STOICON ’16: the largest gathering of Stoics, ever?


From How To Be A Stoic

What STOICON ’16 looked like

STOICON ’16 just ended in New York City, and according to one of our speakers, Bill Irvine, it was the largest gathering of Stoics, ever: 331 attendees. It was, more importantly, an amazing opportunity to meet and mingle with people from different parts of the world who are interested in, or regularly practice, Stoicism as a philosophy of life. All the talks, and one of the workshops, will soon be available as video on YouTube (stay tuned for announcements!), but let me give you a flavor of what happened this past Saturday in the Big Apple, just to whet your appetite.

The first speaker of the day was Don Robertson, with his inimitable Scottish accent. Don, who is the author of the very first book on modern Stoicism that I read — Stoicism and the Art of Happiness — talked about the connection among Stoicism, mindfulness, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (he is a licensed practitioner of the latter). He pointed out that Stoic mindfulness is different from techniques aiming at emptying your mind of wandering thoughts, for instance, as it is done in some strands of Buddhism. The Stoics meant it as a cognitive exercise to constantly remind themselves to live by focusing in the here and now (hic et nunc), as well as by paying attention to the ethical dimension of everything they do (though both of these concepts are also found in Buddhism).

Julia Annas, one of the foremost scholars in ancient philosophy and author of Intelligent Virtue, rhetorically asked the audience if Stoic virtue is as off-putting as it seems, proceeding to regale us with an in-depth analysis of apparent paradoxical concepts, such as that we are all equally unvirtuous, and yet we can make progress (see the “drowning man metaphor“); or that the Sage is like the mythical phoenix, i.e., a state that can never be achieved by actual human beings. But if so, then why bother trying? My own take on these questions is that the Sage is an ideal, and it doesn’t matter if any such man or woman ever existed, it is simply something to strive for. As for the apparent paradox that we can make progress (we are all prokoptontes) and yet we all equally lack virtue, I take it to be the Stoic way to remind us to be humble, that the job is really never finished, it continues to the end of our lives.

Before the first break Bill Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, told the audience how he has become what he calls an insult pacifist. When a colleague told him that he was thinking of citing Bill’s work in a forthcoming book, but that he hadn’t made up his mind about whether Bill’s writings were simply misguided or downright pernicious, Irvine’s response took a page from the playbook of Epictetus: “well, I don’t see why you couldn’t characterize me as both misguided and pernicious!” His colleague was flabbergasted, and retreated mumbling something along the lines of “You really ought to take things more seriously, Bill!” Imagine reacting like that the next time someone hurls an insult at you. As Epictetus put it: “Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

After coffee we had a special treat: a video conference with Larry Becker, author of the scholarly and highly influential A New Stoicism (new edition coming out soon, by the way). Despite some technical difficulties with the audio, we chatted about Posidonius, the Stoic teacher of the middle Stoa who was known for being a dissenter about a number of Stoic doctrines. Larry reminded us, therefore, that the Stoics themselves held different opinions about a number of issues, and that it is a mistake to treat Stoicism as a monolithic block of ideas that were put in place and never changed. There was no Stoic Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tables of the Ten Commandments, so to speak. Rather, Stoicism is an evolving philosophy, open to improvement and refinement, as human knowledge and understanding of the world progress over time.

Following that, Debbie Joffe Ellis, wife of the late Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy, talked about not just Ellis’ work, but his ethical life as well. REBT is strongly influenced by Stoicism (just like Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, and CBT more generally), and we kept being reminded of the many similarities between the two throughout the talk. In a sense, REBT (and logotherapy and CBT) provide substantial empirical evidence that the Stoics got a lot of human psychology right, with modified versions of several of their techniques being still useful to people two millennia later. Debbie is the author of How to Hug a Porcupine: Easy Ways to Love the Difficult People in Your Life.

Chris Gill, who wrote Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism, asked whether a Stoic can be a political activist, and answered in the affirmative. He dispelled the myth that Stoics were indifferent or removed from social and political action (that was the Epicureans, by the way). On the contrary, the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism, the fact that one of the cardinal virtues is that of justice, and the very lives of many of the Stoics we know of, clearly show that there is no incompatibility between Stoicism and an active concern for the polis.

Cinzia Arruzza, author of Dangerous Liaisons: the Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism, gave a very different talk, on French philosopher Michel Foucault’s take on the Stoics. She related how she was initially rather skeptical of the Stoic take on things, but that Foucault made her appreciate the Stoic emphasis on agency and personal change in the face of society’s injustices. Who knew that a post-modernist philosopher like Foucault could have anything in common with Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus?

The morning session ended with a very energetic Jules Evans, the organizer of the past two STOICON in London, as well as author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. Jules told us about how he got into Stoicism to begin with, and that the philosophy helped him with some serious personal issues. However, he prefers an eclectic approach to developing a philosophy of life, borrowing from whatever tradition he finds has something good to offer. There is a precedent for this also in Stoicism, within limits, as when Seneca wrote to Lucilius: “‘Epicurus,’ you reply, ‘uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?’ Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.” (XII. On Old Age, 11)

As it is tradition at STOICON, the first part of the afternoon was devoted to parallel workshops, which included: Gabriele Galluzzo, on “Poor but happy? Aristotle and the Stoics on external goods”; Greg Sadler, on “Struggling with anger? Useful Stoic perspectives and practices”; Greg Lopez, on “Sati and Prosoche: Buddhist vs Stoic mindfulness in theory and practice”; Tim LeBon, on “Trump for President? A Stoic response”; and Debbie Ellis, on “Introduction to REBT as a healthy and empowered way of life.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to any of these, because I was running my own workshop, entitled “So, you want to be a Stoic, eh? Stoicism 101.” You can download the presentation here.

Finally, before the social gathering and dinners, we had our keynote speech, by best-selling author Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way: the Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. To begin with, Ryan and his publisher were so generous as to provide all conference attendees with a free copy of his new The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. He then proceeded to tell us his own story of Stoic discovery, illustrated with slides of his personal copies of the Meditations, annotated when he was 19 years old, and then again over and over as the years passed and his understanding of Stoicism deepened. Ryan exhorted us to push Stoicism into the mainstream, because so many people can benefit it from it. He is aware that some prokoptontes think that he is not “pure” or sufficiently true to the original intent, but made a compelling argument that — within limits — perfection is the enemy of the good. Spread the word, and let a thousand flowers bloom each in their own way.

The steering committee for STOICON is already working hard to organize next year’s conference, so look out for the announcement of date and location, as well as a number of other initiatives related to STOICON, Stoic Week, and the Modern Stoicism movement.

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