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The big, messy tent of modern Stoicism

The modern Stoic movement, which brings together atheists and theists, is one example of a new friendship and alliance between people for whom metaphysical disagreements are less important than friendship and spiritual practice. The New Atheism wars are over, and a new messy spirituality has emerged.

Massimo Pigliucci converted to Stoicism last year. A prominent atheist philosopher living in New York, he felt stuck in a rut, lacking in purpose and worried by death. Secular humanism, he decided, was more of a ‘patchwork of liberal progressive positions than a coherent philosophy of life’. He didn’t want to go back to the Catholicism of his youth, but explored virtue ethics as a western alternative to Buddhism.

That’s when he came across Stoicism Today, a project that’s been running for the last three years, involving a group of British classicists, psychotherapists and philosophers (including me) who are interested in exploring Stoicism in modern life. Massimo was persuaded, and announced his conversion in a New York Times article, which went viral. He even got a Stoic tattoo. Last Saturday, he joined us, along with 300 other Stoics from around the world, for our annual gathering, Stoicon.

Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy that first appeared in Athens in around 300 BC, is enjoying a modern revival. As Christianity recedes in western societies, people are discovering they still need a life-philosophy to help them through life’s inescapable suffering. Many have turned to eastern philosophies – indeed, an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness last month more or less anointed secular Buddhism as the UK’s official religion. But others are looking for something a bit closer to home, and Stoicism is in some ways a homegrown alternative to Buddhism, offering similar practical advice in how to control one’s thoughts, guide one’s value judgements and heal one’s negative emotions.

At Stoicon, we had presentations on Stoic virtue, Stoic friendship, Stoic therapy, Stoic visualization, and also critiques of Stoicism. One of the hits of the festival was a talk by Derren Brown, the stage magician, who proved to be deeply versed in the intricacies of ancient philosophy (he’s writing a book on it). For me, the highlight was meeting Stoics from around the world – some had travelled from as far afield as Hong Kong – and hearing how philosophy has helped them through adversity. ‘I owe my life to philosophy’ wrote Seneca, over two millennia ago. That’s still true for many people today.

The attempt to create a modern community of Stoics is relatively new, and somewhat paradoxical – there was no Stoic community in the ancient world, no collective worship or festivals, except for the ‘virtual community’ of rational souls. There have always been people drawn to Stoicism, from Montaigne to Frederick the Great to the novelist Tom Wolfe. But they tended not to congregate, or even know about each other.

That changed in the late 1990s, thanks to the internet. Fans of Stoicism started to connect, particularly via an organisation called, and subsequently via Facebook and Reddit. Personally, I got into Stoicism in my mid-20s, through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I discovered CBT was directly inspired by Stoicism, and decided to embrace it as a life-philosophy. I joined NewStoa and also got a Stoic tattoo (of the Stoic emblem designed by DT Strain). It seemed like the right thing to do.

We tried a first gathering in 2010, meeting in San Diego for a weekend of sun, sand, surfing and Socratic self-examination. It was not an entirely auspicious start. There were only 14 of us, yet we still managed to have our first schism, between those who embraced Stoicism as a theistic religion, and those who detested the very word ‘religion’.

Still, the grassroots revival of Stoicism continued, on the internet, in philosophy clubs, and in bookstores, thanks to books by Alain de Botton, William Irvine, Oliver Burkeman and Ryan Holiday. It proved particularly popular with US military officers, with entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss, with comedians like Adrian Edmondson and John Lloyd, and with sportspeople. I run an occasional philosophy club for the players and coaches at Saracens, winners of the rugby Premiership last year, while Ryan Holiday’s book was widely circulated among the Patriots, winners of last year’s Super Bowl.

Academia has until recently been snooty about the idea that ancient philosophy can actually help people (it smacks of the Bottonisation of the humanities). But in 2012, academia got into the revival, when the Stoicism Today research project launched at Exeter University under the leadership of Professor Chris Gill. We ran a public engagement project called Stoic Week, in which people could download a free handbook and follow Stoic exercises for a week. We asked participants to fill in well-being questionnaires before and after the week, so we could assess the well-being impact of Stoic exercises (in brief, there is one). To our surprise, the project caught the public imagination, and this year 3,300 people from all over the world enrolled in the online course.

So what is modern Stoicism, and how does it differ from the ancient philosophy? Firstly, not everyone into modern Stoicism necessarily identifies as a full-blown Stoic – many of us are, like Cicero, eclectic in our approach to wisdom traditions. But we all agree that Stoicism has some wise and therapeutic insights into human nature and how to heal suffering, which were mistakenly neglected by academia for a century or so. Martha Nussbaum, the leading philosopher of emotions, says Stoic thinking on the emotions have ‘a subtlety and cogency that is unsurpassed in the history of western philosophy’.

Modern Stoics agree on the core therapeutic insight of Stoicism – ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’, as the philosopher Epictetus put it. We can’t always control or change external events, but we can control our opinion or attitude, and that gives humans a measure of self-determination. We also agree that the most important foundation for a good and happy life is not money, fame, power or pleasure, but a good character.

