Putting Philosophy Into Practice: An Interview With Gregory Sadler

Our last interview was with Corey Mohler, a philosophy popularizer who has chosen web comics as his medium to reach a larger audience. In this interview, we have Dr. Gregory Sadler who has a different route: a YouTube channel dedicated to “putting philosophy into practice” which now has close to 40,000 subscribers and 4 million views. Over the last half decade he has created popular videos on metaphysics, Friedrich Nietzsche, and has a playlist of some 100 videos on Stoicism. Greg holds a Ph.D in Philosophy but left his teaching position at Fayetteville State University to co-found ReasonIO, a platform that aims to take difficult philosophical texts and thinkers and make them accessible. In this interview we ask Greg about the tools the Stoics give us to be manage our anger and emotions better, Stoicism and leadership, his role at Stoicism Today and much more.

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Over the years you’ve built a large following—nearly 40,000 subscribers now—for your YouTube channel on philosophy. What are some of your favorite videos you’ve created? What are the videos that you’d recommend the Daily Stoic readers to begin with?

Yes, I’ve been at this task of video-creation for about six years now.  When you put in that much time, some of the tasks involved get a bit easier – you ascend the proverbial “learning curve”.  But there’s quite a few people who go at it a year or two, and then seem to burn out, or shift to other interests. They just stop producing new videos.

In my own case, I never had any idea that I’d end up making YouTube videos into one main activity of my work in philosophy.  Nor did I envision it right away as a potential way to earn a living – or at least a part of it.  On that note, let me put in a shameless plug – to your readers who watch and enjoy my videos, or anyone else who wants to support development of quality philosophy resources – I’ve recently created a Patreon page to crowdfund my video production work.

I started out in YouTube by simply posting videos of my class lectures.  They were originally intended just as a resource for my own students, but I quickly started getting a lot of views from students elsewhere, from other people who weren’t in college, and then even from some other professors.  Perhaps what was most interesting to me was how many of these people expressed gratitude for posting the lectures online.  With students, it was all too often along the lines of “my professor won’t explain the material that you’re covering”.  From people outside of the academy, I got a lot of “it feels like being in a classroom” – many of them missed that experience, and quite a few said they couldn’t afford to go to college.

Back then, I was posting anywhere from 2-4 times a week, depending on the schedule of my classes.  But then, I started developing content outside of class as well, and started doing series, like the Existentialist Philosophy and Literature sequence, or the Half Hour Hegel series.  I also began to produce some shorter videos as well, in particular the Philosophy Core Concept series, where I take a thinker and text and discuss one main idea or distinction for anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes.  At any rate, over time, I got more and more disciplined about planning, shooting, editing, and posting, and now I release on average about five new videos a week.

It’s tough for me to pick favorite videos, in part because I’ve created over 1,000 at this point, and in part because I don’t all that often go back to watch my videos unless there’s some pressing reason for me to do so.  Incorporating a video or series of videos into an online class would be one example.  I suppose if I had to say which of them I enjoy creating the most, it would be the Core Concept videos – they’re short, closely focused, and pretty easy for me to do, once I’ve turned the idea over in my head sufficiently.  If I had to pick those that I take the most pride in, it would be the commentary videos, like the Half Hour Hegel series, or the Epictetus Enchiridion videos – in those, I’m going through a text, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, leading my audience through a very close reading.  Those involve a lot of work!

I suppose that, for the Daily Stoic readers, they might find that series on Epictetus’ Enchiridion most useful for them.  I also did two series of videos in Stoic Week 2014 and 2015, and they might find those interesting as well. In fact, I’ve got a whole playlist of 100 videos on Stoicism, so they could poke around in there.

I’d like to say one other thing about the YouTube thing – something I think that the readers might find quite inspiring.  Like I said earlier, I never planned to do it.  In fact, when my then-fiancee, Andi Sciacca suggested I should post my lectures online for a broader audience, I thought it was a bad idea.  She thought it was a great idea, and she was right.  I had quite a few reasons on my side – the “experts” maintained that videos should be no more than 5 minutes long, not 1-hour long lectures; as an academic I wasn’t someone known to the general public; the videos were very low-production, and so on. . .   As it turned out, so long as you can relate to your audience, know what you’re talking about, and have something interesting to present, there actually is a massive online audience, hungry for some kind of substantive engagement with ideas!

 

Your motto is ‘putting philosophy into practice.’ That’s a bit of a distinction between how most academics and laypeople might see philosophy (the common perception is that it’s something you study or debate, not do.) What are the specific skills, ideas and concepts that you help people implement? How does that process look like?

