We recently had the opportunity to discuss Stoicism, Cynicism and much more with Robert Woolston who is an author and researcher on topics related to philosophy and history. He has a Masters of Library & Information Science (MLIS) from the University of South Carolina and is currently enrolled in a Philosophy program at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of Stoicism 2.0: How Stoic Philosophy Can Improve Your Life in the 21st Century, and we wanted to learn more about some of the ideas in the book—from how Stoic philosophy can help us in our workplaces to our homes, and Robert was kind enough to answer our questions. Enjoy our interview below with Robert Woolston!
We thought we’d start with the Cynics. You open one of your books with the famous story of Alexander the Great meeting Diogenes. From then on you proceed to trace the connection between the Cynics and the Stoics. Can you explain that connection to us?
The connection between the philosophy of Cynicism and Stoicism is quite strong once one reviews the historical literature. In fact the founder of Stoicism, a man by the name of Zeno of Citium (c 300 BC), came to develop the philosophy under the tutelage of a great Cynic philosopher named Crates of Thebes. Along with other prominent Cynic philosophers of Ancient Greece including Diogenes of Sinope, Antisthenes, and Monimus of Syracuse, the doctrine of Cynicism introduced the concept of living a virtuous life in agreement with nature. Thus, the Cynics endorsed a kind of simple, ascetic lifestyle so as to develop a focus on virtuous living, genuinely, without distraction from conventional desires or materialism (i.e. wealth, power, property, fame, possessions, etc). The Cynic emphasis on asceticism and virtuous living in connection with nature was directly incorporated into the later philosophy of Stoicism, by Zeno and his followers.
You write a lot about Stoicism in the 21st century, and one of your chapters is titled “Stoicism in the Workplace.” How can Stoicism help with our relationships with our colleagues and with our work in general?
Stoicism in the Workplace is in fact one of my favorite chapters of Stoicism 2.0 since we spend so much of our modern lives in the workplace. While Stoic philosophy can be applied to the work ethic of an entrepreneur or sole proprietor, this chapter looks at how we can apply Stoic wisdom to better navigate the challenges of a communal workplace or office environment. Stoic doctrines such as control of one’s emotional state, rational thinking, ethical behavior and avoidance of petty distractions (e.g. office gossip, ego battles, passive-aggressive managers, etc) can allow one to become more productive and fulfilled in the workplace environment.
You also say that “as Ancient Stoicism can be applied to the workplace environment, so too can the philosophy be utilized in the social fabric of the modern home.” What are 1-3 ideas that readers can apply today in their homes to improve their relationships with those around them?
Excellent question. First, family members can improve their relationships both within the home and outside of it by reading and meditating upon Stoic literature. For example, new translated versions of Marcus Aurelius‘ Meditations or Epictetus’ The Art of Living contain a wealth of Stoic maxims that read much like motivational quotes or religious scripture which are perhaps more widely referenced. Family members young and old can repeat these maxims regularly in their daily Stoic walk. Second, a family unit can benefit greatly from limiting the influence of outside distractions or temptations which detract from healthy communication and relationship building. Examples here include placing strict limits on television, mindless internet browsing, shopping and consumption in general. While we should take time to reward ourselves and family with some entertainment musings, a Stoic home is one that places strict limits on this to avoid overindulgence. Third, I’d simply say that the modern home must place a strong emphasis on virtue and ethics above all else. For the Ancient Stoics, the virtuous life was the ultimate goal and so too must it be for the home environment. Family members would do well to focus on exemplifying virtuous habits that include mutual respect, compassion, integrity, patience and love.
Stoicism was the foundational philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and you dedicate a good portion in your work to talk about how Stoicism can help us with our mental help. What are the key lessons from Stoicism that can help us with our inner lives?
Stoicism offers all of us, not just those with a diagnosed mental illness, the opportunity for greater personal insight within ourselves. Emotional control is certainly one of the core tenets of Stoic philosophy that can allow us to become more fulfilled and character driven. By that I mean the ability to detach ourselves from our emotional states in order to rationally observe our feelings/emotions and respond appropriately. A common misconception is that “to be Stoic” is to be emotionless or without feeling. That is completely false. A practicing Stoic has emotions, of course; however he/she is able to control their emotional state so as to diminish the manifestation of irrational behaviors that are produced from unrestrained emotions. This allows one to think and behave more rationally without interference from destructive emotions.
Given that you are at UNO we thought it might be interesting to also ask you about Southern Stoicism. We have previously covered the subject in our interview with the late Professor Peter Lawler. Is that something you have studied? If so, how did you encounter it and can you elaborate a bit on it?
To be honest I have not previously encountered the term Southern Stoicism nor studied the concept until I read through your prior interview transcript with Dr. Peter Lawler on the subject. As a post-baccalaureate student at the University of New Orleans and life-long South Carolina resident, I can certainly recognize some of the cultural and social manifestations of Stoicism unique to the American South which Dr. Lawler points out. Much of the Southeastern United States embodies a culture that emphasizes traditional values, personal responsibility and family/community allegiance. This of course can be observed in the relatively high enlistment rates of Southern people in the US Armed Forces along with the region’s strong emphasis on religion and church attendance (i.e. Bible Belt). From my own experiences and upbringing, I would say there’s definitely a kind of regional Stoicism unique to (not all, but much of) the American South based on localized cultural norms that emphasize personal responsibility, self-discipline, sacrifice for family/community and general resilience/fortitude.
Another unique regional ethos of the American South is the ideal of the “southern gentleman” as the archetype of the southern man who embodies a chivalrous, virtuous, and honorable character. In many southern families and social circles, the ideal of the southern gentleman is impressed upon young males as they grow and mature into adulthood. This too reflects an emphasis on stoic qualities, in particular for exhibiting virtue and noble conduct in their lives regardless of any circumstances or difficulties one might experience. The example of the character Atticus Finch (from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) brought forth by Dr. Lawler in your interview definitely represents a distinct set of southern stoic virtues; I would also assert that Atticus Finch represents the ideal model of the southern gentleman through his adherence to stoic duty and justice despite the social inequities that surround him. It also reminds me of similar example from another well-known Southern author, John Grisham, in his book A Time To Kill through the character Jake Brigance (a Mississippi lawyer who exhibits stoic qualities in the face of social and racial injustice towards both him and his client). Examples of applied Stoicism certainly worth reflecting upon regardless of where we come from.
What is your favorite Stoic quote?
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.” – Epictetus
Anything you want to say to the Daily Stoic community?
It’s wonderful to see such a strong and vibrant following on the site and social media pages. Like many of you, I also get a great deal of insight from the Daily Stoic blog posts and Ryan’s books. With over 90,000 followers it’s clear that a modern application of Ancient Stoicism is here to stay in the 21st Century.
What’s next for you?
“I’m currently in the process of writing another book while taking Philosophy courses part-time through the University of New Orleans. The book I’m writing now is entitled Native American Philosophy: A Historical and Regional Overview…a paperback and ebook text that looks at the history and culture of Native American/Indigenous philosophies, set for release later this year.
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