How to be a stoic

An interview with Massimo Pigliucci

Worldwide financial collapses, states threatening each other with nuclear Armageddon, the migration crisis, personal failures ... Modern times are anything but Disneyland, right? According to scientist and practicing philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, there is no need for dispair yet. In one word: stoicism.

As a scientist, Massimo Pigliucci undertook research in the field of genetics, which satisfied him for 25 years, until he experienced a midlife crisis and decided to do something else. “I studied philosophy in high school, because it was mandatory. I liked it, I had a very good teacher.” Following his interest in philosophy, he went back to school, obtained a PhD and became a professional philosopher. “My area is philosophical science. Once you start studying philosophy - especially when it is the result of a midlife crisis - you can’t avoid thinking about the big picture.” The questions he had about the latter, resulted in a search for a specific philosophy that suited him.

"My friends told me I had become calmer and more thoughtful."

After having tried various philosophies, he discovered stoicism. “One day I saw ‘Help us celebrate stoic week’ on Twitter, a worldwide initiative organised by a group of philosophers and cognitive behaviour therapists. You sign up, download a manual, do some exercises and fill in a questionnaire. At the end of the week, I thought it was really helpful, so I kept doing it until the end of that year. My friends told me I had become calmer and more thoughtful, and now, four years later, I'm still doing it." During his fascinating and often funny - stoics apparently have a quirky sense of humour - lecture, he explained what the practice of stoicism was really about. He also provided us with some simple rules we could follow on our path to stoicism. "I got new rules, I count’em …"

Rule n°1 : Do not suppress your emotions

First of all, practicing stoicism doesn’t mean you have to suppress your emotions, like Spock from Star Trek. Having a poker face is not what stoicism is about. Pigliucci: “Without emotions we are not motivated to do anything. Stoicism isn’t about suppressing emotions, because if you suppress your emotions, you don’t give a damn about anything and you become a psychopath. We don’t want psychopaths. That is not our goal.”

"We don't want psychopaths, that's not our goal"

As suppressing your emotions is a no-go, handling them is what stoicism is about, which is the reason why it is often linked to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). He gives us the example of anger, an emotion lots of people struggle with. When you feel anger, you have to acknowledge the emotion, and then you decide what to do with it. Maybe go for a walk to cool down? You keep repeating that process, and after a while you will become less angry.

Rule no 2 : Let it go!

“We are brought up now thinking we have more control than we actually do. We live in this bubble, thinking that our reputation is up to us, our wealth is up to us, and that if we really work hard, we are going to get stuff. Well, if you work hard it is more likely you are going to get stuff, but it is not guaranteed. Things happen. Just remember the 2008 financial collapse. Lots of people worked really hard and their savings were wiped out overnight by something they could not control.” Massimo explains that the belief everything is going to work out if you do the right thing, is a childish belief, a kind of 'Disneyish' belief even. “If things go as planned, good. But if they don't, people get crushed by their own expectations.”

"People get crushed by their own expectations." 

Not only contemporary people get crushed by society. Ancient Greeks had to deal with very similar feelings. Stoic philosophers contemplated this problem and came up with practical advice: to let go of the things that are out of our control. But if you think the 'out of control’ idea is a perfect excuse to maintain your couch potato living style, you've got it wrong. “One of the misunderstandings about stoicism is that it is a quiet philosophy, meaning you don’t undertake action because things might not work out. That is definitely not what the stoics meant, and if you look at who the stoics were, it ought to be clear.” Massimo gives us the example of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and stoic who dealt with a plague, two wars, internal rebellion and much more. "[Marcus Aurelius] was not a guy just sitting around doing nothing. What he tried to do was develop the following attitude: what I can do is to put all of my energy and efforts in doing the right thing, but after that I have to accept the universe isn’t always going to work the way I want.”

As our friend Marcus used this way of thinking in ancient times, we can also apply it to our own, modern and sometimes nerve-racking lives. “The idea is not to sit back and do nothing. Do everything you can and develop the attitude of accepting the outcomes, whatever they might be. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. Enjoy when it does, don’t get pissed off when it doesn’t.”

