In January 2018, I was granted an interview Dr. Chuck Chakrapani. He is the author of five wonderful Stoic books: Unshakable Freedom, A Fortunate Storm, The Good Life Handbook, and two books based on Epictetus’ Discourses, called Stoic Choices and Stoic Foundations. He also presented at Stoicon 2017 and Stoicon-x Toronto. We spoke about Stoicism, modern life, and the impact of technology.
DL = Dan Lampert (Organizer of The Orlando Stoics and Editor of Indifferents Quarterly)
CC = Chuck Chakrapani
...Enter Dan and Chuck
DL: I enjoyed your talk at Stoicon 2017 entitled “The Stoic Minimalist”. You created a great metaphor by saying Stoicism is not a staircase, where each step builds upon the last, but rather Stoicism is a symphony. And you added that someone could read any 10 of the 96 Discourses by Epictetus, in order to cover the major concepts in Stoicism. What would you posit are the most important Stoic concepts for the modern world?
CC: Thank you for your kind words. The interesting thing about Stoicism is that all its concepts are interlinked. So any two or three concepts that appeal to you – if you study them in depth – will bring with it the other concepts as well. The concepts that appealed to me initially were:
You can choose your response under any conditions (Marcus Aurelius)
Some things are under your control and some are not. Don’t concern yourself about things you don’t control (Epictetus)
All good and evil arise out of your actions (Epictetus) because you only have control over these.
Some other Stoic principles (but not these) may appeal to you. That doesn’t matter. Stay with and explore whatever appeals to you. Soon enough you will be practicing other principles as well.
DL: What city do you live in, and what local Stoic group are you a member of?
CC: I live in Toronto. I am not a member of any local group although there is a flourishing Stoic Circle, organized by Peter Limberg and Daniel Kazandjian.
DL: In another part of your Stoicon 2017 presentation, I think you described how our culture supports robotic behavior. In other words, people feel they have the right to strike back when something happens to them (especially on social media). Instead, you gently reminded people “you are not a robot, you can choose your response.” Did I remember right? Do you have other Stoic tips for people who are on social media frequently?
CC: People seem to be too easily upset by contrary points of view and are often uncivil (to put it mildly) to others on social media. You might try to remember there is no reason to be angry. Stoics should know that your anger can harm only you. As Buddha put it, being angry is like “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
DL: When you meet people who’ve studied Stoicism – or perhaps read one of your books – what concept or idea did they say resonates with them?
CC: This depends on the person. There is no consensus. But the concept that helps most people in distress is the idea that there is no point in stewing over things if they are not under your control.
DL: One of your blog entries in December 2017 gave advice on dealing with impressions. This topic is covered by Seneca and Epictetus often, but I felt your approach was engaging. You said we naturally move toward the good and away from the bad, therefore our only concern should be about making correct choices. What more advice can you give on modern living where good and bad news is a river flowing through our lives (TV, web sites, social media, email, texts).
CC: The news itself is of little concern to us. External conditions – who is in the White House, global warming, pollution etc. – are what they are. And they will be what they will be. We need to concern ourselves only with our thoughts and actions, without getting upset about how things are. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It is far more rational than desperately trying to rearrange the world. Good and bad come from us.
DL: As the organizer of The Orlando Stoics, I’m often asked by newcomers “how can I start practicing Stoicism?” Since I’ve heard your reputation is for communicating Stoic philosophy in plain-English, I’m curious what suggestions you might offer to people who are starting their practice of Stoicism in their own lives?
CC replied with this list:
Don’t try to learn all about Stoicism. Not at the beginning anyway.
Start with something simple. I recommend Enchiridion. (My online version The Good Life Handbook is available on Amazon and other online stores and it is free.)
Read the entire book (it takes only a couple of hours).
Note two or three things – or even just a single thing – that appeals to you.
Keep practicing what appeals to you.
Keep reading whatever you find interesting.
After a while, you will know what to do. There is no shortage of advice on what to read.
DL: In your book “Unshakable Freedom”, chapter 1 begins with the idea that freedom is an ideal for most of us, not a reality. Specifically, our freedoms are limited by our jobs, our finances, our health, and many other things. How do you feel that technology and it’s ubiquity help or hinder our freedoms?
CC: Technology can both help and hinder our EXTERNAL freedoms. On balance, currently I find technology very helpful and not a hindrance. But that can change and change fast. But our question is, no matter how many of our external freedoms are taken away, can we still be free? As Viktor Frankl put it, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” That is the first of the Stoic freedoms. And that’s also the last of the Stoic freedoms. In fact, it is the only freedom we can truly have.
DL: In your book “The Good Life Handbook”, chapter 40 is entitled “Cultivate modesty and self-respect”. Your advice is focused on girls as they grow up and get attention for their looks, which can cause them to be preoccupied with their appearance. Exploring this from another angle... what Stoic approach can we use to help kids who are publicly-shamed or bullied for their appearance?
CC: I don’t have that much experience with kids and I am reluctant to offer generalized advice in this area.
DL: In my other interviews with Donald Robertson and Massimo Pigliucci, we’ve touched upon how Stoicism is popular within certain groups (the military, Silicon Valley, and people interested in secular alternatives to religion). What groups do you identify with? Or what groups can you add to the list?
CC: Interesting. I am invited to give a talk in Silicon Valley next month myself. I heard that the National Health Services in the UK is promoting Stoicism, although I have no personal knowledge of this.
I do not identify myself with any group – no party, no religion, no country, no philosophy. I don’t even call myself a Stoic. As I see it, all I have is a life to live and I use any good idea I can find anywhere. I find Stoic ideas are among the most useful to live a productive life. So I use them.
I try to popularize Stoic ideas using plain English via thestoicgym.com because I think it might help others. But I am no proselytizer and, if the entire world rejects Stoicism, I will still be using Stoic ideas as long as I find them useful.