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YPO in Athens – Stoicism for Modern Life and Business

Plato’s Academy Centre (PAC) recently provided a helping hand to the YPO and Aurelius Foundation, who organized a historic four-day Stoicism event in Athens.

The YPO is an international business networking organization for young CEOs. The Aurelius Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to spreading Stoic wisdom, through the four cardinal virtues, including doing outreach in universities and prisons. The Aurelius Foundation organized this unique event in Athens in collaboration with the YPO, and PAC were pleassed to offer some advice on local venues, etc.

Reception: Gennadius Library Gardens

The opening reception was held on the evening of 22nd September in the beautiful east gardens of the Gennadius Library. Tassos Economou, the emeritus chair of YPO, set the tone perfectly for the event. Lina Mendoni, the Minister for Culture and Sports, was out of the country but kindly sent a letter expressing her support for the event. Adonis Georgiadis, the Minister for Development and Investment, and George James Tsunis, the US Ambassador to Greece gave rousing speeches about Stoicism. They were followed by Bettany Hughes OBE, author of The Hemlock Cup, who got everyone excited for all the philosophy and history to come over the next few days.

This was followed by a joint networking event with the YPO Aegean / Macedonia chapter in the National Gallery. VIP guests on the first evening were Dr. Maria Georgopoulou, Director of the Gennadius Library, and Pantelis Panos, General Manager of the American School for Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

Kasey Robertson with the statue of Pericles, outside City Hall, Athens

Main Conference: Cotsen Hall

The main conference was held the following day in Cotsen Hall, with support from the American School for Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

Donald Robertson, of the Plato’s Academy Centre, and Justin Stead, of the Aurelius Foundation, hosted the event, which featured keynotes from Dr. John Sellars (“Modern Stoicism”), chair of the Modern Stoicism nonprofit, and Angie Hobbs (“Stoicism and the Good Life”), professor of the public understanding of philosophy at Exeter University.

Our other speakers included Karen Duffy, author of Wise Up; Artemios Miropoulos, author of The Nameless King; Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon tennis champion; and Tim LeBon, research director of Modern Stoicism, who organized workshops on Stoicism and emotional resilience. We also had a panel discussing Stoicism in Business, including Tassos Economou, Michalis Michael, Justin Stead, and Greg Galant.

Donald Robertson and Karen Duffy, on Mount Lycabettus

Conference: Plato’s Academy Park

We are especially grateful to the mayor and municipality of Athens for permission to hold an open-air event, under a marquee tent, in the historic location of Plato’s Academy Park. Keynotes on 24th were by Bettany Hughes OBE (“The roots of Stoicism – Socrates, Confucius, Buddha”) and Donald Robertson (“Plato’s Academy Park: The Past and Future”), with presentations from Andy Small, about Stoicism in UK prisons; Anthony Magnabosco, on Street Epistemology; and Mark Tuitert, an Olympic gold medallist in speed skating. We also had a panel (“What can we learn from classical wisdom?”) featuring Angie Hobbs, Bettany Hughes, and John Sellars.

Kostas Bakoyannis, the Mayor of Athens, spoke to the audience, and stressed his support for the event, and his desire to see it return to this historic location in the future. The conference was followed by tours of the Ancient Agora and Acropolis.

Meeting Mayor of Athens with YPO
Donald Robertson, Justin Stead, Kostas Bakoyannis, Pat Cash, and Michalis Michael, at Plato’s Academy Park

Cruise to Cape Sounion

The event concluded on the 25th with a boat trip to Cape Sounion and the ancient Temple of Poseidon. We had a mini conference on the boat with talks from Mick Mulroy, of the Lobo Institute, on Stoicism in the military, and Eugenia Manolidou, of Elliniki Agogi, on philosophy and the power of the ancient Greek language.

There was also a panel of young Stoics, discussing Stoicism and leadership, including Sukhraj Gill, Ross Paton, Dhruv Makwana, and Lori Huica.

The Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion

The event seemed to be a huge success overall, based on the feedback we’ve had so far, and we learned many things that will benefit us when running future events in Athens. We already have plans for several new events in Athens, which will be open to everyone.  If you want to be notified about them, just subscribe to our email newsletter or follow our social media accounts.

Elizabeth Smith: Stoicism and School Aged Children

Elizabeth Smith says she “creates curriculum and plays games – in an incredible learning environment – inspired and blessed daily by the most amazing children.” She works with children ages five to twelve, through the US Navy’s Child and Youth Program (CYP).

Elizabeth is a sculptor, illustrator, and has worked as an International Baccalaureate (IB) middle school teacher, teaching the subjects of art, reading, and approaches to learning. During her first-year teaching, she created an Art History/Art Program for 760 students (Grades K-5). She has an M.Ed. in Cross Cultural Teaching, holds a Professional Clear Multiple Subject Teaching Credential and a Supplementary Authorization in Art. For fun, she writes and illustrates children’s books.

Elizabeth also graduated from San Diego State University where she earned a BA in Art/Applied Design, with an emphasis on metalwork and jewelry design. She trained under artists Arline Fisch and Helen Shirk. She currently resides in California and is “the proud mother of a true artist.”

How did you become interested in Stoic philosophy?

I was introduced to philosophy through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. As an art major, one of my favorite courses was on Ancient Roman Art History. I found the subject exciting, eccentric, and entertaining. I later found myself intrigued – and equally entertained – by Epictetus and Seneca. Stoicism touches my heart and calms my mind – it serves as an owner’s manual for operating one’s brain, and a light for finding one’s humanity.  

I am extremely interested in Stoicism. I am especially interested in the profound and unexpected way Stoicism has influenced the children I teach. I am interested in the impact Stoicism – if introduced to children at an early age – could potentially play in the positive development of humanity. 

To answer your question, I became interested in philosophy while playing on the playground.

I believe by introducing children to Stoicism at an early age – through play and recreation – we will find our children’s behavior positively shaped, and their character exude wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.  

Elizabeth Smith

What is the most important idea that you promote through your work?

Young children benefit from learning about and practicing Stoicism in social settings. Children learn through play. I believe by introducing children to Stoicism at an early age – through play and recreation – we will find our children’s behavior positively shaped, and their character exude wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.  

I work for the federal government serving military dependents, ages five to twelve. This summer, I created and implemented the nine-week camp program, Summer with the Stoics. As with much of our programing, this program was youth inspired. 

When I started teaching Stoicism to the youth, it was by accident. 

I find it important for the youth to see their teachers (adults in general) reading for enjoyment and recreation. Modeling my own enjoyment, I was reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Donald Robertson’s book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. As the children and I would sit outside, leisurely reading, they began to ask me questions about the books I read. When I told them about Marcus Aurelius they were instantly hooked. Fascinated by the ideas the books contained, some children would ask if they could take my books home to keep – despite their inability to read. I began to act out scenes from the books for the children. The children joined in – they were beyond intrigued.   

One day at snack time, two boys were debating over an issue and unable to come to an agreement, when a third student {called X, age 7) looked towards my direction and asked, “What would Marcus Aurelius do?” I could not contain my surprise and replied, “He would probably bake you a plate of warm cookies because you just melted your teacher’s heart.” His smile was priceless, as was this inspiration. The children were giving me so many inspirational moments, due to their interest in the Stoics, I began creating games. 

Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius as a youth

I had to create the games, activities, and program. The type of Stoicism program I was looking for did not exist. Not finding anything online, and looking for guidance, I contacted two of my favorite philosophers, Donald Robertson and Massimo Pigliucci. Each confirmed that Stoicism resources for children were limited. Still determined, I began looking for something exciting, eccentric, and entertaining. 

I found what I was looking for out on the playground. 

Children learn through play, as well as meaningful social interactions with peers and adults. They are social beings searching for wisdom and are naturally at one with nature. Children are open minded, enthusiastic, and receptive. Our program’s youth have taken to Stoicism not just because they love a good game of Zeno Tag, enjoy having philosophical conversations, or are excited about the Marcus Aurelius Fan Club’s Friday raffle…They have taken to Stoicism because it is useful for navigating life on the playground. 

The practice of Stoicism enhances resiliency and develops strength of character. Through the philosophy of Stoicism, the children have learned to observe their playground problems from a different view – the view from above (one of their favorite practices). They ease the pain of an injury by noting that it is only a small part of their body that is hurt – not their whole body.  In the morning, some youth find the courage to face their day by practicing Marcus Aurelius’ morning ritual… preparing themselves for the types of people they may encounter on the playground. Some children, during a fierce game of dodge ball, find it helpful to utilize the same anger management strategies as their favorite Roman emperor. 

Through daily practice, analyzing social situations, and humorous interactive games, such as – The Dichotomy of Control – with YOUR Host Epictetus, our youth have developed an amazing grasp for what is inside and outside of their control.

To introduce the dichotomy of control, I walked around the playground with several thumbs up/thumbs down paddles. As I came upon children experiencing some type of conflict, I would point out what was inside of our control and what was outside of our control. A common frustration for many, “They don’t want to play with me!”

While addressing this concern, I immediately take out a thumbs up/thumbs down paddle and say, “Welcome to your favorite gameshow The Dichotomy of Control – with YOUR Host Epictetus – guest staring Rosey Rose (age 6)” At this point, upon hearing the intro, many children approached to join the game. I gave all the children paddles. “Rosey Rose’s friend does not what to play with her. Is that inside or outside of Rosey Rose’s control?”

Many children, including Rosey Rose, flipped their paddle to the thumbs down.  “That’s right, boys and girls. What people think about us, their opinions, what they say about us…IF they want to play with us – is OUTSIDE of our control. And because it is outside of our control, we are not going to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about it – WE are going to focus on what is INSIDE of our control.”

At this point of the game the children start offering suggestions, while using the thumbs upside of the paddle, “Yes! Looking for other friends to play with is INSIDE of Rosey Rose’s control.” 

We have a second version of the game where we call a guest up to the front of the group to act out a scenario. “Welcome, Glitter Sparkle (I have let the children choose their own fake names for my writing purposes) I am so glad you have joined me on this trip to Disneyland. What ride shall we go on first?” At this point, I asked the audience, and Glitter Sparkle, if this decision is inside or outside of her control. The children answered by using the paddles. We continued our journey encountering long lines and ride closures. As a group we explore what is inside and outside of our control in the Magic Kingdom. 

The children love these games. The games have eased their perceptions regarding disappointment, intense social situations, and future expectations. As they navigate the playground, practicing an awareness for Stoicism, the dichotomy of control has empowered the children to focus their attention on their choices and actions rather than their feelings of disappointment. 

The children now use this thought process effortlessly. A fellow teacher reported to me that Bismarck (the 7-year-old boy – not the German battleship) had approached her asking to join her cookie project. The teacher had to tell Bismarck that the activity had just finished. She did not expect Bismarck to take the news well, as he loves cookies.  Instead, Bismarck replied, “Ok. That’s outside of my control.” Calm as could be Bismarck set sail to find another activity. 

Another little girl, Jennanana (age 6), hurt her finger in the Marcus Moments raffle prize box, “Ooooutside my control. It’s ok it’s just my finger that hurts not my whole body.”  I have had other children report their injures in this way as well.  Very interesting.    

Summer with the Stoics was an eye-opening experience. I learned through our many philosophical discussions, and games, that children crave philosophy – specifically Stoicism. Despite their young age, children can contribute to the field of philosophy through their philosophical insights, energy, and unique observations. This summer I witnessed children as young as six years old practicing Stoicism with more recall, flow, consistency, and enthusiasm than most adults. I see them for the children they are – but I also see them for the adults they will soon become. I would like for those future adults to have had an upbringing in Stoicism. Not just for the quality of their own lives – but for the sake of humanity. 

Military youth (dependents) often grow up to serve in the military. I see a certain percentage of my children as potential military officers, politicians, world leaders, and policy makers. Mick Mulroy (Senior Fellow for the Middle East Institute, ABC News National Security Analyst, and a co-founder of the Lobo Institute) and Donald Roberson have spoken – as well as written – extensively on the importance of teaching Stoicism and its place in the U.S. military. They write, “The U.S. military must inject this concept of wisdom, and flexible thinking, at the earliest possible stage.” I absolutely agree, and the earliest possible stage is childhood not bootcamp. Children are flexible. Their brains are built for Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius was proof.

“That is inside of your control. You can take good care of yourself, make good choices…Make your life last longer. You can try. Trying is inside of your control. Good idea. But what happens if the freezer gets unplugged or the electricity goes out?”

The children thought this was funny. “The ice cream melts.”

“Just like life.” many added; that it was outside of our control and that’s ok.  

What do you think is the best piece of practical advice we could give to our children to help them through the rest of life?

Practice the four virtues while embracing the dichotomy of control. 

Through games and storytelling this advice is well received by the youth in our program. The four virtues serve as our center’s rules and are reinforced by our Marcus Moments incentive program.

A Marcus Moment is much more than a raffle ticket. It is a moment for self-reflection, appreciation, and pride. With every ticket given we explain to the receiving youth that Marcus Aurelius had many moments in life, as they do, where he practiced -or had to call upon – the four virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance). Each ticket lists the four virtues. There is space provided on the ticket to write the child’s name, brief description of child’s action/situation, circle the virtue(s), and for the giver to sign their name. The Marcus Aurelius Fan Club (which was started by a child while I was on a lunch break) holds a weekly Friday Marcus Moment Raffle. For each ticket drawn, we read the virtue(s) and description out loud to the group prior to announcing the winner’s name. We post the Marcus Moments on the wall as they are earned. Throughout the week – the wall gets fuller – children love looking at the Marcus Moments on the wall.   

We use Marcus Moments not only to celebrate desirable actions, but for redirection. Two children might be having a disagreement, “Wow, it looks like you both are having a Marcus Moment.” At this point the children are made aware that the moment they are experiencing – regardless of the perceived difficulty – can be addressed through their actions/the four virtues. We have had such success with this form of redirection. Some children need only to hear a virtue gently mentioned and they immediately pause to self-reflect. French Toast (age 8) responds well to the word temperance. This word serves as a subtle reminder for French Toast to be mindful with his friends when Lego domination starts to occur in the building area. 

