Saturday, August 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 12 - On Old Age

On Old Age

Old age does not have to be bitter or lonely.  If one so chooses, one can find contentment in youth, middle age and old age.

Now, Seneca was no sage!  He transparently shares how upset he is upon returning to his country home.  Not only does he complain about the cost of up-keep, but he complains about how stones are falling apart before he is!  He complains about how the trees he planted long ago, no longer have leaves.  And he complains about how old his play-mate is when he finds him standing in the doorway.

If we are to appreciate our life now, as well as in old age, we must practice memento mori.

Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike.

We ought not go so far as Pacuvius, where he practiced his own funeral burial every day!  But, with that idea in mind, we should reflect that every day could be our last.

Thinking on our death, we appreciate every day we rise.

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: "I have lived!", every morning he arises he receives a bonus.

His closing quote, which he shares in the letter, reminds us that life is opinion.  If we think we are constrained, then we are constrained.  And as such, we have the freedom to think we are not constrained, and if we do, we won't be constrained.

 "It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint." Of course not. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life. We may spurn the very constraints that hold us.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 11 - On the Blush of Modesty

On the Blush of Modesty

Seneca mentions several physical reactions people may have in certain situations; such as when they are speaking publicly.  These reactions may range from sweating to stammering to blushing.  He contends, that no matter what a person may try, they can never overcome these types of physical reactions.

The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into a perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.  I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it.

He later remarks that little can be done to remove these habits.

Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them.

In the spirit of sharing and transparency, I too fall under this category of which Seneca speaks.  In today's terms, we would call it social anxiety.  During high school, I usually never got nervous in public speaking forums or in social situations, such as parties or small group meetings, even with strangers.  But sometime in college, social anxiety began to get the best of me.  One of the earliest times I recall breaking into a sweat, was during a public speaking class I was taking.  I thought it was rare and a one-off.  But as I was presented with more opportunities to speak in public, I would feel my face get flush and I would break into a sweat.

On another occasion, I was teaching small class and I invited another teacher in the room to do a demo and I felt the heat of anxiety set in.  In this case, it was winter time, the classroom heater was on, and I was wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt and tie.  Once I broke a sweat, I got more anxious and it became incredibly uncomfortable.

Over the years, I've learned to deal with it.  Preparation is very important for me.  If I can prepare mentally and practically, then I will feel more confident and the chances of a sweating-attack diminish.  Also, if I know ahead of time, that I have a big presentation, then I will be sure I don't drink much liquid.  This lessens the chance of my brow sweat-spigot turning on!  And on the occasion that I do break into a sweat, I be sure to have something with me, with which I can fan myself.  If there are others near me, I will simply comment that I feel hot, and with fanning, the sweat, and heat pass and things return to normal.

I've since learned that there are some genetic factors to this.  Some of my siblings have mentioned to me that they too suffer from the same condition.  This lends support to Seneca's idea, that as hard as you try, Nature will simply win every time.  You can't fight Nature.

Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.

Seneca's final remark, in this letter, relates to the practice of having a moral guide (a person) in your mind all the time. This someone should be a person whom you respect and look to as a good example.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.
Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Indeed, looking to others as an example helps a person a lot, in terms of being steady.  Christians often teach their children the concept of "what would Jesus do?" to guide them when parents and teachers are not around to correct them.  It would seem this is another Stoic idea that Christians have adopted.  Regardless, the idea is valid and useful.  The entire book 1 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations an an exercise of looking to people who provide good examples.  Marcus was very fond of his mentors and often wrote of them so that they could be in his mind all the time.  We would all do well to think of examples of other people and carry them with us, in our minds.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 10 - On Living to Oneself

On Living to Oneself

This is a simple, short letter, but one that needs a bit of unpacking.

This first part of the letter, in which Seneca states, "avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual," speaks of balance.  There is a time when the individual should avoid the many - the crowds.  There is a time for when the individual should avoid the few.  And there is a time for when the individual should avoid solitude.

The concept that Seneca is trying to share here, is one of caution and learning.  If someone is uneducated, then spending time by himself will not help him improve.  Therefore, it would be prudent for him to find a mentor or teacher.  If someone is newly educated, but needs practice, it would be prudent for him to avoid the uneducated crowds, and perhaps spend more time with peers who are also learning.  I think this is what Seneca is trying to convey.

He recommends to Lucilius, that he should be OK spending time with himself.  Upon hearing Lucilius speak, Seneca thought to himself,
These words did not come from the edge of the lips; these utterances have a solid foundation. This man is not one of the many; he has regard for his real welfare.
Seneca seems to judge Lucilius as well-grounded and well educated, and therefore, Lucilius can trust himself to be with himself as he introspects.

