Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years… while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person.
‘Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years… while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person.’ — Marcus Aurelius
[Enrol now for Stoic Week 2015 on the Modern Stoicism e-learning site, using the key “Marcus” without the quotes.]
Stoic Week is now in its fourth consecutive year. It runs around the same time each year, and this year it’s Monday 2nd — Sunday 8th November. The event is free-of-charge, international, online, and open to everyone. It’s organized by the Stoicism Today team, of which I’m a member. We’re a multi-disciplinary group, composed of classicists, philosophers, psychologists, and psychotherapists, with an interest in applying ancient Stoic concepts and practices to the emotional and behavioural challenges of living in the modern world.
The Stoicism Today team currently consists of several experts and authors on Stoicism who have come together to help others learn about how Stoicism might be applied in daily life. The group is organized by Prof. Christopher Gill, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, and includes: Jules Evans, Gabriele Galluzzo, Gill Garratt, Tim LeBon, John Sellars, Patrick Ussher, Tom McConnell, and my good self. Stoicism Today is a completely philanthropic and non-profit project. We came together because we were interested in meeting other people with an interest in Stoicism, and trying to put it into practice instead of just talking about it.
We’re completely open to anyone taking part. For example, our Stoicism Today blog, hosted by the University of Exeter, includes hundreds of articles on Stoicism from guest authors, who come from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds. We’ve also tried to engage with critics of Stoicism by inviting them to speak at our conference and to contribute articles to our blog. A collection of these articles, edited by Patrick Ussher, was published as Stoicism Today: Selected Writings, vol. 1.
The success of the initial Stoicism Today events took us by surprise and Stoic Week has consistently grown in size, year on year. Last year, over 2,650 people took part online. Registration is already underway for Stoic Week 2015. You can create an account right now on our Modern Stoicism e-learning site, if you don’t already have one, and enrol at the page below, using the key “Marcus” without the quotes. Over 1,100 people have enrolled in advance, at the time of writing, and we’re still two weeks away from the start of the event. (If you want to help us surpass last year’s numbers, share this article to any friends or groups you think may be interested in Stoic Week – growing Stoic Week each year increases the probability we’ll be able to continue running it.)
Stoic Week consists of a handbook and a set of audio recordings. There’s a regular daily routine but also the chapters contain readings and different exercises for each of the seven days. We’ve gathered data from previous participants, using established psychometric measures employed in similar studies. These appear to provide tentative statistical evidence for a range of psychological and emotional improvements reported by people after using the exercises and readings. We also run a longer, four-week, version of the course, which is more intensive, and therefore led to more substantial benefits for the participants. The results of our analysis of quantitative and qualitative data is published online for anyone to inspect.
This year, the Stoic Week Handbook 2015 will be available in EPUB, PDF, HTML and other formats, and the audio downloads will be available as MP3 files. The topics being covered all relate to the theme of Marcus Aurelius and The Meditations, and they are titled:
- Monday: Life
Life as a Project and Learning from Other People
- Tuesday: Control
What is in our Control and Wishing with Reservation
- Wednesday: Mindfulness
Stoic Mindfulness and Examining your Impressions
- Thursday: Virtue
Virtue and Values-clarification
- Friday: Relationships
Relationships with Other People and Society
- Saturday: Resilience
Resilience and Preparation for Adversity
- Sunday: Nature
Nature and the View from Above
In addition to the online event, which is international, there’s also a conference held in London, which is now in its third year. The conference will take place during Stoic Week, on Saturday 7th November, at Queen Mary University in London. See below for more information:
This year, the theme for Stoic Week is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and we’ll be asking participants to emulate Marcus by writing their own daily Stoic maxims and reflections down, and giving them the opportunity to share them with others.
Why Stoic Week Matters
First and foremost, Stoic Week is an opportunity for people interested in Stoicism, all around the world, to get together as a community, and actually work together on putting Stoic concepts and techniques into practice in daily life, with support and feedback from each other. It makes a big difference to many people to read about the obstacles others have encountered, and how they overcame them. The questions people have and difficulties they face, often have common themes, and we can benefit enormously from the chance to communicate with each other, while working on the same project, even if it’s only one week.