Youth often come up to tell me, “I had a Marcus Moment just now…” and not just because they would like a raffle ticket but because they wish to discuss the details of their moment. Other children have pointed out Marcus Moments occurring in movies we’ve watched, and the books we’ve read. The children love looking for Marcus Moments. With that said, the children give Marcus Moment tickets to their friends and teachers. 

A “practical advice for life” art project the children really enjoyed was an art installation we created as a group, Epictetus Dichotomy of Control Ice Cream Sundae Party.  Working with three children at a time, each child made a fake ice cream sundae. I stared off by giving each youth a clear plastic dessert cup. “This cup is your life. I know it is your life because I just wrote your name on the bottom with a Sharpie. In life you have control over your wishes, hopes, and desires – the syrup.”

The youth were encouraged to use the chocolate and strawberry syrups (acrylic paints) to coat the inside of their cups. They would ask me how and I would reply, “Anyway you would like. These are your hopes and dreams… it’s in your control.” Right as they were just getting going, I would interrupt their process and fill their cups with white caulking foam spray. “Your life will be filled with things outside of your control. That’s the ice cream. Maybe you don’t like vanilla. Maybe you were hoping for chocolate. This is outside of your control.”

The children began talking about their favorite flavors of ice cream. A few children said vanilla ice cream was their favorite. I congratulated them, “That’s wonderful. Sometimes things that are outside of our control turn out to be exactly what we wanted.” Others did not like vanilla ice cream. I pointed out to them, “The ice cream is outside of your control – so we will not be spending time worrying about what is outside of our control. What is inside of your control?” The youth then made the connection, seeing assorted glitter bottles and beads. They replied, “The toppings!” I commended them, “Yes. Those are your choices, your actions… the four virtues.” 

After they were finished with their toppings, I presented the youth with plastic spoons, “This spoon is your philosophy, without it life could get messy. You will want to make sure to put your philosophy deep into your life.” The children carefully placed their spoons deep into their sundaes. Daboss (age 9), asked that she receive three spoons because she wanted a lot of philosophy. I gave them all fake plastic cherries to place on top, telling them the thing you value most in life is the cherry – it goes on top. Many of the children said the cherry was their family, a talent, or a hope. 

Their sundaes were still changing and expanding because of the foam. They were surprised to see their sundaes were looking so different from what they expected. I assured them that this was nature – everything changes. I asked them, “What happens to ice cream?”

“It melts,” they replied. “Yep, that’s the nature of ice cream. That’s what it does. What should you do with ice cream?”

They all knew what to do with the ice cream, “Eat it up!”

“Yes. Just like life. Enjoy it. Eat it up.”, I advised.  I then added a twist, “What if you want the ice cream to last longer – what could you do?” They suggested that the ice cream be put in the freezer.  I told them that was an excellent idea, “That is inside of your control. You can take good care of yourself, make good choices…Make your life last longer. You can try. Trying is inside of your control. Good idea. But what happens if the freezer gets unplugged or the electricity goes out?”

The children thought this was funny. “The ice cream melts.”

“Just like life.” many added; that it was outside of our control and that’s ok.  

The ice cream sundaes were displayed on a large birthday party looking table. Red plates were set with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius quotes written on them, as well as the philosophical description of our sundaes. Photos of the children with messy whipped cream faces were placed next to their sundaes. The table had balloons and bright colored party hats. The children had fun showing their parents the Epictetus art installation at our art gala.  

Stoicism is more than a philosophy or a way of life. It is common ground. In this world, we need common ground.  

Elizabeth Smith

We have been following your progress over the summer, the work you are doing is inspirational. Now that Summer with the Stoics has ended, and the school year is upon us what are your plans?

Thank you, I appreciate your interest.

Next up – School Year with the Stoics, of course. I am also working on creating Stoicism curriculum in the hopes that we can have our curriculum implemented throughout Navy CYP. That would be a dream come true. I am working with Donald Robertson, with the goal of providing the high standard of trainings required to bring our Navy CYP professionals onboard. Donald Robertson’s contributions to the fields of philosophy, cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as his work with the military (Stoicism – resiliency trainings) make him the best choice for bringing this goal forward. 

When I consider 45,000 youth are served by my place of employment… I see an exceptional opportunity to bring the benefits of Stoicism to a diverse population of people – our children, families (service men and women), and childcare professionals.  Stoicism is admirable in the eyes of the right, as well as the eyes of the left. Stoicism does not offend the religious nor insult the agnostic. Stoicism is more than a philosophy or a way of life. It is common ground. In this world, we need common ground.  

In the fields of education and youth programing, the recent spotlight has been on STEM. The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have actively increased their outreach efforts in the desire to attract children to these fields. Universities, tech companies, and STEM related professionals are addressing a widespread future concern for establishing a workforce, highly proficient and dominant, in the STEM fields. The countries with such workforces will secure relevance. It’s like the space race but with children. 

With technology and science progressing at an exponential rate it is crucial we use Stoicism to develop our children’s minds so as they can ethically handle complex responsibilities and navigate a future world of rapid change. They will need resiliency… The four virtues are essential. Now is the time for the field of philosophy to follow the lead of the STEM fields and seriously focus on youth outreach.  

Do you have a favorite philosophy quote?

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.

Seneca

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about the work you are doing?

Put down the philosophy books and play. Take what you have learned throughout your study of Stoicism and creatively apply to all recreational opportunities that you may encounter. 

To learn more about my work – games and activities – I am in the process of writing, Zeno Tag: A Stoic’s Guide to the Playground.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, how would you feel about that?

Beyond thrilled. Without a doubt it would be a privilege and an honor.  What an amazing and beautiful space to contemplate humanity and engage in a fierce game of Zeno Tag. So many wonderful people discussing incredible ideas, while wearing running shoes…or barefoot.  How fun.   

Socrates as Sergeant Major

Antonio Canova - Socrates Rescues Alcibiades

The ancient Greek philosopher and war hero

By Donald Robertson and Mick Mulroy

Antonio Canova - Socrates Rescues Alcibiades

[Socrates] was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war, he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly.

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was fought between the two most powerful city-states in ancient Greece, namely Athens and Sparta, and their allies, known as the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues, respectively.  During this time, the Mediterranean region was engulfed in one of history’s longest and most brutal wars, spanning almost three decades.  At the outbreak of the war, in 431 BC, Socrates, the famous Athenian philosopher, was aged forty, and would already have seen intermittent military service as a citizen-soldier, fighting in minor conflicts since his early twenties.

At the outset of the Peloponnesian War, Athens, Greece’s dominant naval power, and Sparta, with her legendary infantry, were evenly matched adversaries.  However, Persia’s involvement and the growing confidence of the Spartan navy, led to the catastrophic destruction of the Athenian fleet by the Spartan general Lysander, at the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC. The city of Athens was blockaded and, before long, forced to surrender, leaving Sparta as the controlling power in Greece.  With both Athens and Sparta significantly weakened, though, during the 4th century BC, the way was clear for a new power, the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, to rise and gradually take their place.

