:: Article

How to Be a Stoic

By Skye Cleary.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He has PhDs in evolutionary biology and philosophy. He has published over 150 technical papers and a dozen books, the latest of which is “How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living ” . He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org.

3AM: I understand that your book grew out of a New York Times opinion piece by the same name: How to Be a Stoic? Why did you decide to write the book? Or was it more about riding the wave of Fate?

Massimo Pigliucci: In a sense, it was about Fate. But in another sense, it was a very deliberate project. Fate entered into it because The New York Times article went viral, and I immediately started getting calls from a number of publishers, enquiring into whether I intended to write a book. Initially, I didn’t. But then I considered the possibility more carefully. After all, I had started a blog (howtobeastoic.org) with the express purpose of sharing my progress in studying and practicing Stoicism with others, and I am convinced that Stoicism as a philosophy of life can be useful to people. So, a book was indeed the next logical step.

3AM: What are the key differences between ancient Stoicism and your new Stoicism? Why did it need updating?

Massimo Pigliucci: Stoicism is an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, originating around 300 BCE in Athens. It’s only slightly younger than its Eastern counterpart, Buddhism. But while Buddhism went through two and a half millennia of evolution, Stoicism was interrupted by the rise of Christianity in the West. A lot of things have happened in both philosophy and science in the 18 centuries since there were formal Stoic schools, so some updating is in order.

Chiefly, I think modern Stoicism differs from the ancient variety in a couple of important aspects. First, the ancient Stoics were pantheists, they believed that god is the same as the universe, of which we are a part. They called this principle the Logos. Today I think the Logos is compatible with a number of metaphysical stances: if you are a pantheist, you are set, but there are few of those in the modern world. If you are a Christian, you can still practice Stoicism and think of the Logos as the Word of God. If you are a secular person, an agnostic or an atheist, you may treat the Logos as “Einstein’s god,” that is the factual recognition that the cosmos is ordered according to rational principles, without which science itself wouldn’t be possible.

Second, some of the ancient Stoic ideas about what is and is not under our control have to be revised in light of modern cognitive science. They thought that our judgments, decisions, and actions are “up to us,” while everything else is not (since it depends also on external factors). This is called the dichotomy of control, and it is an important part of Stoic doctrine, because it teaches us where to focus our efforts (on internal goals, not external outcomes). But in fact, our judgments may be influenced by external conditions in subtle ways that we do not recognize, and a modern Stoic needs to be aware of this. The dichotomy of control still holds, but it may be more difficult to practice than Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius had realized.

3AM: Stoicism is a highly polarizing philosophy. There are almost cult-like advocates of it, but also many dissenters – both inside and outside the academy. Why does Stoicism elicit such extreme responses?

MP: Good question. In that respect, it isn’t really different from other philosophies (like Existentialism, or Buddhism) and religions (like Christianity). People who invest time and energy in them tend to feel strongly that they have taken the right path. People from the outside aren’t neutral observers, they also have made philosophical or religious choices, which they may perceived are threatened by the success of rival forms of life.

This is not new, of course. The ancient Stoics contended with the Epicureans, the Academic Skeptics, the Aristotelians, and others. And all the Hellenistic schools eventually had to face the rise of Christianity. None of the above means one cannot have reasonable discussions about the value of the ideas in this or that philosophy. So long as such discussions are conducted with reciprocal respect, and with a minimum understanding of the subject matter.

3AM: What are the most compelling parts of Stoicism?

MP: I can’t speak for others, but I find the fundamental idea that a life worth living is one during which one strives every day to become a better person to be compelling. The Stoics do this by mindfully practicing four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, the ability to navigate complex situations in the best way available; courage, to do the right thing; temperance, so to always act in proportion to the need of the situation; and justice, treating others with fairness, as fellow human beings.

