/18-1

[v] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/12

[vi] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/13-0

[vii] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/13-1

[viii] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/19

[ix] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/20

[x] http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.mb.txt

[xi] http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.3.three.html

[xii] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=a)%2Fskhsis&la=greek&prior=ai(/resis

[xiii] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=prokopto%252Fn&la=greek

[xiv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adiaphora

[xv] http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.mb.txt

[xvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paideia

[xvii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agoge

[xviii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophrosyne

[xix] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures/06

[xx] https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/epictetus/the-manual/34

‘Are Stoics Ascetics?’ by Piotr Stankiewicz

Are Stoics Ascetics?

by Piotr Stankiewicz

A common image for a Stoic? Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860. Sourced here.

A common image for a Stoic? Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860. Sourced here.

A few days ago I befriended an intelligent young woman on Facebook. We first met following the recent publication of my book on Stoicism, so in her view I was  “a practicing Stoic,” “a Stoic evangelist,” or at least a representative of the Stoic way of life. It was telling that she found it surprising that I was on Facebook in the first place. She was also confused that my wall was not a potpourri of inspirational quotes, fancy fonts and pictures of stacked rocks. Why was that? That friend of mine has fallen prey to a common misunderstanding of Stoicism, one which I will call the ascetic misinterpretation.

It is no wonder that this misinterpretation is there. It’s a price tag for being around for 2000 years: persisting and deceptive stereotypes about Stoicism have accumulated over time and now we have to deal with them. Also, neither our ancient “Founding Fathers” nor the folks that foster interest in Stoicism these days have done all that’s possible to nail down and avoid the ascetic misinterpretation. Of course, we should condemn no one for caving in to it, since this misreading has became quite a commonplace (I myself had to go through quite an intellectual struggle before I myself overcame the false barrier of seeing Stoicism in this light). Yet, it is my understanding that it is our duty to right this false reading.

The gist of the ascetic misinterpretation is simple: Stoicism is often (way too often!) perceived as a philosophy of frugal, simple or even austere life. A Stoic, according to this view, is someone who quashes their earthly desires and imposes significant restrictions upon themselves when it comes to food, drink, sex, rock and roll, spending money and other pleasures of life. In a word, a Stoic is someone who refrains from indulgence. Stoicism is sometimes accompanied with a hermit’s tinge, i.e. an assumption that the Stoic way of life entails some degree of reclusiveness and detachment from society (or at least from Facebook). Furthermore, it is often followed by an expectation that Stoicism offers a clichéd cure for the “craziness” of modern life: that only a tranquil abode of a withdrawn and simple life constitutes a proper remedy for the dynamic, vibrant and perpetually chanding contemporary world.

But it is not so. Stoicism is not asceticism and a Stoic is not a monk. In fact, it is the school of the pale Epicureans that is closer to the ideal of abstemiousness. The Stoic proposal is far broader and it extends far beyond the narrow passage of the ascetic way. The history of transmission of Stoic ideas, the piercing lack of many ancient sources and some intricacies of the doctrine account for the popularity of the ascetic misinterpretation. And yet, the time has come to disavow it.

Generally speaking, Stoicism doesn’t constrain us to a single, ascetic path. Stoicism is rather about redressing balance and boosting these aspects of human experience which are underrepresented in a given place and time (to paraphrase Henry Elzenberg’s words). Speaking metaphysically, we, the Stoics, reject transcendence. We assent that the only actual realm of existence is the earthly, material world of common experience. Thus, our human destiny and duty is to thrive in this world, in the circumstances and conditions we actually find ourselves in. Escape is not an option. Mentally and spiritually we must be here, we mustn’t retire to daydreaming, prayer, mysticism or thoughts about afterlife. We must face the lushness, diversity and – yes! – sensuality of life and we have to live and thrive inside this world, accepting it as it is. Unlike a monk, a Stoic doesn’t dodge the myriad of different aspects of the earthly and sensual life.

Perhaps the most essential argument for this is the following. Stoic ethics isn’t about separating good elements of the world from the evil ones and then embracing the former while forgoing the latter. No. It’s quite the contrary: for us, there is no good or evil outside the moral realm. All physical objects, all external conditions and all outside events are absolutely neutral. They are neither good nor bad. This includes all the things that an ascetic vows to renounce: wealth, sensual pleasures and all worldly well-being. None of these are  intrinsically bad things. They are just raw material which human actions transform into good or evil output. Thus, when it comes to things and events that the earthly life presents us with, we may say that the Stoic solution is not to withdraw from them, but rather to wisely use them.

