Stoic Exercise for Mental Fitness: An Interview With William Ferraiolo

William Ferraiolo’s forthcoming book, Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Fitness (late 2017), came across our radars recently as it was blurbed by no other than Massimo Pigliucci. We immediately reached out to Bill to ask for an interview so he could tell us more both about his own journey in philosophy and how this new book came to be.

We talk about how Stoicism can help us channel our anger and negative energy, his favorite Stoic quotes, the Stoic reminders he uses throughout the day and why Epictetus is his hero and someone who’d make a great MMA coach.


Enjoy our interview with Bill below!

 

Hey Bill, thanks for the interview! I’ve read that you discovered Epictetus after you “could no longer release anxiety and the attendant aggression in combat and collision sports.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about how Stoicism helped you with those challenges and what you would say to people who are struggling to overcome similar obstacles?

That’s correct. As a young man, I was heavily involved in American football, wrestling, and boxing. After destroying my knee and my neck, those pursuits were no longer viable outlets for the aggression that appears, in my case, to be the primary manifestation of my anxiety/depression. Luckily, I discovered Epictetus and began applying Stoic practices to learn how to redirect nervous energy to the project of challenging the beliefs and expectations that tended to trigger my aggressive impulses. I realized that it was largely the irrational insistence that other persons, or external conditions, ought to conform to my pre-reflective desires that was causing me to be angry and frustrated so frequently. Gradually, I developed a method (described here) and began to evaluate the causes of my dysfunctional psychological states. Those states still arise more often than I like to admit, but I am much better able to manage them now (for the most part).

 

You have a new book out, Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Fitness. Can you tell us a bit more about it and why you wrote it?

It comes out on October 27th (but should be available for pre-order within the next few weeks). The book began as a bit of bibliotherapy for my own benefit. Initially, I had not intended to publish it. I was simply writing down some of my thoughts, and my analyses of the causes and consequences of various events in a pocket-sized notebook that I carried around with me. After a few weeks of jotting my thoughts down ten or more times a day, it occurred to me that I was producing something like a collection of Stoic meditations regarding my own failures of self-discipline (and related matters). It occurred to me that other people might derive the same sorts of benefit from reading it that I hoped to derive from writing it. So, I started looking for a publisher. Stoicism really came in handy with that endeavor as well. Rejection is a wonderful opportunity for practice.

 

What does your day-to-day Stoic routine look like? What ideas from Stoicism do you find the most valuable?

I like to build physical exercise into various components of my day. For example, I do calf raises while I’m waiting for the shower to get warm, and I do a lot of isometric exercises during office hours, when I go to meetings, and when I watch television or movies. Similarly, I remind myself throughout the day that I need to distinguish between what I can control, and what I cannot, at the moment in question. My daily commute to campus, for example, provides lots of opportunity to notice that I have just gotten angry over what some other driver is doing, and that it is irrational to get worked up over the movements of a vehicle and the behavior of a driver that are beyond my control. My colleagues, students, and other people I encounter throughout the day are all opportunities for developing greater self-discipline, and for expanding the sphere of phenomena that I learn to endure with less and less discontent. Anger is my most persistent challenge. Sometimes it still gets the better of me, but less often than before I discovered Stoicism.

 

What are your favorite Stoic quotes?

A few:

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”

― Epictetus

 

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

 

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”

― Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness

 

It’s a bit like asking, “What are a few of your favorite movies?” There are many more that get left out than get included. I would advise people to read everything they can find from Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and then read the contemporary stuff by Robertson, Irvine, Pigliucci, Holiday, Sellars, and others on an ever-expanding list of impressive authors on the subject.

 

Who do you consider the most influential stoic philosopher to you personally? If I had to guess I’d say it’s Epictetus?

Yes, Epictetus is my hero. We have the bad leg in common, after all. More importantly, Epictetus offers brutally honest assessments of the human condition, and an almost ruthless regime of discipline and practice for developing wise and rational self-governance. I think he would have made a great MMA (mixed martial arts) trainer! Stoic practice should, in my view, be as rigorous as is training for the Olympics or for a cage fight. The temptations to irrationality and self-pity are simply everywhere. I fall into those traps far too frequently. Reading Epictetus is usually the metaphorical backhand to the face that I need to get back on track.

 

Which aspect of Stoicism do you find the most difficult to practice? Or are there any concepts that you disagree with or reject?

One of Sartre’s characters in No Exit tells us that “Hell is…other people.” I seem to be something of a misanthrope by inclination. Recognizing that one’s character is largely, if not entirely, a function of heredity and environment, and that people mostly do what seems reasonable to them at the time, takes some of the edge off of my general misanthropic bent…but it remains something of a struggle. As for concepts that I reject, I suppose that I am somewhat less confident about the rational ordering of the Cosmos than were most of the ancient Stoics. I do not reject the possibility of intelligent design and cosmological engineering, but I am uncertain as to the centrality of human beings within the Grand Design (if, indeed, there is one).

 

Do you have particular a message you’d like to give to the Daily Stoic readers or the Stoic community at large?

Buy my book! That seems very self-serving (because it is), but I also honestly believe that just about anyone interested in Stoicism will derive significant benefit from reading the book and struggling “along with me” (so to speak) to improve themselves, enhance their practice, and share some of the challenges that I take to be fairly ubiquitous elements of the human condition. Besides, I only get about $2 per copy of the book so…I ain’t in this for the money. Besides, Massimo has written an endorsement blurb for it. That has got to count for something. Look into books by the aforementioned contemporary Stoic commentators also. There is a wealth of good Stoicism being produced these days. Thank you for this opportunity, and thank you to those who take the time to read this interview. It is an honor to participate in projects like this.