Importance of the Art of Teaching Stoicism

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A book with a gibberish language as writing represents study. Behind it is a chalkboard, representing a classroom - and behind that, the size of the whole image, yet semi-transparent through the chalkboard, is the flame that represents the Logos. On the chalkboard are written the words "Welcome to STOICISM" - and a rough outline-sketch of the flame is also chalked onto the board labeled with the word "Logos". This image is for articles in this blog related to the teaching of Stoicism.
Stoic philosophy is all about the art of living virtuously one’s self. However, the art of training another to do so, while definitely not an inherent part of Stoic philosophy itself, is something that the Stoic community would do well to also cultivate.
For a long time in my study of Stoic philosophy, my progress was extremely slow. I did have an ephiphany early on that dispelled my initial impression that I wasn’t progressing at all. I even was able, thanks in part to strength derived from Stoic training, to make a few very important decisions in my life correctly despite intense pressure to do otherwise. Nonetheless, my progress in the area of ingraining Stoic philosophy into my everyday behavior was moving at a snail’s pase.

Then, all of a sudden (not too long ago, as a matter of fact) I was suddenly inspired to experiment with the idea of combining my long-time interest in prayer beads with my study of Stoic philosophy. This resulted in a system of gathas which, combined with a breath-meditation borrowed from Buddhism, as well as a number of practices a bit more native to Stoic tradition than these, allowed me to form a regimen of spiritual exercises that facilitated me progressing over the next few weeks much farther than I had progressed in my entire time of studying Stoicism prior to that – which amounted to roughly a decade.

Due to the very unconventional nature of certain parts of my regimen of spiritual exercises, I opened a discussion with one of the online Stoic groups that I participate in on the topic of whether or not my dependence on these exercises (as I find that my discipline is far less on days when time-constraints compel me to skip all or part of this regimen) constitutes an attachment that would be at odds with the Stoic philosophy. The overwhelming verdict of the discussion, though, was that as unconventional as my regimen is, it is nonetheless validly my personal regimen of ascesis (i.e. the Stoic practice of using spiritual exercises to cultivate the character that the philosophy calls for) – and that therefore it is an imperative that I continue to practice this regimen faithfully.

This got me thinking of how long it took me to find the ascetic regimen that works for me. For some reason, I had continued studying Stoicism all these years – yet I am certain that many people try Stoicism only to walk away in discouragement. I also would not be surprised if among the reasons why some people reject Stoicism altogether is the impression of it being impossible to ever really ingrain that way of thinking into themselves. And this got me wondering how many of those who walked away from Stoicism in frustration migth have stayed if they had been better helped to find the ascetic regimen that works for them — and how those who reject Stoicism out of the perception of it’s impossibility might benefit if they could be helped to see how it can indeed work for them.

And it then occurred to me — the Stoic community would do well to not limimit itself to just the cultivation of the Stoic philosophy itself – but to also cultivate related arts, such as the art of teaching Stoicism. From ancient times, arguments have been made as to why it would be preferred for everyone to study philosophy, of which most Stoics would consider Stoicism to be the purest and truest form. However, in practice, teachers of the philosophy were way too willing to accept that students who did not on their own constantly push to learn more are just not meant by the Universe to be philosophers. I suspect that part of the reason for this could be that while many of these teachers were very adept at the art of living Stoicism themselves and of thinking very clearly in a Stoic fashion and, in some cases, even at preserving the philosophy in written form for later centuries (without which there would be no modern Stoics) they were deficient at one crucial art – the art of teaching Stoicism.

Why has the Stoic community so far not cultivated the Art of Teaching Stoicism?
There are a number of reasons why the Stoic community never really did much to develop an Art of Teaching Stoicism. Part of it may be because societal appreciation of any art of teaching anything (beyond, of course, a good command of the subject-matter being taught itself) is a fairly new phenomenon. Even in today’s day and age it is often forgotten. But in reality, there is much more to teaching virtually anything than just being good at the subject matter itself – and as such, you can live your life as a Stoic at a near-Sagelike level yet still be deficient at passing the philosophy on to all but the most ideal made-to-order students.

Another reason why Stoics never really developed an art of teaching the philosophy may be an imperfect calculation on what is and what isn’t in one’s locus of control in this regard. Stoics cultivate the virtue of wisdom, which includes the ability to make these calculations with much greater accuracy than the untrained mind can dream of doing. But as Sagehood is an asymptotal goal rather than an attainable one, even the best of Stoics may miscalculate such things from time to time – and one such miscalculation may have resulted in the failure to cultivate an art for teaching Stoicism.

There is a saying: “You can bring the horse to water, but you can’t make the horse drink”. This refers to a very true fact that the most any teacher can do is offer the student the opportunity to learn, and to a limited extent even offer incentives for the student to learn – but ultimately, the student has to make the move of actually learning. And it is true that no matter how good a teacher is, there can always be a student who is either flat-out unwilling to learn or who is truly incapable of doing so. When this happens, it isn’t the teacher’s fault – and Stoicism emphasizes how nobody should see themselves as responsible for that which is not in their locus of control.