The latter part of the letter delves into prayers to the gods.  If you are a praying sort of person, then the evaluation of your prayers ought to be conducted.  Are you praying to receive indifferents?  Or are you praying for something that the gods have already granted you?  Seneca offers this advice, "pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body."

His closing quote also deals with desires and prayer.
Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.
This passage reminds me of the quote from Crates of Thebes - practice being in need of only a few things.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 9 - On Philosophy and Friendship

On Philosophy and Friendship

In sum, the Stoic sage is self-content.  He or she can derive eudaimonia with or without friends - there is no need, for the sage, to achieve eudaimonia by looking towards externals to grant them.  Now, with that stated, the Stoic would prefer to have friends and be a friend.

To begin, Seneca discusses a nuance between the Epicureans and the Stoics.  I'm still trying to digest it to ensure I fully understand it.  But here is the passage:
There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea, – that the wise man is self-sufficient
I understand Seneca to mean that the Stoic sage feels emotions, but learns to deal with them with a rational response.  While the Epicurean sage achieves a state of experiencing no emotions.

Seneca goes on to note that while the Stoic sage is self-content, even without friends, he still would prefer to have friends.  He compares this to other losses a Stoic might experience and how he would react.
If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them.
This passage reminds me of a phrase I recently heard while listening to the audio book The Coddling of the American Mind by Haidt and Lukianoff.  As a father or mother, the proper parenting mindset to have is to prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.  In this mindset, the child represents the human will and attitude, and the road is symbolic of the world and everything in it.  If you want to achieve eudaimonia then you can achieve it with Stoic philosophy.  But if you think you'll achieve eudaimonia by trying to change the world to your expectations and will,  you will fail.

So in the event that you are unjustly accused or exiled or get cancer or you lose a friend or child to death, you can adapt yourself to the circumstance instead of getting stuck in a mental trap of thinking that circumstances and the universe should conform to your preconceived expectations.

And bringing the topic back to friendship, Seneca makes the excellent point that even in the event you lose a friend, there is much to be said in the pleasure it brings to acquire new friends.  Just as the Stoic learns and masters the art of achieving eudaimonia, so too can he learn and master the art of making new friends.
Now there is great pleasure, not only in maintaining old and established friendships, but also in beginning and acquiring new ones. 
He also makes the observation that it is the process of making new friends that is fulfilling and he supports this with the idea that parents love to be parents when they are actively parenting.  And when the child is fully grown, the opportunities of parenting are less and they may miss those times when they were raising their children.
In the case of our children, their young manhood yields the more abundant fruits, but their infancy was sweeter.
On the topic of practicing friendship, Seneca notes that this is the area where the Stoic has the opportunity to demonstrate virtue.  A Stoic will look for a friend in order to have opportunities to practice virtue.  While some people will want friends, so that when they are in a bind, their friends can help them out, Stoics will want friends so that when their friends are in a bind, the Stoic has opportunities to practice virtue.
The wise man, I say, self-sufficient though he be, nevertheless desires friends if only for the purpose of practising friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant. Not, however, for the purpose mentioned by Epicurus in the letter quoted above: "That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want;" but that he may have someone by whose sick-bed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free. He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly.
He notes that friendship which starts on the premise of reward and payment, such friendship will most likely end as such.
He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. A man will be attracted by some reward offered in exchange for his friendship, if he be attracted by aught in friendship other than friendship itself.
Seneca then gets more into the details of the nuance of self-sufficiency and friends.  In so explaining, he notes the Stoic concept of Eternal Recurrence and the conflagration and cycles of the Cosmos (Nature).
Therefore, although he is self-sufficient, yet he has need of friends. He craves as many friends as possible, not, however, that he may live happily; for he will live happily even without friends. The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune. 
People may say: "But what sort of existence will the wise man have, if he be left friendless when thrown into prison, or when stranded in some foreign nation, or when delayed on a long voyage, or when cast upon a lonely shore?" His life will be like that of Jupiter, who, amid the dissolution of the world, when the gods are confounded together and Nature rests for a space from her work, can retire into himself and give himself over to his own thoughts.
It is part of our nature to want sociability.  To deny such would be to deny our very nature.  But is it a requirement to be in the constant presence of friends, essential to achieving eudaimonia?  The Stoic response is: no.  Even God/Nature/the Cosmos goes through periods of solitary time in contemplation.  A practicing Stoic, too, would choose to spend time alone, in contemplation.  Just as today's modern stoics take cold showers and fast, to practice hardship, so too the Stoic should incorporate time alone into her routine.