Socrates went on to become a veteran of at least three major battles of the Peloponnesian War.  Indeed, he was well-known in Athens not only as a philosopher but also, to some extent, as a war hero.

Socrates the Soldier

At the end of his life, Socrates cited his military service, and reputation for bravery, during his trial, as recounted in Plato’s Apology.  The experiences he had in war clearly shaped his perception of the world, and his philosophy.  

At eighteen, he would have taken the sacred oath of the Ephebic College, through which he received his basic training:

I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms, nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend our altars and our hearths, single-handed or supported by many. My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I received it. I will obey whoever is in authority and submit to the established laws and all others which the people shall harmoniously enact. If anyone tries to overthrow the constitution or disobeys it, I will not permit him, but will come to its defense, single-handed or with the support of all. I will honor the religion of my fathers. Let the gods be my witness, Agraulus, Enyalius, Ares, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone.

During these years, Socrates learned to serve as a heavy infantryman or hoplite, using the sword and spear as a member of the phalanx, the standard Athenian military unit. His weapons and equipment would have weighed around 66 pounds.  He had to travel great distances bearing these, with little sleep, camped outside in the elements, eating basic soldier’s rations, just to engage the enemy in brutal physical combat where few would escape injury or death.

Socrates went on to become a veteran of at least three major battles of the Peloponnesian War.  Indeed, he was well-known in Athens not only as a philosopher but also, to some extent, as a war hero.  His circle of friends included several military veterans and elected generals.  Indeed, Xenophon and Plato, our two main sources, both portray Socrates being consulted by the officer class about military questions, including training, strategy, and tactics. 

He saved the life of a young officer (and future general) called Alcibiades, who had been wounded during the Battle of Potidaea.  As a consequence, Socrates was nominated for the “prize of pre-eminent valor” but declined to accept the award.  He was also known for protecting general Laches, who had been unhorsed during the retreat from the Battle of Delium, when the Athenians were being sorely harassed by the enemy.  Laches reputedly commented on the high regard he had for Socrates “ever since the day on which you were my companion in danger and gave a proof of your valor such as only the man of merit can give.”  

All three major battles in which Socrates participated ended in defeat for Athens.  According to Plato, nevertheless, Alcibiades said of Socrates’ courage: “when you behave as he did, then the enemy does not even touch you; instead, they pursue those who turn in headlong flight.”  Laches is likewise portrayed as saying that if every man under his command at Delium had fought as bravely as Socrates, their enemy would have erected no victory statues.  Xenophon, another famous general, said that Socrates was the most disciplined man he knew in terms of his appetites, that he had built up his endurance of extreme hot and cold weather, and other such hardships, and had learned to be self-sufficient and content with minimal possessions. 

The last major battle he fought was at Amphipolis, in northern Greece, in 422 BC.  Socrates, by this time, was aged forty-eight, and still trekking over hills with heavy weapons and armor, to stand his ground in the phalanx, alongside much younger men.  He appears to have been the type of soldier who would be selected as a centurion in the Roman army, or a Ranger or Green Beret today – he would be a perfect Sergeant Major.  Socrates became the most famous philosopher in history, though, and his reputation as a thinker, therefore, eclipsed his renown as a warrior.  We remember him as a philosopher rather than a soldier. Perhaps it should be as a philosopher-soldier, though. How, indeed, might Socrates’ experience as a soldier have shaped his views as a philosopher?

Temperance (Self-Discipline)

Socrates was renowned for his mental and physical endurance. He was said to be stronger than most men.  He could go longer than anyone without food, water, or rest. He would even volunteer to take other soldiers’ watches, so they could get some sleep. He was obviously a natural leader and set an example for the younger infantrymen to emulate.  Socrates thought it should be self-evident that true leaders require self-control. A military officer, for example, who is easily swayed by desire, cannot be trusted, for that reason, to act consistently in accord with his knowledge and expertise. However, “just as those who do not exercise their bodies cannot carry out their physical duties, so those who do not exercise their characters”, by developing self-control, “cannot carry out their moral duties.”  

It was also Socrates’ belief, though, according to Xenophon, that self-discipline itself is a question of knowledge and that those of us who lack self-control invariably also lack a sort of wisdom.  Temperance, or moderation, comes from having a clear understanding of what is good for us.  He said that “all men have a choice between various courses, and choose and follow the one which they think is most to their advantage.”  We must train ourselves to look beyond appearances at the underlying reality, to see more clearly what is in our own interest and in the interests of our society. 

Socrates’ military service had taught him to risk his life for the sake of his moral values. 

Justice (Fairness)

During his trial, for alleged impiety and corrupting the youth (by teaching them philosophy), Socrates brought up his military service.  He reminded the jurymen that he had stood his ground in the phalanx, under the command of the elected generals, facing mortal danger alongside his fellow hoplites at Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis.  Nobody questioned his bravery or honor when risking his life in this way.  Some people, however, thought it was ridiculous for Socrates to risk his life in court by insisting on practicing philosophy.  Socrates told them that the opposite was true.  

He believed that the god Apollo, whose commandment was “know thyself,” had, like a general, given him orders that he was duty-bound to obey.  His mission was to question his fellow Athenians about the nature of wisdom and virtue.  It would be even more dishonorable and ridiculous for him now to desert that post.  What point was there risking his life to defend the city of Athens against Sparta if he was not prepared to do the same to preserve the moral character of the city he loved and the citizens within its walls?  In other words, Socrates’ military service had taught him to risk his life for the sake of his moral values.  Back in civilian life, this actually brought him into conflict with powerful political figures, and it came to a head because he was willing to risk his own safety as an individual in the name of justice to preserve the moral integrity of the city.  

Fortitude (Courage)

Socrates was fascinated by the concept of courage and discussed it in depth with several Athenian generals in Plato’s Laches.  Did his experience of military service contribute to his questions about the nature of courage?  When Socrates asks Laches for a definition of courage, he begins by offering a conventional Greek military example: that it consists in standing one’s ground, i.e., remaining in phalanx formation, when facing the enemy.  He’s describing what courage among infantrymen looks like from the perspective of an external observer, such as their commanding officer.  

Socrates questions this narrow definition very thoroughly and arrives at an alternative account focused more on mental attitude: courage is knowing what it is and is not appropriate to fear.  In Plato’s Apology, after mentioning his military service, Socrates likewise goes on to raise some very radical questions about whether or not it is wise to fear death.  He said that only a fool would embrace a known evil in order to evade something whose dangers are unknown.  He, therefore, arrived at the typically paradoxical conclusion that we should be more afraid of committing injustice than we are of our own death.  When the jurymen voted in favor of the death sentence at his trial, he reputedly said that his accusers, Anytus and Meletus, could kill him but they could not harm him.  He meant that although they could take away his life, they could never take away his honor.   


About the Authors

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, an Analyst for ABC News, on the board of directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a co-founder of End Child Soldiering, and the co-founder of the Lobo Institute. He writes and speaks often on Stoicism. For other publications please visit here.

Donald J. Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural therapist and writer, living in Athens, Greece, and Ontario, Canada. He is the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.

