Reviving Stoic Practice
"We are currently planning our First Annual Marcus Aurelius Convention to commemorate his birthday (April 26) in San Diego
Erik Wiegardt is the founder of New Stoa, a contemporary Stoic community that seeks to revive the ancient philosophy of Stoicism as a living practice. Unlike the communities discussed in Emily Cadik's article, Come Together, the Stoic community, which encourages Deism, is not strictly speaking a secular humanist community. But there is a certain amount of overlap, and knowledge to be discovered through dialogue. The New Humanism conducted an e-mail interview with Erik to discuss the relationship between Stoicism and Humanism. The following is an edited version of our e-mail exchange.
TNH: What can secular humanists learn and apply from the philosophy of Stoicism?
Wiegardt: Nothing. You're doing just fine. Stoics and Humanists share the same values of freedom, equality, tolerance, secularism, cosmopolitanism, and we both exalt the active over the contemplative life. We also believe in the perfectibility of human nature, an idea for which the great 16th century neostoic, Justus Lipsius, was soundly (and incorrectly) thrashed by Pascal and Malebranche, the Catholic intellectuals of the next century.
I would venture to say that all Stoics are humanists, even though not all humanists are Stoics. Or would want to be. Being a Stoic requires another level of intellectual rigor and commitment. For example, we believe that logic, physics, and ethics are as inseparable in philosophy as the shell, white, and yolk of an egg in the creation of a bird. (This is an actual simile used by Stoics in antiquity.)
The starting point of our ethics is actually based upon our physics. Nature gave each living thing a Primary Impulse: love and care for the self above all else. Our ethics is a product of Nature, beginning with the Primary Impulse, love of self, and evolving with the use of our reason to the highest ethical behavior, love for another even to the detriment of the self, altruism. This is the Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis.
TNH: What did the ancient Stoics believe about the gods and the afterlife?
Wiegardt: Largely the same as what contemporary Stoics believe. Although classical Stoics were more unified in their belief about God than we are today, beliefs about the afterlife are essentially the same. First, let's talk about God. The Stoic god is singular, One, the Whole, a philosophical god. We are deists, not theists. As do humanists, we have never believed in divine revelation. Our god is Nature. All of Nature, including the seen and unseen.
We are pantheists. That being said, it's important to recognize the chief difference between contemporary and classical Stoics. When we say that God is Nature, the first question many want to know is whether or not this god is conscious or unconscious. That is, are the processes of Nature consciously or unconsciously driven? With rare exceptions, such as Boethus of Sidon, classical Stoics believed Nature was conscious and providential. Today, Stoics are divided. Some still believe in a conscious deity, the panentheists; some are unsure, the skeptics; and some reject the notion of a conscious deity altogether, the atheists. We are tolerant of this disagreement.
As for the matter of the afterlife, Stoics past and present have never been certain. We agree with Marcus Aurelius who said in his Meditations that if Nature believed an afterlife was fitting and proper, then such a future was both possible and certain; if not, then we defer to the greater wisdom of our creator. Either way, we have nothing to fear.
TNH: With regard to suffering, is Stoicism about putting a mask on one's suffering, to hide it from public view, or is it about changing one's inner experience so one does not suffer? (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the former is what being "stoic" means in modern usage, but the latter is what the ancient Stoics practiced.)
Wiegardt: Yes, the first part of your question refers to what I call the Dictionary Stoics—those who believe that Stoics repress their emotions. That misunderstanding has been with us always, and as always is based upon ignorance. This issue could be a very long essay, but I will spare both the reader and myself and get straight to the point. Remember, our ethics is based upon physics and supported by logic. For Stoics to have believed such a thing is unreasonable from both perspectives.
The latter part of the question is mostly correct. It is about changing one's inner experience so one does not suffer excessively. Only the Stoic sage never suffers. That person is a myth, the ideal of the Stoics. No one has ever claimed to be a Stoic sage, and so far as we know there has never been such a one. The rest of us suffer and express it, but the goal is to understand why suffering is unnecessary: all emotional excess is a faulty judgment about the nature of reality and our place within it.
As Epictetus said, "For I am not to be undisturbed by passions, as a statue is; but as one who preserves the natural and acquired relations—as a pious person, a son, a brother, a father, a citizen (Discourses, 3:2). We are allowed to love, to care, to show sympathy, and to fight injustice just as normal human beings do, because we are normal human beings. But excessive emotion, including intense suffering, is both unnatural and unwise. Its source is faulty judgment and an inner discourse that inflames that error.
