Kai Whiting is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.
With his co-author Leonidas Konstantakos, Kai wrote the excellent book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in, which I highly recommend.
It was great to be able to interview Kai recently. His answers, which you can find below, give great insight into his approach to Stoicism and his motivations for writing Being Better.
You can find Kai online here:
Being Better takes a refreshingly uncommon approach to self-help in that it provides questions rather than answers. To me, working through important questions where the answers are specific to the individual gives the possibility of lasting satisfaction as opposed to the instant gratification of reading a generalised set of steps that may not ultimately apply.
Q. That theme in itself feels very Stoic. In a world where we’re so often trying to find the quickest answer, how important was it to go against common self-help formats with this book?
Thank you for your kind comments. The irony of your insight is not lost on me or Leo, my co-author. We believe that the whole point of a self-help book should be to give people the tools they need to help themselves. After all, it’s in the title. Unfortunately, what self-help authors often sell is formula that people are tied to the rest of their lives or get tired of and backslide.
If we were to tell people that we have the perfect “Stoic” answer for them it wouldn’t only be a lie but something that would ultimately prevent them from living according to their own Nature and thus reaching eudaimonia. This is also why we say in Chapter 1 of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In:
“It is only in deep questioning that Stoicism works. Leo and I aren’t interested in providing a step-by-step program for improvement. We aren’t privy to your personal circumstances. We don’t know the nature of the problems you are trying to solve. We cannot guess how you and those around you would react to any of the many possible options available to you. Even if we did know you well and tried to “put ourselves in your shoes,” what we would actually be doing is considering your situation from our point of view. In other words, we would be putting our feet into your shoes rather than considering how your shoes fit your feet!”
Stoicism is about independent thinking, as a product of your particular circumstances and proclivities. This is what Epictetus clearly explains when he says, in what is Stoicism 101 (literally Discourses 1.1):
“If you’re writing to a friend, grammar will tell you what letters you ought to choose, but as to whether or not you ought to write to your friend, grammar won’t tell you that.”
Of course, Leo’s and my advice can help you re-frame particular challenges so you can tackle them appropriately, but it’s nonsense to think that we are best placed to solve your problem. Unfortunately, when people shrink a whole philosophical school and virtue ethics framework into a self-help tick box you get life hacks that you can fit onto fridge magnet, at the sacrifice of character-building opportunities.
In asking ourselves these questions we have the opportunity to find our own answers, but as you say in the book, “No One Is An Island”.
Q. How can we channel Sphaerus and introduce others (who may have no interest in philosophy) to the benefits of Stoic practices?
Through our actions, not our words. By taking the side of reason and promoting a cosmopolitan vision, not falling into tribalism and giving people the space to make mistakes and improve. Being gracious to ourselves and others. For example, Leo and I talk about our reasons for not buying cow’s milk in Chapter 1. We then tell the story of a yoghurt company’s CEO and why we think his story is useful in helping us understand the Stoic principle that we call “Put People in Circles Not Boxes”. Now many people might think that if we promote the virtues of alternative milk options then we shouldn’t promote the virtuous actions of someone who makes Greek yoghurt. But that is an oversimplification of the world and a misunderstanding of Stoicism and virtue ethics in general. Stoicism is useful precisely because it allows us to operate in life’s greys.
There are many inspiring stories in Being Better of people who overcame multiple obstacles, each of which seemed insurmountable.
Q. It will depend on the situation of course, but as Stoics, how do we know when to keep fighting and when to bow out gracefully? What can we ask ourselves to help make such a decision?
It depends on our role. For example, few parents will give up on their kid when things get difficult. Few parents will disown their kids for consistently swearing at them, for example. However, if their friend did it, they might think twice about inviting them out for dinner again.
Other important questions might be “Is this a hill I am willing to die on?” and “do I want to keep fighting?”. Also “why do I keep fighting? Am I am just digging my heels in or can I say that I am using this challenge to sculpt my character?” Simple, I know. But sometimes we forget about the power contained in the simplest of questions.
With your expansion of Hierocles circles of concern to include Earth, it would seem there is no area in which we can’t strive to be better.
Q. What does your application of Stoicism to topics ranging from knowing oneself to climate change say about the versatility of the philosophy?
I think that for a philosophy to make sense in the real world, as opposed to a philosophy classroom, it needs to be able to help you answer life’s most difficult questions in the most trying of circumstances. I often say that if your life philosophy cannot tell you whether or not you should hang yourself when presented with a rope by your prison guard, then it is of no help at all. Now, that is a very strong statement but I stand by it. Stoicism works because it gives me the framing to be able to work my answer through, not to the absurd but to a life affirming or life ending decision.
Some may see the virtuous path as one that is too difficult to even embark on when in reality we’re required only to “give it our best shot” rather than to seek perfection.
Q. What advice would you give to those who are worried they won’t live up to the “standards” of Stoicism?
Look at Seneca the Younger. He is quite possibly the most pompous hypocritical writer of the ancient world. In fact, we didn’t include him much in Being Better, as he was not a good example of how one lives according to a Stoic principle. However, we will talk about him in our next book, where we will answer your question more fully.
Q. For those ready to start on their journey towards being better, which 3 important questions should they ask themselves right now?
Who am I?
What do I know?
What do I need to know (not just theoretically, but really know) in order to live according to reason?
Q. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Kai. A slightly open-ended question to finish off – in terms of what the philosophy means to you, what is Stoicism?
I won’t answer that question as there are many people (academics and laypersons) that are much better qualified than me to answer it. However, I can tell you what it means to me to be a Stoic. For me, it is the identity I am most proud of, as I have to work every day to acquire it.
Unlike others I know and deeply respect (even love in some instances), I have no qualms in calling myself a Stoic. I don’t see any ancient or contemporary Stoic as better or worse than me, as to do so is to entirely miss the point. Linked to what I said above, I am not trying to fill anybody’s shoes and I don’t think anyone should try and fill mine. Being a Stoic is about looking at your strengths and weaknesses and navigating them appropriately to be a better person and make the world a planet work living in. Being a Stoic is being comfortable in your own shoes, that is to say the path you must walk.