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Gregory Lopez: Discussing vs. Practicing

Gregory Lopez is the co-author of Live Like a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics. He is also founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics Meetup, and cofounder and board member of The Stoic Fellowship. In addition, he is a Modern Stoicism board member and co-facilitates Stoic Camp New York with Massimo Pigliucci. He is also lead editor for Examine.com and editor in chief of the Examine Research Digest.

How did you become interested in this area?

I first got into philosophy the same way a lot of American moody ex-religious high schoolers do: through Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, and Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. While that’s pretty stereotypical, trying to think more deeply about religion led to my interest in learning more about logic and epistemology: it’s one thing to roll one’s eyes at things like Anselm’s ontological argument, but it’s another to figure out where it may be going awry and –importantly — why

My philosophical interests were further bolstered when taking a year-long introduction to humanities course on ancient Greek and Roman culture in college and continued through a few optional courses on metaphysics and the philosophy of science along with some Chinese philosophy during a Chinese humanities class. 

However, much of this was theoretical at the end of the day. My interests in practical philosophy formed from two confluent sources. 

The first was discussing Buddhist philosophy with a friend. I didn’t have much initial interest in Buddhism because of my initial impression that it required too much metaphysical baggage to be of use to those who didn’t buy into it. But discussion, reading, and taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course convinced me that it was indeed practical.

The second source of my interest in the more practical aspects of philosophy came from looking for some rewarding volunteer work. I came across SMART Recovery, which helps people apply techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to addictive behaviors, whether they involve a substance or not. SMART Recovery leans heavily on one of the original forms of CBT created by Albert Ellis: Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). I learned that REBT was heavily inspired by Stoicism. I read some Seneca back in college alongside Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and several works of Plato, but I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot about Stoicism, so I decided to look for resources.

During that search, I stumbled upon some people on the internet who were attempting to practice Stoicism in today’s world. However, there wasn’t much going on in the way of in-person learning and practice. My desire to learn more about Stoicism and how it can be practiced combined with the lack of in-person groups led me to found the New York City Stoics in 2013, and ultimately to co-found The Stoic Fellowship to help foster Stoic groups worldwide as well as to co-author a book on Stoic practice.

You are not everything that goes on in your head. 

Gregory Lopez

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

You are not everything that goes on in your head. 

From a Stoic perspective, there is only one small part of your mind that you completely control, which Epictetus calls prohairesis. Actually, it’s not quite accurate to even say that “you” control this part of your mind: instead, this part of the mind is you. Everything else is not you. 

When making this point, Epictetus often points to physical examples of what’s not you, like your hair or body, or sometimes external things like reputation or things you own. However, Stoic doctrine clearly implies that other aspects of your mind are also not necessarily you, including impressions (phantasiai; which I describe as your first feelings and thoughts about a matter that come up automatically) and proto-passions (propatheiai; the first stirrings of unhealthy emotions). These things go on in your head, but are not under your control. Instead, Stoic practice primarily — if not exclusively — consists in recognizing, analyzing, and questioning impressions and proto-passions that come up and then countering them using conscious and intentional, conscious thought and action that is consistent with believing that virtue is the only good. So the automatic stuff that pops up in your head doesn’t define you because it’s not you: instead, it’s grist for the mill of Stoic practice. 

And practice does not necessarily make perfect! Only the perfect Stoic practitioner (the sage) succeeds in working with their impressions and proto-passions every time, so Stoic practitioners will occasionally (or in my case: frequently!) screw this up. But Stoics realize that being a perfect practitioner is extremely difficult, if not impossible. So from a practical perspective, progress — not perfection — is a better goal to aim for. Even Epictetus aimed for the goal of progress. This is probably why he told people that he would be happy if he died during the third stage of Stoic practice (what Pierre Hadot called The Discipline of Assent); he didn’t say he wanted to die a sage!

But those novel concepts, mistaken notions, and forgotten principles are sterile if I don’t then go out and try to use them to improve myself.

Gregory Lopez

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Once you find a philosophical practice that makes sense and works for you, drill it for the rest of your life, unless you discover a major flaw along the way.

