How to Bring Back the Stoic School
The Revival of Stoicism as a Philosophy of Life
Part I: On the need for a Stoic school
Regardless of what one thinks of Brexit (and as a European I can assure I am not particularly exuberant with current events) many acknowledged Vote Leave campaign’s powerful message: Take back control. As one of the leading figures in the Remain camp Will Straw put it “in the end control rather than strength was what people wanted.’
There is a dangerous and depressing sense for lack of control in modern society, to some extend paradoxically combined with the abundance of choice that the internet provides. Feelings that have led many — from all ages and walks of life — to great pressure and confusion: constantly facing difficult decisions, coping with passions and desires they do not fully understand, trying to be part of a system beyond their grasp and not allowing it to crush them, all the while, trying to be a good citizen, friend, colleague, parent and human being.
In that environment, it is no wonder, that many search for a moral compass and guidance, or a ‘philosophy of life’. Modern society, however, hardly provides suitable ways to learn, explore and share such a philosophy.
There seems to be a void, that cannot be filled either by medical treatment or religious observance. For the most part — this void is filled by three distinctive approaches — the self-help books, the televangelist and the wellness gurus, and finally the eastern teachings (particularly yoga). All of them, however, lack one or other quality, which prevents them from becoming a robust force that provides a suitable answer to contemporary problems. At the same time, all of them in a way outline the niche for such an endeavour — and for this reason, I would like to briefly explore their nature to make a point about the principles that a modern school of a philosophy of life should espouse.
The limits of self-help books
The first, and probably the most popular approach, is the one of ‘self-help’ books — they are numerous in style and substance, but perhaps we can divide them into two broad groups. A lot of them fall into the “X-number of advice for success’ style which is fast and easy to read, usually relatable and filled with generalisations and grand statements. Rarely, however, those books go beyond few casual wisdoms, most of which you can hear from a random elderly person. Hence, without being comprehensive or presenting a developed system for understanding of the world, they simply fall short of offering a genuine teaching.
Another type of a ‘self-help’ book is the one which is deep and well thought, but too narrow in scope. Those are the many books on Strategy, Persuasion, Influence, etc. who can enlighten and offer some substantive advice, but rarely even their authors argue that ‘strategic thinking’ for example, is sufficient enough for living a good life. In other words, those are not books about ‘the big questions’ even if they exceed in offering guidance in more specific fields.
The charlatans and the art of simple answers
The second approach, one of televangelist and wellness gurus, is to offer something which no sophisticated religion, scientific study or indeed any book worth reading can — a quick universal solution to every problem. ‘You are feeling depressed? Give me 5$, and we shall pray to the Lord for your salvation’, “You are losing your temper? Give me 5$ and this charcoal will unlock your inner chakra’.
It is remarkable how many people — regardless of erudition or wealth — fall for this, especially when life takes a darker turn. There is something to be learned, however, from those enterprises. The key to their success is to offer a solution… in a sense, a philosophy. ‘You are miserable, because you have not been devoted enough.’ — it is simplistic at best (and intellectually dishonest at worst) world view, but is one that people desire when they are in the gutter.
You immediately understand what was wrong (you were not devoted), how to fix it (5$), and the improvement and satisfaction come in no time (by a ritual, or product consumption). No additional self-reflection, priority reevaluation, moral contemplation is required — 10–1000$ a week and you are good to go.
The Eastern teachings and the problem of escapism
Going to the third approach, no one can accuse the Eastern teachings (Hinduism and Buddhism in particular) of suffering from the traits of the first two. They present cohesive, complex and profound philosophies, and as we can see the school of Yoga has made some substantial advancement in Western society, attracting multitudes of people who attend yoga classes.
That been said, once we go beyond the stretching exercises, the interest in the Eastern teachings fall considerably. The usual explanation is that Eastern Philosophy is just too distant for the Westerner, he cannot relate and understand it. If that is so — that it is merely a problem of presentation — it is bewildering that all those wise and smart masters, not few of whom have been born and raised in the West, have been unable to find a better way to introduce their teachings.
