Post it note of "Keep Calm and Carry On"

Stoicism Now: Conversation with Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He studies the nature of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the modern revival of ancient Stoicism.  I spoke with Massimo about whether Stoicism is a good life hack, if “Keep Calm and Carry On” should be a Stoic maxim, and how Stoicism answers to oppression.   

Stoicism is building a reputation for being a “life hack.  Does Stoicism lend itself better to everyday life than other philosophies?

Stoicism is a practical philosophy, and as such it comes with actionable advice for its practitioners. If one is interested only in developing a toolkit, one can of course push the philosophy in the background and just focus on the tools it provides. This is nothing unusual, we do it in other areas as well. Some people, for instance, engage in meditation, or practice yoga, without necessarily embracing the philosophical or mystical traditions behind those techniques. Likewise, Stoicism has inspired a number of successful, evidence-based modern psychotherapies, including Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, Albert Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), and the family of cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT). Some of these approaches have retained more of a philosophical outlook (REBT) while others have focused on short-term actionable advice (CBT).

Should philosophy be used as a life hack?

I don’t particularly like the term “life hack,” but I understand some people’s desires to put into practice a select number of techniques to simply improve their life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But adopting a philosophy of life–or a religion, which is a type of life philosophy–is a bigger deal, and cannot be reduced to life hacking. So I think life hacking is a legitimate, but limited approach.

Stoicism was recently likened to the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On”. How well does this maxim reflect the essence of Stoicism?

You won’t find that phrase in any of the ancient Stoic texts, but you are right, it has become associated with the current popularization of Stoicism. I think that’s fine, so long as we understand what the phrase means within a Stoic context. Most importantly, it does not mean that we should go through life with a stiff upper lip because that’s the best we can do in a world that is fundamentally not going to change. Instead, it means that one should keep a level-headed attitude because that’s the best way to tackle complex problems. Sometimes to “carry on” means to start a revolution, as one of the Stoic role models, Cato the Younger, did against what he saw as the tyranny of Julius Caesar.

It would seem that Stoicism appeals to men in particular. For example, it’s mostly men writing about it, such as you and Ryan Holiday, and at Stoicon in New York City the overwhelming majority of attendees were men–it seemed even more so than philosophy in general. Why do you think this is the case?

It isn’t entirely the case, I think. First off, philosophy at large suffers from a preponderance of men, not just Stoicism. Moreover, you could say the same for a lot of other academic disciplines and their public reception, from mathematics to physics, from engineering to chemistry. So it’s a broader issue, and it seems unfair to pin it down on Stoicism in particular.

That said, there was actually a significant number of women at Stoicon, including yourself! And we had three women speakers during the single-day session: Julia Annas, Debbie Joffe Ellis, and Cinzia Arruzza. Moreover, other women philosophers have written positively about Stoicism, for instance Martha Nussbaum. Also, the Stoicism Facebook community, counting over 17,000 people, has a lot of women members, several of whom regularly contribute to the ongoing discussions. Sometimes people say that Stoicism is more popular among men because it is about suppressing emotions, but that gets it twice wrong: first, because that’s actually a profound mischaracterization of the philosophy; second, because it uncritically accepts the stereotype that women are more “emotional” (and therefore more fragile?) than men. I hope we are finally moving beyond that sort of false biological dichotomy.

In a recent conversation on the blog, Sandy Grant argues that Stoicism thrived during slavery and women’s oppression, in which case it makes sense that Stoicism was popular then, because it helped people live with being oppressed. However, she suggests that Stoicism doesn’t make sense now because it encourages quietism and distraction, upholds the status quo, and “trades on the elevation of the old bearded man as sage”. What are your thoughts on this?

A lot of misconceptions are packed into that judgment, so let me try to unpack them. First off, again, why pick on Stoicism in particular? During the same period a number of philosophies and religions were developing or thriving, including Epicureanism, Peripateticism, Platonism, Cynicism, Christianity and Buddhism. Should we then dismiss all of those as well because they happen to come about during an historical time that was characterized by slavery and women’s oppression?

Also, which period of human history, exactly, isn’t so characterized? Do we not have actual slavery in a number of countries in the world right now, not to mention virtual slavery due to abysmal economic conditions in many places on the planet? Don’t we have a large number of countries today where women are oppressed, and a number of others–including the U.S.–where they are still at a significant disadvantage compared to men?

Further, Stoicism has, historically, never encouraged quietism, from Greco-Roman times until today. Many Stoics were persecuted and either exiled or put to death by Roman emperors because they dared speak truth to power. And a number of modern individuals who were not quietist have been positively influenced by Stoicism, for instance Nelson Mandela, who read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations during his prison time, a reading that helped him overcome his anger, develop an understanding of his guard as a human being, and eventually recognize that reconciliation is better than anger when it comes to achieve both justice and social progress.

