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Stoicism 5.0: The unlikely 21st century reboot of an ancient philosophy

The Conversation

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Keep calm and get your stoic on many people today are heeding the advice.

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

From Cynicism to Stoicism

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, to paraphrase Monty Python.
We live in strange times. But few people could have expected today’s rise of a global movement of self-describing Stoic online communities numbering over 100,000 participants.

Stoicism was the ancient Greek and then Roman philosophy founded in the last decades of the fourth century BCE by a merchant, Zeno of Citium (modern Cyprus). The latter’s vessel had sunk on route to Athens, taking Zeno’s cargo down with it.

Zeno, it is said, made his way up to the Athenian agora. There, with his few remaining coins, he bought and read a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. “Where can I find a man like this?”, he is supposed to have asked the bookseller.

Zeno was pointed towards one Crates, a philosopher from the Cynical school. The Cynics were a kind of radical break-away group from the circles surrounding the Platonic Academy and Aristotelian Lyceum. The Cynics claimed to live “according to nature”. They completely shunned social conventions and living as simply as dogs (kynes), whence the name.

Some years later, Zeno founded his own school. He would deliver lectures to the public on the steps of Athens’ painted Stoa (whence “Stoicism”, aka “the porch”), whose foundations today lie half-concealed beneath surrounding restaurants.

The painted Stoa today where Stoicism began in the 5th century BCE.

What all this has to do with men and women in the internet age, outside of classics departments, is another thing.

When this author has from time to time spoken on issues around the Stoic conception that philosophy is a “way of life” at academic conferences, the results vary. In some contexts, people respond with barely concealed condescension. Philosophy is about concepts, the pursuit of truth, and these days, the increasingly-uncertain pursuit of competitive advantage in a shrinking marketplace.

“How would you know you were living philosophically?”, someone asked at one such event. “Surely, even if we agree that a form of self-cultivation was what philosophy once was, this is no longer possible today,” others have rejoined.

The Stoic philosophy, some note, involved a highly systematic physics, many of whose propositions do not gel with our presently-best understandings of nature (notably, the idea of a providentially ordered cosmos that is in some sense a single living organism).

I had a strange Cynical impression of my own, when I recently discovered the phenomenal extent of the growth of “Modern Stoicism”, “How to Be a Stoic”, “Daily Stoic”, “Traditional Stoicism”, and associated blogs, email lists and Youtube channels since 2013.

The thousands of people who write, read and practice the Stoicism prescribed by these sites, take courses and attend annual events like Stoicon, I thought, are responding to the academic queries like Diogenes, the most famous Cynic, is said to have responded to a metaphysical argument that purported to show that movement was impossible.

Initiating the long and invaluable tradition of philosophical satire, the old dog got up from his armchair and walked around.

Why Stoicism?

But why Stoicism, and why now? I recently asked these and other questions to several of the leading figures associated with the new Stoic movement, and spent time investigating their sites and stories.

The core of the answer has to be the enduring pertinence of Stoic ethics, especially as it has come down to us through the Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius.

The pertinence hinges upon a few very simple, powerfully intuitive observations and principles.

These begin with Epictetus‘ simple call to people to always distinguish between what is, and is not in our control. There is, at some basic level, no rational point in being unhappy about the things we can’t change. Learning to let go of these things, in order to focus on what we can affect—our own present impulses, thoughts, and actions—just has to be both philosophically astute, as well as a psychological boon.

Imagine that all of the mental energy people spend worrying about what others think, tweet, like or say (or don’t) about them, what may happen in the future (but may not), and what cannot be changed in the past, could be freed up to attend solely to the things we each can presently alter.

This thought will bring you close to what the Stoics promise, via their (Socratic) stress that peoples’ inner character (or “virtue”) is the most important good anyone can prize or pursue.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius, the second centUry CE Stoic philosopher-Emperor in the Metropolitan Museum.

All of the other, external things—from reputation to fame to power to money to … anything subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—all these are for the Stoics “indifferent”.

That is, they are neither good nor bad in themselves, nor can their possession or loss (as we sometimes say) “make us” happy or unhappy. It is our judgements of things which confers on them this power over us. But those judgements can be challenged by argument, and reframed through practice and resolve.

Stoicism has recently been described, in today’s terms, as one of the best “mind hacks” ever devised.

The resulting, advertised ability of Stoic “sages” to be able to bear up “philosophically”, despite the loss of their cities, properties, friends or even loved ones has given the school the perennial reputation for being a joyless, “grin and bear it” affair.

The Stoics however don’t want or require people to lose everything in order to find inner peace. (This is more the Cynics’ prescription). Stoicism instead asks people to cultivate the inner resources to be able to bear up to prosperity and adversity alike with equanimity.

Hamlet’s friend Horatio, whose Stoic virtue makes him not a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she pleases.

From the Serenity Prayer to Shakespeare to Roosevelt to modern authors like Walt Whitman or Tom Wolfe, Stoicism has remained one of the abiding threads out of which Western culture has been woven.

And while most of us will find many aspects of the Stoic physics and theology foreign, there seems little in this ethics which has or could ever age. This realisation led the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to adapt Stoic principles and prescriptions into 20th century psychotherapy, before today’s 21st century revival under Stoicism’s own name.

It is just a good deal harder to be a Stoic in practice, than to Stoicise in theory. And this is where communities of debate and practice come into it.

Why now and how?

One old criticism of the Stoics, from the German philosopher Hegel, is that Stoicism is a philosophy for times of de-democratisation.

