Making Progress as a Stoic with Michael Tremblay
How do we live a happy and philosophical life? How do we cultivate virtue as Stoics? To explore these questions and more, please join me for an interview with Epictetus scholar Michael Tremblay! Michael studies Epictetus's program of moral education, with a focus on the role training and theory play in the Stoic system. He is also passionate about martial arts and competes regularly in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling. To learn more about his work, including the overlap between Stoicism and sports performance, check out Michael's media interviews, research, and blog.
Many thanks to Michael for sharing his insights about Stoicism!
Brittany: What appeals to you most about the philosophy of Epictetus?
Michael: I think this question is best answered by separating two aspects of Epictetus which both appeal to me: his particular style of presentation, and his philosophical innovations.
In terms of his presentation, what we find in the remaining work of Epictetus is a teacher of Stoic philosophy talking to and counselling his students. This is different than Seneca, who was writing to a friend, or Marcus Aurelius, who was writing to himself. The work of Epictetus is directed towards students of Stoicism who are familiar with Stoic philosophy and want to be better Stoics but are nonetheless failing to do so. This makes his writing really engaging and topical, even as I learn more about Stoicism, because it is made for people like me. People who are continuing to improve and develop as Stoics, but still need advice and reminders about how to conduct themselves.
In terms of his philosophical innovations, there are two main ones that come to mind. First, Epictetus really establishes this idea of focusing our attention towards our character and our decisions. The dichotomy of control as most people understand it is only fully developed in Epictetus’ writing. The second main innovation, which I am writing my dissertation on currently, is that we find in Epictetus a full Stoic curriculum. He walks us through the stages of a Stoic education and elaborates on each one. This is immensely helpful in transitioning from viewing Stoicism as a collection of helpful but perhaps disconnected ideas to an actual system philosophical system we can practice and train at.
Brittany: In a blog post on emotion you write, “Because our emotions are not things that happen to us, but rather the result of the beliefs we choose to form and retain, we are able to become the authors of our own emotional lives. And indeed, the Stoics thought this self-authorship was our responsibility.” I love your concept here of self-authorship. In what other ways would the Stoics say we are authors of our own lives?
Michael: That is a great question. ‘Self-authorship’ was my own term, but I am using it to respond to a common idea we see today that we necessarily are a certain way, or we just are a certain kind of person. We think we can’t help but be afraid of something, or that a certain situation or person will always make us angry. The Stoic innovation is to point out that none of our psychological experiences are inherent or necessary, including our emotions, motivations, desires, insecurities, or any part of our self-image. We are born as blank slates, and everything else develops as a response to the beliefs we form and continue to hold, reflectively or unreflectively. So this process of self-creation is happening whether we know it or not, and Stoicism points out that the best kinds of people are the ones that take accountability for this process. They are the ones that take responsibility for who they are by carefully reflecting upon what they believe about the world.
In that sense, we are the authors of our own lives entirely in terms of who we are. We may not be able to change things outside of that, but for the Stoic this is not as big of a concern.
Brittany: How would you describe Epictetus’ concept of prohairesis for someone who is new to the subject? What can this concept offer us today that is often absent from conventional morality or other philosophies of life?
Michael: So the prohairesis is something Epictetus talks about all the time, and it is often translated as our ‘faculty of choice’. Literally in Greek it means something like our ‘before-choice’ and comes from the words for pre/before (pro) and choice (hairesis). So it refers, etymologically, to our ability to reflect and reason about our choices, and this is what it ends up meaning in Epictetus’ philosophy too. For Epictetus, it refers to three capacities, the capacity to reflect, assent, and then feel motivation towards the things we desire and away from things we fear.
For Epictetus, the prohariesis is what we fundamentally are. We are not our possessions, our reputations, or even our bodies. We are our capacity to reflect upon information, make choices about that information, and then act upon those choices.
What I think this can offer conventional morality, is that it gives us a way to ground ‘self-improvement’. In order to become a better person, we need an idea of what a ‘person’ is. What does it mean for a person to become better or worse? Epictetus provides an answer to that question. We are our capacity to reflect and make choices. We become better when we make better choices and worse when we make worse ones. In the case of Stoicism, a good choice is one that is based on true judgements and reflects the way the world is, and a bad one is contrary to that. This is a really simple concept that can be applied even if we have different pictures of what is ‘true’ than the ancient Stoics did.
Brittany: You are currently writing about the relationship of theory and practice in Epictetus’ discourses. Could you explain a bit how the two interact to help us work toward virtue? How do we achieve the inner transformation that will enable us to become more excellent people?
Michael: I think a lot of Epictetus’ philosophy is colored by his experiences as a teacher. I have taught martial arts for a number of years, and one thing you notice in teaching is that there is this stark disconnect between what you teach and how the students act. Likewise, for those practicing Stoicism today, we all notice in ourselves this disconnect between what we read or watch, and our own behaviour. So, a large part of Epictetus’ project is figuring out how to bridge this gap between how we want to act, and how we are actually acting.