Some people stress that Stoicism is meant to be a lifelong practice, and not just something you dabble in for a week or so. That’s unquestionably true. However, by giving people a chance to practice Stoicism, along with thousands of others, as part of an online community, for one week, we also create a foundation for lifelong changes. You have to start somewhere.
Stoicism isn’t for everyone, of course. Stoic Week gives people an opportunity to evaluate what living like a Stoic might be like, so that they can decide to what extent they agree with it. Most of our participants end up reporting very favourable findings about Stoicism but there may be some who just want to take away a few aspects and combine it with another philosophy of life. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
My own background combines academic philosophy and cognitive psychotherapy. I studied philosophy at university, and my masters degree was in philosophy and psychotherapy. I then went on to write five books on philosophy and psychotherapy, and various articles and book chapters in other publications. So my special interest has always been in the relationship between ancient Stoic philosophy, as a way of life, and modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based psychological therapy. Stoicism is important to me for many reasons but one of them is, of course, that it offers a much broader perspective than psychotherapy. CBT and other therapies can only offer strategies and techniques, many of which happen to have been historically derived from Stoicism. (Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, the two main pioneers of CBT both explicitly stated that their ideas and techniques were influenced by ancient Stoicism.)
Stoicism is not just a therapy, although it did explicitly contain therapeutic strategies. It’s a philosophy. So, perhaps ironically, my interest in Stoicism is that it overlaps with modern CBT, but transcends and surpasses it, by offering something much broader in scope, and far deeper insofar as it contains a challenging set of values and world view. Although there have been some vocal criticisms of the attempt to compare Stoicism to CBT over the years, we found at our conferences that far more people were concerned that we needed modern psychological evidence to support the value of Stoicism in daily living. They recognized that evidence was most likely to come, at least initially, from the parallels between Stoicism and CBT, which has an enormous body of research supporting its efficacy as a psychological treatment for a range of different emotional and behavioural issues. So we can say that, arguably, many familiar aspects Stoicism are likely to be effective because they resemble, and indeed inspired, similar strategies and techniques in CBT, which have been proven effective by numerous scientific studies.
Stoic Week is important, therefore, because it allows people to learn more about Stoicism and to meet and collaborate with others who share their interest. It’s also important because it gives us an opportunity, albeit in a tentative way, to gather data about the actual beneficial effects of Stoic strategies, which we hope will inspire larger and more carefully controlled follow-up studies in the future. (We only have the resources to carry out relatively informal pilot studies at the moment but that’s typically seen as an important precursor to doing more intensive research in the future.) Overall, though, I believe the most important thing is to get people thinking, and talking about practical philosophy. Stoicism Today and Stoic Week have certainly succeeded in doing that, far more than we could ever have anticipated.
Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years… while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
You can now enrol for Stoic Week 2015 at the website below, using the enrolment key “Marcus” (without the quotes).
Follow our Twitter account @Stoicweek or see our Facebook group for more information. See below for further contact details.
See this article on the Stoicism Today blog for more information.
Seneca wrote two plays about the Stoic hero, Hercules. It’s sometimes claimed that his plays seem totally divorced from his philosophy and portray violent scenarios, with little philosophical content. However, these two plays, set just before the twelve labours began, and just after he completed the final one, both contain clearly philosophical remarks and focus on well-known Stoic themes. We find obvious references in both plays to the notion that the external consequences of actions are morally indifferent, only our intentions can make us virtuous or vicious. We also find a number of other philosophical remarks, quoted below.
The Madness of Hercules (Hercules Furens)
Hercules is driven temporarily insane by the goddess Hera (Juno) and kills his wife and children, an awful tragedy he must somehow learn to live with. A major Stoic theme in this play is therefore the notion that we cannot be blamed for the unintended consequences of our actions, only our intentions are morally relevant. We learn from Hercules that even the most tragic act must be forgiven if it’s been done by mistake. Hercules consulted the Oracle of Delphi to discover how he could atone for this atrocity and this led to him undertaking the famous twelve labours, spanning the next twelve years of his life.
Chorus: Known to but few is untroubled calm, and they, mindful of time’s swift flight, hold fast the days that never will return. While the fates permit, live happily; life speeds on with hurried step, and with winged days the wheel of the headlong year is turned. 