One more thing: since when resilience has become a bad thing? I mean, I hear a lot this criticism of Stoicism that it’s a bad thing to encourage people to be resilient and accept the fact that life comes with problems, some of which we can only endure, not resolve. It seems to me that resilience is actually a necessary component of a positive reaction to problems: if one is emotionally crashed one can hardly fight back. Moreover, it is wishful thinking to tell people that they can overcome everything, or that they can be “anything they want to be.” Realism isn’t defeatism, while unbridled optimism can actually pave the way for self-blame or, worse, blaming the victim, when things don’t turn out the way we were induced to believe they would.

Stoicism advocates for letting go of what we can’t control and focusing on what we do have power over. But in a hyper-connected and informed world in which we can see that our choices can and do have widespread impact, such as contributing to climate change, and we know that there are starving children and refugee crises around the world, where does one draw the line? Considering a simple example: a train is running late and the Stoic solution is not to get upset about it because we can’t control train timetables. But if the delay was, for example, due to old and broken equipment, perhaps one ought to go into politics in order to advocate for sufficient funding for public infrastructure. It seems to me to be an issue not of what one doesn’t have control over, but what one chooses not to be involved with. 

The line is clearly drawn by Epictetus: under our control are our values, our judgments, and our actions. Everything else is not under our control. This does not mean that we cannot influence (some) events, of course. But it does mean that we don’t have complete control over what’s going on in the world. The Stoic attitude, consequently, is not one of renunciation and inward focus, but rather a shift from external to internal goals: my goal isn’t to make my partner love me, because that’s not under my control; it is to be the most lovable person I can be with her, because that’s under my control. My goal is not to achieve peace in Syria, because that’s outside of my control; but it is to do whatever I can to improve the situation–donate money to relief organizations, write to my representatives, protest in the streets, help refugees–because that’s under my control. Anything else, the Stoic says, would be wishful thinking, and the world doesn’t change just because we wish it to.

So to use your example of the train: most of the times trains are late for perfectly good reasons, and it would actually be rather narcissistic to think that the entire system has to be adjusted because I happen to have missed the number 1 subway this morning. Instead, the Stoic simply reminds herself that these things happen, that there are plenty of places in the world where there just are no subways or public transport to begin with, and that she can spend the few minutes of wait doing something useful, like reading a book, instead of wallowing in futile anger. That said, there are of course situations where the problems are indeed systemic, so the Stoic will both cope with the current state of affairs–because getting upset isn’t going to make her day any better–and work toward changing things, as much as it is in fact possible for her to do so.

Further to this, perhaps oppression is an insurmountable problem if we attempt to tackle it individually but, Sandy Grant points out that “oppression is a collective action problem. We can do something about it, but only if we act together.” What’s Stoicism’s answer to oppression?

Oikeiosis. That’s the word that the ancient Stoics used to indicate the active development of concern for other people. Hierocles, a II century Stoic who wrote a book entitled Elements of Ethics, thought that we should think of others in concentric circles: nearby me, affectively speaking, there is my family; then my friends; then my fellow citizens and countrymen; and so on all the way to the whole of humanity. Now, Hierocles said, begin to mentally contract those circles, bringing people closer and closer to you, actively practicing concern for all. He even provided practical advice on how to do this: when you meet someone in the street, refer to her or him as “brother” or “sister,” or, depending on age, “aunt” or “uncle.” This explicit behavior will gradually affect the way you feel about others. This kind of cognitive re-direction of one’s feelings, incidentally, is at the core of CBT.

A second aspect of the Stoic response to oppression is the concept of cosmopolitanism, a word that was actually invented by the Cynics and then deployed systematically by the Stoics. We are all equal, says Seneca, and we ought to treat everyone the same because of our shared humanity. Musonius Rufus, a I century Stoic teacher, thought that men and women have the same intellectual capacities, and that they ought to be taught in the same way, no room for discrimination.

Finally, the Stoics were mindful of practicing four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom (the ability to navigate complex situations to one’s best), temperance (self-control), courage (not just physical, but especially moral), and justice (i.e., fairness toward other people). Especially the last two are perfectly good tools for the Stoic practitioner to fight against oppression and discrimination, since they are core aspects of Stoic doctrine.

You mentioned in a recent tweet that “We can engage & rebel without falling into rage, which Seneca called temp[orary] madness”. Why is peace of mind preferable to excitement and passion? Shouldn’t we be enraged if we become aware of atrocities, especially if that motivates positive action?