Jonas Salzgeber: Hey, Equanimity

Jonas Salzgeber is the author of The Little Book of Stoicism. He advocates an applied, self-reflective, and alterable life philosophy. He enjoys quiet time with a good cup of coffee, swimming in vast waters, and being around loving human beings.

How did you become interested in this area?

Through life itself. 

As a young adult, I became interested in learning how to live well. How to make the best with the given circumstances. How to install healthy habits in order to improve my sleep quality, energy level, and athleticism. 

Further, I developed this ideal of a well-balanced, calm spirit. My three brothers used to tease and test me – and whenever I reacted and became irritated, they’d say, “Hey, equanimity.” 

Specifically my youngest brother was (and still is) best able to get me out of the calm, equanimous spirit. I learned to take him as a teacher who’s testing me and thus helping me practice my equanimity. 

So, I became interested in philosophy without calling it this way. And it was this interest in learning how to live well that lead me to reading books, and through such books I stumbled upon the highly resonating Stoic philosophy.

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

Currently, it’s practice makes perfect. 

If you don’t put what you learn into practice, you’ll forget it. Or rather, you haven’t really learned it. We only truly learn if we apply something in real life. Whether it’s baking a bread, swinging a kettlebell, or accepting a challenging life situation. 

Yes, we might get a decent understanding of something in theory, but if we fail to put it into practice, we won’t really understand it. It’s something life has taught me again and again – probably because I haven’t really understood it. 😉

I believe this is an important idea because it’s something people forget about. People like to listen to podcasts, read new books, and watch videos, but fail to move to the most important step – to put what they learn into action. 

So, what’s something you want to put into practice? Good. Now stop reading and go do it.

 Do you respond by expressing your highest Self or do you fall short and do or say something that’s not according to your innermost truth?

Jonas Salzgeber

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

The Stoic Happiness Triangle. It gives a simple and visual overview of Stoicism, is easy to remember, and actionable. 

At the center is the Stoic goal of life: Eudaimonia. For me, it simply means to flourish in life. That’s the goal. The Greek word directly translates as being good (eu) with your inner daimon, your soul, your highest Self. Basically, if you live in harmony with your highest Self, you’ll flourish in life.

How to get there? By living with Aretê. For me, this means to express your highest Self in every moment. You live according to your innermost truth, to your values, moment to moment to moment. 

Now, expressing your highest Self in every moment can be challenging. That’s why the Stoics’ core principle comes in handy: Focus on what you control and accept the rest as it happens. You want to learn to accept what is, and make the best given the circumstances. For the Stoics, everything that is beyond your control is ultimately indifferent. Only what you do with it matters. Basically, you focus on expressing your highest Self despite the challenging life situation.

The third corner of the Stoic Happiness Triangle is to take responsibility. It comes with a twofold meaning. First, you are responsible for flourishing in your life because what matters is not what happens but what you do with it, and that’s precisely what’s within your control. Second, you are response-able as you have the ability to choose your response to any given outside situation. This is your responsibility: By challenging you with a certain situation, life is asking you, “How do you respond?” Do you respond by expressing your highest Self or do you fall short and do or say something that’s not according to your innermost truth?

That’s the Stoic Happiness Triangle in a nutshell. You can find out more in The Little Book of Stoicism or in this article.

Basically, that’s what Stoicism is all about. Being mindful of yourself, your values, your thoughts & behaviors, then being self-reflective to gain a deeper understanding of yourself, your values, your thoughts & behaviors, and then take responsibility and live accordingly. And repeat.

…yes, understanding the theory behind the action enables one to speak, but it is the practice that enables one to act. And thus, practice is more important than theory.

Jonas Salzgeber

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Suppose there are two men, one of whom has sailed many times and has already piloted many boats, and the other of whom has sailed few times and has never been a pilot. Suppose the one who has never been a pilot can speak very fluently about the theory of navigation, and suppose the other speaks poorly and incoherently. Which would you hire as pilot if you were sailing?

The one who has been a pilot many times.

Musonius Rufus, Lecture 5

There are many quotes from the Stoics that I like. This one from Musonius Rufus fits the topic, practice makes perfect, really well.

He told his student that, yes, understanding the theory behind the action enables one to speak, but it is the practice that enables one to act. And thus, practice is more important than theory.

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

You can find countless articles on Stoicism, procrastination, and positive psychology and book summaries on my brother Nils’ and my blog NJlifehacks

You can read The Little Book of Stoicism and you can subscribe to our emails newsletter – we write around one email per week about what we find most valuable 😊 

If you subscribe, you’ll get a PDF with 20 Stoic practices – let’s put what we learn into practice.

We’re not into social media, so you won’t find us there.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. How would you feel about that?

Honored. Excited. Talking with people about a topic with mutual interest is most fun 😊

Erlend D. MacGillivray: Epictetus and the Lay People

Dr. Erlend D. MacGillivray gained his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. During his time at Aberdeen, he was an academic tutor in New Testament Studies, early Church history, and Greco-Roman history, and also helped to coordinate the Divinity school’s distance learning program. In 2015 he was a visiting Professor of New Testament Exegesis at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila. He is published in academic journals such as Journal of Greco-Roman Judaism and Christianity, Novum Testamentum, Journal of Ancient History, The Ancient World, and Apeiron.

His critically acclaimed book Epictetus and Laypeople: A Stoic Stance toward Non-Stoics explores the understanding that ancient philosophers had towards the vast majority of people at the time, those who had no philosophical knowledge or adherence—laypeople. After exploring how philosophical identity was established in antiquity, this book examines the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who reflected upon laypeople with remarkable frequency.

How did you become interested in this area?

I came to study ancient philosophy as a historian. Initially, I wrote academic articles on various aspects of Roman society, especially the patron-client relationship. I was planning to complete a doctorate related to the topic but I had an epiphany of sorts. Scholars usually try to write on an area, or a perspective that has not been fully explored. Ancient philosophy was, I realized, one such area. Although the teachings of the philosophical schools have understandably been studied at length, ancient philosophy was more than just a series of intellectual commitments and doctrines. It was also a social movement. Ancient philosophers exhibited the attributes of a community. This aspect of ancient philosophy though has not received much attention.

I became particularly interested in what we could know about the demographics of ancient philosophy. Who was attracted to it? What segments of society were exposed to various levels of philosophical teaching? How did philosophical allegiance change over time and why? These are, I believe, fascinating questions, but they are rarely explored by historians in great depth.

To cut a long story short I started studying the Epicurean school. That resulted in my writing two peer-reviewed journal articles on the philosophy: one on how popular Epicureanism was in Late-Republican Rome, and another on how Epicureanism, rather distinctively, tried to spread its philosophy across ancient society and to reach relatively unlettered people. After that, I had to make a decision. Either keep exploring this topic and write a book on the Epicurean school or take the same sets of questions and look at a different school. I chose the latter and I decided to explore the philosophy of the Stoa. That was, I am pleased to say, a successful research project and it led to my writing the book Epictetus and Laypeople.

Our broader culture does little to let people know that ancient philosophy explores issues that they are interested in, e.g., who should have power in a state, how do I establish what is true…?

