Inside the Comic-Con for stoic philosophy
I went to Toronto and brought my will in accord with nature
I found myself last year in a Holiday Inn in Toronto surrounded by Stoics. It was Stoicon 2017, and for an entire autumn Saturday, I and 400 other fans of this ancient Greek philosophy sought to bring our wills in accord with nature.
Begun in Athens around 301 B.C., Stoicism teaches you to ignore things outside your direct control. Parental pressure, your reputation in the world, that story in the news that fills you with dread? Forget them. Focus on moderating your passions and desires, and accepting the present moment as it is. This is what thinkers like Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and, perhaps most famously, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius espoused.
Stoicism has been more than just an intellectual interest for me. It's been an effective strategy in dealing with frustration and perceived slights. Like so many adherents' introduction to the philosophy, I was in college when I first came across Stoicism. I quickly found myself obsessed, buying translations of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, as well as a book called The Art of Living, a brief primer on the thought of Epictetus written by Sharon Lebell. The effect was near-instant. My anxiety about getting rejected for internships? Gone. Even public speaking, which had filled me with terror, became easier to endure when I took the Stoic point of view. Why did I care what a classroom thought of my presentation? Their reaction was under their control, not mine.
Then came the inevitable intellectual wandering. As passionate as I was initially, I eventually stopped living by the Stoic code. The lessons of Epictetus became mere abstractions. Going to Stoicon was an opportunity to reacquaint myself with this practical philosophy, and my ability to deal with the frustrations of daily life. Post-college adulthood, with all its uncertainty, seemed as good a time as any to attend.
Organized by the Modern Stoicism organization, last year marked Stoicon's fourth iteration. It's not exactly Comic-Con for Stoics — no one suited up as Marcus Aurelius (though some of the speakers seemed to be on a first name basis with him). But it was still brimming with passionate fans, a good many of whom had traveled to be there from the United States and even overseas.
As Greg Sadler, the editor of Modern Stoicism's blog Stoicism Today, told me, the attendees "are all over the proverbial map." They were indeed from all walks of life — I encountered school administrators, entrepreneurs, even retirees. One older gentleman, for instance, talked about how he used Stoicism to keep calm after being cut off in Toronto traffic.
If that sounds like something you'd learn in an anger management class, you wouldn't be wrong. In fact, one notable part about the conference was how many therapists were in attendance. I talked to one — Tim LeBon, a psychotherapist for the U.K.'s National Health Service — over coffee. LeBon traced the intellectual bridge between the Stoics and the pioneers of modern therapy (and in particular what's known as cognitive behavioral therapy). He noted that the latter homed in on the Stoic idea that "how you think affects how you feel" and "made a whole evidence-based technology of it."
"There are some things that you can control, but most of things you can't," LeBon explains. "And if you can't control things, what should you do about it? And the Stoics say, 'well, there's no point in worrying about something you can't control then. You've only got a certain amount of energy, so let's make it about the stuff you can control.'"
Wise words, but easier said than done. That's where Stoicon's lectures and workshops came in handy.
Conference organizer Donald Robertson, himself a therapist, gave a helpful introduction to Stoicism in his opening address, setting a welcoming tone for those new to the philosophy. Another speaker, Chuck Chakrapani, recounted how reading Marcus Aurelius as a teenager helped him to better deal with annoying people, just as the emperor himself had done two millennia ago. The most powerful address was by Sharon Lebell, the same author whose book I read voraciously in college, who talked about how Stoicism helped her come to terms with tragedy. "Epictetus saved my life," she said.
After the day's lectures, attendees were given the option of several parallel working groups. LeBon co-led "Stoicism and Values Clarification." I sat for Sadler's "Dealing with Difficult People at Work," where we identified common types of troublesome co-workers (chronically negative types, the domineering, the incompetent, etc.) and discussed useful Stoic strategies for dealing with them — like recognizing that your own efforts are the only thing you can truly control.
By the time classics professor Margaret Graver gave the keynote address signaling the end of the conference, it was clear that Stoicon had made an impression worth assenting to. As Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations, "Each of us lives only in the present moment, a mere fragment of time: The rest is life past or uncertain future." Stoicon was a day worth savoring, reminding me why I'd been so attracted to the philosophy in the first place.
Stoicism has been of use to many beset by mental torment. When the mind provides no relief, one may be served well by checking out Marcus or Epictetus or Seneca. Or going to this year's Stoicon.