Stoicism in Action
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Stoicism in Action

An Interview with Kathryn Koromilas

The Stoic Fellowship is happy to offer this interview with Kathryn Koromilas, who is a writer and educator who once lived in Preveza not far from ancient Nikopolis where Epictetus founded his philosophy school. She holds a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing, leads The Stoic Salon, a group dedicated to writing and journaling with the Stoics, hosts The Stoic Salon Podcast, and co- organizes the Stoicon Women: Courageous Paths to Flourishing.

SD = StoicDan (Organizer of the Orlando Stoics)

KK = Kathryn Koromilas

SD: Great to have you with us, Kathryn. You’ve had a busy year in 2021, with your producing workshops, recording podcasts, and you were one of the organizers of the Stoicon-X Women’s Conference. What were the big takeaways from 2021? How is the Modern Stoicism movement progressing?

KK: Hi, Dan! Thank you for inviting me to this interview! It was indeed an excellent year in many ways. On a personal level, I had so many profound conversations with people about life and Stoicism and so, for me, the biggest takeaway was the connection and community.

From my perspective, the conversation in the Stoic community expanded and shifted in 2021.

We saw the first ever women’s conference, “Paths to Flourishing,” for one thing. We have Donald Robertson to thank for this, it was his idea and he encouraged Brittany Polat and me to take the lead and found a platform to showcase and celebrate women in Stoicism. Some people wondered why we even needed a women’s conference, but I say ‘Why not?’ If you invite different voices to the podium the conversation changes. We wanted the conversation to have a very practical focus but we didn’t expect how deeply personal the experience would be. And I mean this for men and women and everyone who attended. We also talked about topics we don’t normally talk about, like care and creativity.

I think that Eve Riches and Brittany Polat’s Stoicare initiative was and will be monumental. It seems to me that everyone is very excited about the emphasis on care and community which in the popular imagination seems to be at odds with Stoicism but which we know to be fundamental. And, of course, the books which made a similar shift towards emphasising social bonds, Stoic Wisdom by Nancy Sherman and Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In by Kai Whiting & Leonidas Konstantakos.

2021 was certainly a year of care and community.

SD: Journaling is one of the themes in your work. How does this help your students gain mindfulness or tranquility? And besides reaching Stoics around the world, are some of your other students Buddhists or from other belief systems?

KK: ‘Journaling with the Stoics’ is certainly an important part of my work but, these days, I don’t have students. I used to have students when I was teaching grammar and academic writing at universities and colleges. Nowadays, I am developing writing experiences for personal transformation and contemplation and, of course, I am on the same journey. So, I have co-learners and fellow explorers.

In terms of belief systems, I’m not sure. We haven’t had those conversations in The Stoic Salon. Apart from some discussions around what the Stoics mean when they say “gods” and “soul” we focus on the practice. And indeed throughout his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes that whatever the metaphysical reality (Gods or atoms) our focus ought to be on being good.

In terms of gaining tranquility, the key is to think about personal writing differently from what we do today. Today, we tend to see writing, even personal journal writing, as expressive writing. So what we do is express our thoughts and feelings about events on the blank page. We kind of immerse ourselves in ourselves as if everything revolves around us. And, then, the temptation is to keep filling those blank pages with personal thoughts and feelings and to ruminate. I talk about this in a short piece I published on Medium called How Stoic journaling stopped me overthinking.

This sort of exercise brings some catharsis and this is important. We want to be able to release our emotions and confusions safely onto the page; we don’t want to suppress our emotions. But because the feeling of catharsis is so relieving and satisfying, we tend to leave it there. We blurt everything out onto the page and then head back out into the world only to be confronted with more difficulties that continue to upset us and disturb our tranquility.

So we need to journal mindfully and to journal to come up with a plan for how to be an excellent human in any situation. Epictetus would tell his students to write down his teachings and to memorise them and keep them at hand so that we always have them, like a tool kit, when we head out into the world and when, as Pierre Hadot says, “an unexpected, and perhaps dramatic, circumstance occurs.”

SD: How did you initially discover philosophy? Was there a gateway book or author who inspired you to start learning in this area?

KK: I studied philosophy at the gorgeous University of Sydney. The Stoics weren’t taught on campus, I found out about them later. I studied Aristotle and Kant and Wittgenstein. Long before that, when I was a kid, my mum used to drive me to ballet school in the city and as we’d drive down City Road towards my class in Chinatown, I would look over the stone walls to the spires of the building and say, “That’s where I want to go when I grow up.”

All I knew about the University of Sydney was that learning took place there and I wanted to learn everything. I wanted knowledge.