Dr. Erlend McGillivary

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

For the past few years, I have taught students ancient philosophy as part of a wider ancient history course. We read through parts of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomedian Ethics, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There are a couple of important ideas I want to impress upon them. Firstly, the value that ancient philosophy has. Often, they have the preconception that ancient philosophy is a needlessly obscure, pointless, arcane subject. Were these texts not assigned as part of a curriculum I doubt they would have ever have picked them up. Our broader culture does little to let people know that ancient philosophy explores issues that they are interested in, e.g., who should have power in a state, how do I establish what is true, what should my guiding principles in life be, is there a creator, how can I control my temper? I’ve never met a student who isn’t interested in exploring at least one of these questions.

The main concepts I teach them is that whatever issue they want to consider, search and see. They might very well tap into a rich stream of philosophical insight about the topic. Secondly, for more academic circles I think my work’s emphasis on viewing ancient philosophy as a social movement is an important one. The schools have fascinating histories that are still to be fully uncovered and detailed.

…make sure that your reasons for studying ancient philosophy are not just purely intellectual ones.

Dr. Erlend McGillivary

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

Most ancient philosophers were very aware that people might approach philosophy just to look or sound smart. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher from the first-second century C.E., continually scolds his listeners if he thinks they are just there for intellectual reasons. For example, to one such onlooker, he said: “Why do you dress in a philosopher’s garment that is not yours, and walk around in it, as thieves and robbers who have stolen titles and properties that do not belong to them?” Diss. II.19.28. The point I would make, which other scholars/writers on ancient philosophy have made better than I have (and organizations such as Plato’s Academy do) would be to make sure that your reasons for studying ancient philosophy are not just purely intellectual ones.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?


A quote that I often tell myself is from a well-regarded first-century philosopher in Rome named Musonius Rufus. To paraphrase he said that “what is difficult to achieve will endure and the discomfort will pass, what you do with pleasure and dishonour, the pleasure will pass but the dishonour will remain.” His advice holds not just for hard work involving our careers but anything that requires effort or nurture to flourish. Be that our occupations, our family life, hobbies etc.

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

At the moment probably the best place to find my work is from my academia.edu page. It has many of my articles that are free to read. My book on Epictetus is also thankfully now out in paperback, so it is more readily available to the general public. I’m also co-writing a workbook on logical fallacies which is aimed at high schoolers.

My next big project though is a popular-level book on Epictetus and his world. My aim is to use my knowledge as someone with an interest in Roman history to provide greater context to his lectures and to help readers feel they know him and his world better. For example, the place where he taught, Nicopolis, is one of the largest archaeological sites in Greece. We can actually visit some of the buildings that he references. Some types of coins he mentions in passing that are fairly obscure we have examples of etc. So, for anyone interested in what I am doing I would say wait for that to come out.

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

I would be honoured! When I was a PhD student, I was fortunate to spend some time in the British School in Athens. It is fairly close to the Lyceum where various philosophers used to gather, the most famous being Aristotle. It was enthralling to be there. I really felt though that the sites of the schools, e.g. the Lyceum, the Academy, the Stoa, should be more utilized and highlighted. They seemed rather forgotten about, almost ignored and over- grown. I think what Plato’s Academy is doing is wonderful!

Francis Gasparini: Inspiring Change

Francis Gasparini has been a writer for more than 30 years and has worked with Karen “Duff” Duffy for most of that time. With Duff, he’s written the New York Times bestseller “Model Patient”, “Backbone,” and now “Wise Up.” He’s also had extensive experience in documentary film and television.  He has worked with documentarians including Michael Moore, RJ Cutler, Davis Guggenheim, Fernando Andrade, and Ryan White; Gasparini’s films have premiered at Sundance and SXSW.  He lives in Los Angeles with his wife
Jennifer Wise, daughter Maria Lucia, and a crazy dog named Petunia.

How did you become interested in this area?

I came to it through my collaboration with my writing partner, Karen Duffy, aka Duff. Stoicism has always been a part of her life and it’s been a part of our work from the beginning, but it really flowered with our latest book, “Wise Up.” I don’t consider myselfany kind of expert in Stoicism, but I approach it in the way I make documentary films—my writing with Duff is an opportunity to learn about something that engages me and apply my craft to it.

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

I mean the dichotomy of control is the beginning middle and end of it, isn’t it? But Duff and I are now working on a new project inspired in part by Marcus Aurelius’ words “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” Broadly speaking, we’re looking to inspire people to take action and make changes. Some people make fun of this line as being tautological and I understand that criticism, but I choose to interpret it as “Stop dithering and act on what you already know!” Useful advice at any time.

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

When I write with Duff, I often access an almost ecstatic sense of celebrating life and its possibilities, and I hope that comes across to readers. Yes, life is hard and has more than its share of disappointments and cruelty and sadness, but there is always also beauty and joy. I hope that we’ve been able to communicate that Stoicism is a practical way to recognize and embrace those beautiful aspects of life.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Epictetus’ maxim “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” This comes up a lot with my daughter, who is 15. As a nascent adult she runs across a lot of situations that aren’t ideal and we’ve always encouraged her to take action in response rather than accept them or just complain. Without getting into detail, she just had an unpleasant experience and took it upon herself to take action. She’s understood that she can’t change what happened, nor should she wallow in emotion—but she can take action in response. I was really proud to see her exercise the control she could in a pretty tough situation and thrilled to see how confident she was in herself.


Karen Duffy & Francis Gasparini – Wising Up

Control how you respond—and maybe that response is “this cruelly phrased criticism is actually valid.”

Francis Gasparini

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

When it comes to writing, the most banal but truest advice is that you learn by doing, over and over and over and over. I was a creative writing major in college, which was extremely useful in that it gave me an outlet to write a lot and get a lot of bad writing out of my system. Needless to say, you don’t need to study creative writing in college to write a lot and hone your craft, but it did give me a structure. Also, the absolute pettiness and bottomless factionalism of zero-consequences college writing seminars helped me develop a thick skin about what I knew was good.

Another thing that helped was many years of writing for television, in which no one cares about your feelings or how hard you worked on something, it either works (for someone else!) or it doesn’t. I don’t think you need to suffer through all of that to be a good writer, but you do need to learn how to take criticism and distinguish what’s worth listening to. The dichotomy of control comes into play here too! Control how you respond—and maybe that response is “this cruelly phrased criticism is actually valid.”

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. How would you feel about that?

Um, overwhelmed and unworthy? The serious answer is that I’d be excited to talk about my creative process and how Stoicism has come to inform it. I write in collaboration with Duff. There is a great deal of tapping on the keyboard, but the most important part of the work is the lively discussion of what we want to say, what the Stoics say on the subject, and what crazy anecdote perfectly illustrates what we’re trying to communicate. In Stoic
terms, we never run into “writer’s block.” We rethink, we ruminate, we shoot the breeze, we digress, and in the end, as Marcus Aurelius says, “What stands in the way becomes
the way.”

Register Now for “How to Think Like Socrates!”

Socratic Method Virtual Event

Our virtual conference on the Socratic Method will take place on 27th August, so make sure you register now.