However, historically, teachers of Stoicism may have too often leaped to the hasty assumption that this was indeed the case – that any student who failed to learn when offered the wisdom in whatever manner the teacher offered it (and in some cases, any student who failed to persistently demand to be taught) was among these unteachable students. This, of course, was a serious mistake. While some students may indeed be unteachable, one shouldn’t assume that this is so just because the first manner attempted at presenting the philosophy to that student doesn’t work. While a teacher is not responsible if a student is truly unteachable, the teacher is indeed responsible if he or she could within reasonable means have done more to reach the student or could have directed effort more wisely for this purpose.

So why the urgency now to develop the Art of Teaching Stoicism?
All this is not to denigrate these ancient philosophers. Criticizing their teaching ability on account of their failure to reach all but the most ideal students does not detract from their brilliance in thinking and in producing the writings that make our work today possible. But it does mean that this is one area where we modern Stoics should really try to do better than our ancient predecessors.

As I wrote in an earlier article titled A Case for Stoic Outreach, we need to be doing what we can to promote more people in society adopting Stoicism and making it part of their way of life. This effort is incompatible with being too quick to write off a potential student as “unteachable”. Rather, it requires that we do whatever is in our power to increase the likelihood of any person who gives us any opportunity at all to teach them becoming themself a good Stoic prokopton. This requires that an Art of Teaching Stoicism be developed.

What should the art strive to do?
So what would be the goals of the Art of Teaching Stoicism? I may not be able to come up with a comprehensive list of all features that we should prefer this art have – but I can come up with a starter list of features.

A teacher of Stoicism should be good at convincing students, and even potential students, that Stoicism is something that they want to study – and that the Stoic life is the life they want to strive for. The old paradigm of selecting students by seeing who’s left after you’ve driven everyone else away is well over two-thousand years overdue for retirement. Seriously – let’s have no more of that. We can not force anyone to be inspired to learn Stoicism – but we need to start doing whatever is in our power to promote that – and that includes learning how to best promote that.

A teacher of Stoicism should be good at helping students of Stoicism with obstacles that they face. From the get-go, I never had much trouble gaining an intellectual understanding of Stoicism – but as I explained in the lead-in to this article, for a long time I had great difficulty ingraining the philosophy into my everyday behavior. Had I a good teacher in my life, maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long to overcome this. Likewise, there may be some students for whom gaing an intellectual understanding of the philosophy is exactly where they are struggling — as well as students who understand the basic theory, but struggle to figure out how it applies to their life situations. The goal of the Art of Teaching Stoicism should be to equip a teacher to be able to help students through such hurdles as well.

And though most (even if not all) aspects of this art can be specialized – that meaning that not every Stoic need be able to serve as a teacher of Stoicism – this still can not be an art that one has to go away and study a few years full-time at school somewhere. Let’s face it – in these dark times, funds for teaching in-general are being threatened and cut, not bolstered. And as for funds for teaching Stoicism – any serious amount of money for that purpose won’t exist until after, possibly well after the more rational society that we strive for is acheived. Relying on such funds for such a critical part of our pursuit of this society would be a prime example of putting the cart before the horse. This means that for the time being, teaching Stoicism (whether to children or to adults) isn’t going to be anyone’s full-time job – or even a paid part-time job for that matter. It is going to be a volunteer effort that people do in their spare time. The burden imposed by the process of preparing someone for this job must be at a level that is appropriate for this reality – or else people simply won’t be able to do it.

So – how should Stoicism be taught?
So how do we go about teaching Stoicism? Unfortunately, this is one area where I come more with questions than with answers. However, though the few answers that I bring are not even anywhere within sight of being adequate – what little I do have in that regard I will share here as the first drops in the bucket.

For starters – we should take whatever input we can get from anyone who has any experience teaching any subject at all – whether their experience is in professional teaching or whether they, too, taught only on a volunteer basis. Not everything that these veteran teachers suggest will be applicable or useful to teaching Stoicism – but there’s a good chance that some of it will be.

The other thing is that we should teach not only with the mouth, but also with the ears – and by that I mean that a teacher of Stoicism should always be as receptive as possible to feedback. Hopefully more people than myself will be able to offer suggestions and the Art of Teaching Stoicism will be able to start from more than nothing-at-all – but it still, very likely, will be rather primitive to begin with. We therefore will need to make the most out of any bit of feedback that can allow us to improve on this art. Above all – if a student fails to learn, we should never leap to the gratuitous assumption that it is because of that student being inherently unteachable – even if it is beyond us to figure out how that student could have been better reached.

Last but not least — though the Art of Teaching Stoicism isn’t an inherent part of Stoic philosophy itslef — there is something that the philosophy itself does say that is crucially relevant to how the philosophy should be taught. Epictetus talked in great length how without the Hydra and other monsters that he faced, Hercules would have never had the opportunity to show his prowess. He therefore argues that these trials were not curses on Hercules, but opportunities for him to test his greatness. It is high time that teachers of Stoicism learn to see difficult students in the same light.

In conclusion …
I have long argued that we, as a Stoic community, should strive for more people to incorporate Stoicism into themselves. It would even go so far as to say that it would be preferable, as a matter of fact, if Stoicism became the new norm of human behavior. This means that training in Stoicism can not be limited to a small, select group of students – or to whoever is left after all others are driven off — but rather, should be taught to the masses. This means that it is now time to address one deficit that the ancient Stoics had – a good way of teaching the philosophy, not just to the ideal student, but also to students who are quite different from what teachers would ideally wish for.

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