At home, on the family bookcase, we had the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of course, this was the Seventies, and dad had invested in the Great Books of the Western World, which was a thing back then before Wikipedia. I would dip into those books as a child. The text was very small and the pages were very thin and I mostly just flipped the pages pretending to be a grown up scholar. There was one name I was particularly drawn to amongst all the others, and it was Galen, of all names! I didn’t know at the time because I was just flipping the pages and not really reading at all, that Galen was a critic of the Stoics. He thought the Stoics were wrong about where the ruling part of the psyche is located. The Stoics said it’s located in the heart; Galen argued it’s located in the brain. Don’t quote me on the specifics here, please see Christopher Gill’s article, “Galen and the Stoics: Mortal Enemies or Blood Brothers?” or even the Galen entry on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I think that’s so interesting though! Because after years and years of studying philosophy in an analytic way and thinking and overthinking everything in solitude, it was Stoicism that brought me back to my heart and opened me up as an essentially social creature. It is a heart-centred philosophy.

Anyway, that’s one story of why I studied philosophy! Another is that my English teacher at school told me that a friend of hers went to the University of Sydney to study philosophy and spent the first week on the steps of Wallace Theatre, crying. Wallace was where first years attended metaphysics lectures. When I heard this story, I knew I wanted to study philosophy. I wanted to study something so profound it could make me cry from awe. Actually, maybe this is the same story!

SD: In your workshops, which of the ancient Stoics do you quote often? Also, which of ancient figures do you think practiced journaling the best (Stoic or from another school)?

KK: I mostly use Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for my “Meditations on ‘Meditations’” and my “28 Days of Joyful Death Writing.” I have also used Seneca and Arrian as models.

I like to call Arrian, ‘the transcriber.” Arrian is very interesting because as a student of Epictetus, Arrian would have been instructed to keep hypomnemata. These were notes to the self, notes made during and after Epictetus’s lectures. Epictetus would tell his students: “You need to keep these teachings πρόχειρα ἔστω (at hand) day and night. So, write them down…” Hence the Encheiridion, literally, “handbook.” The purpose of making notes was not to interpret or analyse or critique but to learn and memorise. So, Arrian was literally transcribing Epictetus and this is an act of listening and paying attention to the teacher/teachings without interjecting with opinion and analysis and judgement which I feel we do all the time today. You can do this yourself, by just sitting with any text and quietly copying out segments word for word to create your own handbook.

Marcus Aurelius heeds Epictetus’s advice too, I guess, and his Meditations is a collection of notes he’s rewritten from the Stoic teachings, Epictetus mostly. But while Arrian was transcribing so that he could offer an accurate account of Epictetus to other students, Marcus Aurelius was rewriting, reexpressing and reformulating the teachings. I call Marcus Aurelius, “the reformulator” because this is what he does in Meditations. Gregory Hays mentions this in his introduction to his translation. Marcus Aurelius reformulates the Stoic teachings, going over the same concerns. In The Stoic Salon, we do guided journaling activities based on this method.

I call Seneca “the reframer”, because he’s so excellent at reframing unhelpful thinking. There’s an excellent example of this in Letter №12 to Lucilius. The letter is ostensibly about old age but, for me, it’s a letter about anger management (and old age). And this is a great example to follow in our own writing. Here is how he stages this letter and we can use this as a model for our own writing: First, he describes that he visited his country home which is in a state of disrepair and gets very angry at the estate manager and everyone else on the property. He just lays out the facts and owns his angry reaction. Second, he takes a step back to examine the thinking behind his anger. He realises he isn’t angry at the crumbling old house but because the ageing house reflects his old age, he’s angry about being old. He was young when the house was built, so if the house is old now, so is he and this upsets him. Third, he proceeds to construct a helpful thesis about ageing.

SD: What books do you suggest for students of Stoicism today? They could be books you authored or those of your favorite authors?

KK: I have got so much more reading to do, so I would love some recommendations, too! I promised Eve Riches I’d read Cicero, and Jennifer Baker I’d read Julia Annas.

I always think it’s important to start with the original texts. That’s a bit awkward because we don’t all read Greek or Latin but there are translations and there’s a translation that will appeal to everyone. Most of the free translations online are old and sound archaic, but they can be fun and very interesting to read too. Be aware of the translation you choose. Consider the year it was translated and who translated it because the culture of the time and the translator’s beliefs will influence words and phrases chosen which can sometimes put you off, especially if those words trigger negative reactions for you. For example, the word ‘evil’ has certain connotations for some of us today which don’t really apply in the same way for the Stoics. The same goes for the word “virtue.” So, it’s interesting to explore more translations but again you don’t want to get stuck in translation-analysis-paralysis. It’s important that we stay open and keep reading to understood what the Stoics meant. The Stoic teachings transgress historical and cultural limitations.

