|M. Aurelius. Roman Emperor as Emotional Role Model?
This week I faced attacks by social media from some (un-Stoically angry) self- styled Stoics. I was invited by the producer of Radio 3’s Nightwaves to consider whether the practices advocated by the organisers of ‘Stoic Week 2013’ had anything to do with what I, as a classicist, understand by ‘Stoicism.’ Also present were the Stoic Week ‘team member’ Jules Evans, who has written a book he was keen to promote, and the unfailingly sensible philosophy journalist Mark Vernon.
I dutifully read the ‘Stoic Week Handbook’, which recommends a programme of meditation and mindfulness exercises requiring me-time which, frankly, is the stuff of dreams for any working mother. I also read many other texts by the ‘Team,’ which is dominated by psychotherapists but also includes two reputable experts in ancient philosophy and their PhD students. Most of the reflective practices they recommend, including cognitive behavioural therapy, would benefit any stressed-out individual in the 21st century, were she or he child- and work-free enough to find the time (the elite Stoics Marcus Aurelius and Seneca enjoyed leisure). But they simply are not Stoic philosophy.
The brilliant translator of Epictetus, Elizabeth Carter, was very concerned that some Stoic ideas were too harsh to be of much use to her 18th-century audience. I believe the Stoic Week team have not addressed the contradictions involved in transposing into modern experience the ideology favoured by the ruling class of the ancient Roman Empire, a slaveholding, patriarchal, centralized dictatorship. I said so.
I do think that authentic ancient Stoicism still has one crucial idea to offer: some anxiety is constructive, because it energises you to change things, and some anxiety is unconstructive, because it concerns things over which you have no control.
But most of ancient Stoicism was addressed to suppressing animal instincts and emotions, rather than addressing and dealing with them without shame. This hasn’t been acknowledged by our neo-Stoic brethren.
I am myself involved in researching the ways that