Ancient Greek philosophy has been enjoying a renaissance of interest and analysis of late. One of the largest Facebook groups for beginners with an interest in the field, “Stoicism,” boasts 225,000 followers. Forbes China, the Chinese language edition of Forbes, organized an “Ancient Wisdom, Modern Compass” event on Nov. 9 in Shanghai to help boost China-EU economic ties and explore the relevance of ancient culture in modern business.
Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at the City College of New York, explored by video Stoicism’s relevant in today’s world and the forces propelling its modern-day renaissance. Pigliucci is the author or editor of 15 books including the best selling How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life along with most recently Think like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World. He attributed growing interest in Stoicism in part to declining interest in traditional religion and also to social media, which has made it relatively easy for those with an interest in ancient philosophies to exchange ideas. Excerpts of Pigliucci’s interview with Forbes China’s Julie Lu follow.
Lu: How did you become interested in Stoicism?
Pigliucci: It was a midlife crisis. Like a lot of people at some point — life happens and you experience a number of setbacks and things happen that you did not expect. There was a particular year where I got several of them. Like my father died, for instance, which is something that happens to everybody. But when it happens to you, that’s something that makes you think. How do I react? And how do I handle these kind of things? Since I was a philosopher I figured, well, surely philosophy has resources for dealing with this kind of practical life situations. And so I kind of deliberately started looking to different possible philosophies of life. I grew up Catholic in Rome, Italy, but I left the church when I was a teenager. I considered myself a secular humanist for a long time, but it turns out that secular humanism wasn’t really being particularly helpful in terms of practical guidance on how to deal with setbacks.
And so I started more or less systematically looking at different philosophies of life beginning with Buddhism, actually, and continuing with some of the ancient Greek philosophies of Aristotelianism and Epicureanism. But none of this was actually clicking. These were all very interesting and telling me interesting things that I could appreciate. At the same time, nothing really clicked in the back of my head and nothing said: “This is the way you want to do things.”
Until one day I was looking at my Twitter feed — of all things – and I saw this thing that said, “Help Us Celebrate Stoic Week.” And I thought, “What is Stoic week and why would anybody want to celebrate the Stoics?” Because I was under the
misunderstanding, as it turns out, that the Stoics are the kind of people that go through life with a stiff upper lip, trying to suppress emotions and stuff like that.
But I was curious. I remembered that one of the ancient Stoics was Marcus Aurelius,
the Roman Emperor, and I read the《Meditations》by Marcus Aurelius when I was in college. I liked it. Then I also remembered that another Stoic was Seneca who was a senator and advisor to the emperor Nero. I had translated Seneca from Latin when I was in high school. I thought, “Hey if these people were Stoics maybe I should look into Stoicism,” which I did. I signed up for Stoic Week, actually, now I’m one of the co-organizers of it. It immediately hit me as the right approach. The Stoics really came immediately to life for me. The philosophy resonated.
One of the very first Stoics that I studied was a guy named Epictetus. He started out his life as a slave — the lowest possible rank of society who eventually was freed and became in fact one of the most famous teachers of the early second century in Rome. And Epictetus has this really interesting no nonsense kind of approach — a delightful sense of humor, bordering on sarcasm. And so it’s like: “Okay, this is my guy. This is somebody who actually speaks to me.” And ever since I started practicing and studying Stoicism, and here we are several years later, still talking about it.
Lu: What accounts for the growing interest in Stoicism in the world today?
Pigliucci: That’s a good question. It’s difficult to answer because there probably are multiple factors that eventually gave us this renaissance of Stoicism. My guess is that for one thing — especially in the Western world, there has been a decreasing interest in organized, official religion. But just because you move away from a religion that doesn’t mean you don’t need a spiritual aspect to your life and it doesn’t mean that you don’t need some kind of framework to navigate your life and to make decisions and so on and so forth. Religions are very good at that, but there are also philosophies that do essentially the same thing. I think that one reason for the interest not just in Stoicism but also in Eastern approaches, particularly Buddhism, over the last 10 or 20 years is the result of this need that has been unfulfilled recently by mainstream religions.
There are also other reasons for instance the rise of social media. As it turns out, social media as we all know have all sorts of drawbacks and problems but at the same time, they’re also a very powerful channel of communication especially for small groups. And it turns out that Stoics organized themselves very well on social media. The largest group of Stoic practitioners on Facebook for instance counts almost 100,000 people. That’s a significant number of people, and it’s not the only one — there are several. So word kind of spreads in that way also.