What of the Logos, the universal soul that ancient Stoics believed connected and guided all things? Modern Stoics agree to disagree about the Logos. Some embrace it as a sort of pantheistic God, others accept the idea that the cosmos obeys rational laws, others don’t give it much thought. Rather like mindfulness, modern Stoicism has flourished partly by parking the metaphysics and focusing on the ethics. Perhaps in the future, modern Stoics will engage deeper with physics, and with the Stoics’ intriguing idea that the universe is a web of interconnected consciousness.

So why a revival now? Perhaps Stoicism tends to flourish in times of global upheaval, when people lose faith in governments and look to self-reliance instead. As the psychotherapist Vincent Deary noted, taken to an extreme, modern Stoicism could become a toxic political ideology of ‘sucking it up’ when the government or company makes cuts.  But there is also a long tradition of Stoic resistance to power, from Cato to Nelson Mandela, who was inspired by the Stoic poem Invictus while in prison.

Personally, I no longer consider myself a card-carrying Stoic. Yes, every time I strip off at the beach, a part of me regrets the giant Stoic tattoo on my shoulder. But as Seneca almost said, life is too short for regrets.

There’s a lot that Stoicism misses out – music, dancing, imagination, sexual love, ritual, spiritual ecstasy, a loving relationship with God. I find it somewhat over-rationalistic, over-individualistic, and lacking in hope for the after-life. But I still owe it big time for helping me through the toughest period of my life.

And I love that Stoicon brings together people from many different cultural and religious traditions – this ecumenicism is a relief after the bitter fights of New Atheism. Stoicon featured theists like me, and atheists like Massimo and Derren Brown. It also welcomed Christian Stoics, Buddhist Stoics, Islamic Stoics, Aristotelians, Platonists and one lady into ‘vibro-acoustics’, who told me Seneca had appeared to her in a dream. We came together to celebrate our common love of wisdom. The eclecticism reminds me of the humanist circles of the Renaissance, back when ‘humanism’ meant ‘love of wisdom’.

Perhaps modern Stoicism is a big messy tent, typical of what David Bentley Hart calls the ‘incoherent bricolage’ of contemporary ethics. But I’ll take friendly messiness over fierce ideological coherence any day. And perhaps this very messiness illustrates a new sort of friendship between theists and atheists, who are less interested in doctrinal purity and denunciations, and more interested in friendship and practice.

I see this new spirit in places like the RSA’s Spirituality project, in the Sunday Assembly, in the How We Gather project, and in the rise of contemplative studies in academia. Friendship and practice first, doctrinal difference second. Hooray for the new messy spirituality.

How philosophy can help us get unstuck in work and life

Ancient Greek Philsophy
Ancient Greek Philsophy

If you’re trying to carve out a better career and life for yourself, you face obstacles. Some of those obstacles are external – finding the right job opportunity, testing your idea, choosing your partners and investors, balancing the books. But a lot of the obstacles are internal – cognitive, emotional, ethical. Fear of failure. Fear of loss of status. Fear of letting down your parents. Fear of not being able to support your family. There’s also the fact that we are creatures of habit and inertia. It’s easier to keep on in our habitual groove. It takes energy and focus to change.

One life-hack that a lot of entrepreneurs and business people have found useful is ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly a philosophy called Stoicism. Fans of Stoicism include Tim Ferriss, self-experimenter and champion of the ‘four-hour work-week’, who says Stoicism is ‘the perfect operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. For entrepreneurs, it’s a godsend’.

Another fan is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, investor and author of Black Swan and Anti-Fragile – the latter book is a celebration of how Stoicism makes us less exposed to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Other Stoic entrepreneurs and business-people include Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Partners; Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International; and Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, which is about how to apply Stoicism in business life.

The more forward-thinking businesses are running courses in practical philosophy or wisdom to help their employees be more resilient and to help build a more value-driven culture. Personally, I’ve run workshops in practical philosophy for everyone from Premiership-champions Saracens rugby team (they have a regular monthly philosophy club for their players and coaches); to blue-chip corporates like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Allianz; to mental health charities and prisons. Alain de Botton’s philosophy shop, the School of Life, also creates humanities-based courses for companies, as does a new US consultancy, Strategy of Mind.

The philosophy club at Premiership champions Saracens RFC. Spot the philosopher.

This might not be to everyone’s taste. Hard-nosed businesspeople might think this sounds like a waste of money, while humanities academics might turn up their noses at what might sound like the dumbing-down, instrumentalization or commodification of philosophy.

But the idea that philosophy should offer practical help to people in their daily lives goes back to the origin of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. Socrates thought philosophy taught people how to ‘take care of their souls’. Cicero thought the humanities ‘enhance prosperity and provide solace in adversity’. Indeed, Stoicism was the main inspiration for the two inventors of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, and also inspired self-help writers like Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey.