Yes, I’d say that most people that are familiar with philosophy these days do tend to associate it with academic philosophy.  Academics do that because they’ve got it in their heads that traditional academic institutions are – with a few exceptions – where philosophy gets done.  That, of course, represents a view that has not been the case for a good bit of philosophy’s own history.  And laypeople, at least until fairly recently, tended to encounter philosophy either in the course of their own schooling, or through picking up a book, or possibly catching one of the fairly uncommon television or radio programs.  More recently, of course, the internet has opened up a vast variety of possibilities, so I suspect now many laypeople encounter some sort of philosophy through podcasts, blogs, videos, and the like.   

While I’m on this topic, I’m going to indulge in a bit of digression, and get up on what for me is a well-worn soapbox.  I’ve run into so many people who, upon finding out that I was either a philosophy professor or something else connected with philosophy, would say things like “I had a philosophy course back in college”.  Usually it would be an Introduction class, an Ethics class, or a Logic or Critical Thinking class.  I’d then ask them what their impression was, and I’d say in the case of most of my conversation partners, they’d recount some thing ranging from the dull and useless to the perfectly awful. Now that’s very unfortunate, because that course is in many cases the one chance that person would have in their college or university education to encounter this wonderful and rich subject, and to get a bit of guidance in studying it from someone who presumably knew something about it and cared about it.  Instead, they got someone who managed to turn them off from it.

In my view, it’s not that difficult to teach or to get people interested in philosophy – at least in the classics of the field.  It’s like being in sales and having an extraordinary product that just requires a bit of explaining to get people excited about it.  If you’re teaching an Intro class, and you get to pick the works that comprise your curriculum, you have the option to spend time getting better acquainted with Plato, or Epictetus, or Boethius, or Thomas Hobbes, or Mary Wollstonecraft. . .  or any one from literally dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of other great thinkers.  And then you get to introduce others to those works, to lead them through all sorts of interesting arguments, discussions, distinctions, and to think about what sorts of applications those might have to our own lives, situations, challenges, experiences, relationships. . .

If you can’t sell a product like that, either you’re quite a bad salesperson, or you just don’t like your own chosen product.  In that case, I’d say it’s better for those academics to get out of the business, and open up a position for someone who wants to do that job.  All of this, I suppose might strike one as rather flippant, but I’m actually deriving a good bit of it from Aristotle, who points out in his Rhetoric – quite rightly – that all teaching involves some persuasion.

The notion that philosophy ought to have something to do with actual life was always front and center for me, all the way through my schooling and into my early years as a professor.  It’s also been – until fairly lately, historically speaking – a pretty uncontroversial idea running throughout the traditions and schools of philosophy.  So, the notion that philosophy ought to be put into practice was part and parcel of that, and came quite naturally when I decided to transition out of traditional academia.  You might say it was something I was already doing quite a bit, and then decided to make much more central in my work.

What then is “putting philosophy into practice”?  I can’t actually give an adequate listing of the various skills, concepts, and practices that I end up introducing clients to – there’s just too many!  So instead, I’ll zero in on just one that will be familiar to a Stoic audience – the distinction between what is in our control and what isn’t.  It’s nice to have that distinction – and I’ve even got a useful handout precisely on that matter – but it generally turns out to be a bit tricker to apply in actual practice than just looking at what gets listed in those two categories, and then saying “Ok – that’s in my control, and that’s not”.  Being able to make good use of that very distinction is itself a kind of skill-set or capacity (you might say that, from a Stoic perspective), that’s something that falls within the scope of prudence.  So, when I’m working with a client on anger management, for instance, the application of that distinction is going to look somewhat different from the application that I’d make when the core issue is anxiety.

 

You have a workshop titled “Struggling With Anger? Useful Stoic Perspectives and Practices.” Can you give us a glimpse into that? What are the Stoic practices that you recommend?

That’s a workshop I put together for Stoicon 2016 and then gave again here in Milwaukee during the Stoic Week that followed.  I also provide it in a variety of different formats as one of my stock of talks on Stoic philosophy.

Since you bring it up, if your readers go to this recent piece in Stoicism Today discussing the workshop (and going a bit further with a few of the key themes), they can access the recording of the workshop and pdfs of the five handouts I used in those two sessions.  In that particular configuration, it’s a bit more heavy on the lecture and discussion side than straight-out workshopping – though for different audiences, I reconfigure its to have some writing, some group work, and some role-playing.

One of the particularly useful practices is one you’re intimately familiar with, being as big of a fan of Marcus as you are.  Reminding oneself before going into what is likely to be a situation where things won’t necessarily go as you’d like them to, in which people will act selfishly and so on – what you see starting the second book of the Meditations – and then doing two other things can be quite helpful.  The first of these is what Marcus in fact does, to note that the people likely to tick us off if we’re not careful are our fellow human beings, and that it’s not rational for us to be angry with or hate them.  The second is to remind ourselves about what the likely negative outcomes of our anger will be.