Stilbo offers the right perspective and demonstrates true equanimity regardless of fate.
after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: "I have all my goods with me!"  There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. "I have lost nothing!" Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. "My goods are all with me!" In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good.
I'm not sure how I could endure the same fate as Stilbo.  This is a premeditatio malorum exercise I'll have to contemplate.  And it is this kind of exercise Epictetus wants us to practice too.  We may need to start small - with a favorite coffee mug - and then work our way up to a circumstance similar to what Stilbo actually faced.

It is awe-inspiring to see such fortitude in Stilbo.  Seneca writes in admiration:
We marvel at certain animals because they can pass through fire and suffer no bodily harm; but how much more marvellous is a man who has marched forth unhurt and unscathed through fire and sword and devastation! Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man? This saying of Stilbo makes common ground with Stoicism; the Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.
Three quotes, to wrap up this letter.  Three quotes to contemplate in your solitude today.

"Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the whole world." 

"A man may rule the world and still be unhappy, if he does not feel that he is supremely happy."

"Folly is ever troubled with weariness of itself."

And an alternate translation of the same quote above ... "All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself."

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 8 - On the Philosopher's Seclusion

On the Philosopher's Seclusion

In the previous letter, Seneca advocates avoiding crowds.  Lucilius seems to mistake this for absolute seclusion - like a Stoic monk (a bit of an oxymoron).  While Seneca may be working in retirement, his work is more of an influence for future generations; for those who would tread the path he has trod.  Therefore his work is more in the written form, than in an active work setting.  Those of us who rub shoulders with coworkers, fellow citizens, neighbors and children, still have a Stoic duty to help in many other ways, besides the verbal and written form.

Seneca defends himself by making the point that his work is thought-work.
I never spend a day in idleness; I appropriate even a part of the night for study. I do not allow time for sleep but yield to it when I must, and when my eyes are wearied with waking and ready to fall shut, I keep them at their task.
Two thoughts come to me as I reflect on this passage.  One, how many of us spend large parts of our day in idleness?  How many times have I told myself "I need a break" and then flip to social media or TV to waste away my time?  Perhaps a bit too much.

And two, the thought of the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, where he said, "there will be sleeping enough in the grave."

Seneca continues with his argument that his work is for those who come after him.
I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at any rate ceased to spread.
A couple of his counsels are then shared in this letter.

First, he reminds us that things like chance and fortune are out of our control and we need to not give weight to these things.  A Stoic must always view these things as indifferents; a Stoic must not let these things sway his proper perspective about life.

Secondly, he gives some advice about possessions and the things are go in and around the body.
Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life; that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health. The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort.
The only focus of the Stoic should be the spirit / soul.
reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.
And a different translation of the same passage:
Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents it from being impressed by anything.
His final point, before he concludes with sharing some quotes, deals with focusing on the greater good - the inner work that must be done by every individual.
Believe me, those who seem to be busied with nothing are busied with the greater tasks; they are dealing at the same time with things mortal and things immortal.
As per his custom, he concludes with a quote; this one from Epicurus, along with some commentary from Seneca.
"If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy." The man who submits and surrenders himself to her is not kept waiting; he is emancipated on the spot. For the very service of Philosophy is freedom.
What is this freedom Philosophy offers?  Freedom from the burdens of possessions, the body, fame, passions, others' opinions and oppression.  More succinctly, it is freedom from desires and aversions.

For more on the treatment of this idea, I refer the reader to Epictetus, Discourses 4.1 and my commentary on it.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 7 - On Crowds

On Crowds

At the time of this writing, it is July 2, 2020.  The COVID-19 pandemic continues to roll on.  People are told to socially distance themselves (six feet apart) and wear masks so as to limit the spread of the virus, which seems to bring death mostly to the elderly and people with pre-existing breathing and health conditions.

