Stoicism in Action
Published in

Stoicism in Action

An Interview with Pete Fagella

The Stoic Fellowship is very pleased to offer this interview with Pete Fagella, who is the President of the New England Stoics, a Boston based Stoa. He also serves on the board of directors of The Stoic Fellowship. In that capacity, he has been Chairman of Stoicon X committee, Regional Support Volunteer for the Northeast United States, and has been active in several other committees. He is the father of two boys, 12 and 15, and is employed as an Electronics Technician.

SD = StoicDan (Organizer of The Orlando Stoics and Editor of Indifferents Quarterly)

PF = Pete Fagella

SD: What Stoic group do you organize, how often do you meet, and where is it located?

PF: I am the president of the New England Stoics. We were founded in 2018 as a collection of individuals from all around the region. I personally live in NH now, when I reached out to the fellowship, they had told me that not many people in NH had expressed interest at the time in becoming part of a Stoic group. I had asked them if anybody in Massachusetts within an hour of Boston had expressed interest and there were quite a few. I was given their contact information and we had our first meeting in Newburyport, MA, because one of us lived in that town and had an unreliable vehicle for long distances.

For a while, we would try new locations, trying to cover the entire region. At one point as we began to grow, we would alternate between Cambridge, MA and Lowell, MA, and those two points seemed to have promising feedback from members. Eventually, though, our meeting location in Cambridge closed down and the Lowell crowd began to dwindle, so we looked elsewhere. Now, we mostly meet in Boston, usually in the North End section of the city, but not always. For example, on occasion we’ll meet in a park or the library. We have developed an affection for this little café in the North End called the Thinking Cup. We are often recognized by this one elderly man who always comes up to us and joins in the conversation, often interrupting us to tell us random stories and share random recipes. He is very sweet. Pre-COVID, we were meeting every two weeks.

SD: What discussion topics are popular in your group?

PF: This was a challenge we had to endure in the beginning, as most of us, including myself, were only novices in the subject matter. Initially we would have single topics that would be the focus of the meeting. All sorts of topics ranging from “what is good” to each of the four virtues; we discussed death, coping mechanizing, resilience, friendship. Often the motivation for the topic was based on the previous topic, but sometimes it would just be what we were curious about that month.

We noticed though that often the conversation would go off the rails and, eventually, we were discussing a topic which did not at all relate to our topic. So, the dilemma was this: how do we maintain order in our meetings, while at the same time encourage curiosity and free thinking? The answer was the Philosophers Café. This style of meeting would have no set topic. Instead we would act as a way for Stoics and would-be Stoics to get to know each other, and learn from each other. We encouraged free thought. Naturally, several independent conversations would take place, and people would stay for hours.

We still wanted to have structure, however, in our meetings. Having borrowed some material from the NYC Stoics, we created our own practice class. The class would be held every four weeks, with the Philosophers Café two weeks before and two weeks after. The class follows a rigid academic focus on Stoicism and how to practice this philosophy. The Philosophers Café encourages free thought and open conversation.

In addition to these two primary meeting types we have recently begun to have weekly mediation sessions. Once a week, we sit for about two minutes. We also have meditative journaling an hour proceeding each class and Philosophers Café. A typical four-week month will have one Philosophers Café, one practice class, four sitting meditation sessions, and two journaling meditation sessions. In the future, we are hoping to expand further to increase our social activities, to strengthen the bonds between us.

SD: Are you meeting virtually now and using what tools?

PF: In March, we had a wonderful meeting at our usual spot in the North End of Boston. When the meeting had ended, the leadership team decided that we would continue to spend some time together. We got lunch at this amazing corner restaurant named Dino’s and walked around the city. We came up with some great activities for the upcoming meetings and even went to the top of a free observation tower overlooking the seaport, where we took a group photo. We discussed COVID and were relatively unconcerned at the time, as none of us were high-risk. We had no idea what was about to happen. We had no idea that this would be the last time we met in person for a long time.

Within a week of this meeting, the news started to suggest guidelines as to how to protect ourselves. All of us, having come across the information independently, came to the conclusion that the plans that we had from a week earlier would have to be put on hold. We would have to go virtual, something we had only once done before.

Our only experience with a virtual meeting was when the leadership team watched “The Big Lebowski”, a few of our officers pushed the idea that the dude was the ultimate Stoic and wanted to show the rest of us. We had some technical difficulties but ultimately figured it out. This was fortunate because when we took all of our meeting into the virtual work for COVID, we understood what we were doing.

Our first Zoom meeting was exclusively about COVID. We wanted to help others cope as Stoics. One of our regular members was in Italy at the time, which at that moment was the hardest country being hit. We got to speak with him about how things were on the streets. I think it helped prepare some of us for what we would have to endure several months later. I know it helped me. Following this meeting we went back to our regular format (although meditation was first introduced during the Zoom sessions).

