Stoicism in Action
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Stoicism in Action

An Interview with Will Johncock

This quarter, The Stoic Fellowship has interviewed Will Johncock, who writes about our individual and collective relations with time. He works within the fields of continental philosophy, Stoic philosophy, social theory, and sociology. His latest book is Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory. For more info, visit his website: https://willjohncock.com

SD = StoicDan (Organizer of Orlando Stoics)

WJ = Will Johncock

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SD: What was your inspiration for the book “Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory” and for whom did you write it?

WJ: Much recent literature and online material that integrates Stoic philosophy focuses on the dichotomy of control. This details the personal benefits for individuals who can learn to be indifferent to what they cannot control. I don’t discount the value of this emphasis. It genuinely improves people’s lives. My interpretation of Stoicism, however, is that fundamentally it is not a philosophy occupied with individual or personal outcomes. Instead, Stoicism’s concerns are communal and universal. This perspective isn’t as easily adaptable to self-help literature. It also has much less commercial appeal. Nevertheless, my book is inspired by the orientation I see in the Stoics toward social and universal understandings of the self. I study these broader orientations by comparing Stoic philosophies to modern theories in sociology and social theory. This is a useful approach, because these latter theorists typically explore how we are contingently socialized by presiding power structures and social norms, and further posit that this structural production of individuals is inescapable. The Stoics conversely warn us to guard against being shaped by society in such ways. They instead define our social being as a universal fellowship that is attributable to our shared rationality. In exploring this difference, I wrote the book for anyone interested in the social themes within Stoicism, and had both public readers and scholars in mind. I comprehensively discuss what being social means for the Stoics, and attempt to refine our understanding of that by drawing comparisons with the aforementioned sociologies and social theories.

SD: In chapter 2, you connect what we control in our lives (our thoughts) to an ordered universe (a rational one). Why do you think Epictetus plays an important role in this relationship?

WJ: A pivotal aspect of our relationship with a rational, ordered universe concerns the daimon. The daimon is described as a trace or fragment of a pantheistically rational world that we each embody. The portrayals provided by both Cicero and Galen of Posidonius’ account of the daimon are incredibly useful. Epictetus however offers the most comprehensive explanation of the union that exists between us all as a result of what is common about our respective daimons. Where Epictetus further emphasizes the relation of our daimon rationalities to a pantheistic order, so his lectures become crucial to appreciating what we internally share with the universe as a whole.

SD: The next chapter covers the topic of mindfulness and being present. How can we better focus on the important things in life — in an age when news and ads are demanding more of our attention?

WJ: The Stoics offer two impressions of time. One is that time is an endless continuity. The other is of time’s perpetual subdivisions. In the first model, states of time that appear to not be present, actually seemingly do inhabit the present moment. In the second model, we alternatively are offered a conception of spatial time (not too dissimilar to what Henri Bergson would later identify and critique), in which the present is always limited, finite, and mutually excluded from other time states. Gilles Deleuze provides a neat account for a modern philosophical audience of these dual Stoic impressions of time in his Logic of Sense. The important point for us to consider from all this is whether for the Stoics we can ever live absolutely in a present state or moment. With Marcus Aurelius there is an emphatic message to live in the now, in the present. Preceding Stoic models of time though seem to be more nuanced. Reports of Chrysippus’ interpretation indicate that he was probably a thinker who was highly sensitive to the intricacies of time. This is all to say, the question of the present for the Stoics differs between its eras, which prevents us from reducing Stoicism’s perspectives on this topic to a single position. If I was to offer one idea with the beliefs of numerous Stoics in mind however, it would be that in order to practically develop a less-distracted relation with the present, we should be humble. We should learn to appreciate. We should avoid desiring what we don’t yet have, we should avoid lamenting what we have lost. This is because for much of Stoicism, we never really had, or ever will have, what we lament or desire in a conventional sense anyway. Why? Because everything is change.

SD: In my Stoic discussion groups in Florida, people are always interested in connecting Stoic concepts to other philosophers and ideas. You described the idea of Émile Durkheim: “social structures exist before and after any individual’s existence”. This is profound and can be linked to the Stoic term “cosmopolis” plus the thought experiment of John Rawls (“the veil of ignorance”). How can we use Stoicism to improve society and to live in harmony?

WJ: Durkheim is an interesting discussant for the Stoics. This is due to his beliefs that we are inescapably socially structured. Even when we believe that we are individually or subjectively controlling our thoughts, decisions, actions, and so on, for Durkheim these aspects of the self are still socially shaped. The Stoics present a different point of view. Contrary to Durkheim, they believe we can defy our external socialization. We can do this by being indifferent to what happens socially that is not in our control. Complementing this though, the Stoics do recognize socially and universally harmonious aspects to our being. For instance, they posit that we are each a part of a worldwide human community (a thesis forwarded perhaps most famously by Hierocles). They also describe the entire universe, beyond humans exclusively, as a kind of community (Marcus’ Aurelius descriptions are most evocative on this topic). Through Stoicism’s sense of the cosmopolis specifically, which you mention, we get this wonderful sense of a singular community comprising all humans. The more that this Stoic worldview is adopted, the more trivial become cultural and geographical disputes and divisions. A mindset that recognizes collective and universal ends, rather than hyper-individualized and localized investments, seems quite harmony-inducing!

