How To Be A Stoic: An Interview With Author Elif Batuman

There’s been quite a surge of stories on Stoicism lately—appearing everywhere from influential blogs to prestigious outlets like Sports Illustrated, New York Times, The Guardian and The Atlantic. One of the pieces that caught our attention was “How to Be a Stoic” in The New Yorker. It’s by Elif Batuman, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Her stories have appeared in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Essays anthologies.

Her piece is a wonderful exploration of Epictetus and so we reached out to learn more about Elif and her relation to Stoicism. How does she use it on a day-to-day basis? What are the common misconceptions about the philosophy? How did she first discover it? What are some characters in literature that embody Stoicism? Was there anything off-putting about a philosophy that appears to have a ‘male-bent’?

We are grateful to Elif for agreeing to do this interview and her generous answers which you can read below. Enjoy!

 

History tends to show that Stoicism is often popular during times of difficulty or uncertainty. Was that true in your case? I was curious if you could give our readers a bit of a background regarding your story of discovering Epictetus and how it has helped you?

Yes, I had just started a new job in a new country (Turkey), where there was a certain amount of political tension. I was also in the middle of a problematic long-distance relationship, and living in a remote area. I had gotten really behind on work in the previous months (my first book, The Possessed, had just come out, so I was doing travel and publicity for that, and then also I had had some personal issues), and had deliberately sought out this kind of isolated living situation so I could catch up, but then I ended up feeling really lost and alone. I was also doing some reporting, I was working on a story for the New Yorker about soccer fan groups in Istanbul, which involved hanging out with a milieu I wasn’t really used to, often late at night—it was a stressful time.

 

You mentioned that you first discovered Epictetus back in 2011 and you wrote about him more than five years later. Did you read any of the other Stoics in between? I can only assume he made a strong impression on you and was wondering how often did his ideas come to mind over the years in your daily life? Was it something that was a constant presence or it was more in specific situations?

That piece I wrote was just about Epictetus, and I only had 750 words, so it’s a bit schematic. My actual route to the Stoics was more circuitous. I’m sure I had been introduced to Stoic ideas in the past, but the first time they really registered with me was in Istanbul in 2010 or 2011 when I read Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. It’s kind of a self-help book in the form of biographical essays about Montaigne. For me, all the most helpful advice came from the Stoics. (Montaigne as you probably know was really influenced by Stoicism, especially Seneca, though also Epictetus, and also the Epicureans.) I wanted to know more about the Stoics, so I bought A Guide to the Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine, which was a terrific introduction to the basic ideas and how they could be applied to daily life. After that I read Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and Epictetus’s Enchiridion.

I liked Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, too, but Epictetus was definitely my favorite—I think he’s the funniest. With Marcus Aurelius you have this world-weary emperor who is kind of a mystic; Seneca writes in this flowery Latin, he’s a famous tragedian and a speechwriter for Nero, so he has that whole thing going; but Epictetus is born a slave, and then he becomes a teacher, and all he cares about is teaching. I was teaching undergraduates at the time, and I felt like Epictetus had been working on this same eternal puzzle that I was, of how to get young people to do what’s difficult, to make them think that things are worthwhile, to rally their spirits, and it felt like finding this great friend and ally.

After I read the Enchiridion, I got the Discourses and Selected Writings, the Penguin Classics one edited by Robert Dobbin, which was marvelous, even better than the Enchiridion I had downloaded for free online somewhere. Next I tried reading Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’s teacher—he was great, too, but I thought the ideas were more forcefully expressed in Epictetus. Then I read Tad Brennan’s The Stoic Life, where he summarizes a lot of Chrysippus’s ideas, but you know, Chrysippus really isn’t for me, the whole thing about how everyone who isn’t 100% wise is 100% “vicious” seems kind of theoretical and alienating to me. I prefer what I take to be Epictetus’s view, viz. that we’re all struggling constantly, none of us will be perfect, but we can always get better, and that improvement is not just not worthless, it’s actually the most meaningful thing there is.

 

At least online (and of course, historically) Stoicism seems to have a predominant number of males. Many of them hear about it from action movies like Gladiator or the military or now, with its popularity in sports, it might get passed to them in the locker room. I’m curious about two things. One, as a woman, was there anything off putting about that male-bent? Two, since the actual philosophy itself is universal and can help anyone, what can be done to recreate your experience and exposure to philosophy?