At its best, ancient philosophy is not just a ‘life-hack’, a short-cut to conventional goals of status or wealth. Rather, it’s a value-hack – it wakes us up from the rat-race so we can think for ourselves and discover what flourishing means to us.

So what practical advice can Greco-Roman philosophy offer to help us get unstuck? Here are seven ways.

1) ‘It’s not events, but our opinions about events, that cause us suffering’.

This is a quote from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD. It inspired the psychologist Albert Ellis to invent cognitive therapy in the 1950s. What it means is, nothing is good or bad in itself, but thinking makes it so. The way we interpret what happens to us dictates how our emotions react. You will face ups and downs in your journey, but you make the journey a lot harder if you catastrophize when adversity happens. We can modulate our emotional reactions by learning to take a more philosophical perspective when the sea turns choppy. Charlie Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway investment, says he learned from Epictetus that ‘your duty is not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion’.

2) Recognize traps in your habitual thinking

Socrates suggested we sleepwalk through life, following an automated programme of beliefs and values which we picked up from our parents or society and follow blindly, even if it leads us down cul-de-sacs or off a cliff. We may be particularly prone to misreading reality in a certain way – so that certain events push our buttons and trigger strong emotional reactions. When that happens, we can notice our strong emotional reaction, and ask if we’re falling prey to the same habitual misinterpretation. For example, I have a habitual tendency to be over-sensitive to perceived slights – by now, at age 38, I’ve learned that’s a habitual bias of mine, so I’m wary when I jump to that conclusion.

3) Focus on what’s in your control, accept what isn’t

Derren Brown says Stoicism helps him accept the uncontrollables
Derren Brown says Stoicism helps him accept the uncontrollables

This technique, which is at the heart of Epictetus’ philosophy of resilience, is hugely helpful for people trying to manage very complex situations. If you fixate on the uncontrollables, you will feel helpless, frustrated, and the slave of circumstances. Bring your attention back to what Stephen Covey called ‘the circle of response-ability’ – your own thoughts, beliefs and actions. Derren Brown, who is writing a book about Stoicism, told me: ‘For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief.’

4) Avoid ‘tilting’

Tilting is a poker expression, when people lose emotional control and their decision-making becomes irrational and error-prone. If you’re in business, you can try to set speed-bumps or decision-checks to make sure you’re not on the tilt, but are staying rational. For example, the investor Sir John Templeton would set investment rules, so that he automatically bought shares if the price tanked too low, and automatically sold if the price rocketed too high. He knew that, in the grip of a stock market boom or bust, his decision-making would be clouded by the crowd hysteria, so he set controls to defend against his automatic irrationality. Many other top investors use similar techniques to maintain rationality in the midst of crowd-hysteria. Following your heart / gut isn’t always the best method in business.

5) What’s the worst that could happen?

Sometimes, our fears about the future keep us stuck in a mediocre present. Entrepreneurs, or potential entrepreneurs, can be crippled by the fear of failure. It can be useful to ask oneself, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’. The Stoics practiced a technique called ‘rehearsal of bad things’, where they imagined a check-list of what could go wrong in a situation. That can be useful in itself as a form of ‘defensive pessimism’. And it’s also useful to practice saying ‘so what?’ You do a talk and it goes badly. So what? You make a pitch and you don’t get the deal. So what? Life goes on. Philosophy can teach us how to shrug, to accept mistakes and imperfections and ‘keep buggering on’ as Winston Churchill put it.

6) Memento Mori

Get on and do what you need to do.
Get on and do what you need to do.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, like Buddhists, practised the ‘memento mori’, or remembrance of death. This can be very useful if we’re feeling anxiety, disappointment or shame – you can zoom out and see the bigger picture, which is that everything passes, and no one is going to remember your failed ethical cupcake business in 10 years anyway. But the memento mori can also be a spur to action. Don’t assume you’ve got 10, 20, 30 years left. If there’s something you want to do, get on and do it. Never mind the risks, do the things you need to do while you are still functioning.

7) We are what we repeatedly do

The Greeks understood that we’re creatures of habits, so if you want to change, you need to practice repeatedly, to weaken old habits and strengthen new habits. ‘If you want to be a writer, write’, said Epictetus. The only way humans get anywhere is by repeatedly practising an action. There’s no short-cut. Get into daily rituals – a 10-minute morning meditation, say, or 10 minutes at the end of the day to ‘recollect’ and think about what you did well or badly. Or assemble your own storehouse of maxims to remind yourself of, over and over, until they become internalized. Or get out and practice in real life situations – practice networking, practice writing, practice public speaking.

These are mind-hacks to help individuals change, but philosophy is just as helpful for groups – it helps groups to reflect on their shared values and culture, and ask what’s important to the culture and whether the organization is living up to that.

If all this sounds interesting to you, come to a one-day conference on practical philosophy on November 7 in London, called STOICON, where you can hear from some of the leading figures in the revival of ancient philosophy in modern life. It’s only £30, which is a bargain considering how much companies spend on learning the same lessons. You can also enrol for a free week-long online course, called Stoic Week, which is running from the 2nd to the 9th of November.