It emerged after classical Greece’s autonomous, democratic city-states had undergone terminal decline. The philosophy re-empowers people individually, in a world where everything else is at the disposal of powers, like the Hellenistic Kings and Roman Emperors, who can at any moment rob us of all our worldly possessions.

There are real historical problems with this idea. But perhaps it captures something about the attractions of Stoicism today. We are entering into a period in which the postwar liberal-democratic consensus is straining. Meanwhile, the security and surveillance apparati of modern corporations and nation-states increasingly call into question what privacy could mean in the internet age.

The internet itself is the more material cause underlying today’s proliferation of Stoic practical philosophy, outside of the walls of academe.

Zeno the founding Stoic’s statue in modern Larnaka (ancient Citium/Kition) in Southern Cyprus.

What we might call this “fifth Stoa” or “Stoicism 5.0″—counting the early, middle and late ancient periods scholars divide, plus the early modern “neoStoicism” of figures like Justus Lipsius—had humble beginnings.

Nobody’s ship was sunk. But the people associated with these beginnings had no idea how quickly their progeny would grow.

According to Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy:

Patrick Ussher, a PhD student at Essex University used it with a group of students who were trying to live for a week following the advice of Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician. His professor in the classics department at Essex, Chris Gill, organized for a group of people who had written about these things, including myself, Tim LeBon, and Jules Evans to meet with them and Stoic Week was born. There’s a video of that workshop at Exeter in 2012. That’s exactly how our Modern Stoicism project was born.

This project now includes several Facebook groups (the largest of which has, as of this week, over 25, 000 members), the Stoicism Subreddit (over 54,000 subscribers), email lists within which fierce debates rage on points of theoretical detail: numerous Stoic blogs, some Stoic consultants, and hundreds of Youtube videos.

There is the site “Traditional Stoicism” which has broken away from the other “modern” groups on grounds of an insistence that living according to Stoic ethics requires a commitment to the ancient Stoic physics and theology.

There are the “Modern Stoicism” and “How to be a Stoic” email feeds, on which articles on Stoic figures, texts and subjects—and, in the latter case, a popular Stoic Advice column—are posted every other day.

Some groups recommend Eastern meditative practices of “mindfulness” alongside, or as the corollary, of Stoic practices. Others demur.

Then there is a site like “Daily Stoic” which sends daily Stoic meditation themes to subscribers’ email addresses: whether quotes from the great Hellenistic and Roman Stoics, or from works of literature and philosophy on Stoic themes.

All of these online communities are united by the conviction that Stoicism was and remains, at its core, a way of life. Their founding father, in this regard, is the great French classicist and historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot.

In a series of works written after 1970, based upon an exacting apprenticeship in theology and philology, Hadot became convinced that the only way to make sense of what the ancient Stoics (and Epicureans and Pyrrhonians) wrote was if we suppose that they conceived philosophy as what the Stoics called “an art of living”.

Pierre Hadot, author of The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and other influential works.

Many of the texts, notably including the Roman Stoics’ at the heart of today’s Stoic revival, feature prescriptions for what Hadot called “spiritual exercises”. These include meditative exercises, wherein a student is for instance encouraged to re-envisage her situation from above, in order to re-contextualise (and bring a larger perspective to) the difficulties they face.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations involve a series of fragments wherein the emperor enjoins this and other exercises on himself: like the practice of remembering, with gratitude, all the people who have benefited him, and what he owes to each of them; or premeditating, every morning, how in the day ahead we will confront people who irritate or misconstrue us, and situations that do not “go our way”; or remembering that “the best revenge is not to become like the person who has wronged you”, whose thoughts and actions in any case are primarily their own concern.

Seneca tells us that each night, before sleep, he would make time to examine all of the previous days’ actions in the Stoic light of his philosophical principles.

The answer to how a person would know they are living like a Stoic is then pretty clear, to all but some professionals. Zeno is again on the move.

The Stoic student would be undertaking these and other exercises, every day, at allocated times, in ways recommended for instance in the “Live like a Stoic” week that has been running since 2012. As Robertson explained his own Stoic practice to the author recently:

I study Stoic literature pretty much every day …. [and] I try to live like a Stoic. I take a cold shower every morning; I fast every Sunday; I exercise based on Stoic principles in the mornings. I prepare for setbacks in the morning and review my day before going to sleep … I also use the View from Above if I’m ever feeling stressed. But Stoicism is my ethic, so in a sense I’m trying to apply it throughout the day to every situation.

Of course, not everyone who belongs to the 21st century, Stoic online communities will live out so completely the kind of philosophical regimen Robertson describes here.

The ConversationBut the fact that so many people now belong to these 21st century Stoic communities suggests that, whatever may happen to philosophy in its later modern academic iterations in coming decades, its ancient calling will remain vibrantly alive.

Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Where to start reading philosophy?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.

Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.

Shame and Necessity

by Bernard Williams

After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?

However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).

So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.

Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.

It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.

The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney

The Philosophy Book

by Will Buckingham

Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.

With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.

The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.

The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.

There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.

The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.

This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia

50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know

by Ben Dupré

Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.

Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.

The book’s blurb asks:

Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?

It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.

There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.

This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia

On Bullshit

by Harry G Frankfurt

When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.

But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.

So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.

Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.

Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.

The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.

The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher

by William H F Altman

Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.

Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.

The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).

Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.

The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.

Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.

This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).

But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Pierre Hadot

This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.

It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.

The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.

Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.

I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:

Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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