Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In

A conversation with Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, authors of Being Better: Stoicism for A World Worth Living In.

Kai Whiting is a lecturer and researcher in Stoicism and sustainability at UCLouvain, Belgium. To relax, he likes to build Legos, enjoys watching the kids program Lego Ninjago in multiple languages and reading Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series in Portuguese. His favorite music bands are Duran Duran and Soda Stereo, both of whom were famous before he was even born. If money were no object, he would plant enough trees to tackle climate breakdown, rescue foxes and red pandas, and buy the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

Leonidas Konstantakos is a lecturer in the Arts and Philosophy Department at Miami Dade College. He also conducts research on Stoicism’s application to just war theory in the International Relations Department at Florida International University. He is proud to have served alongside America’s best soldiers through two tours of duty in the Iraq War, though he is not proud of the foreign policy that sent them to Iraq in the first place.

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Why do you say that Stoicism is anything but a “dead white man” philosophy?

Stoics would have found this concept quite strange.  The Stoics themselves were immigrants from all over the Hellenistic and Roman world, from the upper echelons of Roman imperial society to the lower classes of slaves and low-skilled laborers.  They understood that despite our ethnic and social differences, all humans share bonds of care, kinship, and reason.  That applies today as much as it did for the several hundreds of years that Stoic philosophy was popular in the ancient world. Furthermore,  while it is true that antiquity didn’t provide us with any female Stoic philosophers, there were plenty of examples of women who worked with male Stoic philosophers to improve their world and the lives of their fellow human beings. One such example involves a Spartan Queen who uses Stoicism to improve the lives of her subjects – as you will see in our book.

“Silicon Valley Stoicism” focuses on corporate exploits, but your book states Stoicism is much more communityased than that — where have they got it wrong? 

The Stoics would have found it strange that their philosophy is being used as a life hack or a mere self-help method.  Stoicism is about understanding the cosmos, finding truth, and living according to reason.  This does not always, or even necessarily, lead to an outwardly peaceful life.  However, Stoicism is doing what is best for humanity and the world even in the face of exile, pain, and death.  As the Stoics stated in their pithy aphorism, “Life is warfare.”  It is not about making as much money as possible for the sake of creating wealth. (continued)

It’s about participating in our local and global community and supporting others in our life-long journey towards the good life.

You state that self-help shouldn’t be only about the self.  Doesn’t that seem like a contradiction in terms?

On the contrary: If the self were the only aspect of ‘self-help,’ the Stoics would have given up their doctrines and joined the Epicureans in their beautiful garden away from politics, their families, and stress.  The Stoics, rather, understood that to live naturally and happily is to live and act according to your social roles; the most important of those roles was the role of rational human being.  To help oneself is not to be ‘unfeeling like a statue’ toward others, but instead to exemplify one’s humanity by caring for those persons in one’s social circles, including even the furthest circle of complete strangers.  The Stoics saw themselves as little parts in a larger Whole.  By being excellent citizens of the world, they believe that we become fulfilled human beings.

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy but yet your book talks about climate breakdown, the civil rights movement, and economic inequality.  How can you say that ancient wisdom has something to say about modern life?

The Stoics never slavishly followed rules, but instead trained themselves to look to what is appropriate for a rational and social human animal.  Justice, for the Stoics, develops from what is appropriate to such a being: searching for that which is necessary to maintain one’s reason and life, and by cooperating to do the same for our human brethren.  The Stoics knew that going beyond the bounds set by nature leads to a limitless desire, which in turn makes us cruel, selfish, and miserable.  There are certainly aspects of contemporary life that reflect our false belief that nature is limitless –it has, at least in part, led to environmental issues.  The latter, if allowed to proliferate, will increase inequality because it won’t be only about money but also about access to clean air, clean water, and fertile land.  There is a lot Stoicism can teach us about how our beliefs impact our reality and how we would be wise to set and reflect on what Nature teaches us.  It’s foolish to believe that moderns know all there is to know.  We are not so different to the ancients: we still get angry, jealous, and there are times when we refuse to see reason.  In addition, while we may do some things better, but we also do a lot of things worse.

In social media Stoicism has often been the darling of the alt-right and toxic masculinity (Donna Zuckerberg wrote her book on this), but your book makes it clear that ancient Stoicism would have been pro-feminism, where feminism means equality of opportunity regardless of gender.  Please explain.

The Stoics understood that there were things in one’s control and things outside of one’s control.  It would have seemed unclear that someone should be treated favorably merely because of their gender or social status.  Though Stoics, like anyone else, were products of their time, and yet they were able to see past much of what their society’s customs took for granted, and recommended that women be educated just as men should.  There is no place in Stoicism for a belief in the supremacy of any gender, race or nationality!  The Stoic vision is cosmopolitan and any differences are based on our character, which we can choose to develop or ignore. (continued)

Stoicism and Sparta are often linked by male lifehackers because of a perceived sense of toughness but your book talks about a Spartan queen and land reforms!  Why is the popular perception and historic reality so different?