TNH: What kind of organized Stoic community exists today? How did it come into being? Does it exist solely as an Internet community, or are there also in-person gatherings? How do you envision this community developing in the future?
Wiegardt: The Stoic community began as an Internet website on May 8, 1996. It was originally called the Stoic Registry, and its purpose then, as it is now, was to seek, identify, and unite Stoics around the world. When I founded the Stoic Registry I had never met or known another Stoic and wasn't even sure any others existed. For a number of years, the most common response of new members was some variation on, "I thought I was the only Stoic in the world."
Today, the original community still exists online and is called New Stoa. We have expanded considerably since the earliest days. We still have the Registry page listing over 200 members as well as an eMagazine, the Stoic Council, the College of Stoic Philosophers, discussion groups such as the International Forum, and a multimedia resource that includes a presence on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
Right now, we are solely an Internet community, but we are getting started with face-to-face groups with meetup.com in Houston and San Diego, and we are currently planning our First Annual Marcus Aurelius Convention to commemorate his birthday (April 26) in San Diego. Planning this convention includes Stoic Council members from London to San Diego.
As for a vision of the future—in brief, more of the same. After more than 13 years corresponding with Stoics around the world, I can say that we tend to be thoughtful, persevering, and loyal—but fiercely independent. These qualities, all in the same person, are not in great abundance in the general population of the world. Thus, I expect what we have begun will continue and evolve slowly but surely until 200 becomes 2,000, then 200,000, and so on.
TNH: What scholars or opinion leaders are influenced by Stoic ideas, whether or not they are associated with your community? The philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the author Tom Wolfe come to mind.
Wiegardt: I'm not sure what an "opinion leader" is, so I'll just mention that in the world today there are many scholars of Stoicism. Some are actually Stoics; most are not. It's just an interesting subject to them. The ones I've found myself referring to time and again are: Larry Becker, Professor Emeritus of William and Mary, a member of our community and a Fellow at the College; William O. Stephens, an Epictetus Scholar, Philosophy Professor at Creighton, also a member of New Stoa and a Fellow at the College; A. A. Long, Berkeley professor and leading Hellenism scholar, also a Stoic (we have a great interview with him in our magazine December 2008); and one of my personal favorites, Pierre Hadot, the great French historian of philosophy. The thesis of his work, The Inner Citadel, is a new perspective on what Marcus Aurelius was really writing when he wrote what we call the Meditations. Wonderful view of Marcus and Stoicism in general.
TNH: Do you see similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism in terms of their attitudes toward regulating emotions? In terms of focus on the present moment? Marcus Aurelius (3:10) wrote "Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed." This seems very similar to the Buddhist attitude of mindfulness.
Wiegardt: Much has been made of the similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. There are important differences, too, such as our hearty disagreement with the Buddha's First Noble Truth that all is suffering. We believe that life is amazing, incredible, wonderful, and our idealistic perspective keeps us from wallowing in the "vale of tears" that both traditional Christians and Buddhists hold up as life in the phenomenon of existence.
Specifically with regard to the passage you quoted, yes. As Pierre Hadot says in Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell, 2008, p.84), "Attention (prosochē) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude." This is essentially mindfulness, a necessary quality for a Stoic to acquire, because we believe that the inner dialogue frames one's whole reality. Thus, paying attention to the inner dialogue and the judgments it represents is very important. For example, if you constantly tell yourself that pain, death, and your boss are evils, then you will believe that it is so, react accordingly, and suffer unnecessarily.
TNH: In daily life, what is it like to be a practicing Stoic?
Wiegardt: This is a very good question. As Epictetus said, theory is just the beginning of philosophy—and the easiest part. We disagree with the academic philosophers who see it as the only part. The study of philosophy is a few years, at most, while practice is the work of a lifetime. In this regard, I can only speak for myself, and so I will tell you what exercises I do to strengthen my Stoic practice.
I begin my day with two forms of meditation: Pneuma meditation and Prosochē. These are two forms of Stoic meditation that I developed over a period of more than 20 years that specifically address strengthening the will and mindfulness, respectively. (Your readers will now know more about my personal practice than do members of my own community.)
