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RS124 - Stoicism

Release date: December 28, 2014

The Stoic EggDid you miss International Stoic Week this year? Well, it's not too late to catch Massimo and Julia's analysis of the ancient philosophy of stoicism, which advocates (among other things) practicing mindfulness, accepting the things you can't change, and regulating negative emotions. Come hear the results of Massimo's experimentation with stoicism and listen to him and Julia debate several potential problems with the philosophy.

Julia's pick: "Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science"

Massimo's pick: "Companions in Misery"

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Reader Comments (14)

Hey guys, just listened to the podcast and wanted to comment on Julia's comment about "negative visualization."

I don't think that the idea is that by thinking about bad things that might happen you insulate yourself from being hurt when they really do happen. Rather, my understanding is that most people live with constant fear/anxiety regarding poor health, old age, death, and the loss of people/things in their lives, and that the negative visualization simply helps you accept that these things naturally will occur, thus freeing you from that moment-to-moment worry.

So it's not, "I am detached and thus can never be hurt," but, "I accept that these things will happen, and so don't have to live in fear of them."

Anyway, just a thought. Hope it made sense.

December 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Hi! Thanks for the great episode. It dispelled a lot of misconceptions I had about Stoicism.

Dr. Pigliucci mentioned a collection of Stoic sayings that he made available online, but I haven't been able to find it. Could someone link to it here? Thanks a bunch.

January 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Excellent podcast. Loved the topic as well. I wanted to just comment that many of these practices have been picked up in psychology at the level of effectiveness but perhaps more excitingly, research has started to focus on mechanisms and processes underlying the success of these techniques. I would recommend reading up on the construct "psychological flexibility" (see citation below), which is a trans-theoretical construct that looks at how practices like meditation and visualizations as well as working towards virtues or values bring about behavior change.

From a clinical perspective, we think of it as "exposure treatment" done mentally instead of actually exposing oneself directly to the fear (imagining a tiger rather than standing in front of one). The key aspect however its he function of what your exposure is for. If one simply exposes one self to negative and difficult mental content, that is unlikely to be effective and may just leave the individual stressed. However, if one approaches it with a sense of acceptance and willingness, in order to achieve in one's life, than the mental exposure serves to increase psychological flexibility. In other words, nuance and context are hugely important in this type of a process, as indicated by the fact that those reading simple quotes from stoics (and other philosophies) are likely to not apply correctly.

I look forward to research that may look at different traditional practices such as virtue ethics, stoicism and mindfulness (to name a few) and see if psychological flexibility serves as the underlying mechanism for change, as it has in many other areas. That, at least in my mind, would be a great example of science and philosophy working together to help people live better lives.

Kashdan, T., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30 , 865-878

January 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterImad

"Dr. Pigliucci mentioned a collection of Stoic sayings that he made available online, but I haven't been able to find it. Could someone link to it here? Thanks a bunch."

I could not find it too...

January 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGuilherme Parreiras

Ditto on the stoic sayings, would love to see the collection.

January 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDarcy

That's a really cool Stoic logo pictured; I'd convert if I could get a t-shirt with that.

January 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

The practice of mindfulness as described seems to preclude multitasking, I think this would be very difficult for people.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMutile


Thanks for stoicism for this.. Thanks

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March 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMohammad Zaki
Your post comes at a right time when I required that stuff. Let me know what about the further step in this subject.
I think you (Julia) miss the point of virtue ethics by focusing on a bunch of mental tricks to implement in your utilitarian/hedonistic life, instead of a fundamentally different outlook. I'll try to clear up some misconceptions (given my understanding of Stoicism):

- There is a difference between emotions and "passions" (rage, obsessive infatuation, etc.). Passions are bad, a form of insanity. Having fitting emotions is "natural". Having unfitting emotions is unnatural.
- An archer aims his bow; this is in his control and aiming as well as possible is good. Whether he hits or misses his target is not in his control and is therefore an indifferent. He is happy with his effort, not with the sudden change of wind that pushed the arrow into the right direction.
- See the concept of "good" as something that is real, but which you discover by reasoning, discussion and experience, not as something that is made up. The goal is virtuous action; preferred indifferents may come your way, but that is not the point. (This is the exact opposite of what the Epicureans say.)
- You don't own things; you lend them for virtuous use. Your body (which you also lend) will get damaged by e.g. aging, but taking care of it as well as possible is usually the correct course of action.
- To remind yourself to not become attached to things that can be taken away from you, spend some time without them. Sleep on the floor once in a while, or fast, to remind yourself that these are indifferents. When you get too attached, you'll start making unvirtuous decisions.
- If other people act (in your view) badly, see it as if they're making some kind of logical error. The gods (substitute evolution) are fallible and therefore created fallible humans. Mistakes in judgment are therefore expected.
- Unhappiness is caused by thinking something is bad when it's indifferent. Pain by itself is indifferent, but if you're not a perfect Stoic sage, you think it's bad and therefore suffer.
- Fulfilling your role in your family, in society, in the world is your duty as a person. What that role is, that you need to figure out yourself. It depends on what society you live in.

Stoicism doesn't really say what specific things you should do, aside from some suggestions. It is an outlook on life based on logical reasoning, given the assumption of virtue. The goal is virtue, not outcomes. However, virtuous action often produces preferred outcomes to utilitarians, so that's why the techniques are used in CBT.
June 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous
Your post comes at a right time when I required that stuff. I like to read this post.N waiting for nxt !!!
August 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDR
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October 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSHAREit for pc
Accepting reality makes sense. However, deliberately creating a negative conception of otherwise joyous events seems overly pessimistic. Also, didn't most of the classic Stoics commit suicide?

Marcus Aurelius gave us great wisdom.
December 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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