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.