This addresses two of the major failure modes for people I see coming to practical philosophy:

  1. Enjoying discussing philosophy, but not putting it to use
  2. Flitting from practice to practice, but not consistently sticking with anything

The only way I know of to get better at something is to do the thing repeatedly and consciously, while paying attention to feedback along the way. And if you don’t put a philosophy to use, you aren’t doing anything — you’re discussing it. This likely won’t lead to improvement. Don’t get me wrong: I do find discussion, reading, and lectures valuable, but they’re only valuable up to a point: they help me learn new things, clarify mistaken notions I hold, and serve as reminders for principles I’ve forgotten to apply. But those novel concepts, mistaken notions, and forgotten principles are sterile if I don’t then go out and try to use them to improve myself.

I don’t really find myself falling into the second failure mode anymore, but it’s something I see pop up in people who are looking for life philosophies. I highly recommend exploring different ideas and practices before settling down on something that makes sense and works for you: I did it myself. But once I found a mix of Buddhism and Stoicism that worked for me, I’ve stuck with it. Of course, I vary how I practice and what I’m focusing on based on what problems are currently arising in my life. However, my practice no longer deviates from the core principles and practices of those philosophies — unless I slip in practice altogether, which definitely does happen! But when I do fall off that horse, I try to jump back on, instead of going back to the stables and browsing for new, prettier horses.

But that doesn’t mean people should necessarily stick with the same thing forever if they find something seriously wrong with it. Sometimes, after spending time consistently practicing, you may see that some aspect of the philosophy doesn’t work for you or may even be harmful. In that case, by all means jump off that horse! Just do so for better reasons than novelty-seeking.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I don’t have a favorite quote, but I do have a favorite story I tell a lot that I slightly embellish for rhetorical effect. It’s from Epictetus’s Discourses 2.22, where Epictetus is challenging a student who is questioning a Stoic paradox about whether anyone, but the Stoic sage can be a true friend. 

There, Epictetus compares the friendship of non-sages to the friendship of puppies: while everything’s going well, a pen full of puppies will happily play together and get along just fine. But what happens when those puppies aren’t fed for a couple of days, and then you throw a scrap of meat into the pen? These previously friendly puppies will immediately turn against each other, biting and snarling in order to get the scrap all to themselves.

That’s not true friendship. To be a true friend means sticking with others through thick and thin. And only the Stoic sage could remain truly constant in their friendship. That’s why the Stoic sage is the only true friend: they would never turn on anyone, no matter what’s going on. 

This is my favorite story because I think it provides a clean and compelling reason for practicing Stoicism: all of us non-sages have our scrap of meat that will make us turn against those we claim to care about and love. 

But that’s not the best reason to practice Stoicism in my opinion. Instead, if Stoicism fulfills its promise, it will help you become more of a true friend and to truly love. I think that’s a lot more compelling, and a lot more beautiful.

Gregory Lopes

Most people seem to come to Stoicism because they want to feel better. And the surface-level, life-hack form of Stoicism is often packaged and sold with the promise to become “bulletproof” and “invincible”. Even the ancient Stoics sometimes portrayed Stoicism in this way to some degree. But that’s not the best reason to practice Stoicism in my opinion. Instead, if Stoicism fulfills its promise, it will help you become more of a true friend and to truly love. I think that’s a lot more compelling, and a lot more beautiful.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

I have a bare-bones personal website where you can get in touch and learn more about me.

I’m also slowly building a couple of online courses for practicing Stoics who already know basic Stoic theory. You can sign up for updates here.

If you’re interested in finding or starting a local Stoic community, check out the non-profit I co-founded, Stoic Fellowship.

If you want to learn about Stoic practice, check out the book a Handbook for New Stoics, which I co-authored.

If you want to come to my meetups — some of which are held online.

You could also follow me on Twitter @GLopezPharmD. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it since I currently barely tweet and when I do, it isn’t always related to philosophy.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

Both excited and unworthy. But those are both impressions for my prohairesis to work with. 

What do you think?

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