What does it mean to be a good parent in the philosophical sense? What does it mean to transcend in the way that Viktor Frankl envisioned after surviving the Holocaust? How can you learn to care wisely as the ancient Stoics intended?
These disparate questions have a common thread. Brittany Polat. An author, PhD holder and mental health advocate, Brittany has amazing insight into Stoic philosophy and it was wonderful to chat to her about how to build a path to eudaimonia (flourishing).
Great to have you on Stoic Athenaeum Brittany. Stoicism has played a big role in your life, which you’ve shared in works such as Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying, Calm, Mindful and Engaged and it’d be interesting to know how you think Stoicism can help in the context of parenting.
It’s nice to talk with you! Every parent knows how difficult it is to raise another human being, especially in the context of a global pandemic. I actually came to Stoicism as a result of having three children and realising that I needed some kind of operating system to do a good job as a parent.
If you read parenting books, you see that some of them recommend developing a “parenting philosophy” for how you want to raise your kids. But what Stoicism offers is a whole life philosophy, which sets your goals as a person, your goals as a family, and your specific ways of interacting with your kids. I think it’s important to define the big picture of your character and your life first, and then your goals as a parent will flow naturally from that.
Stoicism helps us to be consistent across all our roles: as a parent, as a professional, as a community member, and of course as a good person. This way we can model to our kids how to stay calm amidst frustration, how to interact effectively with other people and how to deal with adversity.
What techniques do you think can be used to promote Stoicism to children and encourage them to think in a philosophical way?
Although young children are not ready to do philosophy in the same way adults do philosophy, we can start introducing many Stoic concepts from a young age. Teaching children how to regulate their desires and aversions, deal with emotions, share and cooperate with others—these are all things parents do already. We can give them a Stoic twist as we help our kids develop these lifelong skills, so our kids will grow up with a Stoic outlook on life.
As your kids get older, you can then introduce more technical concepts (like eudaimonia and prohairesis, which are discussed below). But I think it’s important not to lecture your kids about Stoicism.
There’s no faster way to make an older child or teenager stop listening than to start lecturing. Instead, we want to focus on being a good role model and building a good relationship with our kids. When you do this, you will find plenty of teachable moments as you live and learn alongside your child—little opportunities to explain how a Stoic would do things. But the most effective teaching tool is always to lead by example!
Your work has a strong focus on the concept of transcendence. What does transcendence mean through a Stoic lens?
I use the word in its psychological sense of self-transcendence, which is actually a term coined by Viktor Frankl. Frankl (an Austrian psychiatrist who survived multiple concentration camps during the Holocaust) thought that we find meaning in life by connecting with something outside ourselves: doing meaningful work, loving someone, suffering for a noble cause.
If we get too stuck on ourselves and our own small concerns, our sense of proportion gets all out of balance, and we become petty and miserable. But when we expand our boundaries and connect with the wider universe and other people, we feel that we are part of something grand and meaningful.
Stoics expounded very similar ideas two thousand years before Frankl. When you read Seneca, Epictetus, and especially Marcus Aurelius, you see them constantly reminding us to get over ourselves. The famous “view from above” exercise is really about self-transcendence, connecting with the totality of the cosmos and giving our little egos a rest.
We need this sense of perspective to be psychologically healthy, and Stoicism offers a rational and practical way of seeing the big picture.
There’s a misinterpretation of Stoics being indifferent to others and not caring and it struck me in a recent interview you did with Modern Stoicism when you mentioned Stoics are meant to care wisely. What does it mean to care wisely?
Yes, I dedicated my talk at Stoicon last year to this topic because it’s so important and so misunderstood. I think this stereotype of unemotional and indifferent Stoics developed over the centuries because so many of the original Stoic teachings were lost. Later readers just didn’t have enough context to interpret the school’s doctrines in appropriately. Thanks to a lot of scholarly work in recent decades, we are in a much better position now to understand what the ancient Stoics were trying to tell us.
The ancient Stoics want us to care about other people—because it’s natural for humans to care about other humans—but they want us to do so without making our happiness depend on other people. There are many ways our happiness could be shattered by another person: people annoy us, insult us, reject us, leave us.
Stoicism says that we find our happiness by living in agreement with nature and developing an excellent character for ourselves. We don’t become happy by getting everything we want in life, and that includes other people.