At this point our Stoic pantheism kicks in: we don’t worship any transcendent, supernatural God or gods. Instead, we are focused on this world: natural, self-evident and accessible to everyone in the everyday experience. We don’t worship the “natural world” in any religious sense, but we do respect it in the sense that we don’t a priori discard any aspect of the world (the way the ascetics do). We intend our ethics to apply to all realms and walks of life, not just to some selected subset. Our ethics can be put to good use by a secluded hermit and by the emperor Marcus Aurelius. There is no necessity to restrict ourselves to the former option. All possible circumstances are eligible conditions for Stoic ethics.

These points don’t exhaust all that I have to say against the ascetic misinterpretation. Yet, I hope they provide an outline of my anti-ascetic stance. For the record, I’m tempted to mention, as a closing argument, that the ancient Stoics themselves provided a wide array of explicit suggestions that they didn’t have any harsh ascetism in mind. As Seneca put it “I prefer to display the state of my soul clad rather in the toga and shoes than showing naked shoulders and with cuts on my feet” (On the Happy Life, XXV.2).

A beard doesn’t constitute a philosopher, they used to say in antiquity. Today, we can append it with this: a simple life doesn’t constitute a Stoic. Living a quiet, frugal life, withdrawn from sensual fulfilment and disengaged from the political turmoil of our time is a variable totally independent from living stoically. They are like two circles which can but don’t have to intersect. The crucial paradox of Stoicism, that there is no good or bad except for moral actions, should serve as a reminder that Stoic ethics is all about agency, agency, agency, and not about the outward circumstances in which agency is exercised. The circumstances are beyond our control and the only thing we can – and should – control is how we approach these circumstances. And there is no necessary reason to actively make them tougher on us. We boast that our ethics works well always and for everyone: for a rockstar just as well as for a scrawny anchorite.

Thus, I assured my friend that there is no need for me to cancel my Facebook account. Marcus Aurelius says that “it is possible to live in a palace, [so] it is also possible to live well in a palace” (Meditations, V.16). Accordingly, it is also possible to live well with and on Facebook. We, the new Stoics, are bound to no fetish (like an emotionless look on the face, or ritual disdain for social media) and we also know no bound for our virtue to let us thrive. We can live a plethora of different lives and we will be able to live them well and fruitfully. A withdrawn, ascetic life is a perfectly viable and legitimate option, but it isn’t any more necessary or required for us than a life of a soldier, vagrant preacher, journalist, entrepreneur, civil servant or philosophy teacher. This is, and always has been, the utter Stoic premise and promise: to be able to live well and happily no matter what circumstances and walk of life the fate puts us in. And this is the credo we intend to live up to, the credo we mean to promote, the credo we will carry on into the new millennium of the Stoic thought.

About the author:

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a philosopher from Warsaw, Poland. Author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”); he currently works on making his two books on Stoicism available in English. Feel free to contact him at mikolaj.piotr@gmail.com

Author’s note: this post is a very brief presentation of the issue. A more detailed discussion of the ascetic misinterpretation of Stoicism, along with the discussion of conservative misinterpretation [equally important in my view] will be found in my two Stoic books, hopefully forthcoming soon.

‘Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope’ by Andrew Overby

Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope

by Andrew Overby

A Stoic take on the now classic Obama 'Hope' Poster. Sourced here.

A Stoic take on the now classic Obama ‘Hope’ poster. Sourced here.

In the world of one’s own thoughts and dreams, the world can sometimes take on new and surprising dimensions: things can be brighter, more interesting, more elegant, even more fun and enjoyable. It’s great to be king. Things move faster and few real-world issues appear in focus enough to darken the pristine imagery of imagination. Dream speeds on as a hare, the world plods along like the slow-going tortoise. To mind the gap in between, human beings need philosophy.

The real world, where time can be measured in centuries or eons, is a place crystalline and perfect imaginings emerge as imperfect wooden forms even under ideal conditions. Hardly surprising is the fact that disillusionment is often the result. This is where the Stoics are uniquely qualified to help.

The Stoics wrote that the world is a place we happen to inhabit for a time, not a place we are destined to lord over or one whose direction we should expect to dramatically influence. It is better, they maintain, to know that while things happen, they do not necessarily happen to us.

Yet Stoics also profess a belief that human beings can and should take an active part in public life, whether as a leading figure, a military general or an administrator of some type, or simply as a concerned citizen upholding his or her own small end of an implicit social contract to better the public good, to paraphrase Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, who oversaw ancient Rome’s vital grain supply but worried about himself and devoting all his energies to public work. Whatever the role, just do the best possible with what you have control over.

A practical example might illuminate how Stoics rectify these ideas that seem to contradict each other. How do we actively live in the world without being ensnared by it?

