STOICS: WARRIORS OF VIRTUE

Who were the Stoics?

The founder of Stoicism was Zeno of Citium (pictured on the right in Raphael’s School of Athens), who lived and taught in Athens in around 300 BC. He and his students taught and discussed philosophy under the Stoa Poikile, or ‘painted colonnade’ in the Athenian market-place. Stoicism became very popular among the Roman ruling class, and most of the surviving Stoic books were written by Roman Stoics, particularly Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. You can access many of the Stoic texts for free here and here.

What did the Stoics believe?

Stoicism originally emerged at quite a volatile period in Greek history, when Athenian city-states were being conquered by foreign empires. It developed as a way of staying sane amid all that chaos. An important part of the therapy of Stoicism was to remind yourself at all times of what you can control and what you can’t. We can’t control geopolitics, we can’t control the weather, we can’t control the economy, we can’t control other people, we can’t even control our own bodies, not entirely anyway. The world is beyond our control. It’s a rough and unpredictable environment that is constantly changing. The only thing we can really control are our own thoughts and beliefs. If we remind ourselves of that, and focus our energy and attention on our own beliefs and opinions, then we can learn to cope wisely with whatever the world throws at us.

Can you give me a practical example of this coping method?

Sure. In chapter two of the book we meet Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum, and hear how she was captured during the First Iraq War, when her helicopter was shot down. She was injured, shot, sexually assaulted and then imprisoned. She found herself in a situation where she had minimal control. But instead of being traumatised by it, she focused on what she could control: her beliefs. She refused to give her captors power over that. It was the one area left where she was still free. She got through the situation by focusing on the things she could control and tolerating the things she couldn’t – just like the Serenity Prayer tells us to do .

Her story reminds me a bit of Viktor Frankl.

Right. Frankl, as many readers will know, was a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II. He was in one of the darkest and most frightening situations imaginable. Yet even amid that darkness, he realised that he still had power over his own beliefs and attitudes. He could refuse to let the situation break him, and instead assert his moral freedom. As he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ That’s a very Stoic insight.

You talk in the book about how Stoicism has been taken up and adapted by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Could you tell us a bit about that here?

Aaron Beck (left) and Albert Ellis, the inventors of CBT, both told me they were inspired by the Stoics

Sure thing. The pioneer of what became CBT was a New York psychologist called Albert Ellis, who I interviewed back in 2007 (it turned out to be the last interview he gave before he sadly died later that year). Ellis was originally trained in psychoanalysis, but he didn’t feel he was making any progress with his patients. So he abandoned psychoanalysis and went back to what he described as his ‘hobby’: ancient philosophy. In particular, he was inspired by a saying of Epictetus: ‘Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinions about events’. This inspired Ellis’ cognitive therapy of the emotions, which became the basis of CBT. It’s based on the idea that our emotions follow our beliefs and judgements. If we change our habitual beliefs, we also change our emotions. We can use this technique even to overcome chronic emotional disorders and severe traumas. You can watch a video of Ellis discussing how he used the Stoics here. Aaron Beck also told me he was directly inspired by his reading of Plato and the Stoics.

Does this technique really work?

There’s a strong evidence base now for CBT’s effectiveness in helping people overcome disorders like depression, panic disorder, social anxiety and anger issues. Personally, I used CBT and Stoicism to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and social anxiety, all of which I developed in my late teens. At that time, I felt extremely out of control, and couldn’t understand why my emotions were so violent or what to do about it. Stoicism gave me a way to understand how my emotions arose and how I could control them.

It’s important to understand that Stoic therapy doesn’t involve suppressing your emotions or denying them beneath a ‘stiff upper lip’, as the popular understanding of ‘stoic’ might suggest. In fact, Stoic therapy involves exploring the beliefs and opinions that give rise to your negative emotions, seeing if those beliefs are irrational, and if they are, challenging them and replacing them with new beliefs. So Stoic therapy involves dismantling the beliefs and habits that create an emotion, rather than simply denying an emotion.

But surely it’s not all about our beliefs. Sometimes a situation is genuinely pretty terrible, so being depressed about it might actually be rational?

Mayor Sam Sullivan accepting the Olympic Flag in Turin

In the book, we meet many situations that are genuinely pretty awful. For example, we meet Sam Sullivan, who was left paralysed when he was a teenager after a skiing accident in Vancouver. He lost the use of his arms and legs, and initially, he felt deeply depressed and suicidal about his situation. But Stoicism helped him to change his attitude, to see the situation as a challenge. He trained to get back the use of his arms, then he started to campaign to improve the lives of disabled people in Vancouver. This led him into local politics, and he eventually became mayor of Vancouver. When Vancouver won its bid to hold the Winter Olympics, Sam went to the closing ceremony in Turin to accept the Olympic flag – a moment you can watch here. That moment, and Sam’s life story, remind of the lines of Epictetus: ‘Difficulty shows what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror’. So I think we always have a choice about how we deal with situations – even ones that are genuinely pretty challenging.

Why did you call this section of the book ‘The Warriors of Virtue’?

Partly because many of the modern Stoics whose stories we hear in the book are soldiers. We meet Michael Perry, for example, who is a Green Beret and a practicing Stoic, and hear about how his Spartan regime of physical training is inspired by his Stoic values. We meet Major Thomas Jarrett, who developed a Stoic-inspired resilience training course called Warrior Resilience and Thriving, which he taught to American troops in Baghdad during the second Iraq War (you can watch a video of Major Jarrett talking about how he uses Stoicism here ).