The Stoics, unlike Aristotle, believed that there is no such thing as a good amount of anger. That’s because anger has a way of swallowing you, it easily gets out of control, and even when it is justified, it often lead to actions that one is likely to regret. But that’s not the same as saying that one shouldn’t respond appropriately to atrocities and injustice, even emotionally so.

The Stoics, contra popular misconception, did not counsel the suppression of emotions. They weren’t proto-Spock from Star Trek. Rather, they thought that negative, disruptive emotions–such as hatred, anger, and fear–should be controlled by reason, while positive emotions–like love, a righteous sense of justice, and even a sense of awe at the beauty of the world–should be actively cultivated.

Again, I refer you to Mandela and his transformation in prison, beautifully described by Martha Nussbaum in her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. He had first to overcome his anger, what Seneca called temporary madness, in order to see clearly that his oppressors, beginning with his jailer, were also human beings. Profoundly misguided, but human nonetheless. It was the embracing of their humanity, a sense of compassion–a positive emotion–that made him possible for him to conquer his own situation and eventually to literally change the world.

In some ways, a Stoic attitude would seem to be at odds with an existential focus on passion and engagement. And yet in other ways, they are quite similar.  For example, CBT and existentialism both focus on choosing our behavior. Are you able to speak to some of the ways that a Stoic approach would respond to the existential ideas that anxiety is a fact of life and that we are morally obliged to be politically engaged?

Well, the similarity between CBT and Stoicism is not coincidental since, as I said, the core tenet that we should be concerned first and foremost with our judgments is a Stoic idea inherited by CBT. In terms of passion and engagement, the Stoics actually described their philosophy as a philosophy of love (Seneca does this explicitly, for instance). Moreover, as I have explained above, they practiced the active nurturing of positive emotions, and they were very much socially and politically involved.

Regarding your latter two points, those are crucial, and I really appreciate the Stoic take on them. Existential anxiety, for the Stoics, comes primarily from our fear of death. But that fear is misguided for a number of reasons. First, because death is a natural process that leads into the same state in which we were, so to speak, for the long time before we were born. We didn’t suffer then, and we are not going to suffer after we die. Second, and more crucially, Seneca says that we actually die every day, meaning both that every day brings us closer to the end, and also that we don’t really know when that last moment will come. That is what gives the Stoic an urgency to live life at its fullest, and not to waste time in trivial matters or the pursuit of empty pleasures.  Though Stoics, again contra popular misconceptions, did enjoy pleasures, so long as they owned the pleasure and not the other way around: as Diogenes Laertius put it, Stoics drink wine, but they don’t get drunk.

As for the moral duty to be politically engaged, I have already commented on it: a major way one practices the virtues of courage and justice is precisely by conducting the sort of public life that many Stoics became famous for, as politicians, statesmen, or teachers. As Marcus puts it in the Meditations:

Your life is short. You must turn to profit the present by the aid of reason and justice.

I understand you have a book on Stoicism coming out in May 2017 – congratulations! Can you tell us a little more about that?

Thanks! It’s called How to Be a Stoic, to be published by Basic Books. It’s an introduction to the theory and practice of Stoicism by way of an ongoing conversation between me and Epictetus, one of the most influential Stoic teachers. Epictetus was born a slave in Hierapolis, modern day Western Turkey. He was bought out and brought to Rome, where he spent time at the court of Nero. He was then freed by his master and began teaching philosophy in Rome. That got on the nerves of the emperor Diocletian, who condemned him to exile. Epictetus then moved to Nicopolis, in Western Greece, where he established one of the most successful philosophical schools of the time.

I love Epictetus because of his sharp analytical mind, but also because he has a wicked sense of humor. This, for instance, is one of the first quotes by him that I’ve come across:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived–and dying I will tend to later.

I mean, talk about keeping things in perspective! But he is also someone I can constructively disagree with. For example, he talks a lot about God and Providence, concepts that he took further than most Stoics–who were pantheists and materialists–and which don’t mesh very well with my own secular perspective. But that’s what makes the book fun: sometimes we spar on issues, at other times I’m in awe of his wisdom, which seems just as relevant today as it was two millennia ago. And as Seneca wrote, that’s one of the best things about philosophy: anyone who wishes to can engage in an endless conversation with some of the best minds humanity has produced. That is a privilege that goes beyond the specifics of Stoicism, and one that I feel constantly humbled to be able to enjoy.

Massimo blogs at platofootnote.org and at howtobeastoic.org, tweets @mpigliucci, and you can read his APA Member Interview here.  Skye Cleary is the Managing Editor of the Blog of the APA.  

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