Another key practice is something you see coming up at multiple points in Epictetus’ Discourses (and a bit in the Enchiridion) – as well as in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius – and that is choosing to look at the things that other people do or say as being their own business, that is, up to them, not something up to us.  It takes some practice to be able to realize two things about anger.  First, we often do get angry over things that are – from a Stoic perspective – “another person’s” (allotria, in the Greek), not our own, and if we reminded ourselves about their status, we would either not get angry, or at least get less angry.  But second, anger itself as an emotion tends to attempt to impose some sort of control over the situation, over others, over processes – and it always fails to extend the range of our control in any real way.  It’s weird, really, to think that losing control over one of the most problematic emotions, would somehow restore control!  

 

You’ve delivered a talk called “Stoicism, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship.” What can we learn from Stoicism to help us be better leaders? And how do you see the intersection between Stoicism and entrepreneurship?

Yes, that was an invited lecture at the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship, at Rockford University – the video of which is available here. That’s a very basic-level talk, for business and entrepreneurship undergraduate students, but it covers a good bit of the basics, I’d say.

I think that there’s a number of doctrines, distinctions, and practices that can be culled out of classic Stoic texts that prove very useful for contemporary leaders.  That shouldn’t be all that surprising for three reasons.  The first is that it’s a very useful philosophical tradition for people of all walks of life – so why wouldn’t it also be useful for leaders?  The second is that, when you think about it, many of the classic Stoics were themselves involved – like it or not! – in situations involving leadership.  Marcus, of course, was a Roman emperor, and Seneca advised (or at least tried to) another emperor.  Cato was a major political and military leader, as was his contemporary Cicero.  Even when we think of those figures who were less politically involved – Epictetus, for example, or Zeno himself (who did get asked to advise the Macedonian king) – they were still involved in leadership. Zeno founded an entire philosophical school, and Epictetus successfully established his own Stoic school in multiple locations.  The third reason is that Stoicism provides a robustly worked out perspective on organization, communities, duties and roles, with very strong ethical dimensions.

I know that in my own coaching and consulting work with leaders in business, medical, and academic contexts, my clients find a lot of Stoic ideas directly relevant to challenges they face.  Now, this brings up an interesting paradox – one that you’ve encountered and given a good bit of thought to in your own work, I would expect.  

Simply put, it’s this:  There are a number of practices and insights within the system of classic Stoic philosophy that a person either in, or aiming for, a leadership position can find very effective. And those can – to some extent – be taken out of their larger context and retain a good bit of their effectiveness.  That’s Stoicism reduced to “life hacks”.  So you do get some people who are using or “doing” Stoicism to some extent, but at times in ways that run contrary to other aspects of Stoicism.

For instance, if your goal is to make a ton of money, because you think that will provide some measure of freedom from the normal nonsense of the workaday world – a motivation all of us can understand, even if we’ve left it behind! – adopting some Stoic practices will likely help one towards that goal.  The valuation of money as a prime good – that’s definitely not Stoic!  So there’s a kind of contradiction or conflict there – precisely, by the way, the sort of thing Epictetus depicts genuine Stoicism as an effort to work through.

Now – as opposed to those students of classic Stoicism who decry “life-hack” Stoicism – I adopt a more open and optimistic point of view.  Stoicism is a complex, coherent system of philosophy as a way of life.  The “life-hacker” who wants to just use bits of Stoicism seems to deny that.  But Stoicism – precisely because it is a living philosophy – exerts a kind of gradual, progressive attraction upon those who want to use it piecemeal.  

The business person who originally just wanted to get over some anxiety, or be more on-point in meetings, or organize time better – who is interested in Stoicism only, you might say, instrumentally – eventually gets confronted with the dissonance between his or her use of Stoicism(-lite) and his or her understanding and appreciation of Stoicism (in the fuller sense).  And in many cases – not all of course (Epictetus points out that not even Socrates convinced all his interlocutors) – a development takes place in that person, and they end up embracing more and more of the fuller Stoic perspective.

 

Do you have a Stoic routine? What are some of your favorite Stoic quotes?

I wouldn’t say that I have much of a routine myself – and that’s something I need to work upon, eventually. . .  But I also tend to think that when it comes to my own way of life, I’m not a particularly useful model for those who would like to learn and apply the philosophical traditions I work with.  

I’m kind of an outlier in that respect.  The only time in my student years that I really studied – in the way most students do, taking notes, drilling over material, that sort of thing – was when I prepared for my comprehensive and preliminary examinations.  The rest of the time, I’d just read the material, and read a lot of other related stuff, get my head around it, assimilate it, and then apply it.  