Seneca, by contrast, instructs Lucilius to socially distance himself from crowds for moral reasons.  Being in crowds (or the 'general population' as my old supervisor would often say), leads to not only exposure to germs and viruses, but also moral decay.  Now before people get out their pitch-forks to say that there is nothing wrong with crowds, Seneca puts a finer point on this topic by admitting his own weakness.
I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.
He continues with the specifics, as to why he chooses to avoid crowds:
To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
It has been my personal experience, that every time I go a professional sporting event, or a carnival or state fair, or something similar to the Consumer Electronics Show, the sole purpose of the event is to show off something new, unique, pleasurable or entertaining.  And furthermore, the intent of said 'shows' is to get you (the consumer) to buy something or to buy more.  They will try to convince you that you will be 'better' or 'sexier' or 'richer' or 'happier.'  I've never seen one of these typical events or crowds offer the consumer more honesty or virtue.  Their usual aim is to instill more vice.  I would suggest that we also avoid on-line crowds in terms of social media.  The aims and ends of these platforms are similar to shows and events: to install more vice.
vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure
In the next part of the letter, Seneca delves into the analysis of the games in the arena, where men and beasts tear each other apart.  His point is that a bit of the spectator's soul dies every time they view such violence.
what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? ... The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob.
While there are seemingly two ends of the spectrum regarding the crowd, in classic philosophic fashion, Seneca cuts a path right down the middle in pursuit of wisdom.
You must either imitate or loathe the world.  But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.
So, we should avoid the crowds, but not shun them, nor hate them.  We should share and teach wisdom and prudence with those who would listen.  Some may listen and you can have a positive impact on them.  But it will take time.  Know that the time and effort you put in to studying philosophy and trying to teach others, is never wasted.  At the very least, you will have benefited from the study.
But you need not fear that you have wasted your efforts; it was for yourself that you learned them.
He closes, as always, with some quotes.  This time, Lucilius gets three!
One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.
I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all [regarding reaching an audience of students]
I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.
Seneca concludes:
Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.
In sum: if and when more waves of pandemics hit our countries and world, and you are supposed to self-quarantine, grab a philosophy book, read it, find a mentor, install Zoom and begin the process of learning.  Avoid crowds to not only avoid getting ill, but also to prevent moral decay!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 6 - On Sharing Knowledge

On Sharing Knowledge

My current assignment at work is to help a group of roughly 200 employees transform from a traditional management-style approach to work, to an agile mindset approach to work.  In all the conversations I've had with many people about an agile transformation, the hallmarks that always stand out are:

1) the team is there to please the customer
2) the team needs to continuously inspect and adapt the way it works

So, when I come across letters from Seneca that convey a similar sentiment, it pleases me.

The overlapping themes are: improvement and mindfulness of that improvement.  Similarly, it is about recognizing the need to be better, and then installing a feedback mechanism (in the form of introspection and a mentor/coach) to ensure the continuity of progress.

Seneca starts off this letter discussing his transformation as well as his ability to recognize his self-transformation.  And then he readily acknowledges that he still has work to do.
I feel, my dear Lucilius, that I am being not only reformed, but transformed. I do not yet, however, assure myself, or indulge the hope, that there are no elements left in me which need to be changed. Of course there are many that should be made more compact, or made thinner, or be brought into greater prominence. And indeed this very fact is proof that my spirit is altered into something better, – that it can see its own faults, of which it was previously ignorant.
He then pivots into a key ingredient in a person's transformation: having someone to improve with or learn from; in a word: a mentor.

Seneca wishes to share not only wisdom with his friend, but also setbacks or troubles.
I am glad to learn in order that I may teach. Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.
He does note that the only thing better than a mentorship via correspondence, is to actually live with the mentor.  This is how Cleanthes learned from Zeno; and how all the sages arrived at their station in life.
Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word ... Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules.  Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof.
Seneca concludes with a quote about how a person may know if they are making progress: "'I have begun to be a friend to myself.' That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind."

Friday, June 19, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 5 - On the Philosopher's Mean

On the Philosopher's Mean

Mean, median and mode - three ways to statistically look at "the middle."  It is in this vein that Seneca teaches us to not be too radical in our way of life on either end of the spectrum.  In Aristotelian philosophy, the idea would be called the Golden Mean.

In this letter, Seneca advocates for a life of temperance, by avoiding extremes and excesses.  More precisely, he advocates for the self-improvement of the philosopher and not for self-aggrandizement.
I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavour to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. I warn you, however, not to act after the fashion of those who desire to be conspicuous rather than to improve, by doing things which will rouse comment as regards your dress or general way of living.
The right course of action for a philosopher is to work on the inward - the inner dialogue - and to focus less on the outward appearance.  And for outward appearances, the philosopher ought to maintain good decorum.  He writes:
Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society ...  Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.
Because Stoics believe in and practice social oikeiosis, they want to try to influence fellow citizens for the better.  But if they (the Stoics) are too radical in appearance or demeanor, then their influence for good would be less effective.  Seneca tried to strike the right balance with this thought:
Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 4 - On the Terrors of Death

On the Terrors of Death

Plato said, “In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying.”

Seneca, continues that tradition with this letter.  In a word, memento mori.

A few points from this letter.

