Classically Inclined

December 7, 2013

My failure at Stoic Week

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:57 pm
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Stoic Week 2013 finished on Sunday. I said I was going to take part – and I have to admit that my participation was a complete and utter failure.

Before I think about why, I want to direct you towards Edith Hall’s critique of the project, because she raises some interesting points about why we might want to reconsider introducing Stoicism to a society that’s very slowly starting to get better about dealing with the nastier parts of the human hindbrain rather than repressing them. I’m not sure I agree that Stoicism calls for a Victorian-style suppression of the viler beast within. After all, this is also the philosophy that tells us the best guide to how we should live virtuously is to live according to nature (kata phusin or secundum naturam), and that points us to the affectionate relationship between mammals and their offspring as not only evidence of the providential arrangement of the world, but also a model for our own relationships with our children (check out De Natura Deorum 2.128 and environs, although apparently since fish abandon their eggs they’re a special case). Her comments about the problems of reintroducing a philosophy that relies upon the ability of its adherents to use their resources and leisure to devote time to doing philosophy are, however, right on the money.

Which brings me to why I think I failed Stoic Week. As I mentioned in my last post about this, we moved house during Stoic Week. We also had to deal with a bathroom renovation which was supposed to be finished on the day we moved in but is, as I type, still in progress upstairs (don’t ask). I started off doing my morning exercises diligently, but plenty of things demanded my attention at lunchtime, and before I knew it even the morning exercise got squeezed out. (The evening reflection didn’t stand a chance.)

Why did I fail at Stoic Week? Simple. I was in the middle of a massive emotional, physical and practical upheaval, handling lots of unexpected events, running myself ragged trying to keep up. These are not the optimal conditions in which to begin a new spiritual or mental discipline. I can almost see Seneca shaking his head – of course it was pointless to try and pick up Stoicism in the middle of a crisis. Stoicism is supposed to be there to get you through a crisis; it’s no good trying to reinforce the roof when the water is already pouring through. The aim is to establish good habits during a period of comparative calm, so that one deals with the day-to-day emotional disturbances and disruptions first, and thus has the resources to not be floored when the tidal wave of unexpected chaos hits. That’s why running through things that might go bad during the day and rehearsing one’s potential responses to them is such an important mental exercise within the Stoic tradition, and why some richer Stoics went so far as to regularly schedule a few days of living in conditions that mimicked poverty (or at least what they thought poverty looked like).

Here is where I think I tie in with Edith’s critique. In order to have the time and resources to find this period of relative calm to get your philosophical bedrock established, you need to have the luxury of creating that space. No job which sets demands for you; no colleagues or students with expectations of work to be completed by fixed deadlines; certainly no children or people for whom you are the primary care-giver; and ideally all the minutiae of life, like laundry and cooking, handled by somebody else. On reflection, it’s not surprising that one of the articles going around Twitter in the early days of Stoic Week was about how Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, found Stoicism so helpful.

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6 Comments »

  1. It’s true that some people would struggle to find the time, but wouldn’t that apply equally to anything else that took a similar amount of time? That would be the same for most research studies on therapy or resilience-building protocols in modern psychology, which often require roughly 20-30 minutes per day to follow the procedure.

    Comment by Donald Robertson — December 8, 2013 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

    • I agree that in order to establish a discipline, one needs to put time aside to do it – as one does to establish a pattern of meditation or contemplative prayer, for instance, as well as other therapeutic exercises. However, I think it’s also fair to say that the modern world is very different to the ancient one in terms of demands upon our time, expectations of what we will do and when we will do it, and so on. Equally, the sort of dedicated and focused attention that Epictetus and, to a lesser extent, Seneca seem to expect from their readers seems to require much more than 20 or 30 minutes a day. So does the Stoic Week program itself; in order to get the most out of it, you would have to find 15 minutes in the morning, 15 in the evening, and 20 or so around midday. I see the point of that sort of regular activity, and its usefulness, but it is important to highlight that there are problems with it, and that the ancient Stoics might have found it a bit feeble.

      Actually, this also makes me think of another point, which is the strange tension in between the Stoic sage’s reliance upon himself for the resources to be happy, and his engagement with the community around him. In order to establish these patterns and habits, one must withdraw, and set oneself off from the rest of the world in order to work through these processes. Yet at the same time, the command to live according to nature reminds us (to borrow John Donne) that no man is an island – so how does one manage to withdraw yet retain one’s participation in and obligations towards a community? That seems particularly pertinent given the dilemma of parents and carers. This is not a challenge just faced by the Stoics, of course – the contemplative prayer movement faces many of the same questions – but the specifically Stoic aspect of the wise man’s self sufficiency seems an important part of this conversation.

      Comment by lizgloyn — December 8, 2013 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  2. I used the week to make myself do things that were difficult to do in unusual circumstances……. running the event, attending to al the media enquiries from different time zones, looking after grand children, seeing all my clients before travelling to London, hotel living, changes of eating routines, etc I managed to find a swimming pool to keep up at least that aspect of my exercise plan, I walked 3 miles, I meditated early morning in hotel room, I resisted the ‘full English’ breakfast included in my hotel deal, had soda water instead of wine etc and I started yoga. It wasn’t easy but that is how beimg mindful of the stoic attitude helps………………….being mindful is paramount. being the best you can in the circumstances, not berating yourself if it doesn’t work out but reflecting on what obstacles got in the way and what you can learn from that.There was a great example on the blog about a couple breaking down in their car during a very busy week and how they used the stoic attitude to minimise the fall out

    Comment by gillgarratt — December 8, 2013 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

  3. /shrugs even if we devote a week to “stoicism,” it is inherently our last priority. for example, israelis can indulge in “stoic week,” but palestinians are too busy being stoic.

    Comment by joseph — December 8, 2013 @ 5:33 pm | Reply

  4. I completely respect your views on why Stoic Week didn’t work for you, but I also think it shows why modern society is quick to shrug it off. Diving in at the deep end and learning to cope with a stressful situation is as good a time as any to start. Letting your mind convince you there is a perfect time to start anything is why we need things like mindfulness and stoicism. Secondly, the idea that modern life is actually more stressful than life in the past is difficult to believe. We are convinced our lives are more stressful, yes, because they are more about our individual successes and failures than about survival and often just getting on with things as it was in the past (and I don’t mean that far in the past. Think about wars your grandparents lived through, serious crippling poverty their parents may have survived.) Stoicism teaches us to look honestly at our lives and assess why we think we are so busy. Yes there are stresses, but they can be got through with much greater speed if oen doesn’t waste time thinking about how stressed one is, or indulging in self pity, and tries to get on with things as they are. I do not mean to glorify the past or deny that life is stressful at the moment. This is a mere observation and not meant to judge in anyway, and I hope it came across as such.

    Comment by Alice — December 14, 2013 @ 2:30 am | Reply

    • One thing I didn’t write about in this post but that I think also contributed to why I didn’t have a successful Stoic week actually relates directly to this idea of learning how to cope with a stressful situation. I already have a number of mindfulness and centring techniques that I use on a regular basis – when I found myself under pressure, I turned to those, not to Stoicism, because they were the more ingrained habits to use! Why try to use something new if you have something that has proven itself to work very well and that you can do without thinking about it? I think that’s one thing that really struck me about the difficulty of being Stoic just for a week under trying circumstances – when you are under stress, you need to be able to access coping strategies instinctively, and as I already had well-established ones in place, they were much easier to reach for than the Stoic ones.

      Comment by lizgloyn — December 14, 2013 @ 3:36 pm | Reply


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