Megara: What the wretched overmuch desire, they easily believe. 
Megara: Who can be forced has not learned how to die. 
Amphitryon: … things ’twas hard to bear ’tis pleasant to recall. 
Amphityron: What man anywhere hath laid on error the name of guilt? 
Hercules on Oeta (Hercules Oetaeus)
This is the story of Hercules’ death. Having completed the twelve labours, and overthrown King Eurytus, he seeks to take the slave girl Iole as his wife. However, his existing wife, Deianira, becomes jealous and tricks him into wearing a cloak imbued with what she mistakenly believes is a love potion. It turns out she was herself tricked, and the potion contains the Hydra’s blood, which poisons Hercules and kills him. Again, this story touches on the Stoic theme that the consequences of our actions are morally indifferent, and that our intentions alone determine our moral character. In this instance, it’s Deianira, though, who’s actions result in an unintentional catastrophe.
Chorus: Happy is he whoever knows how to bear the estate of slave or king and can match his countenance with either lot. For he who bears his ills with even soul has robbed misfortune of its strength and heaviness. 
Deianira: He has scorned all men, who first has scorn of death; ’tis sweet to go against the sword.
Chorus: Whoever has left the middle course fares never in path secure. […]To our undoing, high fortunes are by ruin balanced. 
Hyllus: Why dost drag down a house already shaken? From error spring wholly whatever crime is here. He does no sin who sins without intent. 
Hyllus: Life has been granted many whose guilt lay in wrong judgement, not in act. Who blames his own destiny? 
Hyllus: But Hercules himself slew Megara, pierced by his arrows, and his own sons as well, shooting Lernaean shafts with furious hand; still, though thrice murderer, he forgave himself, but not his madness. At the source of Cinyps ‘neath Libyan skies he washed away his guilt and cleansed his hands. 
Deianira: […] sometimes death is a punishment, but often ’tis a boon, and to many a way of pardon has it proved. 
Hylus: Give o’er now, mother, I beseech thee, pardon thy fate; an error is not counted as a crime. 
Hercules: Whate’er in me was mortal and of thee, the vanquished flame has borne away my father’s part to heaven, thy part to the flames has been consigned. […] Let tears for the inglorious flow; valour fares starward, fear, to the realms of death. 
At the conclusion, it’s explained that Hercules bore his death with a countenance “such as none e’er bore his life”, and that “joyous did he mount his funeral pyre”, with indifference to the flames. Like a Stoic then: “How calmly he bore his fate!”
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is mentioned in East of Eden (1952), the novel by John Steinbeck. Brian Bannon discusses the literary and philosophical relationship between Marcus’ Stoicism and Steinbeck’s narrative in the article ‘A Tiny Volume Bound in Leather: The Influence of Marcus Aurelius on East Of Eden‘. Steinbeck once said that The Book of Ecclesiastes and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were the two books that had most profoundly influenced his own outlook on life. Some literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout the novel. We can also find the following direct reference:
[Lee] lifted the breadbox and took out a tiny volume bound in leather, and the gold tooling was almost completely worn away—The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in English translation.
Lee wiped his steel-rimmed spectacles on a dish towel. He opened the book and leafed through. And he smiled to himself, consciously searching for reassurance.
He read slowly, moving his lips over the words. “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.
“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”
Lee glanced down the page. “Thou wilt die soon and thou are not yet simple nor free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”
Lee looked up from the page, and he answered the book as he would answer one of his ancient relatives. “That is true,” he said. “It’s very hard. I’m sorry. But don’t forget that you also say, ‘Always run the short way and the short way is the natural’—don’t forget that.” He let the pages slip past his fingers to the fly leaf where was written with a broad carpenter’s pencil, “Sam’l Hamilton.”
Suddenly Lee felt good. He wondered whether Sam’l Hamilton had ever missed his book or known who stole it. It had seemed to Lee the only clean pure way was to steal it. And he still felt good about it. His fingers caressed the smooth leather of the binding as he took it back and slipped it under the breadbox. He said to himself, “But of course he knew who took it. Who else would have stolen Marcus Aurelius?” He went into the sitting room and pulled a chair near to the sleeping Adam.