In the following passage, Seneca expounds a bit on the thought: this too shall pass.
All you need to do is to advance; you will thus understand that some things are less to be dreaded, precisely because they inspire us with great fear. No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.
The sooner we come to grips with the reality and inevitability of our own death, the sooner we will be at peace.  And we can live the remainder of our days, at peace with death.  Thus Seneca writes,
No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it ... Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.
And then there are the trials and difficulties of life (the indifferents).  People in a "wretched" state are those who are either worrying about death or worrying about the next flood, theft, sickness, layoff, bad grade or breakup.
Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.  For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful (emphasis added).
That last part of the quote is advice Seneca gives to those who wish to practice Stoicism.  He is advocating the practice of memento mori as well as the practice of hardships.  Today's moderns will take a cold shower.  But to truly make practicing hardships meaningful to yourself, you must first ask yourself what you fear.  If you fear poverty, the live like a pauper every so often.

Now, we can't practice death.  But we can think about our death.  We can observe the deaths of others.  This is why Marcus' writings, in his Meditations, are full of such thoughts.  Death is nothing to fear.  In this very letter, Seneca goes on to discuss the sundry ways death claimed the powerful.

Never forget where you are being lead, day after day.  In the end - at the end of our journey - we die.
Take my word for it: since the day you were born you are being led thither. We must ponder this thought, and thoughts of the like nature, if we desire to be calm as we await that last hour, the fear of which makes all previous hours uneasy.
The last part of his letter, he ends with a thought about poverty: "Poverty brought into conformity with the law of nature, is great wealth."  And, just as we learned from Henry David Thoreau, very little is needed to sustain life.  Seneca said as much in this letter:
In order to banish hunger and thirst, it is not necessary for you to pay court at the doors of the purse-proud, or to submit to the stern frown, or to the kindness that humiliates; nor is it necessary for you to scour the seas, or go campaigning; nature's needs are easily provided and ready to hand. (emphasis added)
Much of our worry and sweat is for "superfluous" stuff - stuff that is not important (indifferents).
It is the superfluous things for which men sweat, – the superfluous things that wear our togas threadbare, that force us to grow old in camp, that dash us upon foreign shores. That which is enough is ready to our hands. He who has made a fair compact with poverty is rich. Farewell.
Now, go practice.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 3 - On True and False Friendship

On True and False Friendship

This letter provides a lot of food for thought pertaining to who you should call real friends.

The word friend varies in definitions, all of which could be correct in any given context.  Some examples to consider:

I have a friend who is my neighbor.  I see them every so often and we exchange pleasantries.  Sometimes, we will spend 15-30 minutes talking and catching up.  We may discuss our children's lives and how things are going with work.  The subject of our conversation may dip into the events of the day as well.  Every so often, we may get together for a BBQ to sit and chat.

I have another friend who is my neighbor, but we are slightly more closer.  Our conversation is more trusted and intimate.  This friendship started like the above example, but then bloomed into more frequent dinners and the conversation more personal and trusting and deeper.

I have a handful of friends with whom I work.  Much of our conversation is business related.  But through shared stressful times, and struggles, we got to know each other's strengths and weaknesses.  Our trust grew strong and we shared our personal lives, triumphs and failures with each other.  We share information about ourselves which are reserved for the truest of friends.  These friends, meet the Seneca standard of "friend."

Seneca advises, "When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment."

I have one friend, like no other.  She is my wife.  There is very little she does not know about me and that is due to the fact that we've only lived 22 years with each other, rather than 45.  We trust each other, absolutely.  I don't think Seneca is referring to these types of friends, in his letter.  But nonetheless, what he discusses is granted in spousal friendships as well.

Trust and true friendship are synonymous.  On this topic, Seneca wrote:
you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?
So what to take away from all this?  Start with some trust.  Share parts of your life with a person who is becoming your friend.  As you mutually gain trust, do your best to understand their true character. As Seneca teaches, " I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man himself."  Once you really know them, then you can be sure they are a true friend.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 2 - On Discursiveness in Reading

On Discursiveness in Reading

In sum, this letter is about focus.  Adding a slighter nuance to it, the lesson of this letter is about being present and in the moment.  While Seneca applies this idea to reading, the key lesson is applicable in many aspects of our lives.

I think this is why it is important, as a young person, to read and learn from the classics.  Teenagers and young adults need to stick with the classics and not be distracted by the latest fictional series.  A young person needs to be brought up to speed, as it were, on history, philosophy and the sciences.  If they spend enough time 'catching up' and focusing on what lessons we've learned as a civilization, then they will be in a position to add to the collective knowledge of a civilized society.

