Unthinkable: Is Stoicism the answer to modern living?

Mindfulness with an ethical twist is the Stoic way, explains philosopher Massimo Pigliucci

Ever since Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism in ancient Greece, the philosophy has drifted in and out of fashion. Christianity adopted a good dose of Stoic thinking, and its core principles might be summarised in the "serenity prayer": "God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Today there are signs of another mini-revival, fuelled by initiatives such as Stoic Week, an annual event that tries to show the practical benefits of this classical philosophy in modern life. But, according to Massimo Pigliucci, who wrote a blog that went viral on the New York Times on Stoicism earlier this year (which he is now developing into a book), there is also a danger also of reducing Stoic thinking to a comforting form of self-help, or using it to turn away from the world.

He cites two great misperceptions about the Stoics; “one was that they were unemotional and go through life with a stiff upper lip”, and the other was that “they were detached from society and involvement in politics”.

In fact, “the Stoics were very socially oriented. They wanted to change society for the better, and that’s why well-known Stoics were teachers, politicians, generals; they did try.”

Pigliucci, a New York-based academic and prolific author, paraphrases a Stoic principle to provide today's idea: "We are social beings; we are supposed to be concerned about people."

What attracted you to Stoicism?

“I’ve been interested in it as part of the broader quest of developing a personal philosophy. I began with secular humanism but that never quite did it for me; then I gravitated towards ancient virtue ethics.

“So, for some time I studied Aristotle; then I moved on to Epicurius and exploring the different Greek schools, and that I thought was better, certainly than secular humanism. It had more interesting resources, more rich philosophy. But it still didn’t quite click and then some at point last year on my Twitter feed I saw this thing appear about Stoic Week and I said, ‘Oh, let’s take a look’.

"This immediately brought up memories because I grew up in Italy where you take philosophy in high school, and as part of that you study Stoicism.

“I started reading more and it really did click. The first thing I did was download a good translation of Epictetus’s works. I realised, ‘Right, these guys were on to something’, and from there it became an obsession.”

Does Stoicism offer tools for overcoming adversity, or is it a comprehensive philosophy in its own right?

“I would say all of the above. Most people are interested in Stoicism because of the practical benefits. I find myself more grounded, less likely to get upset by things or frustrated, because one of the Stoic concepts is mindfulness, which is different from the Buddhist variety.

“For Stoics, you want to pay attention to the here and now, and especially to the ethical dimensions of what you’re doing. That to me immediately changed things. For instance, I was going out to my bank one day to cash a cheque and then I thought about it – I was being mindful – and I realised this was a multinational bank that has been involved in very questionable ethical practices, and I said, ‘Why I am giving money to these people?’

“So I researched alternatives and I moved all my money to a local bank. This costs me a little bit in inconvenience . . . It’s a trade-off that I think is worth it.”

But couldn’t another person’s mindfulness produce a very different ethical conclusion: for example, life is short so eat, drink and be merry?

“Right, but that conclusion would not go along with Stoic philosophy. The Stoics had this idea that it’s important in life to develop a coherent, or as coherent as possible, philosophy, and they saw three different pillars to their system: ethics, physics – what we would call today a combination of natural science and metaphysics – and logic. Once you put these three things together you see an understanding of the natural world and human nature is going to be the guidance to how to live your life. So the Stoics famously said: ‘You want to live life according to nature.’

“When you say that phrase today what comes to mind is a kind of tree-hugging environmentalist outside of civilisation; that’s not what they meant.

“For the Stoics, we are rational beings; reason is our main tool; and secondly we are social beings – so we are supposed to be concerned about people.

“The Stoics were among the very first philosophers to explicitly use the word cosmopolitan; we are citizens of the world, we are not just Italian or Irish, or from New York or from Dublin. To go back to the question, if through mindfulness a person concludes, ‘Let me live in the moment and do whatever is pleasurable or easier for me to do’, that would definitely be a non-Stoic conclusion.”

Tell me more about learning philosophy in secondary school in Italy.

“It was obligatory and three years – a history of philosophy course which started with pre-Socratics and ended up with existentialists in the early part of the 20th century. I personally found it one of the most formative courses of my entire school career because when you’re doing it you’re wondering ,‘Why should I care what Plato wrote 2,400 years ago?’ but it does give you a big picture of the big ideas of history, and it really does stick with you.

“It’s really a long-term investment from an educational perspective.”


Question: If someone stops Like-ing you on Facebook should you stop liking them?

Epictetus replies: "The marks of the proficient person are that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defence."

Twitter: @JoeHumphreys42
Joe Humphreys's book Unthinkable: Great Ideas for Now is available at irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks (€14.99)