Piotr's book is a manifesto for modern Stoics. "It proposes a system of life which is bullet-proof, universal, viable and effective in every cosmic setting. It holds in every possible universe, under any government and within any economic system. We can be reformed Stoics no matter what we believe in."
Here Piotr answers my questions on how to apply the Stoic toolbox in your life and to life right now during a pandemic.
1. How did you discover Stoic philosophy and what about it resonated with you?
First of all: thanks for having me! Getting to the question itself, well, I guess my answer is both utterly non-heroic and typical. I was 23, I was basically trying to figure out what to do next in life. I remember the specific time, it was August 2006 and we were vacationing with a group of friends. We were simply enjoying ourselves but it was also high time to think more seriously about what’s next. And I remember this realization, this moment of decision that once we got back to town I will go to the library and start reading about Stoicism. And... I did just that. In a word, I needed some platform to get my life in order and I decided to do it on Stoic terms.
2. So this is how you got started... and then you ended up writing a book?
If you are asking what led me down this path and what made me writing this book then the answer is yes, this is how it happened. I started reading a lot on Stoicism, I started deeper research and I quickly realized that my own effort to structure my understanding of Stoicism doesn’t have to be my own only. I should share it with others, I should invite the reader to join me in the effort of trying to discover the meaning it.
At the same time though, I became aware that in the 21st century it’s not simply a “discovery” anymore. We, modern humans, see ancient Stoicism from a two-millennia distance and thus any “return to Stoicism” is actually an (re)interpretation of it. And, on my view, it’s far more than that. It’s not merely “reinterpretation.” If we want to be honest to the ancient Stoics and to ourselves – with our 21st century sensibility, sensitivity and science – we need more than just a reinterpretation. We need reformation. And my book proposes just that.
3. So let’s get right into some applied philosophy. You mentioned just having had to cancel a huge, 1,000 plus person event on account of Coronavirus. I think keeping in mind the maxim that “some things are beyond our control,” in a pandemic situation, rather than sulking or panicking is very helpful. Any thoughts that might help people to deal the current situation?
Stoicism is not abstract knowledge – it’s all about practice. There is no Stoicism besides Stoic practice. All Stoicism consists in the skill of living a Stoic life. It’s as simple as that.
Therefore, Stoicism – reformed or orthodox, the same difference – would be empty if it didn’t provide specific advice for a situation like the present one. And it surely does, one may even say that it gives many different “treatments” for it. For instance, you may want to apply the Great Dichotomy, i.e. the idea that things are either in or outside our power. The coronavirus situation is, of course, outside of it, and we need to treat it accordingly.
Or, on a different take, you may want to distinguish the facts about the pandemic and your own narratives about. I mean the narratives you develop in your own mind, i.e. the way you tell the story to yourself, the way you narrate this situation for yourself and to yourself. This narrative is your own doing. It’s within your power to change it. And you should change it. You should “curate” this story so that it doesn’t disempower you, it doesn’t frighten you too much and so on.
My favorite part however deals with the values and goals we set for ourselves. The thinking – which is particular to reformed Stoicism – goes as follows. The set of values I aspire to and the list of goals I’m shooting at in my life – it’s my own doing. No one can make me shoot for a goal I don’t want to shoot at. No one can force me to cherish a value I don’t want to cherish. That’s clear. Now, with this comes responsibility. I need to prepare this list consciously and in such a way that it’s fresh and up-to-date at all times. Including the coronavirus time. The list needs to be long and multidimensional. Thus, even if coronavirus bars me from following values A and B, and from working on my goal C and D, I can simply shift my focus to values E and F and goals G and J. A bit abstract but simple. And it works. I can’t promote my book the way I would like to? No worries, I can work on the new book. I can’t sign up for a sporting event? No worries, I can work out at home. And so on and so forth.
But importantly, it holds on the more personal, intimate level. If I have my list of values and goals properly thought out, then I will see that there are values that even a pandemic can’t separate me from. I just need to stick to them. For no epidemiological situation can make it impossible for me to strive to be a batter father. Or a more patient person. Or a more resilient human being. Here is the key. And this way of thinking – this is reformed Stoicism.
4. I like how you mention in the introduction that Stoic texts can be interpreted in many ways. I'm actually a traditional Stoic (to the extent that I am a Stoic, as I have been called a Platonist over and over) and I find the Stoic metaphysics very interesting. Why do modern or reformed Stoics often reject the Stoic metaphysics? In particular, you seem to reject the central Stoic idea of living in accord with nature. Why?
Rejection of “following nature” – this sounds heavy, I know. More than that: for some it’s surely enough to call me a Stoic-heretic. I don’t see myself that way, though.
A lot has changed in the last two thousand years. Thus, if we want to keep the Stoic promise alive, we need to revise its premises. We need to think how to express Stoicism in our contemporary language and in today’s conceptual framework. And one of my key points here is that we need to, well, if not downright reject, then go beyond the generic principle of “living in agreement with nature.” The way I see it is that becoming a Stoic is not about blindly sticking to that maxim. Instead it is a constant (and conscious) effort to dig into it, it’s an inquiry into what it actually means. My book is, in a way, an account of such inquiry.