By sticking to these important texts, they can learn from them, and incorporate them into their personal lives.  But if they 'get bored' with them, they risk the opportunity to change themselves for the better.  Seneca uses a handful of analogies to make his point:
nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 1 - On Saving Time

On Saving Time

Seneca describes the problem - we are wasting our most precious resource: time.
pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.
Regarding how precious this resource is:
What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, – time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.
What are we to do?  What if most of our life has already past?  What do we do now?
I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early.
The answer is, we have enough time, now.  We must seize the day and make the most of the time while we have it.

What else can you do, to ensure you don't waste your time?

What I've learned from any others is that planning is big.  Plan your day, set goals and establish systems to live your life by.  If you are aimless, then the first task at hand is to aim.  Find out what you want in life - what you want to be, where you want to go and live, what do you want to do.  Make a plan to acquire real, usable skills which will enable you to earn a living.  Be sure the skills you learn are sustainable and that they are something others are willing to pay you for.

This establishes "a base" for you.  This gets you up and working and contributing to society.  This also buys you more time to work on higher value activities.  Also know, that very little is needed to get you 'up and working' as it were.  Thoreau's Walden proves this - read it if you must.  In today's post-modern society, any person with a healthy body and brain can make a living if they manage their wants and desires.

Once your base is established, work to grow it and try to find ways to be more efficient at it.  All the while, you should be finding and understanding your unique, core values - what makes you happy and what your unique contribution to society is or will be.

And always be sure to set aside time, every day, to work on understanding your philosophy and to live it.  Read Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and other philosophers.  Think about it, talk about it, embody it.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Commentary on Seneca

It's been a while since I last posted.  I've completed the School of Essential Studies course and learned so much more about the philosophy.  The next phase is The Marcus Aurelius School, to which I've been recommended and admitted.  The first of four terms begins in July and I expect the course will take at least one full year to complete.

Lately, I've been filling my time with a little mini project of consolidating my copies of Stoic books into one OneNote file, as well as copying my previously blogged commentary on Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  While doing this, I remembered one of my goals for 2020 was to start my commentary of Seneca.  He has written so much, but I figure I'll start with Letters from a Stoic and then fill in the gaps with his other works and essays as I have time.

I've also acquired a recently published book entitled That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic, which has the writings of Musonius Rufus - the teacher of Epictetus.  I'll probably start reading that a bit this year and will write some commentary on it, at some point.

But as for now, I'll start with Letters from a Stoic and tackle a bit at a time.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Stoicism in Practice

In my previous post, Stoicism in Six Points, I discussed the framework and why of the Stoic philosophy.  That post ended with a call to action.  The Stoic philosopher will not be content with only learning the philosophy, he will also be motivated to put it to use.  He wants to show how floods, riches, poverty, excellent health and contracting the corona virus don't make him happy or sad.  Rather, he wants to show how he can retain equanimity regardless of circumstance (self-preservation of his rational nature).  He wants to show the world and Nature how he can demonstrate his excellent character through moral fortitude.  He wants to show the world and Nature how he can be modest, trustworthy, high-minded, unshakable, free from passion, imperturbable, unhindered, unconstrained and in a a word: free.

action required: stoic exercises

To get to that unassailable position, the Stoic must train, practice and prepare.  In this post, I've compiled a list of Stoic practices or exercises the Stoic philosopher will incorporate into his life - this is the how of Stoic philosophy.  And as he practices and prepares for life to happen, he will begin to see the benefits.  The Stoic will rise each morning from his bed, ready to encounter anything that Nature throws at him.  The obstacles placed in his path, become the material he puts to good use.  He will plan and make goals and he will look for opportunities to demonstrate to the world and Nature what a good human being looks like.  As he progresses, he ultimately embodies the Stoic philosophy.

As I continue to find exercises in Stoic books I read, I will continually add to and tweak this post.  Many of these exercises will seemingly overlap and you also may find that you too will tweak various practices to fit your lifestyle and preference.  Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

click to jump to a section

changing desires
circles of compassion
contemplation of virtue
levels of control
memento mori
mindfulness / acceptance / prosoche
pain and discomfort management
part of the whole
planning with a reserve clause
premeditatio malorum
present moment
remaining calm
values identification & clarification
view from above