I also find some of the Stoic techniques to be very useful. For instance, the evening philosophical diary, in which I interrogate myself about the difficult parts of my day, reflecting on what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I could do better the next time around. Or the exercises in mild self-denial, like occasional fasting, or even taking a cold shower. They remind me of just how good my life normally is, when I can count on things like hot water and a nice meal, which are definitely not a given for everyone on the planet. Think of them as exercises in gratitude, but in practice, not just words.

3AM: What are the most problematic or risky parts of Stoicism?

MP: I don’t see any Stoic practice as problematic or risky, but I would advise to engage in extreme versions of the negative visualization exercise only if you are an advanced practitioner. The negative visualization is a meditation during which you visualize, slowly and deliberately, something bad or discomforting happening to you, like going to the movies and having a jerk in front of you who whips up his cell phone because he absolutely has to check his messages during the movie. The point of the exercise is to acquaint yourself with the situation, getting used to it so that your mind doesn’t fear it or feel disconcerted about it. It’s also a way to imagine how you would react if the situation actually happens, so that you are prepared.

Now, the most extreme kind of negative visualization is imagining a loved one’s, or even your own, death. This, as you can imagine, can be deeply disturbing, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless one is an advanced student. But the point is the same: even death itself is a natural occurrence, it is unavoidable, and the Stoics thought that part of philosophical practice is to get comfortable with the unavoidable, learning to face it with courage.

3AM: The first quote in the book is from Dante’s Inferno. Why not a Stoic?

MP: In the Divine Comedy, Dante actually gives place of honor to a Stoic role model, Cato the Younger. He is a pagan, and yet is not found in Inferno, but at the gate of Purgatory. More to the point, the book is written as a personal journey through Stoicism, with Epictetus as my personal guide. The idea came from re-reading Dante, who famously picked the poet Virgil as his guide through the first two parts of the poem. Moreover, that particular quote, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost,” refers in a sense to Dante’s own mid-life crisis and spiritual journey of self-discovery, and my book is, in part, an explanation of how I got through my own version of that.


3AM: In How to Be a Stoic, you’ve addressed many of the standard critiques of Stoicism by reinterpreting or elaborating on Epictetus’s thinking. For example, you’ve replaced Stoic indifference with appreciation, concern, and compassion. Possibilities for political engagement replaces quietism. To what extent can and should Stoicism be interpreted as a philosophy of action and advocacy? And why does the reputation for indifference and resignation persist?

MP: I’m going to push back a bit. While it is true that in the book I sometimes argue with Epictetus and disagree with him, most especially about his version of the argument from design in theology, Stoicism was never “indifferent,” nor was it ever a quietist philosophy. For instance, the Stoic discipline of action, which is connected to the virtue of justice, says that we ought to treat others fairly and we should engage in social and political activity. This is further supported by the Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism, and by the famous “circles of concern” identified by Hierocles, who counseled that we should refer to other people as brothers and sisters, to constantly remind ourselves that we are members of the same human family. And there are a number of Stoic examples of people who took up arms in order to fight against tyranny, for instance the above-mentioned Cato the Younger, who was a famous archenemy of the tyrant Julius Caesar.

So, I’d say that Stoicism has always been a philosophy of action and social justice, though obviously the ancient Greco-Romans had a different conception of what “social justice” means from our modern ones. (That said, Marcus Aurelius, for instance, promulgated legislation that improved the conditions of slaves and women throughout the empire.) The reputation persists for the same reason that we still today think of the Epicureans as the sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll types of antiquity: once an idea is smeared it is hard to get the stain off, something confirmed by modern psychological research into, for instance, how easy it is to taint a politician by way of simple innuendos, and how next to impossible it is for said politician to demonstrate his innocence, even when he is, in fact, innocent.

3AM: You write that, “The [Stoic] discipline of desire tells us what is and is not proper to want”. Who decides what’s ‘proper’? Is one not subject to the tyranny of the masses if an individual decides what’s proper, moral, or virtuous is contrary to socially accepted norms?

