Here is a fact: everybody wants to live well but most of us aren’t particularly good at it. Why would we be? Living can be difficult and complicated and we learn all sorts of unhelpful ideas and behaviours throughout our development. So how can we correct this?
Imagine there was an event where you could attend talks and workshops given by psychologists and academic experts designed to apply ancient Greek wisdom to our shared goal of greater freedom, contentment, and justice. Well, since 2013 you don’t have to imagine, because Stoicon is precisely that event.
Stoicon is short for ‘Stoic Conference’ and is run by the Modern Stoicism organisation:
Stoicon is an annual conference on applying Stoicism to the everyday challenges of modern living. If you’re interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you. Our aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.
The tickets were £30, which I didn’t think was a lot. Each year it is held in a different country. This year, on Sept. 29th 2018, Stoicon was hosted in London. Being a practising Stoic for about 2 years, I had heard of Stoicon but had not attended. So when the tickets were released, I jumped on them because they sell out every year well in advance. I was eager to soak up the atmosphere, to be among other people who were seeking truth and a better life, and also to see people in the flesh who together have had a profoundly beneficial influence on my life through their writings and other public outreach.
The Senate Library building at the University of London was the venue (shown right). I strolled through its gates looking up at the great tower standing tall against a bright blue sky. Later, I found out that, rather impressively, the tower is the library itself, housing an enormous collection of books I’m sure.
A Stoic Traveller is a Patient Traveller
Before I give an overview of the day’s events, I’ll make a few brief comments on the journey over. I travelled by plane to London from Ireland, which is close. Airports are an excellent laboratory for Stoic techniques. Being en route to a Stoic conference, I was particularly focused on conducting myself well – it would be quite bizarre to go to all the trouble of attending such a conference if I wasn’t even bothered keeping calm on the way over.
Firstly, when I was going through security, there was a man and his two children in front of me in the queue, visibly and audibly flustered by his apparent tardiness. He regularly would look around red in the face, check the time, complain about how slow the queue was, and repeatedly mention how they could miss the flight. I don’t blame him for getting stressed, especially with children, and I don’t know where he was going. But I did note with some amusement that he travelled exactly zero times faster than I did, who was also running behind schedule (though probably not as severely) but was totally calm. In fact, I think he slightly slowed himself down by taking the time to say to one of the security staff ‘people not putting their liquids in bags in this day and age’.
Similarly, I was amused when queuing to board my flight when a woman every few minutes would tut, and sigh, and angle towards the head of the line, and say ‘Jesus Christ’ because we hadn’t boarded yet. Yes, the flight was slightly delayed and I don’t know what her schedule was. Again, I wished her no ill at all, and I have acted similarly many times in my life, but I noted that her efforts were not accelerating boarding by even the smallest amount. I was standing right beside her moving at the same rate but contently reading a book. My attitude is either do something to make a concrete change or lean back and relax.
Lastly, when I was travelling home, I arrived St. Pancras train station later than I should have, and thought it quite likely I would miss my flight. Instead of becoming irritated, berating myself for making mistakes, and obsessing over all the terrible things which would happen as a result of missing my flight, I chose to apply some basic Stoic ideas and methods, particularly the ‘dichotomy of control’. I accepted that I might miss my flight and decided to do what I could to speed up (like running where possible). I recognised that if speeding up was not enough, and I still missed the flight, then there was nothing I could do and there was no point in creating worry. Why would I add anxiety to my life because of an unchangeable fact? I thought that if I was too late I would adapt but for the moment it made more sense to calmly get on with things rather than speculating about what could go wrong.
These situations might seem quite trivial to some of you, but if we are in the habit of mishandling such events they can become the bane of our existence. It is like adding a teaspoon of vomit to every glass of water you drink, every single day, every week, every month, it wears you down.
And for the record, I made my flight with ample time, it was significantly delayed and security took about 10 minutes, which is probably an anomaly in Gatwick airport. I was lucky. This illustrates another Stoic message: we often worry about things which don’t even happen.
Summary of Stoicon
Anyway, returning to Stoicon 2018, I will summarise proceedings to give you an idea of what attending Stoicon might be like.
The venue was excellent. The first photo at the top of this post shows the main lecture room, which was very stately and full of comfortable chairs, made possible by sponsorship by local philosophy and classics departments. 350 people attended, which may or may not sound like a lot, but it certainly felt like quite a lot and the place was abuzz.
The whole affair seemed very professional. This isn’t very important to me, since I came for the philosophy and not to have some kind of deluxe experience. Really you just want the technology to work so the day goes smoothly and everything else is a luxury. But it was very well put together.
We were each given a programme after registering (shown below). From morning till lunch there were a few talks in the main room which everybody attended. Lunch was was provided (although I brought my own because I’m vegan and the veggie sambos contained cheese etc). Also during the lunch break you could purchase from a selection of Stoic books at a Waterstones stall. Perhaps as evidence of the friendly atmosphere, somebody approached me as I was standing alone at lunch and we had an enjoyable conversation about intellectual honesty and seeing people as people no matter what, among other topics.