How to Think Like Socrates

Virtual conference on reasoning like a Greek philosopher

If you’re interested in how Greek philosophy and the Socratic Method can help us think more clearly and live better lives today, this is the online event for you!

When you register you’ll have the option to donate an amount of your choosing (or even nothing).* All proceeds go toward the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. Not available or in a different time zone? Don’t worry as recordings will be provided afterwards if you book your tickets now.

What’s it all about?

We bring together a special program of world-class thinkers and renowned authors for an exclusive online event that you absolutely won’t want to miss.

Each speaker will share with you their knowledge and captivating insights into the Socratic Method, including effective and practical advice and strategies to think critically, reason more clearly, and protect yourself against misleading information and sophistry.

Speakers

  • Opening Keynote: “Socrates and Alcibiades: How to Think About Statesmanship”, Massimo Pigliucci, author of How To Be Good: What Socrates Can Teach Us About the Art of Living Well (30 min)
  • “Socrates as Cognitive Therapist”, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, president of Plato’s Academy Centre (20 min)
  • “Socrates and Civility”, Alexandra O. Hudson, author of Against Politeness (20 min)
  • “How to Question Like Socrates”, Christopher Phillips, PhD, author of Socrates Cafe and Soul of Goodness, founder of SocratesCafe.com (20 min)
  • “Cognitive Therapy and Socratic Self-Doubt”, R. Trent Codd, III, CBT Counseling Centers; Co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors (20 min)
  • “Street Epistemology: How to Think about Thinking”, Anthony Magnabosco, Executive Director of Street Epistemology International (20 min)
  • “Self-Socratic Method for Personal Growth”, Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP psychologist and co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors (20 min)
  • Closing Keynote: “The Socratic Method”, Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practicing Stoic and The Socratic Method (30 min)
  • Q&A with Panel (20 min)

NB: Details may be subject to change without prior notification.

Who will be hosting?

Our hosts will be Donald Robertson, the president of the Plato’s Academy Centre, and Anya Leonard, the founder and director of the Classical Wisdom website.

About Plato’s Academy Centre

The Plato’s Academy Centre is a new nonprofit, based in Greece, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from around the world. Our mission is to make ancient Greek philosophy more accessible to a wider international audience and to celebrate the legacy of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Everyone is welcome to join us.

FAQ

  1. Will recordings be available? Yes, everyone who orders a ticket in advance will automatically have access after the event to recordings of all presentations. So don’t worry if you’re unavailable at these times or located in another time zone.
  2. Will it be too academic for me? While many of our speakers are notable academics, the sessions are aimed at a nonacademic audience.
  3. How much does it cost? We’re making it free to register, so it’s available to the widest possible audience, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a donation, amount of your choosing. As a rough guide, tickets for a physical conference like this might normally cost €150. Your generosity helps support our nonprofit’s work and allows us to reach more people through future events. *If you do not wish to donate anything whatsoever, you may contact us directly to apply for a free ticket or simply enter the promo code NODONATION when booking.
  4. Where can I get updates? Follow our Facebook Event page and our Twitter account for updates on this event.

Thanks

We’re grateful to our board of advisors, Orange Grove incubator, Classical Wisdom, and the Aurelius Foundation, for their support in bringing you this event. Special thanks to Phil Yanov, Gabriel Fleming, and Kasey Robertson for their help organizing the event.

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. 

Clif Mark: How to Butcher a Masterpiece


Clif Mark is the creator and host of the Good in Theory, a political philosophy podcast that includes a full adaptation of Plato’s Apology and Republic. He did a PhD in political theory at the University of Cambridge and spent a few years as an academic before turning to freelance writing and podcasting. You can find his writing in The AtlanticAeon and CBC Life et alia.

You’ve made a podcast where you perform Plato’s dialogues. Why did you decide to do that instead of just explaining them?

Actually, I do both. The Plato episodes of Good in Theory have explanation and interpretation interspersed with an adaptation of the entire dialogue. The idea is that I’ll set up a piece of dialogue with any important context, then put on a little radio play. I got some actors to help me perform them and set them mood with some authentic ancient music. Then when a scene is done, I’ll come back in and explain what just happened and talk about the philosophical issues it raises. So it’s a mix of both.

Also, the podcast isn’t just about Plato. It’s a political theory podcast that was supposed to start with Republic. The thing is—and I should have predicted this—I got carried away and wound-up spending nearly two years on Plato. I’ve moved on though.

To actually show the drama and humour of the dialogues, I felt I had to rewrite them.

Clif Mark

But you don’t just perform the dialogues as they’re written. You adapted them into modern English. Why?

It sounds a little like you’re asking why I would butcher a masterpiece. But that’s ok, because that’s exactly what I’ve done. You lose a lot in my adaptations of Apology and Republic, but I also hope that you also gain something.

Plato wrote dialogues, not treatises. They’re full of drama and humour and emotion and getting that across is essential to understanding what’s going on. The secondary literature’s always talking about “attending to the dramatic nature of the text” and so on.

But all that drama and humour can get buried because the texts are so difficult to read. I’m not going to deny that Plato was a literary genius. But if he was, he was a literary genius for Athenian ears. They weren’t written for us and it’s work to read these books. If you stick to it, the work will pay off. But all that labour tends to hide all the drama and humour I’m talking about. You’re not going to spontaneously laugh at a surprising turn in conversation if you have to read the same sentence three times and refer to two footnotes.

To actually show the drama and humour of the dialogues, I felt I had to rewrite them. I abridged the text and translated the translations—I don’t know ancient Greek—into “Normal Human English.” Again, I leave out a lot. But at least what I made was written for our modern ears and, I hope, can slip into our minds more easily than the more literal translations.

My text is also easier to act. My actors really try to express what the characters are doing. You hear when Glaucon gets excited about ideas or when Thrasymachus is boasting and seething. I don’t think we  could have managed that with, for example, Allan Bloom’s translation.

In short, I butchered Plato’s masterpieces for the same reason anyone butchers anything: to make them easier to eat.

https://goodintheorypod.com/

What did you learn from the process of adapting it?

I think I learned how little of these books I’d previously understood, especially Republic. I’d read it several times and even taught the text in universities. But even if you’re writing about Plato, it’s really easy just to stick to the bits you find interesting—the key quotes, the relevant passages. It’s all guided by the question you’re trying to answer.

But since I was adapting the entire dialogue for the podcast, I couldn’t skip anything. I had to decide what I thought every sentence meant. This gave me a much more comprehensive understanding of the book and revealed angles I’d never seen before. It’s probably a fraction of what happens when you actually translate a book but it was still a transformative reading for me. If you want to get something new out of Plato, try performing him.

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

If you get very interested in philosophy, you may be poor, but you will not lack for interesting projects. But you probably already know that from Socrates.

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

Obviously, just go listen to the podcast. I also do some writing in outlets like Aeon which you can check out, but the main thing is the podcast.

If you want to learn more about Plato and about podcasting, I’d recommend adapting one yourself. It’ll completely change your relationship to the text. Then e-mail me and tell me all about it! I don’t have many people to talk to about that.

Do you have a favourite quote from Plato?

No. There are too many. Even in Republic there are too many.