MP: For the Stoic, it is nature that decides what’s proper and what is not proper, but in a very specific sense (i.e., not in the trivially fallacious sense of an appeal to nature). The Stoics thought that a fundamental insight into human life is that some things are up to us and others are not, the famous dichotomy of control. Up to us are our judgments, decisions, and actions; everything else is not up to us, because it is influenced by external factors. So, what is “proper,” meaning, rational, to desire is to arrive at the best judgment possible about any given circumstance. The rest we need to take as it comes, cultivating equanimity toward the doings of the universe.

I hasten to say that this no counsel for passivity in the face of events, because we can act in ways that will make it more likely to bring about certain preferred results. But it is rational to realize that we are not always going to succeed in our efforts.

3AM: How can Stoic philosophy help in a postmodern world where, in many places, money buys might and might makes right (at least in practice)? I’m thinking specifically of big data analytics and conservative billionaires that are swaying elections and referendums. Why should we read Pigliucci and not Machiavelli?

MP: Our world isn’t that different from the ancient one, which is a main reason why Stoicism is still relevant. You think in imperial Rome they didn’t have their version of the Koch brothers? And if you think – as I certainly do – that the current US Administration is deeply corrupt, just wait until you read something about Nero or Caligula. Indeed, the Stoics were often (though not always, the big exception being Seneca) part of the political opposition against tyranny.

I’m flattered by the comparison with Machiavelli, but I suggest one should read both: Machiavelli to understand how “the Prince” (i.e., the tyrant) thinks and acts; yours truly (and many other good books on Stoicism) to understand how to live our own lives and, if necessary, use them to oppose the tyrant.

3AM: You allude to the possibility of criminal reform through a deeper understanding and implementation of amathia – lack of wisdom or ‘intelligent stupidity’. How would that apply to lawmaking in practice?

MP: By following the model of a number of Scandinavian countries, which I detail in the book. What they do is to take seriously the idea that people don’t want to do bad things, they do them because they don’t know better (amathia basically means lack of wisdom). Education, not just formal, but especially ethical, has a very good chance to bring them around and to make them again productive members of the human polis. But don’t trust me on this, check out the empirical evidence, and especially confront the prison records of those countries to the abysmal one of the United States. The latter is truly shameful.

3AM: Albert Ellis, who partially framed his Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy on Stoicism, is famous for challenging patients to consider how the situation could always be worse. You’ve also suggest that there’s value in thinking about the worst-case scenarios. This advice always reminds me of the scene in Monte Python’s Life of Brian when the prisoner, who is about to be stoned to death for blasphemy, says “Jehovah” and is told that he’s just making things worse for himself. “Worse?” the prisoner asks, “How could it be worse?” Isn’t a Stoic attitude a Pyrrhic victory in such cases? While we can certainly think differently about bad situations, unless we have the power to act, then it’s meaningless.

MP: Well, to begin with, often we can change things, and a realistic attitude – including envisioning worse case scenarios – actually helps to accomplish that change. But if you truly cannot do anything about something, then why on earth would you want to make things even worse for you by falling into despair? It seems like adding a self-inflicting injury to the already existing one. I’m reminded of the recent movie Bridge of Spies, where one of the main characters risks the death penalty. His lawyer notices that the fellow doesn’t seem to be worried or upset at the prospect, and asks him why. The man replies: “would it help?”

3AM: The Stoics often say thing like “fate permitting” instead of “fingers crossed”. If “few things are under our control”, then why should we bother trying to do or change anything? How much control do we have over our destiny?

MP: “Fate permitting” is a standard Stoic phrase meant to remind ourselves that planning things is up to us, but the ultimate outcomes are not under our control. It helps us to develop an attitude of equanimity toward the universe. We should very much try to change things for the better, that’s the whole point of the Stoic discipline of action, as I was saying earlier, and that discipline is connected to the virtue of justice. But we should also be rational about it, and understand that sometimes things go our way, and at other times they don’t. We have varying degrees of influence over external events, but the only things truly under our control are our judgments and actions, for which we are morally responsible.