My favourite translation of Meditations is still Gregory Hays’ translation and the Robin Hard translation is my very close second. It was just that I happened to read Hays first and his introduction really helped me connect with Marcus Aurelius as a writer.

In the introduction, Hays explains Marcus Aurelius’s writing style and practice which (with my reading of Pierre Hadot) guided me towards creating a journaling practice of my own as well as journaling exercises for my friends and co-learners in The Stoic Salon. I spoke about our writing experiences which I called “Meditations on ‘Meditations’” at the Stoicon-x event in Athens in 2019 and you can read about my thoughts here. URL — https://kathryn-koromilas.medium.com/meditations-on-meditations-6eaff3c24183

I also think it is fun to work with a selection of translations. If you join us in The Stoic Salon, you’ll see we had a discussion about translations last year and my friend Tim Mills shared an annotated bibliography of all the translations of Meditations, a brilliant resource!

In terms of secondary resources, Pierre Hadot’s work helped me find a way into Meditations — that’s what opened the door for me. Hadot is such a gorgeous, gentle and gracious thinker and reader of the ancients, and I was finally able to be gentle and curious with the Stoics after years of shunning them for lacking eloquence and poetry.

Hadot’s work also highlights the philosophical practice of the ancients. I also love Elen Buzaré’s Stoic Spiritual Exercises which builds on the work of Hadot and is a book of techniques and exercises to help you develop a Stoic practice.

I also love Bill Irvine’s voice and his ability to communicate Stoicism in a way that makes it infinitely fun and familiar.

I think Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez’s Live Like a Stoic (UK title) or A Handbook for New Stoics (USA title) is absolute essential doing. I say ‘doing,’ not reading, because Stoicism is, as the authors say, one part theory and nine parts practice. And this handbook gets you to commit to a daily practice.

I love anything that Sharon Lebell writes and The Art of Living should be on everyone’s Stoic bookshelf.

I think Ryan Holiday’s Lives of the Stoics, which he wrote with Stephen Hanselman, is a useful companion book. It’s an accessible resource bringing together all the characters in the story of Stoicism, starting with Zeno and ending with Marcus Aurelius. It provides historical and cultural context to your Stoic journey. And then, armed with this introduction, it’s easier to go back and read some of the primary sources such as Diogenes’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers which is freely available online and loads of fun to read.

I think Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Wisdom is excellent because it interrogates the public brand of Stoicism that emerged in the last 20 years via, let’s say, the military and Silicon Valley interpretations, that kind of solipsistic brand of heroism and indifference. Sherman shows that even our private Stoic practice is always connected to our social bonds. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us, we are born to work together, like feet, hands and eyes.

Donald Robertson’s articles on Medium are essential secondary reading and his book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is a useful book in remarkable ways. I’ve spoken to a few people who read this book at a time of great personal distress. One person I spoke to had been contemplating suicide. They happened to read the book at that time and it saved them. It literally saved their life. Others have said the same about Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Refer to the Modern Stoicism website, it’s a massive resource. And if you like apps, Caleb Ontiveros’s Stoa app is a helpful resource, too. Speaking of apps, Sam Harris’s Waking Up app has some Stoic lessons from Bill Irvine which are brilliant.

So it doesn’t matter where you begin, just choose one text and begin. If if feels awkward, move on to another. But focus on the one thing at a time. I’ve seen people start reading a text and then start quibbling about the use of a word or reproaching a translator for a choice they made or arguing with themselves about whether one religion or another would align or whether neuroscience challenges the dichotomy of control and everything else and you’ve just got to put a limit to that.

I just think we’ve got to stop having an instant opinion about everything, and just read. Let go of all our assumptions as we read the Stoics because they’re actually quite counter-cultural and we need to make space to be able to hear that. Just listen to the author via the translator or the secondary author. And then, practice. Do some private practice but then connect with others and read and write and practice together. So, for me, my reading list is an invitation to do some private study in a comfy armchair, sure, but ultimately, to grab my books and head out into the world and practice in community.

SD: Many of our readers are Stoa organizers, so what practices or ideas can you suggest for them in their regular meetings? What’s easy for them to implement? If you have a link to a web page of ideas, please include it.