After lunch, the difficulty began, because we had a choice of workshops and talks to attend, and there were so many inviting options. There were two time slots (one and then another), and we had 7 choices for each.
Overall the talks and workshops were excellent. While I’m not an academic classical philosopher I’m quite well read on Stoicism, but I think by design that someone who knew very little about Stoicism would be well placed at Stoicon. It is not at all an event where academic experts stand up and read out dry conference papers which only a tiny fraction of the population can understand. Rather, it is a vibrant and diverse introduction to the deep reservoir of Stoic wisdom, although with plenty for those with greater knowledge. There are plenty of academic experts, but they are consciously talking to a general audience. I thought only one of six talks/workshops was a bit dry and overly academic, but sure you will never adore everything anyway, and even that was still very practically focused in its essence.
Above is a photo of the agenda for the day. I’ll type out the headings for your convenience:
- Welcome & Report on Stoic Week – John Sellars & Time LeBon
- Imagining the Worst: Strategies of Visualisation in Seneca’s Letters – Catharine Edwards
- Stoicism and Sustainable Development – Kai Whiting
- How Buddhist is Stoicism – Antonia Macaro
The list of workshops and talks for the afternoon sessions:
- Marcus Aurelius: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor – Donald Robertson
- How Seneca Can Help You Manage Anger and Frustration – Tim LeBon
- The Stoic Heart: Stoicism and Partnered Relationships – Greg Sadler
- The Proper Application of Preconceptions: Curing ‘the Cause of All Human Ills’ – Greg Lopez
- Stoic Rationality in an Irrational World – Walter Matweychuk
- Happiness, Stoic and Aristotelian – Chris Gill & Gabriele Galluzzo
- Lessons in Stoic Leadership from Seneca – Liz Gloyn
- A Stoic Approach to Travel and Tourism – William Stephens
- Comparing Stoicism to Minimalism – Dan Lampert
- Two Great Misinterpretations of Stoicism: Ascetic and Conservative – Piotr Stankiewicz
The day ended with Anthony Long’s (better known as A. A. Long) keynote talk ‘Stoicisms Ancient and Modern’. Prof. Long is nothing short of a legend in classics and Stoic philosophy in particular. The basic research he has done has surely indirectly enhanced the lives of so many people, including myself. It’s a bit like how physicists invented the transistor and engineers used that research to create the computer industry.
I chose to attend Greg Sadler’s workshop on ‘The Stoic Heart: Stoicism and Partnered Relationships‘. For various reasons, we don’t see much about Stoicism and romantic/sexual relationships (for one, most Stoic texts are lost to history). And since Stoicism has reputation for being stolid and aloof, although undeservedly, I was very keen to see this very important topic explored by an expert. Maybe 25 people attended so it was more intimate than the talks in the main hall. It was highly interactive and conversational, though well structured at the same time, and you weren’t put on the spot to speak up if you didn’t want to. Even though I’d like to, I won’t discuss the content because that would be beginning of a 2000 word tangent on Stoicism and relationships. The same comments apply to ‘Happiness, Stoic and Aristotelian‘ which is the second workshop I attended.
One of the salient points of the day arose in Tim LeBon’s presentation of the research Modern Stoicism conducts each year through Stoic Week, a free online course which introduces people to Stoicism through a structured week of Stoic readings, meditations, and audio, as well as a lively online forum. To rounds of surprised giggles, Tim announced that from the data they have collected, it seems that ‘zest‘ is the character trait which had most increased in survey respondents due to the practice of Stoicism. In short, ‘zest’ is ‘zest for life’, exemplified in being glad to wake up each morning and take on the day, and bringing energy and enthusiasm into one’s daily activities. Interestingly, in the 6-virtue scheme of positive psychology zest falls under ‘courage’. This makes sense, because being zestful can help us power ourselves through the day, adapting cheerfully to obstacles rather than getting mired and upset. So perhaps it is finally time to abandon the image of the po-faced, humourless, joyless, loveless, emotionally barren, Stoic, and replace that with the characteristic image of the zestful Stoic, glad to be alive, enthusiastic, brimming with joie de vivre.
I am not surprised that the research is showing that zest is the character trait which tends to increase the most from practising Stoicism. That is certainly my experience. Bluntly, I used to dread waking up, now I look forward to it. That is a 180 degree turn and that is zest.
As a Stoic would, I came to the event without expectations. Being said, Stoicon was a very positive and worthwhile experience for me. I also had a feeling of history being made, because the Stoic philosophical movement seems to be at the bottom of an exponential curve, perhaps in the early days of something much more widespread. Who knows. As fate would have it, I went out for dinner and drinks with a very charming group of fellow Stoics which rounded off the day very nicely.
I don’t know where Stoicon will be in 2019, but maybe this post has piqued your interest. I know that if I can make the next one, I will. One way or the other, if the idea of applying ancient wisdom to daily life appeals to you then make sure to follow the Will to Freedom blog, check out the Links to Liberation, and especially keep an eye on the Modern Stoicism organisation.