This interview originally appeared on the Stoic Fellowship newsletter in June 2019.
DL = Dan Lampert (Organizer of The Orlando Stoics and Editor of Indifferents Quarterly)
KW = Kai Whiting
DL: At Stoicon 2018, you spoke about how Stoicism can improve ‘human’ sustainability (beyond the environmental issues that are normally associated with sustainability). Tell us some of the ways in which Stoicism can benefit future generations.
KW: Simply put, natural resources are not infinite. If we extract them, produce something and throw it into landfill (people mistakenly say “throw away”, there is no away!) then we are preventing future generations from being able to achieve their goals.
If we contaminate the air or increase the temperature so much that most the planet becomes inhabitable then it is very difficult to enjoy a sense of wellbeing. Living in a bubble that disregards natural processes is irrational or even deluded and thus anti-Stoic. And, we can delude ourselves easily by ramping up the air conditioning. I think if we switched all AC units off this summer people would recognise that is hotter than it used to be.
Stoicism calls us to live in harmony. To revere Nature. To rationally use our resources in a self-controlled manner. There is a reason why ignorance is a vice, why greed is a vice, why injustice is a vice and why cowardice is a vice. They guarantee a wretched life. How is it just to allow other people’s homes go underwater due to sea level rises or turn immigrants away because our greed keeps them in poverty and sweatshop conditions which are often forms of modern slavery?
Stoicism offers us a way to navigate the world that is cosmopolitan in vision. A perspective that sees the humanity (i.e. the potential for virtue) in every neurotypical adult human being. It says that virtuous actions and thoughts provide true meaning and happiness. In this respect, and as I wrote in a co-authored open access paper with Leonidas Konstantakos:
The call to “live according to Nature”, far from being outdated or archaic, is actually refreshingly contemporary. It provides the tools, scope and urgency with which to deliver a far more considerate and dynamic ethical framework for the 21st century. It is exactly what we need to (re)consider and (re)contextualise the preferences, practices, policies, historical events, cultural norms, social conventions and human values that have caused the West to disregard planetary wellbeing, cause carbon emissions to climb and led to socioenvironmental inequality.
In short, I think the world urgently needs Stoicism’s cosmopolitan message and its call for harmony, and that in striving for excellence we serve humanity both now and into the future.
DL: You wrote in an article “Each individual’s Stoic journey is a tough one and progress towards eudaimonia (happiness, wellbeing) is a lifelong affair.” Which practical suggestions of Stoicism have you seen resonate or inspire people? I’m asking because Stoa group leaders are always looking for good discussion topics at meetings.
KW: For me, ever since the Painted Porch, Stoicism has been about bringing people into the conversation. It has been about discussing difficult subjects and navigating problems together, as we strive to live according to Nature — so this is an excellent question.
Well, when I visited the London Stoic group, I wanted to provide a practical response to an environmental problem that I spoke about in Stoicon — namely that certain farming practices take away an animal’s capacity to live according to its own nature (calves taking milk from their mother, for example). So, we all went out for a vegan meal. This introduced some people interested in Stoicism to a cuisine they hadn’t tried before. It gave them a firm and enjoyable memory, which removed the entry barrier that can accompany the uneasiness of trying something new. It was a way to share ideas and engage in a practical solution to cutting carbon emissions and challenging social norms when it comes to animal ethics and caring about the environment. It was also a way to do it that was fun and didn’t require too much effort.
I think Stoics can do much good through community gardening, which would certainly resonate with Musonius Rufus’ Discourses on the value of healthy and local eating.
Other easy things include going to your local store on occasion instead of the big brand all the time, which restores a sense a place among the cosmos! Buying Stoic books for your local library, actively boycotting items that are overly packaged in plastic, which just gets dumped into the sea and destroys wildlife… all these kinds of things are small acts of transformation that really state something about your values.
DL: Recently, you quoted Yuval Noah Harari from his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: “If we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community.” Looking at this from a glass-half-full perspective, what groups of people or countries have shown interest in Stoicism? For example, people in the military appreciate Stoic thinking (uppercase S) and Asian cultures like Singapore and Nepal are stoic by nature (lowercase s).
KW: Tim LeBon’s research suggests that as people get older, they gravitate towards Stoic thinking. In my encounters with people influenced by Stoicism that is definitely true. I think it hard to sufficiently contemplate and appreciate the nuanced offered by Stoicism if you are 18 years old and leaving your parents’ home for the first time. Not impossible but certainly challenging.
Actually, I just discussed this issue with a Senior Vice President who happened to be visiting Portugal from the US. It seemed to him that Stoicism just really started resonating in the last six months. We both agreed that there seems to be a sudden spark into delving deeper into the philosophy, should you come across it relatively early on, in your 30s. Of course, for people in higher management positions the elements of Stoicism focused on by Ryan Holiday and Donald Robertson are particularly helpful.
I also find that women are very interested in Stoicism, despite what others may lead you to believe. After my Stoicon speech, that championed an inclusive conversation on complex issues in the 21st century, including climate breakdown, progressive diets and the gender pay gap, many women reached out to me, effectively to thank me for talking about the kind of Stoicism that interests them.
In this respect, especially regarding your question, I would argue that the way in which we live out and focus our Stoicism attracts those people it mirrors. Why would people with a military background find Stoicism helpful? Marcus Aurelius led campaigns. Why would Silicon Valley have an interest in Stoicism? I think Seneca the Younger explains a lot.
So, if we want more female Stoics, we need to engage in those issues that matter to them. You start talking about the inequality of the gender pay gap and the fact that injustice is a vice, they start listening. They start finding their voice because we offer a space for dialogue. It is not for “outsiders” to force a way in, it is for us to hand them over the mic so they can speak.