Perhaps the problem is deeper than this, and although it may sound philistine, maybe much has to do with the fact that those teachings have a certain element of escapism. Whatever your life hurdles, the best way to answer them is to remove yourself from society, go to a monastery, do the lotus pose and eat pumpkin seeds. In the end, albeit profound, they do not help you to deal with your problems, but provide you with a way to detach yourself from the problems.
Part II: The principles for a modern philosophy of life school
There are three principles that I believe emerge from looking at the problems and strengths of the mentioned beforehand approaches, that could guide the creation of a modern philosophy of life school and what issues it should address.
1. Simple, not simplistic
The teaching should offer an intuitive, understandable approach. You must be able to grasp the essence from a 5-minute clip, not from a 1000-page book. Although instant satisfaction from the teaching — in the way the charlatans do it- cannot be an honest objective, the students should be able from Day 1 to understand what they could achieve by the end and the first steps towards that goal should be easy to walk.
All of this should neither ‘stupefy’ or make the teaching profane. On the contrary, the teaching must present a comprehensive, intellectually challenging guidance for living a good life — or it would easily fall in the trap of most ‘self-help’ books. The introduction, however, must be accessible by people without a prior interest in the related academic fields (or fetish for Antiquity).
2. Pragmatic, not dogmatic
A philosophy of life school should not become a religion. One of the strengths of Roman stoicism was its eclectic nature. As Donald Robertson observed in his latest book, Marcus Aurelius followed some Epicurean advice on pain relieve.
It is even more important for a modern teaching not to constrain itself, but to attempt to build upon its foundations. That said, the teaching should also not avoid subjects such as cosmology, simply because they are ‘controversial’. To live a good life means to have a purpose and to be truly in control you must have an understanding of your nature are surroundings.
There is no need for such a teaching to select one ‘answer’ to the metaphysical questions, but it should explore the field. As well as, explore other fields and expand its scope to be relevant and not allow itself to become a sect.
3. Practical, not escapist
Or “The obstacle is the way”. Not only, the answer to everyday problems should not be ‘go to the monastery and do the lotus pose’, but the teaching should inspire civic activism. Learners should be encouraged to participate in politics (regardless of their affiliation), as well as to help their local community, take part in debates and be at the centre of public life in general. Because finding meaning in your life, cannot mean abandoning the rest of the world, on the contrary, it often means changing it.
On the other hand, being practical, not escapist, does not mean that the teaching should offer detailed advice for every undertaking and the teaching should not be presented as a universal solution. Rather, it should offer tools through which every person should observe his own problems. It should offer perspective and an approach, not pretend to know to what ends this path would lead every single individual.
Based on these principles, I believe a Stoic School could serve an important purpose in the Contemporary World, which is in a need for a modern, comprehensive, based on science, rich in philosophy and history, practical teaching for living a good life — one that at least for now is not provided by any single entity, although many have made and profited from such attempts.
Part III: On what a Stoic School should teach
In order for a school to espouse to those principles and address the needs of modern society outlined so far it can reinvigorate the ancient Stoic topics — Ethics, Logic and Physics — reframing them from a modern perspective and building upon them.
Stoic Ethics and Psychotherapy
A lot has been done already in this direction, as Stoic Ethics is at the hearth of the revival of the ancient school. The Introductory course could follow Donald Robertson’s “The Art of Happiness” framework as serve as an overview of the Stoic teachings and be the first opportunity for students to practice philosophy.
The student can follow the introduction course with a deeper dive into the three disciplines — Judgement, Action, Desire — learning to practice certain techniques and discussing in class how he is implying the teachings in everyday situations. The course could follow the structure of Massimo Pigliucci’s “How to be a Stoic” (as it is structured around the three disciplines) and the writings of the ancient authors.
The ethical teachings can then be augmented with training in the scientific approaches of modern psychotherapy — particularly focusing on cognitive-behavior therapy, mindfulness and stress management, as outlined in Robertson’s Resilience course. Not only those teachings are Stoic in spirit, but they also provide genuine practical benefit to those who learn them.