Stoicism and the Spartans both emphasized toughness, austerity, and virtue.  The common conception of a Spartan as a single-minded killing machine is a poor image of the Spartans throughout history who, like the Stoic Spartan king, Kleomenes III, and his queen, Agiatis, worked towards the common good.  Kleomenes, with help from his wife and the Stoic philosopher, Sphaerus, reformed the educational system, established paths to citizenship for foreigners, and tirelessly advocated for justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom (at least how they conceived of these virtues).  Stoic and Spartan courage was best epitomized by a willingness to struggle not against people of other cultures and races, but against their own greedy oligarchs who were plundering Sparta’s coffers and disenfranchising the citizenry.  Even in their failures, the aforementioned Spartan Stoics showed that reason and justice was more natural to humankind than mere slaughtering in warfare, and the xenophobia often seen in the modern portrayals of the Spartans.  In other words, the mass media creations of Sparta, though often entertaining, says more about the vices of contemporary society than it does about ancient Sparta!

How is it possible that a 2000 year old philosophical school suddenly had a revival in the 21st century?

It is not true to say that there has been a “sudden revival.”  Even after the popularity of Stoicism waned after antiquity, every few hundred years or so Stoic philosophy got rediscovered and helped guide a new generation of philosophers, artists, and statespersons.  Many ideas were incorporated by early theologians.  In the 16th and 17th century, there was a neo-Stoic movement that mixed Christian ideas with Stoic principles, which even assisted in the development of international law.  And In the 21st century, religion, has to some extent, given away to the commodified world of capitalist excess.  Given this backdrop, it is no surprise that Stoicism has been hijacked by people with a focus on neoliberal economic ideas and a willingness to sacrifice, or simply ignore, the virtue ethics that are so fundamental to Stoicism.  By going back to the Ancient’s ideas and the stories about the lives of particular Stoics, we hope that our book changes some people’s minds on what being Stoic means in the 21st century.

Why follow Stoicism?   Why not follow Aristotle?  After all, he is more famous.

Much more famous, indeed!  Putting aside the differences between the Stoics and Aristotle in other branches of philosophy such as metaphysics and epistemology, the Stoics would have disagreed with many of Aristotle’s positions, some of which we might now call racist, misogynistic, and ethnocentric.  Unlike Aristotle, the Stoics believed that a flourishing and successful life can exist in the absence of wealth, and without what Aristotle considered to be the “right” place of birth, or gender.  For Stoics, the only that thing that matters for true human flourishing is our character, something we can build up via a lifetime of making correct judgments about what is good and bad, and true and false.

In Chapter 8, you tell the story of Muslims bridging the gap between themselves and the local English community through the building of an eco-mosque.  Why do you say that is a good “Stoic” example?  Is Islam and Stoicism the same?

No religion is synonymous with Stoicism.  There have been Stoics who were very religious, like Cleanthes and Epictetus; and Stoics who were quite cynical about religion, like Zeno and Seneca. (continued)

In a word, we could call the Stoics “pantheists,” since their deity, sometimes referred to as Zeus, was not an anthropomorphic sky-man with a beard, but rather the rationality pervading the cosmos.  Thus, if particular Stoics decided to attend religious services or adhere to religious institutions for whatever reasons, they still understood that the rationality of the universe is itself God, and that they participated in that rationality and were responsible for their own happiness.  So, if you are not religiously inclined, but still wish to adhere to Stoic principles, you might say you are trying to do what is rational, prudent, brave, temperate, and just.  A more religiously-minded person might instead say they are ‘doing God’s work’!  For the Stoics, this would have amounted to the same thing.  The eco-mosque example is a good one because the Muslim community in Cambridge, UK, by building an ecologically sensitive place of worship, is striving to operate in a way that is wisely and justly conserving resources in a self-controlled manner when it comes to carbon, material, and water footprints.

How can Stoicism help us build community and cope with COVID?

Stoicism helps us understand that some things are in our control and others aren’t.  To be “good” human beings we must do what is up to us, including protecting ourselves and others.  We should not be devastated when things do not work out as we would generally prefer.  The point is to do our part and realize that all human beings must eventually die.  That part is not up to us.  But taking care that we don’t do anything stupid (foolishly throw ‘COVID parties’), immoderate (worry merely about providing for ourselves instead of those in our circles), unjust (disgracefully hoard supplies to sell at exorbitant prices), or cowardly (fearfully blame a whole ethnicity for things out of their control and even attack some of them) is certainly up to us.  Stoicism also provides us with a framework to look to our social roles to see what exactly we can do.

What is like to co-author with someone you have never met?

Our partnership is a living example that there are no self-made men and that no one is an island.  Without the other, this project would have never happened due to one author’s introversion and another’s lack of historical Stoic perspective.  There were a lot of emails and long phone calls.  Some days were easier than others.  A strong sense of humor and a considerable dose of humility is essential.  Two extroverts might have killed each other, and two introverts might never have met to even collaborate!  We did manage to balance each other well.  We worked hard to have made this work, we were lucky to have been given a supportive team in New World Library, and had more than a little help from our friends and family.  We enjoyed the journey and hope that, perhaps (if Zeus grants), more books will follow.