Contemporary stoic? A calm being committed to the common good


When in 1992 Michel Berger, and five years later, lost their daughter Pauline, who had cystic fibrosis, France Gall found comfort in solace Seneca. The same is true of Nicolas Sarkozy. reading Letters to LuciliusRecommended by a friend, it helped him through « tough times in his life ». Stoicism, the art of emotional distancing, is a wonderful tool for healing wounds, but that’s not all, asserts Maël Guarzin, PhD, Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Lausanne and co-founder of Stoa Gallica, an association that promotes this current on a daily basis. Basis.

« Beyond personal development, the Stoics advocate a commitment to the city. Unlike the Epicureans who, in antiquity, barricaded themselves in their garden, the Stoics remained among men to improve things in their power.

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As part of PhilExpo22, the first philosophy festival covering the whole of Switzerland, Maël Goarzin and Blaise-Alexandre Le Comte are hosting this Tuesday 10 May in Lausanne-Canton and the University Library a philosophical café where they will specifically ask this question. « How do you move from theory to practice and act in society with good faith and commitment? »

Le Temps: For the past twenty years, stoicism has been in vogue as a prop for melancholy. What are its foundations?

Mile Gwarzen: This teaching is based on three pillars, and it really calms the soul. On the one hand, says Epictetus, one must exercise his judgment without prejudice. That is, to judge things as close as possible to what they are and not to what we imagine. Next, you have to temper your desires and focus on realistic goals, otherwise, if you aim for immortality, for example, you risk a certain frustration! Now, what the Stoic seeks above all is the stinging or the absence of disturbances.

And the third pillar?

Act with integrity in the spirit of the community and discern what counts on us in business or not. Epictetus takes the example of the arrow. An archer may take care of his gesture and shoot his arrow to perfection, he is not immune to gusts of wind. Thus, the Stoic must act as best he can, always in the common interest, but also accept that the result falls short of what he had hoped.

How does this translate politically?

Through active participation in the political and social life of his municipality, his canton, his country. But also by being useful to family, friends, colleagues, etc. Everything that contributes to the smooth running of the city and the improvement of political systems and social conditions are encouraged. This is why educating citizens in virtue, in justice in particular, is at the heart of our concerns.

Having said that, since it is a matter of starting from the existing and improving it, the Stoic is a reformer, not a revolutionary. When he was emperor, Marcus Aurelius, for example, did not abolish slavery, but enacted laws to ease the condition of slaves.

Stoic is not about fire and passion, so…

(He laughs). Oh no! But in condition and control! But he feels deep joy when he acts for the common good (on which he depends), regardless of the outcome of his work (on which he does not depend). He is aware of the shortcomings of his country’s laws, and uses the available legal means to improve matters, content with little progress.

Stoicism, on the other hand, is an ideal source of comfort…

Yes, because this philosophy establishes at least three areas, which, beyond our control, it is good to “give up”: the body – disability and death, for example, are beyond our control; Wealth – the Greek Epictetus was a slave, and therefore poor, while Seneca was a wealthy Roman; The important thing is not the money, but the benefit from it. And finally, fame – we are not responsible for the way others view us, so you don’t have to worry about it.

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Yes, but if a person is poor, sick, and alone, what comfort can he find in stoicism?

First, accept events for which he is not responsible. Poverty, disease, exile, disability, or any other tile does not prevent us from feeling happy.

Then count on the friendly support around you. From antiquity to the present day, the Stoics have always been very coherent. In ancient times, they offered mutual assistance, because the basic idea was to treat the other as oneself. Today, in the Stoa Gallica Association we created and its associated Facebook group, many people appreciate this listening and this teaching that says and repeats: “Focus on what you can change and calmly accept the rest.”

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There are a lot of similarities with the Christian message, right?

Yes, moreover, Montaigne was a Christian and Stoic. The big difference is that Stoicism does not believe in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, nor does it believe in a transcendent personality like the god of the monotheistic religions. In an essential principle, the Stoic is a part of the whole universe and possesses within it all the resources necessary for its salvation.

Since the current invites you to improve things, starting with yourself, what exercises are recommended?

First, there is a daily examination of conscience. Every evening, Emperor Marcus Aurelius would review what he had done during the day and assess where he had done well and where he had failed in his duty. Then, in the morning, there is an anticipation of diseases. A kind of mental preparation for the difficulties that will arise during the day and which allows you to react to them calmly. For example, every morning one can prepare for the hustle of the subway, so that when it happens, one avoids getting upset.

Detachment training?

Yes, to take better care of what surrounds us. Another exercise is the view from above. We take an event, such as the war these days, and put it in a broader context, considering that it happened over a period of ten years, a hundred years. It helps to de-dramatize the subject and provide better judgment. Marcus Aurelius used to think of a long list of emperors before him to put himself in his rightful place.

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This technique requires knowledge. Is stoicism reserved for the elite?

No, because we can practice this view from above quite well by liking photos taken by astronaut Thomas Bisquet from space, for example, or simply by going to Google Maps. You indicate your district and scale down your city, your canton, and your country, down to the Earth seen from above to see how small it is in the universe.

To combat the symbolic accusation of some things called « sacred, » we can also reduce them to their physical reality. And so, in order not to fall into the trap of bling-bling, when Mark O’Reilly wore the emperor’s purple robe, a symbol of his power, he identified it with what it really was: a sheepskin’s wool fabric dyed with the blood of the shell.

So there is no place for the dream and the wonderful among the Stoics? It’s not very flashy…

Indeed, but at this price one is separated from glory and wealth, which can spoil life. And again, our teachings, which call for right judgment, right action and moderate desire, offer, once these three pillars are applied, deep joy and great serenity.

What are the points of friction between this ancient current and the metaphysics that appeared later?

There are at least two. On the one hand, the Stoics believed in divine providence, in the rational order of the universe and rejected the idea of ​​chance and indeterminacy found in many modern philosophical schools. Then, this current rejects the subconscious. For the stoic, everything is fine, hence the idea that each individual can act according to his desires and passions.

The subconscious is an inescapable fact of our contemporary psyche. Stoic, how do you reconcile these opposites?

I’m still wondering (He laughs)! Suppose I admit that we act through feelings, certain cognitive biases, and a whole host of impulses that escape us, but I believe we can still act on our judgments and desires and live that way always more consciously and coherently.

Next, we must be clear. Stoicism is an ideal we aspire to, but we can also go through our moments of vulnerability. Moreover, Seneca did not refuse moments of relaxation completely, because he knew that a little luxury improves the human condition!


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