Rule no 3 : Be a doom-monger (but don’t exaggerate though)

We cannot get pissed off when the universe is not bending to our wishes, we must prepare ourselves for that possibility. Stoics call this process of preparing yourself the ‘praemeditatio malorum’, a Latin phrase for stoic doom-mongering, or as Massimo explained: "It's thinking about bad shit happening before it's happening." This is another concept that has been taken over by CBT therapists. "The idea is that if something bothers you, you try to think your way through it by imagining it happening to you. At the end of your mental visualization, you say: 'Okay, well, that is not too bad'. In that way, you prepare yourself mentally to accept something that might not go your way.”

"You have to have a reference, something that is straight, so you can see how crooked you are"

The extremely trained stoics get up in the morning and imagine their own death, but this is a no-go for beginners like us (and if you do have these thoughts, please visit a psychiatrist). Instead, Massimo gives the advice to think about simple things going wrong, like failing a test or missing a train. When you get more and more advanced, you can gradually worsen your ideas, but go easy on this. As imagining your own death is not advisable, torturing yourself all day and night by overthinking 'bad shit happening' isn’t good for you either. Massimo advises you to limit your praeditatio malorum to a maximum of five minutes, preferably in the morning, before starting your day.

Rule n°4 : Choose a role model

“A major point of stoic training is to improve your faculty of judgement. What you want to do is arrive at better and better judgements. The problem is: we are human. We are imperfect. If we are left to our own devices, we can easily make up our mind and do stuff that actually makes no sense. You have to confront your own opinions with others, especially with people who are better than you in that particular area. The way Seneca explains it: you have to have a reference, so you can see how crooked you are.” “If you want to become stoic, you have to analyse someone who is already stoic. The idea is to confront yourself with the best people you can find. Stoics are big in to adopting role models. You select some people who you think are really good and then you emulate them. Try to behave as they behave. Use your own personality and your own judgement. But in order to improve, you need to have some kind of standard that you are going after.”

"People need some kind of practical guidance. Especially in an age where there is less and less reliance on religion"

Role models are not hard to find. A politician, a good friend, your mother and even fictitious people like Hercules are possible. Nonetheless, you could possibly make the wrong choice: “There is always a chance of making mistakes, but stoicism is an active philosophy that is consciously trying to make you a better person.” To this, Massimo adds: “Often you get closer to the truth by discarding -- like Socrates did -- a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work.”

The comeback of Stoicism?

Massimo shows us that philosophy can be practiced by us, ordinary people, in our ordinary lives. A remarkable and interesting idea now, but ancient Greek citizens would have shrugged their shoulders, as it was common sense to them. “You don’t learn philosophy in the lecture hall. You learn it on the street. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.” A famous quote of Socrates, which explains how things rolled during ancient Greek times. Philosophy still has this old aristocratic image, fed by the majority of modern academic philosophers, which “keeps going after these entirely artificial examples like the trolley dilemma”, but little by little shakes off the dustiness. “Does that explain the resurgence of stoicism? I think so. Not only stoicism, but also Buddhism and a number of philosophical or religious approaches that are very practically minded, are popular. People need some kind of practical guidance. Especially in an age where there is less and less reliance on religion. Even in the US, which is the most religious country in the Western world. Not recognizing yourself in a religion doesn’t mean that you don’t need guidance in your life.”

"Much like in ancient Rome, we live in a society with a large gap between the poor and the super rich. It still is the same shit"

Stoicism is back and that is not a coincidence, if we may believe Massimo, “It is not just stoicism, it is all of the Hellenistic philosophies. They all arose in the Hellenistic period, the period from the death of Alexander the Great up until the Battle of Actium, which basically marks the beginning of the Roman Empire. That was a period of turmoil, a period people felt big things were happening. They had no control over it and they didn’t know what to do with their lives. These philosophies developed at that time, likely for those reasons, and I think they’re back because we do live in times where more and more people feel that they don’t have control over a lot of stuff.”

“That said, I think there is another reason why stoicism is coming back. Even though the specifics are different, human nature is the same. We deal with the same problems; people who are supposed to be our friends stab us in the back, our partner leaves us for no particular reason, we get fired without notice ... Today we live in a society with a large gap between the poor and the super rich, much like in ancient Rome. It still is the same shit.”

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in Philosophy of Science, Biology and Genetics. He was born in Liberia in 1964, but was raised in Rome. He currently lives in New York. We interviewed him after his lecture during Nacht van de Vrijdenker.

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