If we want to find a rich and lasting happiness (eudaimonia), we need to focus on our inner resources, not on what other people are doing. We will never be happy if we make our happiness dependent on being loved by a certain person or on gaining social approval.
So Stoicism is not about not caring. It’s about learning to care wisely, in the right way and about the right things.
In your writing you’ve mentioned the 4 Cs of flourishing and I think it’s a great way to explain the outcomes of applying Stoicism to any situation. For those who are unfamiliar with the 4 Cs, what are they and why are they important to flourishing?
I developed the 4 Cs as a mnemonic device to help us stay Stoic in any situation:
Character + Cosmos + Control = Choice
When facing a challenge, the first thing to think about is maintaining your good character. If you start screaming at someone or otherwise react negatively, you are harming yourself by damaging your own character. You want to always remember your goal of being an excellent person.
Next, think about your connection to the cosmos. This will help you zoom out from the immediate situation and put things in perspective. Whatever is happening to you is a normal part of life; many other people are probably experiencing the same thing.
The famous dichotomy of control is also essential, as you remember what is within your power and what isn’t. If the stressor you’re dealing with is outside of your control, you can shift your mindset from frustration or hostility to acceptance. If the stressor is under your control—or even if you can partially influence it—then focus on taking action, not on being upset.
All these factors combine to help you make your choice about what to do. If you have thought about your character, the cosmos, and what is within your control, you will be able to make a good decision.
Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to do this on a regular basis. Preparation is your best ally: during your morning meditation, try to spend time reflecting on how you will handle upcoming challenges. That way you will be ready to respond with the 4 Cs whenever a difficult situation arises.
In addition to your written work, you’ve also launched Stoicare with Eve Riches. What are you hoping to achieve with Stoicare in the coming years?
Yes, we are really excited about our upcoming projects through Stoicare! In April we are partnering with the Stoic Fellowship and Modern Stoicism to host a Stoics Care conference.
This will highlight the caring/community side of Stoicism, alongside the Stoic Fellowship’s month of service. We hope to draw more attention to all the ways Stoics can care about other people and the planet.
We are also launching initiatives in some of our core areas of focus. We have veterans in fields such as teaching, healthcare, and social work who are creating Stoic-inspired materials.
For example, Tim Iverson is presenting a practical curriculum for teachers who want to integrate Stoicism and mindfulness in the classroom, and Kathryn Bucher has created a beautiful seminar for integrating Stoicism and nursing.
We have many more exciting projects coming up, so anyone who is interested can subscribe to the Stoicare mailing list to receive updates.
Breaking down the technical terms of Stoicism is something I find fascinating and two ideas that stand out are prohairesis and eudaimonia. What do those terms mean to you?
Let’s tackle eudaimonia first. This was the ancient Greek term for deep, rich flourishing—living your best life, we might say today. It definitely does not correspond to the 21st century understanding of happiness, which usually means a fleeting emotion based on receiving external goods.
Eudaimonia is a stable condition that results from the development of wisdom. I love A.A. Long’s definition (from Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life):
“Philosophical eudaimonia is a condition in which a person of excellent character is living optimally well, flourishing, doing admirably, and steadily enjoying the best mindset that is available to human beings.” It’s a condition that’s worth working your whole life to achieve.
Epictetus’s favourite term, prohairesis, is much harder to pin down. Although it means “choice” in a basic sense, it means so much more in a philosophical sense.
In my interpretation, prohairesis is more like your moral self: it’s the character you’ve built for yourself over time, the accumulation of your past choices. Each choice we make in the present paves the way for all our future choices.
Each choice shapes who we are, how we see ourselves, and how likely we are to take certain actions in the future. So when Epictetus says, “You are your prohairesis,” this is true on many levels. You create your self—your character—through your past and present choices. Thinking about our prohairesis can really inspire us to make good choices today to create the future self we want to be.
What other projects are you excited to be working on in the near future?
I mentioned some of our projects through Stoicare, but I also continue to develop new ideas on moral psychology through my other website, Living in Agreement.
For those interested in parenting, we have a Stoic Parents Facebook group. You can also follow me on Twitter (@brittanypolat) for other updates and musings on Stoicism. For those who have questions or suggestions, feel free to reach out to me at any of those platforms.