Dr. Kevin Vost on The Stoic Workout, Stoicism and Christianity, and the ABC Model of Emotions

Our recent interview with Professor Joey Dodson on the links between Christianity and Stoicism received wide attention from the Daily Stoic community, and we decided to follow up by interviewing Dr. Kevin Vost, the author of The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living. Turns out he has a long history with the Stoics, has deeply studied them, and has even applied their methods in his own personal weightlifting training! His background is also fascinating, as he also holds a Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) degree from the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago with internship and dissertation work at the SIU School of Medicine’s Alzheimer Center’s Memory and Aging Clinic. He has taught psychology and gerontology (the scientific study of old age) at Aquinas College, the University of Illinois, MacMurray College, and Lincoln Land Community College. Kevin has also served as a research review committee member for American Mensa, a society promoting the scientific study of human intelligence, and as an advisory board member for the International Association of Resistance Trainers, an organization that certifies personal fitness trainers.

We are excited to share his interview with us below, and we hope you enjoy it. Visit Dr. Kevin Vost’s website at drvost.com, and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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Fitness and exercise comes up regularly in the Stoics, and we’d be curious if you start by telling us a bit about what the ‘Stoic workout’ is, and about the importance of a healthy body in the Stoic writings? What can you tell us about the Stoics and different sports—wrestling, running, etc.? Why have you focused on this particular subject matter?

I wrote an article a couple of years back for the Modern Stoicism site entitled “Show Me Your Shoulders – The Stoic Workout” for dramatic effect. It would probably be more accurately described as a Stoic workout, since there are many ways to do physical exercise for the betterment of body and mind. The workout I wrote about focused on “high intensity training,” sometimes abbreviated as HIT.  HIT strength training workouts can be performed as infrequently as once or twice per week for as little as twenty minutes by performing one intense set of a handful of strength-training exercises. My most explicit Stoic inspirations for promulgating this system come from Seneca and Epictetus.       

In the words of Seneca:

Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind. –  Seneca, Epistle 15 [2][1]

I took from that quotation the value of forms of exercise that give maximum bang for the buck, so to speak, a minimal investment in time to tend to the body while leaving one with plenty of time and energy for things of the mind as well. Indeed, the exercise regimen I endorse involves “brandishing weights” too, via free weights or machines, but in a slow and controlled manner.

In the words of Epictetus:

Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete, I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my jumping weights.” Go to, you and your jumping weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping weights.  –  Epictetus, Discourses, I, 4  [1] [2]

There, you see, I where I pilfered my title.  Further, Epictetus wrote:

And if you form the habit of taking such exercises, you will see what mighty shoulders you develop, what sinews, what vigour….

–  Epictetus, Discourses, II, 19 [3]

My bottom line here, concurring with Epictetus, is that for any kind of exercise program worth its salt, the proof should be in the pudding of the results that it yields. Of course, the proof will also depend on the kinds of results you are seeking. My own fitness goals as a weightlifter have always placed physical strength, high energy, and real-world functional capacities at a premium, and after 42 years of training, at age 57, I would gladly show my shoulders to Epictetus or to any who are interested – and show their vigor by what they can do with a barbell, dumbbell, or even a rock or a log!

Someone else might have different fitness goals calling for different or additional training. Of course, old Epictetus was well aware of this too!

The athletes first decide what kind of athletes they want to be, and then they act accordingly. If a man wants to be a long-distance runner, he adopts a suitable diet, walking, rubbing, and exercise; if he wants to be a sprinter, all these details are different; if he wants to contend in the pentathlon, they are still more different.   -Epictetus, Discourses, III, 23 [4].

I’ve written most completely about these training methods in my book, Fit for Eternal Life, and though it was written for a Catholic publisher, I cited the Stoics aplenty and there’s even a photo of Epictetus’s Discourses on the back cover (along with the Bible and Summa Theologica – all encircled by a jump rope.)

You’ve talked about your transition from atheism to Catholicism, and how the Stoics were part of the “people who started me toward God.” Can you tell us about that? Was that the first time that you discovered the Stoics?

