One week as a Stoic during the Stoic Week 2016
This year, the Stoic Week will take place from Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd October. During this event, participants will be able to practice and to discover in details Stoicism, this ancient philosophy of life that was described in a previous article here. Journal International has interviewed Donald Robertson, one of the organizers of the event and administrator of the Facebook Group “Stoicism Group (Stoic Philosophy)”, which gathers more than 15 000 members.
Le Journal International : Can you first explain the purpose of Stoic Week?
Donald Robertson : Stoic Week is an annual event aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy. It involves applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living, by following our handbook and listening to audio recordings with meditation exercises. It is international and takes place online: anyone can take part. The basic concept was to provide people with a simple way to engage with ancient Stoic literature by testing out some of the concepts and practices in their daily life. It’s also an opportunity for people to communicate with others who are trying to learn about Stoicism as an art of living, and for people to learn from each other’s experiences. It’s a non-profit and philanthropic project.
JI : How does the week unfold?
DR : People can enrol in advance. Then they can read the handbook online, which will give them a basic introduction to Stoic theory and practice. The seven main chapters correspond with the seven days of the week and each one follows the same structure, with quotations, meditation exercises, and reading. So people follow the handbook chapter-by-chapter through the week, putting the exercises into practice: morning, noon, and night, listening to the audio recordings, and discussing their progress with other participants. We usually get people to fill out some questionnaires before and after as well, although this year there may be fewer as we’ve already collected a lot of data for our research. People find this information really useful, though, for their own self-reflection.
JI : Who is organizing the event?
DR : Stoic Week is now in its fifth consecutive year. It is organized by a multi-disciplinary team called Stoicism Today. Professor Christopher Gill of the University of Exeter was the person who came up with the idea and he’s still involved. Other members have changed over the years but there’s a combination of academic philosophers, classicists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists. Over time, our team has included several respected academics and popular authors in the field such as Chris Gill, Jules Evans, John Sellars, Tim LeBon, and Massimo Pigliuicci. Oh, and me.
JI : What were the themes of the previous Stoic Week and why did you chose “Stoicism and Love” this year?
DR : We first introduced the idea of having a theme last year, actually, to help vary things each year. Last year it was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, because that’s the best-known Stoic text. This year, I suggested “Stoicism and Love”, because it helps to redress the widespread misconception that Stoicism is about repressing emotions, by tackling it head on. Stoicism is in fact a philosophy of love. Many people familiar with the subject aren’t entirely aware of this aspect of the Stoic teachings but Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, reputedly said that Eros should be the patron god of his ideal Stoic republic. Stoicism encourages us to see all of humanity as citizens of the same cosmic city, and in that respect foreshadowed Christianity. Indeed, the concept of “natural affection” (philostorgia) is the basis of Stoic Ethics.
JI : Which authors will you put forward in the handbook (guide available online to follow the Stoic week)?
DR : Mainly Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, as these are the best-known (but by no means only) Stoic authors whose work survives today. I think we also mention the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, briefly; the tutor of Epictetus, Musonius Rufus; and a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius called Hierocles, fragments of whose work on Stoic Ethics survives. We also mention the Earl of Shaftesbury who’s a less well-known early modern English philosopher who studied Marcus and Epictetus very closely in the Greek and recorded his own journal of Stoic reflections called The Philosophical Regimen.
JI : Do you think that following Stoicism for one week only is enough to grip the core of this philosophy which often suffers prejudice?
DR : Yes and no. Stoicism is, without question, a lifelong pursuit. It can take years to really grasp the deeper significance of some things that at first glance may appear simple. However, we wanted to provide people with a starting point. And of course, if they find Stoicism appealing, many of them, as we expected, continue to study and try to live according to Stoicism long after Stoic Week has ended. The week is quite intensive so it’s a good opportunity to get some exposure to Stoic theory and practice, and to collaborate with a group of other people who are also learning. That’s a better starting point for many people than just picking up a book and reading it, although we’re emphatic that people should read the ancient sources and learn as much about the subject as they can if they want to pursue it further. What we can say with real confidence now, because we’ve collected data from thousands of participants across several different studies, is that the week seems to have measurable benefits for people in terms of their mood and quality of life. We also collected huge volumes of qualitative feedback, which show how excited people were to take part and the valuable experiences they had during the event.
JI : Participation grew by 66% between 2014 and 2015, with 3200 people taking part to the event last year. How many people do you expect to participate in 2016?
DR : Only time will tell. We have set a high bar for ourselves, aiming to exceed that each year. However, at the moment we’re on track. We don’t have a good idea until the week before the event, though, because that’s when most people enrol. Our Facebook group has over 15,000 members now, having grown steadily over time, and we have about 9,000 people registered on the Modern Stoicism website, which is the home of Stoic Week, although not all of them enrol for the event each year.
JI : Do you have any advice for those who would like to prepare this year’s Stoic Week?
DR : Read the handbook in advance. The web version is available since 10th October so that you can read it beforehand to help yourself prepare. There are also many e-book versions available, which you can continue to read offline. We have MOBI and AZW3 files for Kindle, EPUB for other e-readers, and PDF for printing. You could read these on the bus or train, using your e-reader or mobile device.
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