3AM: Stoicism, you suggest, is a philosophy of love, but I understand this to be in a broad sense of the word – agape and storge – which means treating outsiders as if they were in our inner circle and refraining from hasty judgements. Yet, there’s little in your book about eros – the romantic and passionate side of life – except when you report that yours wasn’t affected by the near loss of a finger. Unlike the Romantics, Stoics aren’t famous for great art, music, poetry, and passion. Nietzsche proposed that: “If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy […] above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement […] Also the frenzy that follows all great cravings, all strong affects…” Can art and frenzy and passion be incorporated into a Stoic way of life without stripping them of their beauty and reducing them to preferred indifferents?

MP: Okay, let me start with a cheap shot: I wouldn’t take Nietzsche as a guide. Look at what happened to him… More seriously, the Stoics did produce art. Seneca wrote tragedies that directly influenced Shakespeare, and his nephew, Lucan was a famous poet. Moreover, Seneca famously says: “Socrates did not blush to play with little boys, Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music…It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII) Does that sound to you like someone who doesn’t engage the good things in life?


But you do have a point: the “Dionysian” aspect of life is in the background for the Stoic, since the primary concern is to live a moral life. But that hardly seems a misplaced priority to me. We still live in a world of such gross injustice and inequality, that only privileged people like ourselves can afford to think of eros and art as top concerns in life. They are important, for sure, but I think it’s high time to shift priorities around, away from selfish indulgence, and toward more concern for the wellbeing of so many others who suffer atrocities, injustice, and famine, all over the planet.

3AM: Is Stoicism a philosophy for everyone? If more people joined the Stoic tent, would the world be a better place? Who ought not to practice Stoicism?

MP: I do think it is a philosophy for everyone, and I am convinced that the world would be a better place if more people prioritized their moral development over the acquisition of external goods. That said, there are clearly people for whom Stoicism immediately “clicks,” it comes natural, and others for whom it doesn’t. Then again, Stoicism isn’t the only positive philosophy of life. Buddhism is an excellent alternative, if it speaks more clearly to one’s personality or cultural background. What the world needs is more compassion (love in the broad sense, as you were saying earlier) and use of practical reason to solve human problems. What it needs less is ideological and religious fanaticism, of which, unfortunately, there currently is aplenty.

3AM: Who do you hope will read this book and how do you hope it will help them flourish?

MP: I hope the book will be read by a variety of people, with different interests, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic status. Because I believe Stoicism can help anyone who takes it seriously and begins to practice it. (That’s why the book ends with a list of exercises, it isn’t just theory or pretty words…) It will help them flourish because it will provide them with a compass for navigating life, a general, flexible, framework to set priorities, and a set of techniques to achieve serenity and equanimity. I see this happening every week on my blog, where I publish a sort of “Dear Abby” column based on Stoic principles. Countless people write with sometimes really tough questions, and many more tell me that they are benefiting greatly from the tools that Stoicism makes available to them. Actually helping people, that’s not something you ordinarily associate with philosophy, is it?

3AM: True. What does the future hold for Stoicism?

MP: Fate permitting, growth in influence and numbers. In my mind, there is no reason why Stoicism shouldn’t become as popular as Buddhism, especially in the Western world, where the dominant culture, Christianity, itself absorbed a large number of elements from Greco-Roman Stoicism.

3AM: How would you sum up the main take-away of your book in 140 characters?

MP: Internalize the dichotomy of control (desire), do good (action), and make good judgments (assent). [That’s 98 characters…]


Skye C. Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She teaches at Columbia University, the City College of New York, Barnard College, and previously at the New York Public Library. Skye is the Managing Editor of the American Philosophical Association’s blog, an advisory board member of Strategy of Mind, and a certified fellow with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association.
Twitter: @Skye_Cleary

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 15th, 2017.