I look forward to Stoicon 2019 because, since my talk, there seems to have been a paradigm shift… just look at the topics and ask yourself, is it possible that my talk on “Stoicism and Sustainability” opened up that space? I would argue that it did.
DL: Beyond the self-help aspects of Stoicism, what areas of business can improve with Stoic practice? Some Stoa have members who are entrepreneurs, and we’d like to attract more with ideas that can be applied to running a business.
KW: The Stoic virtues clearly form the foundation of what businesspeople would call the “Triple Bottom Line”. This concept, without getting too technical, demonstrates that what is good for business is good for people and the environment. In other words, if you are focusing on shareholder value and think that it can be maximised by undercutting people’s pay or pensions or by polluting the environment, you are actually short-changing your shareholders. And, you are short-changing them because worker morale and the public perception of the company will suffer, along with the natural processes that the company depends on. Hence why many venture-funding capitalists are taking their money from dirty industry and putting it in start-ups and micro-businesses with a sustainable vision that puts people and the planet before profit.
Why does this work so well? Transparency. Responsibility…. Living according to Nature! In other words, this is an excellent practical application of a Stoic understanding of Hierocles circles of concerns and our recent expansion of them to include the environment in an open access academic paper entitled “Sustainable Development, Wellbeing and Material Consumption: A Stoic Perspective”. I think my point is summed up here in the following quote:
A Stoic would be unlikely to profess a desire to have more or less material goods or for having them at all, as happiness cannot be obtained through anything except virtue. All externals are simply selections, which do not truly improve one’s condition, and may actually serve to distract an individual from acting virtuously. In fact, it could be that x and y actively undermine one’s virtue because in purchasing them, one inevitably supports and sustains the ways and means that created them: questionable sweatshop industries in Bangladesh, electronic factories in China, rainforest destruction in South America or shady financial agreements in the capital cities of Western Europe and North America.
The underlying concept was explored by Cicero who incorporated some Stoic aspects (and openly criticised others) in De Finibus (3.22) where he used the analogy of the archer or spear-thrower and the target (translation from Sellars ):
“One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal… To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.”
DL: In your article on changing society, you summed up Massimo’s concept of a proper Stoic practice as “the balance of inner detachment and outward empathy”. How would you suggest a person makes progress in this area?
KW: I have changed my view slightly on this issue and would say now the balance of inner detachment and outward sympathy, as I really think that it is beyond our control to be empathetic in the sense that we cannot truly know what someone else feels. Also, empathy would involve potentially taking on someone’s emotions, which is not particularly Stoic either.
I think a Stoic is called to be sympathetic, that is to say, as a Stoic you should really consider and act according to the fact that not everyone feels, acts or is in the same position as you. In this respect, we can try to look into a given issue with a more balanced standpoint without needing to dismiss it. Dismissal is unfortunately rife in the present Stoic community, whereby people start saying “it is beyond my control” when I (or someone else) mentions the problem of climate breakdown, intolerance, immigration and the like.
To this potentially callous view, I often ask someone if they play sports or multiplayer video games. Most people answer “yes”. At which point, I respond by saying “isn’t much of what happens in the game beyond your control? Isn’t this especially true in team sports or particularly competitive online gaming? As it is beyond your control, does that stop you from putting on your jersey or picking up the game controller?”
So, I think the best progress you can make involves properly taking the time to evaluate what precisely applies to you in the “Dichotomy of Control”. After all, this will depend on your social role, education and location. In other words, really get a grasp on who you are and what you are capable in society. Give yourself more credit for what you can control. It is true that we cannot control other people, but we can be a positive influence. If it were not so, none of us would or could be parents or successful leaders.
So, in a nutshell, we should detach ourselves from the result but not from the effort of trying. The trying is what we do when we sympathise (amongst other things). Even if we cannot capture, or do not want to want to capture, someone’s emotions, we can sit with them, we can offer to listen and if asked, provide support and guidance. Sometimes we should even act firmly and decisively. If your kid gets bullied, you go down to the school. Why cannot we apply the same logic, care and consideration to a colleague who gets bullied at work? In Stoicism we should. It is anti-Stoic to shrug your shoulders in either case!
After we have fulfilled our role, we can then disinvest from the result i.e. not get upset if a person does not take our advice or if our advice didn’t work. We can even disinvest from the issue, if after offering our support the person does not move forward, but we should do so calmly and rationally.
DL: I’ve heard you like Antonia Macaro’s book More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age. In your opinion, what important aspects of Buddhist thought intersect with Stoicism?
KW: Although I disagree with her view on Stoic emotions (or the lack thereof) I do think that Macaro’s book is an excellent addition to the Stoic bookshelf. I don’t think I can quite do her work justice by answering that question. What I would say though is that a rational transcendentalism, founded on living at harmony at oneself and Nature is fundamental to our progress towards eudaimonia. I won’t give too much away because I literally just published an essay on it called “The Stoic God: A Call to Science or Faith”. I would encourage those that are particularly interested in theology and religion to read the piece and respond to me. I am easily found and you can contact me via my website StoicKai.com
DL: Do you have any upcoming articles or lectures that you can tell us about? We’d love to hear about new developments in Modern Stoicism.
KW: I have a book proposal doing the rounds at publishing houses. I cannot say much at the moment, but it is looking how Stoicism can be used to support societal transformation and be a driver for good. I would be interested to know what you all think about that concept!
In addition, I am finishing a paper on contemporary Stoic diet, and I am in the middle of a paper on Stoicism’s response to fast-fashion (throw away fashion), and another one on the environment and the Dichotomy of Control. I think that is enough to be getting on with!