Well, I never saw “Gladiator” and have never served in the military or spent much time in a men’s locker room, so I can’t really speak to the “male bent” that Stoicism might have in those venues. As a reader in the privacy of my home, I didn’t find there was anything off-puttingly male about Stoic philosophy. I guess Epictetus talks about beards in a way I can’t really identify with, but I don’t think that’s a major cornerstone of his belief. And Musonius Rufus wrote in a really moving way about how he thought women and men should have the same education in philosophy, that women are just as capable as men of applying and benefiting from philosophical ideas. And Seneca does write those letters to women, including his mother, so clearly he thinks Stoicism can help women.

I think there’s a common misconception about Stoicism, that it’s about forcing yourself to somehow not feel emotions; that’s probably an idea that would appeal more to men than to women (since, from childhood, boys are encouraged to be macho, while girls are encouraged to be in touch with their emotions). But the thing I love about Epictetus is that it’s really all about handling emotions. He’s like, “You’re definitely going to feel this incredibly powerful thing, but guess what, it’s not a law that dictates what you think or how you act—you’re perfectly free, and in fact duty-bound, to consult your reason and say, ‘OK, feeling, duly noted, but you are just a feeling and not the truth.’” I think that’s maybe an especially useful message for women, because of how little girls are educated, or at least how they were when I was little. I think for a lot of women (as well as men), there’s a tendency to think: “Oh my God, I already felt this, so the bad thing already happened.” And Epictetus is all about realizing, “Bro, nothing bad has happened yet, everyone has feelings, now just take a moment and evaluate what the truth is.”

 

In your New Yorker piece, you mention Epictetus’s line about ignoring small slights— “For such a small price, I buy tranquillity,” and how useful it has been. Are there other exercises or quotes that you’d point to as practical and helpful?

Oh man, I use so many of them every day. Definitely, the one about the bathhouse: “If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse—people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’” I actually thought that at a hamam in Istanbul once and it really helped! I use it all the time on the subway and also at the airport.

Another great trick is when he’s like, “You know how if someone else tells you that something bad happened to them, you’re like, ‘Oh, too bad, that’s life,’ but if something bad happens to you, you’re like, ‘I am the unhappiest of mortals?’” Oh I found the quote: “When somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others.”

I haven’t had to use that one with a big loss, but for little things it really works. Last week I was having bureaucratic trouble with my health insurance. I imagined I was listening to a friend tell me about making such calls, and thought about how I would be like, “Oh, too bad, insurance can be a pain”—I definitely wouldn’t have been like, “Oh my God, you unfortunate person, your whole week must have been ruined, what did you do wrong that this happened to you, how could you have avoided it?”—which is kind of how I felt about it myself, when I didn’t stop to think about it.

 

You are both a fantastic writer and a scholar—writing for the New Yorker, n+1, Harper’s Magazine among others and you hold a doctoral degree from Stanford in comparative literature. I’d love to know if there are any fictional characters that you think embody Stoicism that you can point us to? Or any other works of fiction that you think the Daily Stoic readers would love? (Also I want to ask if you’ve read Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar?)

I actually find Stoicism to be very present in the works of Charlotte Bronte’s novels Jane Eyre and Villette. (She calls it “stoicism” or “Christian stoicism” or “Christian composure.”) Both those novels are about a young woman who really has no social value in the Victorian social marketplace—poor, orphaned, no social connections, not beautiful—Bronte is really cold and brutal about this. Those girls don’t have a single thing you need to make a good marriage, which at that time is the only thing standing between an unconnected young woman and a whole humiliating, possibly long, life as a drudge and a dependent. There are these amazing passages in both books, towards the end, where the character realizes (or thinks she realizes) that love isn’t going to work out for her, that the guy who she thought liked her is going to maybe choose someone a little younger, richer, or more beautiful—so she resigns herself to being a teacher, to doing her duty, to a life without romance—and you really feel both the difficulty and the freedom of that resignation. It’s really brutal and moving.

Dostoevsky has some pretty stoical characters, too, like Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. Of course he’s also a Christian. In general if you’re talking about the 19th-century European novel (my grad school beat…), Stoicism is going to be in there through some version of Christianity. But I mean the affinity between Stoicism and Christian thought is one of the ways Stoicism has survived since antiquity.  

Epictetus does also make a cameo in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

 

I know you have another book coming very soon, this time “a novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.” Can you tell us a bit more about it? I also wanted to say that the cover is absolutely beautiful.

Thank you! I love the cover. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel called The Idiot. The main character, Selin, is 18, the book takes place in her first year of college, and she’s a perfect example of someone who doesn’t know about Stoicism, who takes emotions for truth and finds signs everywhere, in all her almost physical, visceral, emotional reactions—and then every now and then she stops and is like “Are you fucking kidding me? This is life?” I’m hoping to write more books about Selin in the future, and, if I live long enough, I would love to do one where she discovers Epictetus.