I first discovered the Stoics in my undergraduate training in psychology in the 1980s after I found that systems of cognitive therapy made the most sense to me. Ironically, it was Albert Ellis, an atheist (or at least an agnostic 99.9+% sure there is no God), who led me first to the writings of the Stoics, so open was he in his acknowledgement of their ideas, especially those of Epictetus, regarding the role they played in the foundation of his Rational-Emotive-Behavior Therapy.

To make a 25-year-long story short, writings of atheist thinkers, including Nietzsche, Russell, Ellis, and Ayn Rand, led me away from the beliefs of my Catholic upbringing and I considered myself an atheist from about age 18 to age 43. I was convinced that the arguments for God simply didn’t make sense, that the idea of God was self-contradictory and unnecessary. During this time, I still relished the ethical writings that the Stoics and of Aristotle gleaned from natural reason.

The Stoics were an indirect effect in leading to my later “reversion.” After working full-time for over twenty years in the disability evaluation field while completing a master’s and doctorate in psychology, working part-time as an adjunct professor of psychology and gerontology, and helping my wife raise our two young sons all the while, I was struck by a line in Seneca that went (in translation, of course), “The busy man is least busy with living.” This struck me as a call to slow down a bit to give myself more time to reflect, for I recalled Socrates’ words too that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  I stopped teaching, immersed myself in more reading, and stumbled across a DVD course on natural law that featured the contributions of some of my perennial favorites like Aristotle and the Stoics, and then moved on to the likes of Sts. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Though I’d been raised a Catholic I knew very little about their ideas and had never read Aquinas.

Not long after, I became immersed in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and other writings. I was quite impressed by his knowledge of both Aristotle and the Stoics and came to the conclusion that his writings about the proofs of God’s existence and his attributes that could be derived from reason alone had been presented as straw men in the atheistic summaries I’d encountered.

I was stuck by the irony too that Ellis, who gleaned so much from the Stoics, and Rand, who said she owed so much to Aristotle, were both atheists, while some of the Stoics, and Aristotle, reasoned their way to some conception of God.

When we asked Professor Joey Dodson whether Stoicism and Christianity were compatible, he told us that this was a perennial question and it depends on who you ask. What is your response? Where do you fall on that spectrum?

Great question! (It spurred me to read Professor Dodson’s interview.) I think that many of the Stoics ideas are compatible with Christianity, and some aren’t. Among the ideas most inimical to Catholic teaching and Christian thought in general, is the endorsement of suicide in certain circumstances. I personally do not find this idea essential to Stoic thought. Some Christians today and over the centuries hesitate to promote or even to read the philosophical ideas of the ancient “pagans.” Tertullian asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and “What has the Academy to do with the Church?” I am of the opinion that Jerusalem, Rome, and the entire Christian world can still reap great benefits from Athens, the Academy, the Lyceum, and of course, the Stoa.

Professor Dodson has provided fascinating insights about the relationships of the ideas of Seneca and St. Paul. I’ve been impressed by how some early Church Fathers and medieval Christian theologians drew from the wisdom of Stoics like Seneca and Epictetus, from the three medieval “Christianized” versions of Epictetus’ Handbook for use in monasteries, to St. Thomas Aquinas’ and other Dominican theologians’ mining of Seneca’s ethical writings for use in their works. St. Thomas, for example, cites and uses ideas espoused by Seneca in his treatment of the passion of anger, the virtue of gratitude, and the sin of ingratitude in the second part of his Summa Theologica.

I mostly value the Stoics for their ethical writings. I consider them on a whole most noble and compatible with Christian ethics. They champion virtue in general, and some, like Musonius Rufus, focus on the classic cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, which are also found in the Scriptures – all four together, for example, in Wisdom 8:7. Their methods of bringing our desires and emotions in line with reason are of immeasurable help in living moral and happy lives.  

I will also note that in researching for my book, The Porch and the Cross, I read Rufus’ lecture fragments for the first time and was astounded by how closely his views on issues like marriage, the family, abortion, and even contraception aligned with modern Catholic teaching.

I don’t mean to make Christians out of the ancient Stoics themselves. I do believe the Stoics offer valuable lessons for all people of Christian faith, other faiths, and non-believers.

You have obtained a Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology. How have you found Stoicism to overlap with clinical psychology? What have been the most helpful exercises that touch both that you find the most useful?