I always liked when Socrates says that the philosopher “lives 729 times more pleasantly, while the tyrant lives more disagreeably.” It’s puzzling and silly and I’m sure he’s trolling Glaucon and Adeimantus. And I think it’s funny that they play along with him.

Oh, and I also love the part in Apology where Socrates suggests that his penalty should be free lunch for life. It’s such a spectacular middle finger to his jury. It’s Socrates on maximum troll but heroic at the same time. That Socrates can do genuinely moving martyrdom while being ironic and hilarious is true genius.

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

I would love that.  This is one of the great holy sites for anyone who loves philosophy and I’ve never been.

Dr. Richard Carrier: What Is True

Richard Carrier, Ph.D., is a philosopher and historian with degrees from Berkeley and Columbia, specializing in the contemporary philosophy of naturalism and Greco-Roman philosophy, science, and religion, including the origins of Christianity. He blogs and lectures worldwide, teaches monthly courses online through his website, and is the author of many books, including his defense of a naturalist worldview in Sense and Goodness without God, his academic case for the non-existence of Jesus in On the Historicity of Jesus, as well as his colloquial summary in Jesus from Outer Space, his work on historical methodology in Proving History, his study of ancient science in both Science Education and The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, his responses to 21st century Christian apologetics in Why I Am Not a Christian and Not the Impossible Faith, and an anthology of his papers on the subject of history in Hitler Homer Bible Christ.

He has also authored chapters in many other books, and articles in magazines and academic journals, and on his namesake blog, covering subjects from politics and history to philosophy and social justice.

Dr. Carrier’s latest book, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, has been called “Carrier’s best, most engaging, and readable work yet.” by author David Fitzgerald.

His most pertinent title, however, is Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.

For more about Dr. Carrier and his work see www.richardcarrier.info.

The goal we all should have is to have a complete, coherent worldview that is thoroughly evidence-based rather than built on mere desires and speculations, much less uninformed traditions. 

Dr. Richard Carrier

How did you become interested in this area?

I became a devout Taoist in high school, and by the time I was completing military service at sea years later I had come to realize Taoism was just as false a religion as any other. And yet Taoism was a complete, coherent, organized worldview of immense utility to me in understanding oneself and the world. So, when I was losing my faith I began asking, well, then, what is true? I immediately began writing notes and research plans for my first book, which a decade later became Sense and Goodness without God, a complete modernized worldview covering all the main branches of philosophy, from semantics and epistemology to metaphysics, aesthetics, morality, and politics, showing how they are all inextricably interrelated and inform each other. Those areas of study cannot be pursued in isolation from each other. The goal we all should have is to have a complete, coherent worldview that is thoroughly evidence-based rather than built on mere desires and speculations, much less uninformed traditions. 

At the same time as all of that, I was getting more involved in movement atheism and counter-apologetics, where questions of philosophy not only came up for study and investigation a lot, but where having well-founded solutions to all the major questions was of inestimable value in exploding false worldviews, both religious and secular. The mutual drive to build a complete, evidence-based worldview, and to continually question it to ensure its accuracy and coherence, was thus further inspired as my continual goals of defeating false belief systems and building and hewing my life to the worldview that could claim the greatest probability of being true given the information available to us.

A third track inspiring this life goal was my profession as a historian, which I acquired in graduate school after military service. I studied methodology and soon discovered that we need a coherent, defensible epistemology of history. This led to Proving History, my first peer reviewed monograph in the philosophy of history. But it became apparent that what I had learned of worldview theory applied here as well: you can’t construct a valid epistemology or methodology of history without working out where things stand in every other branch of philosophy, from semantics and epistemology generally, to, again, metaphysics and aesthetics, even morality and politics. Thus, the pursuit of philosophy became just as important to my career as a historian.

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

Besides what I already discussed, the fact that all fundamental branches of philosophy must be well studied to get correct conclusions in any one of them, the next most important idea I aim to convey to everyone is that critical thinking, which is essential to having reliable beliefs, rests on a counter-intuitive foundational principle that the only way to know whether you are right about anything, whether any belief you have is true, is to make every honest and powerful effort to prove it false. Because it is only by failing to do that that you can ever have a justified confidence that any belief is true. If all you do instead is aim to “verify” your beliefs, rather than falsify them, your beliefs will never be reliable.

“…the truth resides in the particulars…”

Dr. Richard Carrier

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

Always start with actual particulars and build abstractions and generalizations from them; never just start with abstractions and generalizations and reason from there. Because the truth resides in the particulars, and if you skip a careful study of those, it is too easy to leap to abstractions and generalizations that are inaccurate or false or fail to reliably track reality. So, of every philosophy problem or question, always ask, “What is a real-world example of this?” and then go and collect as many of those real examples as you can, and study the question from there. And this means not hypothetical examples (so-called “thought experiments”; as useful, albeit perilous, as they may be), but actual ones. Actual real things, affecting actual real lives. Always ground your philosophy in reality. That is the only way to ensure it tracks reality.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I don’t typically argue by quotation. But I have coined a few bon mots that I find myself having to repeat quite a lot, because they keep being pertinent. Perhaps top of that list is, “You can’t change what a thing is by changing what you call it.”

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

To learn more about my philosophy, the first place to start would be my books Sense and Goodness without God and Proving History, and my website’s categories drop-down menu (at richardcarrier.info) has several options in that subject, including just simply “philosophy.” There is also an article there, my Typos List for Sense and Goodness without God, which besides basic corrections includes an outline of what changes there have been in my philosophy since that book was published. 

But if one wants to become a philosopher in their own right, also on my website (among the top margin menus) I provide a starter list of recommended readings for anyone who wants to get their own start as a philosopher, by which I mean for the purpose of building one’s own reliable worldview; actually being a philosopher, as opposed to pursuing philosophy as a profession. The latter I typically don’t recommend, as it doesn’t pay well and buries your life in tasks almost none of which consist of actually doing philosophy, and academia has a tendency to destroy the creativity and breadth of interest in anyone immersed in it. Most “professional” philosophers too often end up narrowing their interests and pursuing them with blinders on rather than building worldviews or devoting their pursuit to practical application in human lives. 

Philosophy should be your religion, your devotional faith-pursuit. And though one can do that and pursue it professionally at the same time, counter-intuitively, you might find it easier to do if your professional life were consumed in a more productive passion, and philosophy were your personal life-project.

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

Well, of course that would be an experience worth having. But really, I’d just use it as an opportunity to explore ancient history roundabout, as my Columbia University dissertation was on the social and intellectual history of ancient Greco-Roman science, philosophy, and religion. So I’d be even more excited to visit important artifacts of the era, from the Antikythera Mechanism at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, to the inscriptions and ruins of the great temple hospice of Asclepius in Epidaurus. 

In light of that, if I did lecture at the original site of the Academy, I would probably speak on ancient contributions to the modern epistemology of science, and how only some of Plato’s students went on to make real progress on that, and by largely rejecting most of Plato’s ideas in philosophy—most prominently, Aristotle. I think it would be a living act of poetry to lecture on this point at the Academy, and then lecture the next day on Aristotle’s legacy through his successor Strato at the original site of the Lyceum that both men once ran!