There has also been a very concerted effort by what started with a small number of practitioners and scholars. Every year we have two events: STOICON which is a conference for people who are interested in Stoicism — this just happened a couple of weeks ago — and Stoic Week. The group that organizes that, which is called the Modern Stoicism of which now I am actually a part, started out meeting several years ago in a small room. Philosophers and scholars of ancient Stoicism along with
cognitive behavioral therapists inspired by Stoicism were involved when it started out in the 2010s. All of these people just got together and said, “Hey! These are good techniques. This is a good approach. Maybe more people want to know about it,” and so there kind of was a concerted effort to publicize Stoicism worldwide.
Let’s also remember that Stoicism just like other Greek philosophies itself originated about the 3rd or 4th century BC in a period where the Mediterranean world was going through major upheavals. The Hellenistic period goes from the death of Alexander the Great to the beginning of the Roman Empire. That was a period where major changes were happening in society, and people had no control over them. And that creates stress. When people are stressed and think things are outside of their control, then they need some kind of reference point. I think that we are going through something like that now. We have of course in last century just saw two world wars, which was a first. Even now we’re facing an epidemic and climate change. At the global level, we’re facing political upheaval in different parts of the world, but people feel pretty much the same way, and use the same tools. They go back to either religion or philosophy to achieve a sense of control and calm about events unfolding.
Lu: What do you believe is the relevance of Stoicism in business and life for entrepreneurs in today’s world?
Pigliucci: That’s an excellent question. Stoicism of course is a philosophy of life, which means that it doesn’t apply just to business or specific aspects of one’s life. It applies everywhere, just like a religion. It is not a religion, but it applies everywhere. You’re not a part-time Christian or a part-time Buddhist. You are a Buddhist or Christian all the time, no matter what you’re doing.
Specifically in terms of business, I think Stoicism has two things to recommend. One is that the general Stoic idea is we should live our life following virtue; that is, being helpful to other people. Trying to do the right thing no matter what the circumstances are, and particularly being helpful to what the Stoics call the human cosmopolis. That is the big large family of human beings; everybody is supposed to be treated as your brother or sister.
Now in terms of business, that means that it’s fine of course that you have to compete with others; it’s fine that you have to respond to your shareholders and all that sort of stuff. But, you should always do it in a way that is in fact not hurtful to the human cosmopolis. If you are engaging in business practices, for instance, that are undermining the human cosmopolis, exploit people and make the situation on the planet worse, then you shouldn’t do it. It’s a kind of a moral compass that orients you away from certain kinds of practices and toward other kinds of practices, because for the Stoics, there’s nothing wrong with being a businessman or doing any other job for that matter. But you always want to do it in a way that maintains the integrity of your character because the integrity of your character is the most precious thing that you have. You never compromise that if you can avoid it.
That’s at a general level. At a practical level, there are several Stoic ideas that I think are helpful not only in business pretty much in any activity in life. And one of these ideas is sometimes referred to as the dichotomy of control. This is a notion that we actually find not just in Stoicism but also in Buddhism and in Christianity. Certain things are up to us and other things are not up to us — as Epictetus, the slave turned teacher that I mentioned before, said. Meaning that there are certain decisions and certain areas of life where we can make an impact and where we actually have control over the situation. And then there are others where we can’t do much or anything at all.
For the Stoics, the wise person focuses on the first group. You focus where your agency is maximized, and where you can actually make a difference. For the rest — things that you do not control and things that are not really up to you, you try to develop an attitude of equanimity and serene acceptance.
What does that mean? For instance, you are a business person and you are concerned with let’s say, the quarterly profits of your company. That’s a natural thing to be concerned about. But the profits – unfortunately, as far as the Stoics are concerned, are actually outside of your control. Your actions can influence your decision which in turn can influence how well your company is doing. But, ultimately, how well the company is doing depends on external factors such as competition from other companies, the worldwide economy, a pandemic, etcetera, which are definitely not under your control.
And so you should train yourself to develop this attitude of serenity and acceptance: I’m doing my best, but whatever happens I have to accept it because I don’t really have a choice. However, you want to focus your efforts where you do have control.
Where is it that you have control? Well, in the judgments that you arrive that: the decisions you make about how to run the company or not to run the company. The kind of day-to-day decision-making that basically makes for most of what you do and most of what is efficacious for you. So you prepare yourself for the worst and accept whatever the outcome is but at the same time, you focus on where you can actually make decisions where you are in control. That is both best for your company in the long run because your focus where you are most effective, and also better for you psychologically because you retain a certain feeling of control of the situation as far as much as it is possible.
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