My first three (Stoic) steps

(Stoic Camp New York, 2019 edition)

This past weekend my friend (and co-author) Greg Lopez and I run the fifth edition of Stoic Camp-New York. The general topic was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as a guide to Stoic practice. We had 19 students, and discussions were informative and constructive, with people having a great time socializing after sessions. During one of these social evenings I was asked how I got into Stoicism in the first place, so I did a bit of digging into my notes, and even on the internet, to reconstruct my initial steps. The first three are, I think, worth recounting, because they may be helpful to others who have found the Stoic way, or are considering it but are not sure what that entails and how to proceed.

Step 1: Twitter, of all things!

It all began on Friday, 5 September 2014, with this tweet, published by the Modern Stoicism group, of which I am now a member of the advisory board. These are the folks that run the annual Stoicon events, as well as Stoic Week. The tweet said: “#Stoicweek 2014: Are you Stoic enough?,” a rather cryptic message, and my first reaction was: what the hell is Stoic Week, why would anyone want to celebrate it, and what does it mean to be Stoic enough?

All sensible questions, but they need to be put into a bit of personal context, if the reader will indulge me. At the time I was undergoing a mild mid-life crisis. Even though my career was going well (I had been recently appointed endowed professor at the City College of New York, an honor that still genuinely puzzles me), and I was living in one of the most interesting cities in the world, something was amiss.

You see, I grew up Catholic in Rome, but never really bought too seriously into the faith. By the time my teenage years came around I was an agnostic, then decidedly an atheist. (In the etymological sense of a-theist, i.e., without positive belief in gods, different from atheist as someone who knows there is no god. If you will, I’m an a-theist in the same sense in which I am a a-unicornist: I don’t, provisionally, believe in unicorns. But show me one, or give me good arguments for their existence, and I’ll change my mind.)

One of the turning points was the (mandatory, in Italy) study of philosophy for three years in high school, and particularly reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian. Bertie made good points, and I haven’t found a reason to backtrack since. But that left me without what I would rather come to think of as an ethical framework to live my life. So I adopted secular humanism.

That served me well until — in my late 30s — I went back to graduate school to study philosophy, with an eye to eventually switch from my career as an evolutionary biologist to one as a philosopher of science. You just can’t study philosophy, even at a fairly specialized level, and not start paying attention to its broader message, particularly the Socratic injunction that the unexamined life ain’t worth living. So I examined my life, and while I found that it was well worth living, I also figured that I needed a better, more coherent, more time-tested ethical compass than secular humanism.

That quickly led me to virtue ethics as the approach that was most likely going to be useful. The first stop, predictably, was Aristotle. Interesting, but a bit too aristocratic for my taste. Turns out that, according to him, the eudaimonic life requires not just the practice of virtue, but also some good health, education, wealth, and even a bit of good looks. That’s very commonsensical, but it can’t be right that so many people would be left out because they lack one or more of the above (in my case, good looks).

Epicurus was next. Fascinating fellow, and with a lot of good things to say. I liked his no-nonsense approach to religion (don’t be afraid of gods, there is no afterlife) and death (you will not be here when she comes, so don’t worry). As well as his emphasis on the small pleasures of life, such as good friends and philosophical conversations. But his main goal was to achieve tranquillity through lack of pain. Which led Epicureans to conclude that one should stay away from social and political involvement, on the ground that they bring pain. Which is true, but I couldn’t imagine a life of socio-political quietism for myself.

That’s about the time when the above mentioned tweet hit my feed. I had a vague idea of who the Stoics were, even though I had actually translated Seneca in high school, and had read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations here before. I was skeptical, but curious, so I signed up for Stoic Week 2014. And my life instantly changed.

Step 2: Don Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

As soon as I signed up for Stoic Week I downloaded their manual, which contained background about Stoicism as practical philosophy, a few basic readings, and exercises to carry out each day during the week of November 24-30, 2014. Wait, November? That was a bit far, so I started looking at their suggestions for additional readings, the first of which was Don Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. I downloaded the book on September 28th and started to reading it with eagerness.

The first thing I highlighted from it was part of a quote from Seneca’s On Providence, with which the book begins: “No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it.”

My first annotation in the book comes in the opening section entitled “What’s this book all about?,” and specifically when Don writes: “In a nutshell, the Stoics said that the goal (telos, ‘end’ or ‘purpose’) of life is consistently to live in harmony and agreement with the nature of the universe, and to do this by excelling with regard to our own essential nature as rational and social beings.” My comment: the meaning of life, Stoic version.

Holy crap, I had my answer! Sure, to flesh it out took reading and reflecting on Don’s book, and then on Bill Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. And then actually reading Epictetus, Marcus, Seneca. And going back to modern entries in the canon, particularly Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism. But I was hooked and jolted into action by the very practical writing of Don Robertson and the penetrating wisdom, no-nonsense attitude, and sense of humor of Epictetus.

Step 3: my philosophical journal

One of the first things I learned from Don’s book is that a fundamental Stoic exercise is to keep a personal philosophical journal, a la Marcus Aurelius — though there is no need to write as well as he did! So that’s what I started doing, with the first entry marked October 4, 2014. Here it is, in part:

“The idea of the following entries is to provide myself with a sort of ethical journal inspired by the philosophy of Stoicism. 

Each entry is supposed to be either an account of the evening meditation, or a way to relate what is going on in my life with my overall ethical framework. 

The typical questions Stoics ask themselves during the evening meditation are: 

What did I achieve?
What did I fail at?
What was left undone?
How can I do it better in the future?”

The rest of the entry, of course, is rather personal, and there is no need to share it. 

Looking back almost exactly five years after that life-changing tweet, I am happy to reaffirm the path I began that day. I have since studied Stoic philosophy — both the ancient and modern versions — in a lot of detail, and I have become a teacher of it to others, within the limits of my understanding. 

The journey has brought about three fundamental things: First, my personal life has changed for the better, thanks to my developed ability to reframe things from a Stoic perspective, as well as to my constant practice. I seem to be able to handle stress better, I get upset less than before, and I have generally developed more clear priorities. Second, the study of Stoicism has been, and continues to be, a fascinating intellectual adventure, just as interesting to me as my previous work in evolutionary biology, or my still current one in philosophy of science. I get to spend time with some of the greatest minds of the past, and to read and meditate on life in ancient Greece and Rome and what it tells us about how to live in the 21st century. Third, it has been meaningful and gratifying to see that I seem to be able to help people. Many come to my Stoa Nova school in New York and Rome, and many more write to me after they read one of my books or my essays here at Patreon. This is new to me, the notion that doing something I love is actually helpful to me and to others. And they say Twitter is useless…

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