An Interview with Dr. Ronald Pies

In April 2018, I was granted an interview with Dr. Ronald Pies. He is a retired psychiatrist with a long-standing interest in religion, philosophy, and the humanities. His exposure to the work of Dr. Albert Ellis (the originator of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) led him to explore the Stoics, who were a strong influence on Ellis. He’s also the author of The Three-Petalled Rose, in which he compares Stoicism to Judaism and Buddhism. He was also a speaker at Stoicon 2017.

DL = Dan Lampert (Organizer of The Orlando Stoics and Editor of Indifferents Quarterly)

RP = Dr. Ronald Pies

...Enter Dan and Ronald

DL: In the introduction to your book, "The Three-Petalled Rose", you discuss people who influenced your path. Was there a single concept — learned along the way — that was more important than others in bringing you to compare Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism? For me, it was the concept of non-attachment that led me to compare Buddhism and Stoicism.

RP: My exploration of the three traditions was probably based more on what Ludwig Wittgenstein called “family resemblances” than on a single concept held in common; that is, there are certain overlapping traits that I gradually discovered over many years of exploring the three traditions (as you say, Dan, non-attachment certainly links Buddhism and Stoicism—and to some extent, Judaism, too). I was raised in a Jewish household, but I was never personally “observant”. However, after my college years, I began reading about Talmudic and Rabbinic Judaism, some years before I began investigating Stoicism or Buddhism. One of the towering figures in Rabbinic Judaism is Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), who lived in the 12th century CE and is best known for his “Guide of the Perplexed.” Maimonides emphasized the critical importance of rational thinking and “the middle way”—that is, avoiding extremes of behavior or emotion. Many of these ideas came to him by way of Aristotle, but Maimonides, at heart, had a great deal in common with the Stoics. The importance of reason and self-examination also turns out to be very important in many forms of Buddhism (though not in the Zen tradition). So does the concept of “the middle way”, which emphasizes a mid-course between asceticism and hedonism. So, reason and moderation could be called a “family resemblance” that unifies Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism. 

DL: When you talk to people who've read your book or heard one of your lectures, what Stoic concept do they say resonates with them?

RP: I think many people are struck by the idea that their emotions are not merely “forces of nature” that will inevitably control them; but rather, that our emotions are largely the product of our own thought processes. And if you can control or modulate your thought processes, you can control your emotions. It seems commonsensical to those of us steeped in the Stoic world view, but many people are a bit startled to hear that emotions are something we can actually control, and are not dictated by events, things, or other people. So, I think people resonate with the Stoic notion that “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things in themselves have no natural power to form our judgments” (from Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VI).

DL: In your Stoicon 2017 presentation, I remember the moment that you introduced the term "JuBuSto": somone who studies Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. The audience found this very entertaining. I also found fascinating the traits that all three beliefs share. Can you explain them a little. 

RP: Yes, I have summarized what I see as the eight common features of “JuBuSto” as follows: 

  1. It is important to think clearly and carefully about our everyday experience and how we choose to respond to it.
  2. There is a direct connection between how much we suffer or flourish in life, and how clearly we think.
  3. There is a realm of human concern outside the narrow interests of "self," and a common bond that unites all human beings. 
  4. This common bond imposes ethical obligations upon us, and by fulfilling these, we also live a fulfilled life. 
  5. Limiting our desires and attachments is essential to living the good life. 
  6. Appreciating impermanence and mortality allows us to find real meaning in life.
  7. Being grateful for what we have is essential to the fulfilled and flourishing life. 
  8. Self-mastery and the avoidance of anger or aggression are essential to the fulfilled and flourishing life. 

DL: What advice would you offer on starting to practice Stoicism? I hear this question from students in our weekly meetings in Orlando. I'm sure other Stoic group leaders hear this question also.

RP: That’s hard for me to answer, Dan, since I don’t consider myself as someone who systematically “practices” Stoicism. Rather, for me, Stoicism is a central thread in the larger tapestry of how I live my life—but there are other important threads woven in, all making up a single, relatively coherent pattern. That said: if I were to give beginning students of Stoicism any advice, it would be to read Marcus’s Meditations, and then Seneca’s wonderful Letters From a Stoic. The translation of the Meditations by Scot Hicks and David Hicks is particularly good. Both these works provide a solid introduction to later developments in Stoicism. There are many other fine books by modern scholars of Stoicism, such as Keith Seddon, William Irvine, Patrick Ussher, Donald Robertson, and Chuck Chakrapani, to name just a few. 

DL: I remember you gave a little history lesson that connects Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. I can't remember the exact dates, but I formed this mental picture: 700 BCE Hebrew Bible, 500 BCE Buddha, and 300 BCE Zeno of Citium. In my mind, the 700-500-300 was a memory device. Did I get the dates right? And what specifically do those dates represent?

RP: Yes, you got those round numbers right, Dan! The Hebrew Bible, of course, was developed and compiled over many centuries, and some scholars give a range from about 1200 to 100 BCE, reaching its current form in the 2nd century CE  [see:]. As for the historical Buddha—Siddhartha Gautama—most sources date his life to around 560-480 BCE. And Zeno of Citium, the “founder” of Stoicism, lived from about 334 - 262 B.C.E. 