SD: In covering Seneca’s works, you mention “One of the developmental aspects of this Stoic perspective is that we can acquire wisdom and transcend our previously ignorant state.” What’s a major Stoic idea that helped you transcend in your life?

WJ: Seneca’s response to ignorance is that through self-training, and the consequent self-awareness and knowledge that such training develops, we are capable of overcoming irrational fears and a previously unvirtuous state. He interestingly describes this training in two ways. Firstly, it requires an inward journey, where we reflect rationally rather than travel geographically to learn new things (the latter in Seneca’s view only provides us with contingent, incidental knowledge). Secondly, he describes such training as a process that involves practicing the “social arts”. I really like the way Seneca raises this latter element, as it recognizes that becoming more self-aware involves collegially oriented elements. A major Stoic idea via which I embarked on such self-training concerned my first encounters with Stoic physics. The principle embedded within much Stoic physics, that everything in the universe is composed of the same rationalized substance (or “wax” as Marcus Aurelius refers to it), resonated with me. It helped me to appreciate the sameness within difference. The notion that anything in the world could ever really be “other” than I faded.

SD: In learning philosophy, you wrote that knowledge is “sedimented” over time. I like this metaphor, because it helps people understand how philosophy is acquired and used. At my first Stoicon conference, I heard a speech by Chuck Chakrapani, in which he said Stoicism is not just a series of tools (used one at a time), but that all the tools play at once like “a symphony”, and in turn, helps us navigate our lives. Have you heard other good metaphors for teaching Stoicism?

WJ: Chuck is spot on! I’ve always found Chuck to effectively communicate the cohesiveness of Stoic principles. My own favorite use of metaphor in contemporary Stoicism is actually via a warning about what not to do with its philosophies. Here I refer to Massimo Pigliucci rightly criticizing in his essay, “The Growing Pains of the Stoic Movement”, how select elements of Stoicism are often presented as “life hacks” or “tricks”. As with Chuck’s comment, Massimo reminds us that Stoicism as a practice requires more than just the adoption of one or two popularized soundbites.

SD: I’m glad that you connected Stoicism to the global issue of climate change. You point out that some low-lying countries will be affected first as sea levels rise. Their economies and infrastructures will be damaged. Most discussions on Stoicism focus “within”, but I agree that we can also improve conditions “without” (on a global scale). My friend Kai Whiting is focused on the environment and Stoicism. Do you know of other Stoic scholars who are helping us reexamine the environment through Stoic perspectives?

WJ: Kai’s essay with Leonidas Konstantakos, “Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant”, is one of my favorite recent Stoic commentaries. It reviews the application of Stoicism to environmental discourse in such a balanced way, by accommodating both theological and scientific vernacular and principles. When considering Stoicism’s relevance to questions of environmental science, the Stoics’ pantheistic component provokes much debate! Scientific processes regularly require empirical verifiability of course. Theological parameters conversely seem to be dogmatically unchallengeable, in a way that might not seem to help us much in addressing climate change. Kai and Leonidas really unsettle this division between science and theology though when they talk about Stoicism being a “naturalist theology”. Additional useful discussions of the relevance of Stoicism to environmental issues are William Stephens’ article “Stoic Naturalism, Rationalism, and Ecology”, Christopher Gill’s essay “Stoicism and the Environment”, and Dirk Baltzly’s article “Stoic Pantheism”. Each offers the insight that the Stoic God probably isn’t that dissimilar to what we conventionally and currently refer to as an empirically analyzable nature. I really like Dirk’s appraisal that because the Stoics observed an ordered world, and then interpreted a rational God as the cause of it, that the Stoics must actually be studying the world empirically anyway.

SD: One of your areas of research is the individual’s relationship with time (fascinating!). When you consider the industrialization of society, how does this affect (or change) the Stoic mantra of people “living according to Nature”?

WJ: This is a great question! Often people incorrectly reduce the Stoic term “Nature” to ecological flora and fauna. Given that Nature in Stoicism refers to a rational and virtuous existence, industrialization in itself isn’t necessarily Nature-destructive in a Stoic sense. Industrialization would however compromise Nature, our Nature, if via industrialization we were not living with an awareness of our interconnection with the entire universe. This would come down to Marcus Aurelius’ famous “cosmic view”. If when industrializing we were acting rationally and virtuously by always being conscious of the entire universe and our roles in that whole, then industrialization might be in accordance with our Nature. Industrialization does not seemingly happen that way however, suggesting that it is in conflict with our Nature.

SD: To help Stoa organizers engage more people in philosophy, I always ask authors and teachers: what piece of Stoicism resonates most with audiences, in your opinion?

WJ: The discussion of what we can versus cannot control will always probably give Stoicism its largest public audience. Given how it speaks to themes of self-help and personal development, it has contributed significantly to the 21st-century popularization of Stoic philosophy. I have found a real public resonance though with the topic of cosmopolitanism. Its insight that every one of us belongs to a singular worldly community appeals to audiences wanting to explore Stoicism more thoroughly. I sense that many people are fatigued by the constant rhetoric around the supposedly inherent divisions between humans according to territory, demography, and ideology. A cosmopolitan view provides an antidote. It reminds us that before all the contingent human arrangements of ourselves into different geographical and conceptual quarters, we are fundamentally similar and mutually bound. I will be exploring the collegial and universal sense of the self that Stoicism offers, in a course that I am teaching through the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy in the coming weeks.

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