Turning to the specifics now, I have a number of arguments here. First of all, we don’t know what exactly nature means today. The concept of nature was presumably self-evident to Marcus Aurelius. To us it is not. It’s become too multi-faceted, too vague. It has a lot of possible meanings and many of them are quite confusing if we view the from the ethical point of view. For the ancient Stoics “nature” was, in a way, both some kind of universal unity and a very consistent, self-explicit matter. We, in the 21st century, are more in a you-can’t-have-it-all situation. Like in the uncertainty principle: the more specifically you understand one aspect of nature, the more loose you become about another. Some understandings of nature are ethically empty today, while some are tautological. On the other hand: nature is also much more malleable today. We can change who we are in manners that were unthinkable to the ancients. My glasses – are they natural? And using a laptop? Or landing on the Moon? Or having artificial organs inside my body? This is the lesson of the last two or three centuries – that science and technology change not only the environment and the social world we live in but also our body, mind and our metaphysical setting too. At least this is my position. And holding it I can’t fly the banner of “following nature” they way the ancients did. “Nature” is just not the guiding principle anymore. Its ethical relevance disappeared, it evaporated slowly over time. And the key challenge, I believe, is to make sure that Stoicism itself is relevant even if we can’t rely on nature any more.
5. As someone who is prone to worry and rumination, I particularly liked chapter 11, “Don’t Dwell on Counterfactual Scenarios.” What do find most helpful when it comes to preventing worry?
We are on the same boat then! Obviously, that’s an important chapter to me and writing it was an attempt to teach myself how to... well, how to not let my mind work against me. Because that’s basically what we do all the time, unless we are full-blown Stoics of course. We let our mind wander and create all sorts of wild, weird scenarios, all of which work to our detriment. This is of course what we shouldn’t be doing.
On the deeper level I believe this is linked to the problem of nature. You see, the position of traditional Stoicism is that we need to “follow nature,” i.e. find the “natural alignment” (of ourselves and of the world) and adjust to it. And that’s based on the belief that whatever is “natural” will always be good for us – because nature is good by definition. The problem today is, first, that in the 21st century it’s much harder to seriously believe in a “natural alignment” of any kind (let alone the belief that such alignment is always good), and second, that all our “natural” tendencies will be, in the longer run, beneficial to us. They won’t be.
Make no mistake here. I’m not suggesting that the ancients didn’t see that human beings were prone to greed, intemperance, violence and general stupidity. Sure they did see it. But the meaning of the term “natural” has changed over time – and today we understand human nature in a much more irrational way, so to speak. We, as modern humans, don’t necessarily twin nature with reason. We know – science teaches us a lot about this – that there is a lot of irrationality deeply ingrained in the human nature. It comes from our biological constitution and evolutionary past, and this is something we can’t neglect today. So, the point here is that today we acknowledge that our “nature” can well lead us astray, away from virtue and from a happy life. This happens, for one, in the case of mentioned proclivity to “worry and rumination”. And also with a lot of other natural human tendencies which are very natural... but not good at all. Thus, our goal is to overcome them. We need to override many of our deep tendencies in order to be happy. In the pursuit of happiness we must on many occasions go against our nature (i.e. biological nature). To say that is a heresy, obviously, on the grounds of traditional Stoicism. Hence, welcome to the world of reformed Stoicism!
(One aside here: I’m not alone in this way of thinking. William Irvine, author of a number of Stoic books, a contemporary American philosopher, says a very similar thing: that if we assume the biological-evolutionary understanding of nature, then we arrive to the apparently nonstoic conclusion that we must act against our nature in order to live stoically. For me it’s not just a paradox, it’s an important tenet of reformed Stoicism).
6. I also like the perspective that you mention in chapter 13, to paraphrase, that problems should be viewed as opportunities for growth. Why is it so hard for us to keep that perspective when adversity strikes?
Because it requires energy. When I face a hardship, or if I’m hit by a calamity of some kind, then it’s simply easier, more “organic” reaction to see it as just that, as a hardship or a calamity. This is how we are used to think. Or, more precisely, this is what the nonstoics are used to think. The entire project of turning ourselves into Stoics consists in realigning the way we think. We need to redirect our thinking, we need to learn (and kind of impose on ourselves) a whole different way of thinking. That takes effort however. And that effort is of course particularly heavy in the time of adversity. Dealing with adversity requires strength, but treating it as an opportunity – it requires even more fortitude. And that’s why it’s though. It’s though, but fruitful.
On the other hand though (and that’s also a point about reformed Stoicism particularly), I don’t think we always need the tough stance. I don’t think that we are supposed to always have all people treat their problems in such and such way. It’s good to exert oneself and to train oneself, but we can do it non stop. Respite is required. Some softer tone is also needed, some leeway and cutting some slack – to ourselves and to others. This, I believe, is particularly relevant today, in the coronavirus situation.
Thank you for the conversation.
Thank you too! I will be happy to continue this talk on another occasion – there are still many untouched subjects here.
We can definitely consider that!
Hopefully under more allowing – i.e. post-covid – circumstances. Once we get past it. Which is what I wish you and all our readers. Stay safe folks, it will be better.
Thanks, same to you.
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