I was fortunate enough to attend STOICON this year, so I decided to do a write up about my thoughts and experiences from the event.
Being a native New Yorker who currently lives in Brooklyn, it was pretty easy for me to hop on the subway and head down to where STOICON was being held, at the Houston Street Center in Lower Manhattan between Little Italy and East Village.
I had never been to the Houston Street Center before, the best way I can describe the center is that it almost feels like a YMCA. It has a large gym for basketball, a workout room with exercise equipment, and a few small classrooms scattered throughout the building.
Upon arriving at around 8:30am I was prompted by the organizers to find my name tag from those alphabetically sorted on a table. I was then told to insert my name tag into a plastic pouch, and was provided with an untied shoelace. Combine all three of these things together and you get yourself a lanyard!
This process seemed a little strange to me as I have been to my fair share of conventions before, such as PAX East and NYCC, where they tend to go all out with the lanyards and badges. I am sure doing it this way allowed the organizes to save money on materials, and provided an interesting exercise in knot tying for the attendees.
They had also printed out a very nice convention guide booklet which contained a schedule of the days activities along with mini bios of all the speakers. In addition it contained a page of Greek terms that might come up during the conference, as well a list of basic Stoic resources, on the web and elsewhere, that would be helpful for people who are new to Stoicism.
I was surprised that as I entered the convention, nobody checked my ticket. My guess here is that the organizers believed that anybody interested enough to attend a conference about Stoicism, where people would be talking about morality and virtue, would not be so immoral as to attempt to sneak in without paying, or steal somebody else’s name tag.
The convention itself was setup inside a large basketball court, with a podium up front, a projector, and seats laid out throughout the court floor. Massimo Pigliucci came up first to do a quick welcome and introduction, mentioning that there were about 330 attendees at the conference that day, ostensibly being the largest gathering of Stoics in all of history, an amusing fact to ponder.
From the beginning it seemed as if the Stoic gods, if there are any, were testing us. There were constant issues with the microphones and sound, making it difficult to hear many of the speakers at times throughout the conference. It was also very difficult to see many of the presentation slides due to the lighting in the room. I do think however, that everyone got through these issues fairly well, without anybody losing their cool. Stoicism at work!
There were three speakers arranged to talk in the initial morning session, from 9am – 10:30am consisting of Donald Robertson, Julia Annas, and Bill Irvine. I found all of the speakers in this session to be interesting and engaging, as each approached Stoic philosophy from different perspectives.
Donald Robertson talked about Stoic Mindfulness and how it relates to many of the techniques practiced in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy).
Julia Annas approached the Stoic philosophy more directly, taking about how the Stoics viewed virtue and vice along with their ideal sage. She tackled the rather off-putting concept of how the Stoic philosophers say there are no degrees of virtue, you either wholly virtuous or wholly vicious, and explained why the Stoic philosophers thought of it that way. I found this talk helpful in resolving some of the common “Stoic Paradoxes” that come up as you dig deeper into the philosophy.
William Irvine talked about using Stoic techniques, and applying them so that you could become an “insult pacifist”, basically somebody who is unperturbed by insults. He mentioned some of his own personal stories where he had been able to apply these ideas to his own life, and also mentioned stories where he had failed to live up to those standards. William’s speech was probably taken the most well received by the audience out of first few presentations due to the humor and personal perspective he provided.
After the first three speakers had finished, we took a quick 15 minute break to get up, stretch, and walk around. During the break I noticed Matt Van Natta, author of the Immoderate Stoic blog as well as the Good Fortune podcast. I had listened to his podcast before, so it was cool to see him there. I was able to talk to him for a little while during the break time.
Convention Morning Part 2
After the break, we had another series of speakers setup to talk from 10:45am – 1pm. The speakers included Lawrence Becker, Debbie Joffe Ellis, Chris Gill, Cinzia Arruzza, and Jules Evans.
Lawrence Becker was unable to attend in person, so instead a Skype call was setup so that he could address everyone at the convention. As you might expect, there were issues initiating the Skype call, glitches with the audio skipping at times, and they were unable to get the video to work until about half way through the talk. It is difficult to pin down exactly what Lawrence talked about, as he bounced around from topic to topic, mentioning how Stoic philosophy is really an evolving philosophy, giving examples of Stoic philosophers, such as Posidonius, who took the philosophy in different directions at times.
Debbie Joffe Ellis talked about her late husband, Albert Ellis, and how he used many ideas from the Stoic toolkit to develop REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) which helped many people throughout his career. She also mentioned how he lived as a good example of how you should live, as he always sought to help others throughout his life even into his 90s while he was ill.
Christopher Gill talked about whether Stoicism conflicted with political activism in any way, with the conclusion being that Stocism actually encourages political activism instead of passivity which it is commonly misconstrued as suggesting. His speech felt very much like a good old fashioned college lecture, which makes sense since he is indeed a Philosophy Professor.
Cinzia Arruza talked about using enabling us to use Stoicism to take better care of ourselves, along with Stoic exercises in relationship to French Philosopher Michel Foucault. This lecture went beyond me at times, digging deep into Foucault, who I was not really familiar with. There were some helpful insights at times about inspecting your impressions, trying to evaluate your issues from different perspective (such as a cosmological perspective) and that often we much change ourselves internally before we can change the external world.