So for example, when it comes to applying Stoic doctrines – those dogmata that we ought to have “ready at hand” for when we need them – I’ve generally got them available to me in mind, just from reading, reflecting, and rereading – which is something I enjoy doing.  I do try to take stock some nights – if I remember to do so – of how the day went, where I was successful, where I need to do more work (and sometimes, how to unscrew-up what I’ve managed to screw up!).  

I’m not sure that I can really say that I have any “favorite” Stoic quotes.  I suppose that you could say that, when I’m in a situation, and find one or several of them very useful either for myself, or what I’m writing about, or for my clients, or others who benefit from them – those are, for that time, my favorite quotes.

 

Last year, you became the editor of Stoicism Today. What does that position entail and what do you want to accomplish in 2017? What is your vision for the website?

As the editor of the blog, I have a number of responsibilities.  The most central set have to do with making sure that we public quality content for our readers regularly.  We do get quite a few pieces pitched our way, and occasionally they’ll be practically ready to post when the first draft crosses my virtual desk.  More often, even for professional and academic writers, there’s some back and forth, feedback, and writing.  So, I spend a good bit of time in that process.  I’m also continually on the lookout for potential authors who I can get to write something particularly interesting for us.  There’s a number of past authors who I maintain regular contact with, and I try to get them to keep on sending new pieces in.

Becoming editor of Stoicism Today also involved joining the at-that-time Stoicism Today team (now the Modern Stoicism steering committee).  That’s been a great experience for me, and everyone in the group was very welcoming and helpful as I came on board.  The position involves a considerable amount of networking with those actively involved in the contemporary Stoic community.  That has it’s perks for me – getting to meet and interact personally with people whose works I’ve long read and enjoyed, for example (I can be a bit of a scholarly “fanboy” at times, I’ll admit). So, this year I’ve gotten involved in some of the planning and promotional work required for the two most major yearly initiatives of the group – Stoic Week and the Stoicon conference, and expect to do still more of that this time around.  Eventually, there will be another Stoicism Today volume coming out in book form – and that’s a lot of work!  Fortunately, I’ll have Tom McConnell, as an editorial assistant, helping out considerably with that.

In 2017, we made a major shift that had been discussed and then planned out for months in advance.  This entailed moving Stoicism Today from one site (the original University of Exeter site) to another (the Modern Stoicism site). One of the strongest motives was to consolidate all of the activities and projects into one online location, so our readers, participants, and other interested members of the Stoic community wouldn’t have to hunt around across multiple sites.  Although the new site looks quite good, there’s a considerable amount of work yet to be done, building out and revising pages, adding content, and the like.  Fortunately, I get to do that with Donald Robertson, and we both get input from the other members of the steering committee. So, building the site out entirely is one main goal for 2017.

There’s several other things I’m particularly keen to accomplish as well this year.  Expanding the readership of the blog, while keeping the readership we already have, is one main goal.  Getting super-organized in promoting the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course, the Stoic Week course, Stoicon, and Stoic Week events is another goal.  I also would like to engage in more public outreach about the entire Modern Stoicism project, for example, raising Stoic Week’s public profile in the months leading up to it, and getting more schools, groups, and institutions to participate in the week.  Or providing short presentations about basics of Stoic philosophy and dealing with workplace issues for local business groups.  Or. . .   well, I could go on quite a bit about that!   By the end of the year, we’ll have more than enough content to get going on putting together Stoicism Today volume 3, so starting that process is another main goal for 2017.

I have to add – I wrote about this when coming on to Stoicism Today – that the previous editor, Patrick Ussher, left matters in a state conducive to continued success of the blog and the larger organization.  He’d built up a massive readership with a host of consistently posted pieces in the blog, tirelessly promoted Stoic Week and Stoicon, and even published two volumes worth of the best essays from the blog.  We had a number of meetings where he got me entirely up to speed before handing Stoicism Today off.  That sort of walking into a well-functioning institution has definitely not been the case in much of my career, so I really appreciate it when it happens!

 

Last question, what do you think about the recent growth and popularity of Stoicism? Good, bad, indifferent? 🙂

Well, I think it’s great!  And I’m quite enthusiastic about that, in ways some people might view as non-Stoic.  I tend to see that level of positive emotion as one of the eupatheia (positive emotional states) – the one we translate as “joy” or “rational pleasure”.  

Stoicism is clearly the classical philosophy that has gained the most traction in the general academic public in the present. Contemporary Epicureanism and Cynicism are distant seconds and thirds, with some pretty sizable communities.  I’ll actually close here by mentioning one of my personal hopes.  Down the line, I’d like to see something akin to what the modern Stoicism community has been able to develop, but for the Aristotelian tradition.  There are some serious challenges, but I think that the robust and sustainable growth of the modern Stoic community offers some inspiration and best practices that other classical philosophical traditions could draw upon.

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