To echo American general-turned-president Eisenhower, who believed no prewritten battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, how do we keep dreams alive upon contact with the real world?

Consider the now-famous Stockdale Paradox: Vice Admiral James Stockade of the U.S. Navy was held as the highest-ranking POW naval officer in North Vietnam for more than seven years.

Before his deployment, he had studied some Stoic philosophy, which meant he was better prepared for this struggle than many of his fellow POWs. Many consoled themselves with the thought they would be home by Christmas, or by spring, or before next winter, or that the war would surely end soon, or maybe there would be a prisoner exchange. Day by day, their expectations went unmet and their dreams were whittled down to nothing.

In large part, they didn’t survive, their mental health consumed by soul-crushing despair as year after year passed by without relief. This tells us something about what the denial of desperately held dreams can do even to strong and resilient men.

Stockdale had faith in his dream of returning home again but didn’t allow himself to tie his hope to an external circumstance over which he had zero control. Instead, he turned inward and focused on keeping his mind free and resilient even if his body was trapped in a cell.

This is how he kept his head above water and his spirit strong for the better part of a decade. The Stoic teacher Epictetus would be proud.

What Stockdale possessed was not quite optimism, but a profound sense that he would ultimately realize his dream, whether that time was near or far off. Other POWs in Vietnam may have been optimists; Stockdale was firm in his hopeful equanimity.

In 1992, when Stockdale was the vice presidential nominee on a third-party ticket with Ross Perot, his resolute dreaming surely helped him as well—his story of Stoic dreaming probably inspired many of the voters who made this effort the strongest third-party showing America had seen in nearly a hundred years.

Consider also any “overnight success story”making its way around today. Whether it is a newly famous musician or a sports figure just coming into public view, whether it is a famous example like the carmaker Tesla Motors led by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, or even an entire field like the relatively new industry of 3-D printing, “overnight”really means years of work and patience other people are now finding out about. Like Stockdale, individuals like these labored long and hard to unite world with dream.

In fact, Mr. Musk’s other company, SpaceX, the most successful of the companies seeking to democratize access to space and which was the first company to dock with the International Space Station, provides a contemporary example of striving despite setbacks and of resilient hope in the face of opposition—in other words, a Stoical resolve to see a dream through to its fruition.

SpaceX failed in its first three rocket launch attempts, bringing it very close to its demise and giving truth to its naysayers’criticism. Just before it would have folded, the company’s fourth launch in 2008 was a soaring success and SpaceX was back in business, still relying on a “first principles”logical approach derived from probabilistic reasoning that would be right at home among philosophers in ancient Greece, one which says an important task must be done even if the odds of failure are high. Certainly nothing will change if nothing is tried.

SpaceX is currently trying to launch a reusable rocket from a barge at sea (which it has done) and then land the rocket back down on the barge, something that has yet to accomplished by anyone—ever. The company has endured several failures to achieve this goal already.

Instead of concluding that companies have no business competing with governments in rocketry or that it simply cannot yet be feasibly done, the company learns from its failed attempts and immediately sets about preparing for the next one. Its engineers and employees know that each step brings them closer to fulfillment of their mission and they continue to have faith. SpaceX, too, dreams resolutely—like Stockdale, like the Stoics—giving us a live-action view of philosophy in practice.

These examples are not the passing whims or wishes that must be separated from real dreams. They are not idle contemplations, but desperate hopes to increase the crawling tempo of this world. As Seneca wrote, you have time for what is most important in your life, but not including those many temporary things that can cloud your vision. These are not those.

Both Stockdale and SpaceX show us the importance of taking the long view—the longer your time span, the smaller problems feel and reality is easier to accept. In the long run, more desirable outcomes are probabilistic more than they are zero-sum deterministic affairs. Taking the long view can remind us that the cogs of this world most often move slowly.

These examples make clear what Stoics can offer: they give hope and calm in a world often full of trepidation and uncertainty, a sense of peace amid disorder. They represent a path for learning how to handle fear, failure, and rejection. The Stoics teach us how to do everything we can in pursuit of a goal, but to then let go of it.

Whether a prisoner’s release date or a company’s success is near or far, firm convictions and faith in the eventual outcome can carry the day.

The Stoic knows the fickleness of fortune but refuses to let this become an overwhelming barrier. The Stoic sees obstacles rise but refuses to stop trying to realize change, knowing that this is how things change, at whatever speed change may come. It is a cheery and rationally optimistic kind of resignation.

Where world and dream merge is in how a Stoic dreams: he or she dreams not by attaching expiration dates to perishable dreams but by patiently accepting that dreams must be held steadily while the world catches up.

Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.