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There are many forms of journaling.  Some write out their meditations, some use it as a method of planning and reviewing their day.  Below is an example of journaling while planning and reviewing the day.
  • Plan in the morning; look at your day ahead and note where you might need to exercise virtue
  • If time allows, use some negative visualization to anticipate how you should appropriately act (i.e. traffic, grumpy managers, a headache, hunger, pains, etc); this could lead to identifying something for which you are grateful that day
  • At the end of the day, review your day, two or three times and ask yourself some key questions:
    • What did you do badly (ruled by irrational fears or unhealthy desires, etc)?
    • What did you do well (progressed towards wisdom, courage, self-discipline, etc)?
    • What would you have done differently if you had a do-over (how would have you reacted differently to the things you did badly, did you miss opportunities to practice virtue)?
mindfulness / acceptance / prosoche
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This practice is looking at the world objectively; viewing reality as it is; "it's not things that upset us, but our opinions of them"
  • Write down your thoughts as they occur and just observe them without judgement
  • Plainly state the emotion you are currently feeling
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  • Write your thoughts on a white board and stand on the other side of the room and look at them from a physical distance.
  • Will this / these thoughts matter in an hour?  A day?  A week?  A month? A year? Or years from now?
  • Evaluate the 'pros' and 'cons' of an opinion … evaluate them with detachment
  • What would Marcus Aurelius (or a wise person or friend) think of my situation? 
view from above
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The effort to see from another perspective: 'the view from above' was practiced by Marcus Aurelius while he was emperor of the Roman Empire.

The sight of Earth from the perspective of a space craft or satellite was not available to Marcus, but we have all seen pictures of our planet. When you see earth from a distance in both time and space it aids one in setting aside personal, political, and cultural prejudices. To see the world from the perspective of a god helps feeling less stress about the minutia of life.

We don't know why Marcus developed this technique, but it would appear to be especially useful to one who's daily decisions could affect the lives of millions. Because of its proven effects, something very similar to this ancient practice of distancing oneself from one's thoughts is still used today in modern psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

present moment
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Throughout the day practice bringing your attention back to the present moment. Pretend you are seeing the world for the first time or this is your last day of life. The present is all we have. As Marcus Aurelius said, "He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same" (Meditations 6.37).

Become mindful in the present space at the present time ("I am in a room, with four walls, a fan on the ceiling; the fan is moving; there is carpet on the floor; I'm sitting in a leather chair … etc.)

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There are dozens of ways to meditate.  The ultimate goal of meditation is to see the world objectively as well as to help you lengthen the pause between an event occurring and you reacting and assenting to the event.  This is simply widening the gap between stimulus and reaction.

levels of control
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Self-control is related to the domain of desire and aversion – one is responsible for what one does, so one should be in charge of what one does.  Man as an ape has appetites that consume him; but man as a thinker can see the endless servitude therein. Appetites and fears chain man to worry and give others power over him; all these, then, constitute a kind of slavery.  Self-control is a first step towards freedom from impulse and domination by others, towards being one's own natural self and one's own master at the same time.

This exercise reminds us of just what kind of control we have over something. Daily, in every situation and decision, the first question to ask is: "How much control do I have over this?" Epictetus repeatedly emphasized that we have no control over anything except the will; all else is up to Fate.

The benefit of this exercise, which increases after it becomes habit, is the tranquility we experience. Most of the things we worry about are out of our control, so we can learn to drop that habit and accept external events with greater calm. We cannot prevent what another person does to us, but we can choose to remain calm and carry on.

remaining calm
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It is one thing to claim that we have various levels of control, that we can act or not react, but what are some of the methods we can use to help us remain centered and calm? Here are two methods:
  1. Self-deprecation. This is the method made popular by Epictetus, who said that if someone accuses you of having some flaw in your character you should tell him its a good thing he doesn't know you well enough to point out even the worst flaws you have. Through quick, humorous, self-deprecation, attacks are swiftly deflected. If I want to say to you that you are evil or, at best, ignorant, you could reply with, "Why can't I be both?" Self-deprecation works on accusations that are untrue and true. If the accusation is true, be grateful that a flaw has been pointed out to you, while at the same time, using humor to deflect the sting of the remark.
  2. Correction. As parents, we correct our children when they misbehave. If we are supervisors at work, we correct our workers of errors so that they can perform their work correctly. In the case of children, even if we are not the parent, we may find ourselves in a position to take part in their formation for life in society. Teachers also fill such a role. Epictetus recommends that we instruct others who are misbehaving as we would a child. No one has to put up with bad behavior. Instruct. The instruction can be firm without being personal or emotional.
negative visualization or premeditatio malorum
(assent, desire)
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All negative visualization can become a positive realization once it has been performed. Remembering that people, places, and things we love can be taken from us, we realize that nothing is certain. There will be loss in our lifetime so it is a good thing to prepare ourselves for them and we can do this by imaging what it would be like to have lost these things right now.