Finally, on the progression ladder after the Introduction, the Disciplines, and Resilience, is the ‘Virtues’ course. Of course the student will be more than familiar with the virtues from the introductory course and have implemented them for some time, but in those sessions he will be given an opportunity for reflection and debate, now that he possesses an advanced knowledge of the Stoic teachings and has been able to apply it for certain amount of time in the real world. It would also give him the opportunity to delve deeper into his personal ethical and moral contemplations and produce real contributions for the intersection of philosophy and life.
Having completed the curriculum, he then can go to the “Meditations’ — designed to keep live-long learners who would essentially participate in the ongoing debate of how a Stoic should act and would discuss and meditate on their personal life and deeds.
Metaphysics and History of Western Thought
Worshiping Zeus may not help the modern movement, but you cannot understand Stoic ethics without the metaphysics, and you cannot live a good life, without contemplating what the meaning of life is. Just as in any other age, the contemporary person is looking for some form of an explanation of the ‘big things’ in order for him to find a purpose in life.
There is no need, however, to provide a single explanation, let alone constraining Stoicism in dogma. Western Philosophy has a long tradition of metaphysical debate, that not only provides different answers but helps the learner not to be easily fooled by one or other explanation.
Therefore a standard “History of Western Philosophy” course, that puts an emphasis on Metaphysics (rather than Epistemology as most university courses do) would suit the needs of a Stoic School.
Give students all that western philosophers have brought to the table and let them choose what they like, or simply be in better understanding and hence in better harmony with themselves about those matters.
A History of Western Philosophy course can also have other benefits, as it could serve as an excellent introduction to the ancient Socratic schools, and once the course moves to modern times it could also provide an introduction to Psychology — again, truly important for the modern stoic movement.
I should perhaps point out, that the aims of a Stoic school should not be academic, therefore learners are not expected to produce research papers or read some required literature. They should be presented with ideas and general understanding, not overwhelmed with checkpoints for what is considered ‘academic excellence’.
The ‘History of Western Philosophy’ course, can be followed by a ‘Stoics in History’ one — which would present famous Stoic practitioners — from emperors to US presidents, provide students with role models, examples of great stoic deeds and an overall history of Stoicism. The importance of role models has been outlined numerous times, but also it is important that an overall framework of Stoic History is established. Also, it would be a crime for one of the greatest ancient authors Seneca to be in your midst (and another great one in Cicero to show interest in the teaching) and not familiarise modern Stoics with their writings.
Logic and Strategy
Contemporary Logic is one of the most practical and universal studies one can ever attend. With Informal Logic one can learn the Art of Argumentation, with Critical Thinking the ways to use induction and analysis and there are the many practical applications of Formal Logic. The Stoic must be an active participant in political and business affairs — the ability to think and express his thinking in a persuasive manner is and always has been a must.
‘Strategic Thinking’ is a modern discipline inspired by Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War” (and modern business strategist) with practical application in today’s world of enterprise and politics.
There are many books written on the subject, and on which a course could be based (The Art of Strategy by Hwy-Chang Moon, Learning to Think Strategically by Julia Sloan, ‘Good Strategy, Bad Strategy’ by Richard Rumelt, video course like “Strategic Thinking Skills” in The Great Courses Plus, etc.)
The ability to observe the surrounding environment, anticipate the actions of the others, form an objective, devise a grand strategy and tactics to implement it, and contemplate on how to use your strengths and exploit your opponent’s weaknesses — is in a sense the most Stoic mode of thinking of them all.
In a sense, Strategy is exactly a teaching for the premeditation of adversity and the implementation of ‘stoic’ philosophy in a professional setting.
‘[Y]ou should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.’ — Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter VII
In the past years, with the great efforts of many, Stoicism has seen an incredible revival. But the teaching has never been meant as a bookish affair, practiced in solitude. It is time to bring Stoicism back to the Stoa — and the teaching can once again be a transformative phenomenon — for slaves and emperors alike.