Epictetus points out that we achieve this inner transformation in two ways. First, we remember the goal is self-transformation. In this great passage Epictetus compares books and theories to gym weights. Students who brag about how many books they have read are like people showing off their weight collection. You should use those weights and show off your muscles instead.
Second, we remember that we achieve this goal of self-transformation is through action and practice. It can be easy to think that, since virtue is wisdom for the Stoics, that achieving virtue will be a kind of passive or reflective process. But it’s not. Self-improvement may be about changing our beliefs, but our beliefs are things we form when we are out acting in the world. And our deepest, more damaging beliefs, are not ones that are always easily accessible or changeable. So, we need to constantly practice reflecting, deliberating, and acting in ways which improve ourselves.
Brittany: Epictetus thinks the first area of training for a Stoic is mastering desires and aversions. What do you think is the most realistic pathway for someone who wants to learn to adapt themselves to the world as it is and desire only virtue? How do we actually make this happen on a psychological level?
Michael: This is another great question. If you believe Stoicism and Epictetus get human psychology right, then you believe that our behaviour and motivations are determined by our beliefs and our understanding of the world. We desire the things we believe to be good and fear the things we believe to be bad. So we will desire only virtue when we come to understand why virtue is the only thing really good for us. Making this distinction is important. The real question is not ‘how do I desire virtue’, but ‘how do I come to understand virtue as the highest and only good’. If you can do that, then the desire and motivation to pursue virtue will follow.
There are a couple ways to gain this understanding but let’s look at two of the most common in Epictetus. The first way to master desire and aversion is to make sure we desire virtue and want to avoid vice. In order to motivate his students towards virtue Epictetus really emphasizes what we talked about earlier: the idea that we fundamentally are our faculty of choice. If I am just a choice making being, not my bodies, or my reputation, then the only thing good for my are good choices, or, in other words, virtuous choices. And if I am my faculty of choice, then I cannot live a good life making poor choices. This helps us understand why virtue, understood as correct, considered, and informed choice, is worth pursuing and something to be desired. It is the only thing that can make my life go better or worse.
The second way to master desire and aversions is to not desire things or fear things not up to us, or beyond our faculty of choice. I can’t make good, virtuous choices if I am worried about what people think of me, or I want money and success even at the cost of my character. As Epictetus puts it, so long as I fear or desire something external, someone can always control my behaviour through either bribes or threats.
One way to get around this is to gain lived experience that we can survive and flourish without the external things we think we need. Epictetus recommends that we abstain from the things we desire too much, and we gain some familiarity with the things we fear. By doing so we will realize we can be happy without these things we thought we needed and can also be happy even in the presence of the things we were trying so hard to avoid. As an example of this, Seneca is another Stoic writer who recommends spending two weeks every year living in relative poverty, without the luxurious of modern life. The idea is that if we do this, we will realize our fear of losing our possessions is much worse than actually being without them, and this will help control our desire for money, and our fear of poverty. You can imagine the same kind of exercise with public speaking, or anything else that really scares us. They are often much worse in imagination than experience, but it is our imagination that stops us from acting properly and being without anxiety.
Brittany: Based on your own interpretation and practice of Stoicism, how can we stay motivated to keep striving for excellence, even when progress seems slow and difficult?
Michael: In my experience, the best way to stay motivated is to practice patience and forgiveness with yourself. Many people when they begin to practice Stoicism, myself included, think that if they have read and agreed with the arguments once, then anything not up to them shouldn’t bother them, or they shouldn’t experience extreme emotions. As a result, the difficulty in practising is often self-imposed. It is not difficult to practice Stoicism, but rather we are frustrated at ourselves when we fail. But none of us are the sage, and the worst thing you can do is add a new negative emotion of shame or guilt directed towards yourself when you fail to act like a perfect Stoic. We are all progressing, and that progression will occur so long as we continue to practice. And I think we will continue to practice as long as it is an enjoyable, rewarding process.
Brittany: Do you have any other thoughts to share with readers who would like to live in agreement and cultivate inner excellence?
Michael: As a concluding thought, a lot of this interview was about how we practice Stoicism or stay motivated to improve. But I want to emphasize that practicing Stoicism does not have to be fiercely difficult. If you are reading a book, or a blog post, or just contemplating what you like or don’t like about Stoic philosophy, this counts as cultivating inner excellence too. Practicing philosophy is a lot like a diet or an exercise schedule, the best strategy and practice is the one that works for you and that you find enjoyable and sustainable. I really think to think of Socrates here, who says that “the examined life is not worth living”. As long as we are living our lives in an examined, intentional way, where we are trying to improve ourselves, then we are cultivating inner excellence.
Many thanks to Michael Tremblay for sharing his insights about Stoicism! See more of his work at tremblaymichael.com.