In addition, I do hypomnemata, a kind of journaling, what Hadot calls the "spiritual exercise" of Marcus Aurelius. In short, you keep a journal of interesting events in your life that you relate to Stoic principles. Eventually, you come to realize that nearly everything that happens in your life can be related to one or more of these principles.
Finally, I commune with Nature, the Stoic god. 2-3 times per week I go boogie boarding in the Pacific Ocean. This is my favorite exercise, the most fun, and the best way I know how to keep in shape, both physically and psychologically. As a matter of fact, I went this morning for about an hour: air temperature in the 40s, water temperature in the 50s. Bracing!
TNH: Are there any more details of the Pneuma and Prosochē meditations that you would be willing to share?
Wiegardt: In the past, meditation to a Stoic meant contemplation, not exercises in emptying the mind or mindfulness. I believe we need to expand our definition. Many other Stoics do too, as evidenced by the frequency with which I hear of their involvement with various forms of meditation. Personally, I believe we need our own meditations, because our needs and purposes are somewhat different.
I think we can and should adapt certain Asian techniques of empty mind and mindfulness meditation, and I believe we will be better Stoics if we do. I have done so. Such practices can be the most humane and sensible way to strengthen the will—far more accurate and certain than cold showers, pain, and other forms of self-abuse or denial.
Why strengthening the will is important can be understood by knowing the key to Stoic ethics. Here it is: Good is virtue; all evil comes from a lack of virtue. The rest is indifferent. Now, all good and evil reside in the individual's will, and only the will is in our power. Thus the judgments, the choices of the will, are of profound importance to the well-being of the individual.
Pneuma is part of Stoic cosmology—the breath of life—and that's essentially the focus of this meditation, the breath. But in doing so, one strengthen the will in four ways. Prosochē is the fundamental Stoic attitude of attention, or mindfulness, and I have developed an exercise for that. But explaining how they work is far beyond the scope of this interview. Let me just point out that Pneuma Meditation is explained in detail in Part Two of Beyond Theory, an eBook that can be found on the New Stoa website. It's free. I'm completing the manual on Prosochē now. It should be out sometime in February.
TNH: How has your community developed in terms of inclusivity and diversity? Although Humanists and atheists believe in gender equity, our communities have sometimes been criticized for not giving women a large enough role.
Wiegardt: About 5 percent of the Stoic community are women. We have only one that is currently in a leadership role, despite the fact that such roles are freely available to all. I expect the overall numbers and percentages will improve when women become aware Stoic philosophy championed their equality for more than 2000 years while the great majority of the world assumed their inferiority.
TNH: You indicated that Stoics do not repress emotion but avoid excessive emotion. Is this true on the positive side as well as the negative? Can one be joyful to excess? Should one modulate one's positive emotions to the same degree as one's negative emotions, or can we be a bit freer with positive emotions so that we are perhaps biased toward joy?
Wiegardt: I would like to use an example given by Chrysippus. When it comes to your emotions, walk, don't run down that slippery slope. It's so much more difficult to direct, control, and stop yourself when you run down hill. However, it's also important to emphasis that you modify excessive emotion by your belief system, not by some teeth-clenching denial or discipline.
As for excessive joy, I don't know what that is. I don't even know whether or not it exists. And, I don't know of anyone, Stoic or otherwise, who has claimed to experience such a thing.
TNH: I'm fond of the ancient Stoics, but my one criticism is that they don't seem to have much of a sense of humor. Perhaps that is an artifact of what is preserved of their writings. But Marcus Aurelius (11:6) seems to prefer tragedies to comedies, and even judges comedies by their usefulness rather than the pleasure they provide. What is the stoic attitude toward humor?
Wiegardt: I agree. Not enough laughter among the Romans. We don't know much about the Greeks, but Diogenes Laertius said Chrysippus literally died from laughter. (Is that a case of excessive joy?) Apparently one day, when he discovered an ass had eaten all his figs he said to an old woman nearby, "Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs (Diogenes Laertius, 7:185)," whereupon he reportedly went into such a fit of laughter that he died straight away.
When in doubt, look to the Stoic motto, "Live in agreement with Nature." Nature created one of its creatures with enough intelligence to laugh. Why question it; why doubt it; why pretend one of our greatest joys is somehow less than noble? Chrysippus, our second founder, was brilliant, a great Stoic. He knew how to laugh.