Wrestling with the Stoics: Tips from a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu philosopher

Michael Tremblay holds a black belt Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and competes at world championships. He is also a PhD student in philosophy at Queen's University, who’s studying Stoicism. In fact, he hopes to become a Stoic ‘sage’ himself, and focuses his work on the 1st-century Greek philosopher, Epictetus, whom he sees as a kind of life coach.
Philosophy PhD student Michael Tremblay at the BJJ World Championships in Los Angeles in 2011. He channels the Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus to guide his practice. (William Burkhardt @bjjpix)

**This episode originally aired February 13, 2019.

"Epictetus would make an excellent athletic coach because of the emphasis he has on practicality and performance," says Michael Tremblay of his favourite philosopher.

Epictetus says explicitly that philosophy is like wrestling. The wrestler has to use their tools to transform themselves.- Michael Tremblay

According to traditional accounts, the 1st-century philosopher was enslaved to a brutal master in Rome. He eventually found his freedom and set up his own philosophy school.

While no writing of his own exists, Epictetus had a devoted student who took copious notes of his lectures.

Tremblay is studying these surviving notes to better understand what he calls Epictetus's "training program" for better living — and better athletic performance, too.

"Epictetus says explicitly that philosophy is like wrestling," says Tremblay, who is also on the Queen's University wrestling team. "The wrestler has to use their tools to transform themselves. What you do is get these weights and lift them and exert effort. And that transforms your body and that makes you a better wrestler."

"He tells us the proper wrestler is excited when they meet a strong opponent. And they're disappointed if they're given a weak opponent."

Tremblay started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at his father's gym, Alpha Mixed Martial Arts, in Carleton Place near Ottawa when he was six years old. His father was his first coach. Tremblay's sister, Alison, also holds a BJJ black belt, and won gold at the 2018 JJIF World Championships in Sweden.

IDEAS producer Nicola Luksic wrestles philosophy PhD student Michael Tremblay. (Tom Howell/CBC)

As an aspiring Stoic sage, Tremblay sees how Stoic principles apply to life both inside and outside the gym.

"When something bad happens to you, you have to embrace that as a challenge," says Tremblay. "You have to get excited for that because that allows you to test your progress. And even if you fail to be a good Stoic, in that situation, it demonstrates for you where you have to improve."

For Epictetus, the ideal Stoic must always see things as they are, not as one wishes them to be.

In one passage, Epictetus compares human life to that of a ceramic cup. Humans die just as cups break, and it is equally unreasonable to be deeply upset by the demise of either thing, no matter how much you love them.

"He's very direct," says Tremblay. "The example with the cup is insightful into his style. For someone uninitiated to Stoicism, that analogy will be hurtful. You're comparing a loved one to something of low worth. For him, that's just the truth of the matter. The Stoics don't want attachment to external objects. They think that attachment causes suffering."

The seeming harshness of Epictetus doesn't deter Tremblay.

"I come to Epictetus because I want to get better, not because I want to feel empathy or understanding — I can get that from other sources of art and philosophy. I come to Epictetus because I want to improve, not to feel better."

Guests in this episode:

**Ideas from the Trenches is produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.


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