KK: A webpage of ideas is a great idea! I’ll work on that and share on the socials and in The Stoic Salon. Stoicism definitely works better with friends so choose a project that requires some daily practice and gather together once a month for a check-in. A good place to start, and it’s really where I started to learn how to practise philosophy like the Stoics was in Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and specifically the chapter “Spiritual Exercises.” In this chapter, Hadot mentions Philo of Alexandria, from whom we now have an idea of the types of spiritual exercises the ancients considered as part of their philosophical training. The exercises on this list include reading, listening, attention, meditations, and therapies of the passions. It’s fascinating and a great resource for any Stoa group.

Meanwhile, here is my list of “10 Things to Practice at your Stoa Meetings.”

  1. Schedule a month and work together to each create a personal encheiridion, a handbook for life. Make it pocket-sized so that you can always have it with you in times of need. Start by focusing on a particular issue of concern for you. It might be anger management or managing your fear of death. Then look for relevant teachings, summarise them, and copy them into your handbook. Stoa discussions will help find the relevant passages. I have some thoughts here: 10 Reasons To Create Your Own “Encheiridion.”
  2. Read Meditations and do daily writing activities. Work on reformulating and reexpressing the meditations. I have some thoughts here: Meditations on “Meditations” Towards a more Stoic kind of journaling and How Stoic journaling stopped me overthinking.These activities help with (1) and (10).
  3. Write Seneca-style letters together. Here is some guidance for this with some preliminary thoughts in a talk I gave for the Aurelius Foundation: Self-Leadership with Seneca’s Letter.
  4. Use Elen Buzare’s Stoic Spiritual Exercises and practice her exercises.
  5. Set a date and decide to work through Pigliucci and Lopez’s Live Like a Stoic / A Handbook for New Stoics. In an online space or group email, share the weekly exercises, and meet once a month for a live check-in.
  6. Read and record Seneca’s letters. You might even want to reformulate an archaic translation into your own words. We did that two summers ago and here is what we came up with: Summer with Seneca Playlist. Having your own playlist is great and then you can meet and discuss each letter.
  7. Invite an author to join your meetings (on Zoom). We invited Massimo and Greg and they were so happy to join us and their input was so useful and also has set the tone for how we might organise our discussions and think about our practice.
  8. Organise a “writing for publication” group. We just opened one in The Stoic Salon and I’m hoping it will become sandbox for us to test ideas and to encourage us to write beyond our group.
  9. Create a music playlist to accompany your Stoic practice. For our “28 Days of Joyful Death Writing” challenge we created this playlist. Choosing the right songs for your Stoic playlist helps you test and practice your knowledge and makes for great discussions at Stoa meetings.
  10. Use Canva.com to create some wall art with some of your favourite Stoic maxims. Placing these in your home and workplace will be a good reminder of what to focus on when you are faced with difficult situations. You can even create cards to send to your friends (with a Seneca-style letter!).

SD: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. I remember earlier in 2021, we worked together on building your group, The Stoic Salon, and it was a great learning experience! What plans do you have for 2022? What’s coming over the horizon?

KK: So much gratitude to you and to the New England Stoics for joining us for our book club! Your presentations of the chapters of Ryan Holiday’s Lives of the Stoics were so comprehensive and our discussions so considered and so rich and wide-ranging, I too learnt a lot.

In the Stoic Salon, we’ve started the year with a year-long commitment to work through Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez’s Live Like a Stoic (A Handbook for New Stoics). My friend and fellow Stoic, Sofia Koutlaki is leading us. Everyone can join us at anytime of the year. Just follow this link to the registration page of Live Like a Stoic for a Year — A guided journey through the book. Massimo and Greg joined us for our first meeting on Zoom and we recorded the discussion. The answers to our questions will appeal to everyone, so please go ahead and listen to the conversation here.

This year, I will be recording Season 2 of The Stoic Salon Podcast. You can listen to Season 1 and please subscribe on YouTube or follow on Spotify, Google, Apple, or Pandora so we can stay in touch and you’ll know when I upload another episode. Season 2 will be called “Courage Club” and we’ll be focusing, mostly, on Stoic courage.

Courage Club aligns with the theme of our second women’s conference, which I am once again co-organizing with Brittany Polat. Sign up here for updates about Courageous Paths to Flourishing: Stoicon Women Virtual Gathering 2022 and if you’d like to get involved somehow, please email us. We look forward to seeing everyone there on Saturday 1st October, 2022 — fate permitting!

Meanwhile, I will be leading other writing and journaling experiences in the Stoic Salon, including the much-loved “28 Days of Joyful Death Writing,” where we write with Marcus Aurelius’s contemplations on death. Sign up here for updates.

Everyone is invited to join us in The Stoic Salon and we would love to organise more collaborative events with other Stoa groups. Join us here. And if you’d like to contact me personally please do so here.

Thanks again, Dan!

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