Jules Evans was probably the most lively of all the speakers, encouraging everyone to stand up, stretch, high five the person next to them, along with other shenanigans. Jules talked primarily about his own life experiences, how throughout and after college he ran into a lot of anxiety issues, discovered CBT which helped him to mitigate his anxiety issues quite a bit, and went on to discover how the root of CBT came from ancient Stoic philosophy.
We were then dismissed from around 1:00pm to 2:30pm to go off and find lunch. I had scoped out some nearby pizza places before and ended up trying to get some food at Prince Street Pizza. Their spicy pepperoni squares were highly recommended so I decided to try that. They did not have any available when I showed up, but they gave me a waiting ticket (#5) and said that more should be ready in 10 minutes. I had some time to kill anyways so I figured it would be fine to wait.
About 10 minutes passed and a pepperoni pie finally came out. However, it was only enough to serve # 1 – 3 who arrived there before me. Apparently I would have to wait a little longer. It was now 1:55pm and I had been waiting for Pizza for at least 35 minutes. I decided that in-order to get back to the conference in time for the 2:30pm workshops, I might as well hand in my #5 ticket, forego the pepperoni pizza, and get something else. I ordered two slices of margherita pizza instead. After I had received and paid for my two slices I saw them pulling two pies of pepperoni pizza out of the oven. Again, it seemed as if the Stoic gods, if there are any, were testing me, or at least they had a sense of humor. I basically went “oh well” and continued on with my margherita pizza, which was rather good anyways.
There were 6 potential workshops to choose from that would last from 2:30pm – 4pm, and you had to sign up in advance to indicate which workshop you wanted to attend. I decided to attend Tim LeBon’s workshop titled “Trump for President? A Stoic response”.
The first great test of the workshop was finding it…I was able to find all the other workshops in the building but could not seem to find the specific one I wanted to attend. After wandering around for a few minutes I eventually bumped into Time LeBon, who also was confused and looking for the workshop room. Eventually we found a staff member who was able to direct us the workshop room, which ended up being on a different floor in a back room.
The room was pretty small, having enough space for about 16 charis. There were around 12 people in total attending Tim’s workshop. The patience of this group of Stoics was again tested, as there were many difficulties setting up the presentation. Tim had brought his own laptop with an HDMI cable, however the projectors they had only took VHS. The staff then brought in another laptop that had a VHS port, but Tim could not load his presentation on to the laptop, as it would not recognize his flash drive. Three different laptops and two flash drives later, we could still not get the presentation setup properly.
Eventually Tim realized that he had his presentation on his website, and was able to download it onto one of the working laptops. Unfortunately he only had it in pdf format, not power point, which made it a little awkward to present. Did I also mention that the projector was crooked the whole time? It was almost like being in an absurdist play where everything goes wrong. However, we did get through it and went on with Tim’s presentation.
To quickly summarize Tim’s presentation, we essentially did a bunch of negative visualization training. First we imagined what it might be like if Trump became President, imagined what moods and emotions we might feel at the time, as well as what we would feel like doing. Some emotions that people listed out were disappointment, fearfulness, and depression, along with taking actions such as hiding in your room under your bed to escape reality.
We then moved on to examine how a Stoic might react to the situation, taking into account what we could or could not change at that moment, and how we might use the Stoic virtues in ways that would be helpful. We could not change the fact that Trump was president, but we could change our reactions along with our actions. We could use the virtue of temperance to make sure that we do not go on an angry tirade, the virtue of courage to take action against decisions we disagree with, and practical wisdom to determine what actions we might take to lessen any potential damages that might occur due to a Trump presidency.
The idea here was that, if we visualize how we might react to the situation, and rehearse how we should behave after we have those reactions, we would be better equipped to deal with the situation if it did occur. Obviously these techniques can be used for any potentially upsetting situation, which was the main point of this workshop. You need not let your initial impressions dictate your reactions.
After all the workshops were over, we all headed back to the gymnasium for the Keynote speech, which lasted from around 4:15pm to 5:15pm. The speaker this time was Ryan Holiday, who is probably one of the more well know speakers, since he has written a handful of books on various topics ranging from social media manipulation to overcoming obstacles in your life.
He told us how he personally encountered Stoicism back in college, by reading a copy of Marcus Aurelieus’s Meditations. After regaling us with a variety of Stoic quotes from Marcus, Seneca, and Epictetus he elaborated on his belief that Stoicism really is a philosophy for the common person, and the we should push it into the mainstream as much as possible, so that others may also benefit from it as we have.
He then talked about his new book The Daily Stoic which contains quotes from many of the great Stoic philosophers with detailed comments on each quote, the idea here being that every day you would read one page from the book and focus on that Stoic principle for the day. Ryan was also kind enough to give everyone at the conference a free copy of his new book, which was a nice surprise.
And thus ended my long day at STOICON.
If you are interesting in hearing what the speakers had to say for yourself, most of STOICON was live streamed and put on YouTube to watch here and here. The audio is not great at times, but I am sure you can use many of the techniques mentioned in this post to help you deal with it. You can also read more about what happened at STOICON on Massimo’s blog here.
In the end I would consider STOICON to have been a successful event. It was great to see the various perspectives that people approached Stoicism with, learn more about the Stoic philosophy as a whole, and to see the philosophy at work in action.