As an undergraduate, reading the Stoics helped me better grasp the foundations, power, and beauty, so to speak, of cognitive psychotherapies. Again, it was the early 1980s, and we were still working through the implications of the “cognitive revolution” in psychology and psychiatry of the 1960s that took us far beyond behaviorism and Freudianism, and much closer to the ancient Stoics. Perhaps the foundational lesson for clinical psychology was Epictetus’ observation that we are not disturbed by things, but by the views we take of things.  Change your perspective, make it more accurate, more adaptive, and learn to talk to yourself in realistic ways, expanding your mental energy on the things that are truly under your control. That is the stuff of Epictetus and of cognitive therapies.

As I studied for a master’s degree in general psychology, my focus was on cognitive development, with a specialty focus in memory development and improvement. Here, the Stoics were also an inspiration, since they so valued using and developing our intellects in pursuit of noble goals. Indeed, the pursuit and love of wisdom should be a capstone of mature cognition.

My doctoral training focus was in neuropsychology, the assessment of cognitive capacities such as memory, language, visual-spatial capacities, problem-solving abilities, etc., especially as impacted by brain injuries, neurological disease, normal aging, and dementia. My work was done in the memory clinic of  a medical school’s Alzheimer Center and my dissertation was on “executive functioning,” (complex problem-solving and other “frontal lobe” capacities) early in the course of Alzheimer’s dementia. Dealing with patients who were losing their cognitive capacities was a very poignant experience, as the sphere of things within their control was ever narrowing and there really was not too much we could do about it beyond trying to measure and understand the effects of their dementia. On a brighter note though, I was able to see through my research on healthy elderly volunteer control subjects, how some of us can retain wonderful cognitive capacities and potential for self-direction well into our ninth and ten decades. Further, patients with certain kinds of brain damage were amenable to interventions like the kind of memory techniques that I specialized in (these methods themselves having ancient Greek and Roman roots, Cicero being one of their greatest promoters.)

As for the most useful exercises for patients without dementia but with emotional disturbance, I’ve always found Ellis’ ABC model of emotions most helpful. In showing people how “A’s” (activating events) in our lives do not automatically produce “C’s” negative emotional (consequences), but only as mediated through the “B’s” (beliefs) that we hold and talk to ourselves about, we can train them in the applied Stoicism of Epictetus, to become far less likely to be disturbed and defeated when faced with life’s difficulties.

Is there a particular Bible verse or Christian exercise that overlaps well with Stoicism? And what is your favorite?

That’s a tough one because there are so many potential favorites to choose from. Oh well, here we go, courtesy of St. Paul:

Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phillipians 4:8).

The Stoics knew well that we tend to become what we think about, so to speak. I believe that in the writings of Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Hierocles, and other Stoics there are many such fine things well worth thinking about.

And conversely, do you have a favorite Stoic quote or exercise that you think of often?

As for a Stoic quote, this too is very hard because so many are so excellent. I’m choosing this one partly for its compatibility with Christianity, though its author was not a Christian:

Why what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God?  If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should sing as a nightingale, if a swan, as a swan.  But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore, I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given to me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song.  – Epictetus, Discourse, 1.16 [5]

As for a useful Stoic exercise, I’ll let the emperor have the last words in an exercise that I now do daily:

Say to thyself at daybreak: I shall come across the busy-body, the thankless, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, the unneighborly. All of this has befallen them because they do not know good from evil. But I, in that I have comprehended the nature of the Good, that it is beautiful, and the nature of Evil that it is ugly, and the nature of the wrong-doer himself that it is akin to me, not as partake of the same blood and seed but of intelligence and a morsel of the Divine, can neither be injured by any of them – for no one can involve me in what is debasing – nor can I be wroth with my kinsman and hate him. For we have come into being for co-operation, as have the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the rows of upper and lower teeth. Therefore to thwart one another is against Nature; and we do thwart one another by shewing resentment and aversion.  -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II, 1.[6]

[1] Seneca, Epistles 1-65, trans. R. Gummere (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 97-98. (First published 1917).

[2] Epictetus, Discourses, Books I-II, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 31. (First published 1925).

[3] Epictetus, Discourses, Books III-IV, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 347.

[4] Ibid, 169.

[5] Oldfather, vol. 1, p. 111.

[6] C. R. Hanes, trans., Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 7-9.


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