And we also discover how Stoic ideas and techniques are now, through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, being taught to every person in the US Army and Air Force, through a $125 million resilience training course called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, which Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum was put in charge of. You can watch a video about the programme here .

CBT may have been inspired by Stoicism, but there are some big differences as well, aren’t there?

Certainly. I discuss some of the differences and similarities in this talk . The biggest difference is that Stoicism wasn’t just a set of therapeutic techniques. It was a spiritual philosophy, the end of which was bringing the self into harmony with the Logos.

What’s the Logos?

The Stoics followed Heraclitus in believing that the cosmos is connected by an all-pervasive intelligence called the Logos, which you can translate as the Word or the Law. It’s a form of divine providence that guides all things. It exists in all things, but it vibrates particularly strongly in human consciousness. For the Stoics, the meaning of life, the goal of human existence, is to develop our consciousness and bring it into harmony with the Logos.

How do we do that?

By overcoming our attachment and aversion to external things. Nature is constantly changing, nothing is permanent, so if we become attached or averse to external things, we’ll often be unhappy, insecure and anxious, because the world will not be the way we want it to be. By focusing not on external goods but on the inner goods of virtue, we can become one with the ebb and flow of the cosmos, accepting whatever happens to us as the will of the Logos.

Then what? Do we get a good reincarnation?

Actually the Stoics are fairly reticent about what if anything happens in the afterlife, or if there is an afterlife. But the reward of bringing oneself into harmony with the Logos is that you attain a ‘good flow of life’. You attain the peace and happiness of being in harmony with the cosmos, and of fulfilling your divine nature as a rational human being.

It’s quite an extreme form of therapy: overcoming suffering by becoming completely detached from external things.

Yes, but no more so than, say, Buddhism or Taoism. Anyway, CBT took the Stoics’ cognitive theory of emotions, and some of its techniques for transforming beliefs and emotions (such as the journal, the handbook, the use of maxims, and other therapeutic techniques which I discuss in the book), but dropped all mention of Stoicism’s religious language, or its commitment to virtue, or its spiritual goal of overcoming attachments to become one with the Logos. CBT turned a spiritual philosophy into a set of instrumental techniques to overcome emotional disorders.

Some people might prefer it that way, others might feel something was lost in translation. It’s understandable that a therapy that’s supported and financed by governments would drop some of the religious language of Stoicism, but speaking personally, having been helped by CBT I was fascinated to hear about the original context of these amazing and powerful ideas. Some people, including me, are interested in developing a form of ‘philosophical CBT’ which re-contextualises it in ancient philosophy. I talk more about that project here.

So what’s the state of Stoicism today?

The writer Tom Wolfe, one of Stoicism's modern fans

There have always been people attracted to Stoicism. It was a major influence on Shakespeare, for example, and in more recent times on writers including JD Salinger and Tom Wolfe. It’s also attracted political and military leaders, from Frederick the Great to president Bill Clinton to Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao, who says he has read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations over 100 times. Many of the Roman Stoics were also deeply involved in political and military affairs – Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome – and it’s often been attractive to people in power, as a means of coping with the stress of political life while trying to keep true to one’s principles.

Academic interest in Stoicism hasn’t always been that great – for much of the 20th century, classicists were much more interested in Plato and Aristotle, but it has revived strongly thanks to the work of AA Long (you can read my interview with Long here) and through subsequent philosophers like Martha Nussbaum (read my interview with Nussbaum here). Outside of academia, Stoicism found much more interest among self-help and self-improvement gurus like Dale Carnegie and Tim Ferriss.

Is there a Stoic community today?

Historically there was never really much of a Stoic community – it’s always been quite an individualist philosophy – but in the last few years we’ve seen the first hesitant steps towards such a community, thanks to the internet, and to a man called Erik Wiegardt. Erik set up an organisation called www.newstoa.com, which connects Stoics from around the world. I had the pleasure of attending a gathering of Stoics at Erik’s house in San Diego in 2010 – there’s a video of the gathering here. There are also flourishing Stoicism group on Facebook and Yahoo groups.

Could Stoicism be a mass movement today, or even a religion?

Well, it’s certainly helped a lot of people through some difficult moments, including me. Many people have been helped by Stoic ideas without realising it, through CBT. And some people embrace it as a philosophy for life, or a form of spirituality. But I’m sceptical it could ever be a genuine mass religion, like Buddhism, because it lacks the rituals, festivals, music, myths and customs that are such an important part of religions. It doesn’t really speak to the irrational part of the psyche, only to the rational part of us. Also, some modern Stoics believe in the Logos, while others are fiercely atheist, so a ‘religion of Stoicism’ would have to negotiate that issue. And modern Stoics are often quite individualist, libertarian and somewhat aloof souls, so trying to build a Stoic community can be like herding cats.

Speaking personally, I’ve found Stoicism an incredibly useful and powerful philosophy, and initially I wanted to write a book just about Stoicism. But I became interested in the other philosophies in the Socratic tradition, how they complement each other, and also how they disagree with each other. I don’t know if such a broad and heterogeneous tradition could be a ‘religion’, but I’d say it was the best cultural foundation a society could have – and Stoicism is an important part of that Socratic tradition.