DL: Who was Judah ha-Nasi (135-220 CE) and was he a friend of Marcus Aurelius?

RP: Rabbi Judah (Yehuda) ha-Nasi assembled and edited the “Oral Law”—the stories and teachings handed down from generation to generation of sages—into what became known as the Mishnah (meaning “Study”). The Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud and contains both legal and ethical teachings of Judaism. It might be thought of as a kind of “user’s manual” for the written collection of works known as the Torah (usually defined as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known outside Jewish circles as “The Old Testament”). The second part of the Talmud is known as the Gemara, and is essentially a very long commentary on the Mishnah. As for Rabbi Judah’s affiliation with Marcus Aurelius, the historical record is a bit murky on this. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Judah was a friend of one of the Antonine emperors—either Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius—and is said to have discussed philosophy with this (unspecified) Roman emperor. I think this is mostly folklore, but it could be that Rabbi Judah knew Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, the Jewish Virtual Library asserts that the Rabbi and Marcus “…became close friends, which redounded to the benefit of the Jewish People.”  []

DL: Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BCE) is credited with developing the concept of ataraxia (freedom from worry). How did this philosopher contribute to Stoicism?

RP: Pyrrho was a Greek philosopher and founder of—no surprise—Pyrrhonism, a variant of the Greek school of Skepticism. Basically, Pyrrhonism suspends judgment on the truth or falsity of any issue; and ultimately, is said to achieve tranquility by this means. [see].

Pyrrho’s life probably overlapped with that of Zeno of Citium. As you suggest, Pyrrho is often credited with developing the idea of "ataraxia" (or "inner peace") as the ultimate goal of life. It appears that this idea was later borrowed by Epicureanism and may have been incorporated into later Stoic philosophy [see:]. 

However, Pyrrho’s radical skepticism would likely have brought him into some conflict with contemporary Stoics, who did not deny the possibility of true knowledge. That said, both Cicero and Seneca were at least familiar with Pyrrho. Cicero—rightly or not—speaks of Pyrrho as holding that virtue is the sole good, which, of course, is a central belief of Stoicism. The modern consensus, however, is that “Pyrrho seems to have had very little impact in the ancient world after his own lifetime.” []

Pyrrho apparently accompanied Alexander the Great to India, and probably absorbed some “Eastern” philosophical beliefs, which almost certainly included Buddhist beliefs. It seems likely that Pyrrho brought some of these Buddhist influences back to Greece, but this is mostly conjecture, and it is unclear whether he actually communicated any Buddhist ideas to his Greek contemporaries. Nevertheless, contemporary sources emphasize “…the Indians' extraordinary impassivity and insensitivity to pain and hardship…” [], which certainly has affinities with Stoicism. 

DL: I remember you quoting the Dalai Lama: he said Buddhism, in brief, means "kindess to others". Have you ever met the Dalai Lama or heard his impressions of Stoicism?

RP: I have never had the honor of meeting the Dalai Lama, and I am not aware that he has directly referenced the Stoics. (You can learn much more about the Dalai Lama in the book, The Art of Happiness, co-authored with psychiatrist Dr. Howard C. Cutler). However, some of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on “suffering” are very much in the Stoic spirit; e.g., “…it can be useful to prepare yourself ahead of time by familiarizing yourself with the kinds of suffering you might encounter…” (cf. the Stoic habit of premeditatio malorum—“a contemplation of possible adversity to come”, discussed by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci:

You are right that the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “My religion is kindness,” and this is emphasized in chapter 7 (on “compassion”) of the book with Dr. Cutler. There, he speaks of how “…all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself…[thus] you develop a sense of affinity and closeness with others.” This sentiment is quite close to that expressed by Marcus Aurelius: “All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred…[and there is] one common Reason of all intelligent creatures…” (from Meditations). Kindness and respect for others is also a central value of Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. The concept of chesed (“loving-kindness”) appears in the Torah more than 190 times, and the rabbis of the Talmud considered compassion an essential component of Judaism. 

DL: In my other interviews with Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, and Chuck Chakrapani, I've asked them to identify groups for which Stoicism is popular. Examples are the military and people in Silicon Valley. Can you add any other groups or reasons why these groups are interested in a secular system like Stoicism?

RP: Of course, as Donald Robertson has written, Stoicism is a major influence on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT)—so therapists of this persuasion are certainly interested in Stoicism. (See Donald’s book, The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy). As you suggest, the military has a strong connection to Stoicism, as Nancy Sherman shows in her book, Stoic Warriors. And, I suspect that many in the corporate and business world are interested in the practical aspects of Stoicism, such as how to deal with difficult colleagues! For example—and I haven’t read this book—we have Marcus Oren’s book, Stoicism: The ultimate guide to implementing stoic philosophy in your everyday life for personal growth, better relationships and career success.

DL: Thank you for sharing wisdom with us. 

RP: My privilege, Dan—and thank you.

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For more info, the book "The Three-Petalled Rose" is available on Amazon, and the author’s other books are here.