Interview: Michael Connell, Stoic Comedy

Interview: Michael Connell, Stoic Comedy

Some Stats from SMRT 2016

SMRT 2016 Header

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2016 is about to begin on 19th June.  SMRT is a free online course that lasts four weeks and focuses on training in practical skills derived from ancient Stoic philosophy,  applying them to daily life in the modern world.  It’s a longer version of the Stoic Week course we run each Autumn, as part of the multi-disciplinary Stoicism Today project.

Register now

So far, around 1,760 people have registered in advance to take part.  Although participants are still completing the Preliminary Week and the initial Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) Questionnaire, we can derive some initial statistics from their responses.

24% of participants are female.  This is a lower percentage than in some of our previous courses, where the division of male and female was closer to 50/50.

At present 41% of participants are from the USA, which is normally the largest country represented although the Stoicism Today group was founded in the UK and I am based in Canada.  However, other participants come from a variety of different countries.  Some of the most common include:

  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden
  • South Africa
  • Germany
  • France
  • Brazil
  • Australia
  • And many more…

In response to the questionnaire item “I know quite a lot about Stoicism”, rated on a 1-7 likert scale, the mean response is currently 3.9, which indicates overall a slight familiarity with Stoic philosophy.

We gather detailed statistics from participants who volunteer their data, and publish the anonymous results (averages, etc.) in reports following Stoic Week.  So we may possibly also publish more detailed information following the current iteration of SMRT.

The SABS score totals at present range from 49 – 129 and the mean figure is currently 91.4, which you can compare to your own results if you decide to take part and complete the SABS form as your results will be sent to you via email.

Epicurus versus the Cyrenaics

AristippusIn the chapter on Epicurus in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius provides one of our most important ancient sources for information about Epicureanism.  However, in addition to this he also discusses Epicureanism in an earlier chapter on Aristippus, the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, and a member of Socrates’ circle of friends.  Diogenes Laertius elsewhere mentions that critics had accused Epicurus of putting forward as his own doctrines developed by Aristippus regarding pleasure.

The Cyrenaics believed that there two fundamental states of mind: pleasure and pain, a smooth motion of the soul and a rough one.  They believed that all pleasures are essentially the same sensation, and that one pleasure is not inherently more pleasant than another.  All creatures seek pleasure and avoid pain.

In explaining their doctrines, Diogenes Laertius proceeds to quote from a lost work by the Stoic Panaetius, which compared the Cyrenaic and Epicurean philosophies in terms of their theories of pleasure.

However, the bodily pleasure which is the end is, according to Panaetius in his work On the Sects, not the settled pleasure following the removal of pains, or the sort of freedom from discomfort which Epicurus accepts and maintains to be the end. They also hold that there is a difference between “end” and “happiness.” Our end is particular pleasure, whereas happiness is the sum total of all particular pleasures, in which are included both past and future pleasures.

Whereas the Cyrenaics made bodily pleasure the goal of life, therefore, the Epicureans rejected this aim and instead sought a stable sense of pleasure, of a more specific sort, which they identified with freedom from discomfort and the removal of pains.  The Cyrenaic position is described as follows:

Particular pleasure is desirable for its own sake, whereas happiness is desirable not for its own sake but for the sake of particular pleasures. That pleasure is the end is proved by the fact that from our youth up we are instinctively attracted to it, and, when we obtain it, seek for nothing more, and shun nothing so much as its opposite, pain. Pleasure is good even if it proceed from the most unseemly conduct, as Hippobotus says in his work On the Sects. For even if the action be irregular, still, at any rate, the resultant pleasure is desirable for its own sake and is good.

The Cyrenaics appear to have criticised Epicurus’ definition of pleasure.

The removal of pain, however, which is put forward in Epicurus, seems to them not to be pleasure at all, any more than the absence of pleasure is pain. For both pleasure and pain they hold to consist in motion, whereas absence of pleasure like absence of pain is not motion, since painlessness is the condition of one who is, as it were, asleep.

A similar criticism was raised by Cicero in De Finibus, and may have been a well-known response to Epicureanism.

They assert that some people may fail to choose pleasure because their minds are perverted; not all mental pleasures and pains, however, are derived from bodily counterparts. For instance, we take disinterested delight in the prosperity of our country which is as real as our delight in our own prosperity. Nor again do they admit that pleasure is derived from the memory or expectation of good, which was a doctrine of Epicurus. For they assert that the movement affecting the mind is exhausted in course of time.

This may have been a criticism of the Epicurean notion that pleasures are somehow grounded in bodily sensations.  Epicurus apparently recommended that his followers mentally rehearse past pleasures and anticipate future ones.  However, the Cyrenaics are right that this is problematic because of the phenomenon of habituation.  Our emotional responses often weaken or are “exhausted” if we expose ourselves to exactly the same stimuli over and over again, either in reality or even in imagination.

Again they hold that pleasure is not derived from sight or from hearing alone. At all events, we listen with pleasure to imitation of mourning, while the reality causes pain. They gave the names of absence of pleasure and absence of pain to the intermediate conditions. However, they insist that bodily pleasures are far better than mental pleasures, and bodily pains far worse than mental pains, and that this is the reason why offenders are punished with the former. For they assumed pain to be more repellent, pleasure more congenial. For these reasons they paid more attention to the body than to the mind. Hence, although pleasure is in itself desirable, yet they hold that the things which are productive of certain pleasures are often of a painful nature, the very opposite of pleasure; so that to accumulate the pleasures which are productive of happiness appears to them a most irksome business.

The next doctrine – that every wise man lives pleasantly, etc. – is known to be Epicurean.  So this provides another example of the difference of opinions between the two schools.