Zoom has been wonderful to us. We are able to connect with members who moved away, and others who weren’t previously able to attend the in-person meetings. Zoom has been so successful that we decided our practice classes will remain on Zoom even after the pandemic (easier with PowerPoint).

SD: In your opinion, is there a single book / concept / story that engages people best as newcomers to Stoicism?

PF: I really like Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. The letters that are being referred-to are one-side of a two-sided conversation between Seneca and his friend. They do not show the friend’s letters to Seneca, however, you are able to infer what is being said as Seneca often repeats it. Essentially the friend is always asking Seneca advice on one topic or another. Seneca, being the established Stoic, is happy to help and, in a very affectionate way, tries to give the best Stoic advise he can.

I like this book, because it is meant to be casual. His friend is presumably not a Stoic and is trying to learn to become one by consulting his dear friend. You can put yourself in many of the situations that the friend is experiencing and gain perspective. It’s great for a beginner.

Another good book is Meditations, although I would offer a word of caution. Meditations were random thoughts written down as the thoughts appeared, and the book was written as a journal and not meant for public view. Consequently, there is no order to the thoughts and it can be a bit confusing, if you are trying to understand concepts. The thoughts, however, are easy to read and provide nice little pieces of random, but helpful information.

SD: Let’s discuss your Stoic camp experiences over the years. What activities were good learning experiences and built community?

PF: Well, I should be clear that we have only had one Stoic camp in our group. We had planned to have another one this year but COVID put a damper on those plans. However, we did have a wonderful time and had plenty of activities. We wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time for both recreation and education.

The focus of our group was entirely on Epictetus. We read all of his Discourses, and I personally gave some historical context. We held the camp at a cabin in northern Maine, near some really spectacular waterfalls and several easy hikes. We listened to several podcasts and had dinner together every night. The group nearly fell apart though when, during a board game of Risk, I was betrayed by who I thought was my ally. Good thing for Stoic perspective.

In the last day of the camp, we began a tradition, and the end of every major event, we silently sit for one minute. At the end of the minute, a timer goes off, and we all scream a mighty roar.

SD: Which authors have you read over time (ancient or modern)? Also, do you like any “semi-Stoic” authors?

PF: My group could answer this question for you. I have bothered them enough with my constant quoting of Cicero. If you can imagine how the most beautiful art would appear, as if it came from words, it would be the works of Cicero. There are so many works that Cicero has created, and I love them all. However, most of them were more political than philosophical. He addresses this, saying he wished he had more time to dedicate to philosophy, but his responsibilities prevented it.

With regards to philosophy, two of his works come to mind: On Friendship, and On Duties. On Friendship is an elegant treatise on the value of being a friend, along with the expectations and obligations of friendship. On Duties is much more involved. On Duties was created as a moral guideline to his son Marcus. It is composed of three books and discusses what is honorable, what is advantageous, and what to do if what is advantageous conflicts with what is honorable.

Cicero gives credit to the Stoics when he feels it is appropriate. However, he does not always agree and will cite other schools when that is the case. He was a brilliant man during one of the most profound and influential periods in human history. Highly recommend any and all of his works.

SD: What elements of Stoicism connect to your life experiences?

PF: I actually found Stoicism by accident in a very serendipitous situation. I have always had a passion for history. Specifically, the late republican/early imperial Roman period. I would buy a book about a particular topic, while reading another topic gets mentioned as a side note and the following book, then I would purchase what’s in the side note.

I was reading a book about Hadrian, and one chapter was introduced with several pages about Stoicism. I was going through the worst part of a divorce and custody battle at the time, so the prospect of coming out of that with a sense of peace was very enticing.

Incidentally, it took considerably longer to start to understand the precepts of Stoicism, but this was the beginning of my journey. I have since used Stoicism to guide me through other tough times. Everything from relationship issues to dealing with bad weather, and so many other challenges in life.

SD: How do you promote your Stoic group now?

PF: Although we have a Facebook page and our own web site, the primary means of promoting my group is on Meetup. In our first attempt at creating a web page, we had limited but notable attendance. However, once we went onto Meetup, we had a considerable uptick in attendance. In fact, of the current officer corps of my group found us through Meetup.

Joining the board of directors on the Stoic Fellowship has helped a lot as well. I am now a lot more involved in a lot of larger projects. I usually get the chance to promote my group in passing while in the capacity. I think I’m promoting my group right now during this interview!

SD: What technology tools do you use to support your group?

PF: We have a Twitter account, Instagram, Facebook, Meetup, and our own web page www.nestoics.org. We also have a mailing list that is slowly being populated. We hope to utilize it in the near future, once we have more time after Stoicon-X which has taken up a considerable amount of our time. Zoom has also been instrumental to us. We now have a greater reach, and with screen sharing, we can create very easy presentations.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store