They do not accept the doctrine that every wise man lives pleasantly and every fool painfully, but regard it as true for the most part only. It is sufficient even if we enjoy but each single pleasure as it comes. They say that prudence is a good, though desirable not in itself but on account of its consequences; that we make friends from interested motives, just as we cherish any part of the body so long as we have it; that some of the virtues are found even in the foolish; that bodily training contributes to the acquisition of virtue; that the sage will not give way to envy or love or superstition, since these weaknesses are due to mere empty opinion; he will, however, feel pain and fear, these being natural affections; and that wealth too is productive of pleasure, though not desirable for its own sake.

Whereas the Epicureans placed considerable emphasis on natural philosophy, the Cyrenaics appear to have argued that it’s a waste of time because we can never find any conclusive answers about the ultimate nature of the universe.

They affirm that mental affections can be known, but not the objects from which they come; and they abandoned the study of nature because of its apparent uncertainty, but fastened on logical inquiries because of their utility. But Meleager in his second book On Philosophical Opinions, and Clitomachus in his first book On the Sects, affirm that they maintain Dialectic as well as Physics to be useless, since, when one has learnt the theory of good and evil, it is possible to speak with propriety, to be free from superstition, and to escape the fear of death.  They also held that nothing is just or honourable or base by nature, but only by convention and custom. Nevertheless the good man will be deterred from wrong-doing by the penalties imposed and the prejudices that it would arouse. Further that the wise man really exists. They allow progress to be attainable in philosophy as well as in other matters. They maintain that the pain of one man exceeds that of another, and that the senses are not always true and trustworthy.

Their argument that a good man will be deterred from wrong actions by the fear of punishment, resembles the position adopted by Epicurus.  However, the unreliability of the senses seems to be an area where they would have disagreed with the Epicureans, who placed emphasis on sensory experience as the basis of knowledge.

Moreover, he mentions a book entitled Of the Gods written by a later Cyrenaic called Theodorus the Atheist.  He adds: “From that book, they say, Epicurus borrowed most of what he wrote on the subject.”

Cicero on Epicurus’ Ambiguity


In De Finibus, Cicero compares the philosophies of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Platonism in some detail.  It’s one of our main sources today, in fact, both for our understanding of Stoic and Epicurean teachings.

In the text, Cicero focuses on the confusion caused, even in his day, by the ambiguity of some of Epicurus’ key concepts, particularly the way he defines “pleasure” (hedone) as the goal of life.  At different times, Epicurus seems to mean different, and perhaps even conflicting things, by his use of this word.

I would claim that Epicurus himself does not know what pleasure is.  He vacillates, and despite repeatedly saying that we must take care to articulate the underlying meaning of our terms, he sometimes fails to understand what this term “pleasure” signifies, and what the substance is that underlies the word.

Cicero says that rather than overlooking pleasure in the conventional sense, of sensory experience, Epicurus folds this into his definition and sometimes praises it highly:

I am thinking of his statement to the effect that he cannot even understand what is good or where it might be found except for the good obtained by eating, drinking, hearing sweet sounds and indulging in more indecent pleasures.  Do you deny that he says this?

His interlocutor (at least in the dialogue) agrees that Epicurus did indeed say this.  Cicero points out that although other philosophers did distinguish the absence of physical pain (aponia) and mental suffering (ataraxia) from actual physical pleasure, somewhat confusingly, Epicurus uses the same term hedone (“pleasure”) to encompass all of these things.  He then goes on to criticise Epicurus for being unnecessarily obscure: “it is not we who lack understanding of the meaning of the word ‘pleasure’, but Epicurus, who uses language in his own way and has nothing to do with our standard usage.”

Sometimes modern fans of Epicurus appear confused by this double-meaning.  They argue that by “pleasure” Epicurus only meant the absence of pain (ataraxia) and that he did not mean what we ordinarily think of as sensory pleasures, like good food and drink, sexual intercourse, etc.  The older Cyrenaic sect of Aristippus made sensory pleasures of this kind the goal of life and they claim that it’s merely “slander” to suggest Epicurus was referring to these sort of things at all.  However, even in the surviving sayings of Epicurus, today, he does appear, at times, to praise these run-of-the-mill sensory pleasures, much like Aristippus and the Cyrenaics before him.  Ancient commentators on Epicurus appear to be nearly unanimous in their belief that he said this.  Cicero not only takes it for granted that followers of Epicurus in his day would know this but he actually cites one of the surviving Principal Doctrines as evidence.

Thus he very often praises precisely the kind of pleasure that we all agree on calling pleasure, and is bold enough to claim that he cannot imagine any good unconnected with Aristippean pleasure.  That is what he says in his treatise devoted entirely to the supreme good.  Indeed in another work, containing concise distillations of his major views, a revelation, so it is said, of oracular wisdom, he writes the following words: – they are, of course well-known to you, Torquatus, since every Epicurean has learned the great man’s kuriai doxai, these pithy sayings being considered of the utmost importance for a happy life.  Consider carefully, then, whether I am translating this particular saying correctly: “If those things in which the indulgent find pleasure freed them from fear of the gods, and from death and pain, and taught them the limits of desire, then we would have nothing to reproach them for.  They would have their fill of pleasures in every way, with no element of pain or distress, that is, of evil.”

Notice how careful Cicero is here to confirm that he’s quoting Epicurus accurately, citing one of his best-known sayings, and translating it correctly from Greek into Latin.  We know from other sources that he’s correct, and this is indeed one of the Principal Doctrines that Epicureans were supposed to commit to memory.  Also notice that Cicero, one of the most well-read men of his era, who had studied philosophy in Athens, has read other texts by Epicurus, which are lost to us today.  He was probably much more familiar with Epicurean philosophy than we could ever hope to be today: both in terms of his acquaintance with the literature and also his familiarity with how living Epicurean teachers and their students actually interpreted them.