This exercise prepares you mentally and emotionally for the changes in fortune that are a part of life, and it lessens the sting of the loss if that loss happens in the future. The plus side to the exercise is that it can actually be positive in that it reminds us to appreciate what we have now while we still have it.
  1. Start with a coffee cup or small object that you love or a "what if …" scenario
  2. Visualize that you've lost it; or broke it or it was stolen … it no longer belongs to you or the "what if …" scenario happened
  3. Process your reaction, emotions and evaluate them
  4. Think about what an appropriate reaction should be if you were to lose that thing or if that event happened
  5. Start small and move to bigger things; a cup, a loved outfit or shirt, a backpack, a laptop or smart phone, bigger items in your home, a car, your whole home, your career or job, your land, an injured limb, your health, your child, spouse and then your life
  6. All of this takes time and can be quite emotional, but often take time to visualize losing these things
  7. This practice falls under the Discipline of Assent and Desire … breaking things down; seeing things objectively; and then "checking" your desires to ensure they are appropriate.
  8. All of these things are preferred indifferents
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A side benefit of Negative Visualization is gratitude.  After thinking about losing various things, you will come back to the present moment and circumstance and you will have a greater appreciation for what you have.

remembering you are mortal / memento mori
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A specific form of Negative Visualization that specifically focuses on the fleeting nature of mortality and how it is nothing to fear.

According to Wikipedia, memento mori began in classical times. “Plato's Phaedo, where the death of Socrates is recounted, introduces the idea that the proper practice of philosophy is 'about nothing else but dying and being dead.' The Stoics were particularly prominent in their use of this discipline, and Seneca’s letters are full of injunctions to meditate on death.” Notice that memento mori refers to the proper practice of philosophy. This is what we're doing.

values identification & clarification
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This comes from Donald Robertson's How to Think Like a Roman Emperor p. 108.
  • What's ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you really want your life to stand for or represent?
  • What do you want to be remembered for after you're dead?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in life?
  • What sort of character do you want to have?
  • What would you want written on your tombstone?
  • What do you want said in your eulogy?
Write out a list with two columns:
  1. Desired: values and virtues you most desire for yourself in life
  2. Admired: qualities which are praiseworthy and commendable in other people
In Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, in Book 1, he observes all the admired qualities in other peoples' lives which he would presumably want to incorporate into his life.

This practice may begin with a list of desired and admired values and qualities (in the previous exercise).  Then the exercise would shift to observation as you find people in your circle of life who exhibit these qualities and noting them, similarly to how Marcus noted them.

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As you begin to pivot your desires and aversions away from indifferents and towards virtue, consider these steps found in Robertson's How to Think Like a Roman Emperor in chapter "The Choice of Hercules."
  1. Evaluate the consequences of your habits or desires in order to select which ones to change.
  2. Spot early warning signs so that you can nip problematic desires in the bud.
  3. Gain cognitive distance by separating your impressions from external reality.
  4. Do something else instead of engaging in the habit.
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  1. Select something you are planning to do
  2. Imagine the obstacles that could stand in your way and accept that these could happen
  3. Rehearse saying to yourself “I will do ____” adding the caveat “…fate permitting.” This is a reserve clause that accepts the role of fate in the outcome of all externals.
  4. If the obstacles do get in your way accept the outcome as it happens
In chapter 4 of the Encheiridion, Epictetus says,
Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like.  If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse - the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things.  In this way you will be more prepared to start on the activity, by telling yourself at the outset: ‘I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.’  Make this your practice in every activity.  Then, if anything happens that gets in the way of your bathing, you will have the following response available: ‘Well, this was not the only thing I wanted; I also wanted to keep my will in harmony with nature.  I shall not do that if I get angry about what is happening.’
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Injury and illness may come into your life.  Additionally, your life may have become too "soft" and one day, you may lose the comforts of modern life due to uncontrolled circumstances or fate.  Preparing for that fate will go a long way to deaden the pain, worry and stress that comes with hardship.

As for immediate illness or pain, below is a list from Donald Robertson's How to Think Like a Roman Emperor from the chapter "Grasping the Nettle."
  • Separate your mind from the sensation, which is called “cognitive distancing,” by reminding yourself that it is not things, or sensations, that upset us but our judgments about them.
  • Remember that the fear of pain does more harm than pain itself, or use other forms of functional analysis to weigh up the consequences for you of fearing versus accepting pain.
  • View bodily sensations objectively (objective representation, or phantasia kataleptike) instead of describing them in emotive terms. (“There’s a feeling of pressure around my forehead” versus “It feels like I’m dying—an elephant might as well be stamping over and over on my head!”)
  • Analyze the sensations into their elements and limit them as precisely as possible to their specific site on the body, thereby using the same depreciation by analysis that we used in the previous chapter to neutralize unhealthy desires and cravings. (“There’s a sharp throbbing sensation in my ear that comes and goes,” not “I’m in total agony.”)
  • View the sensation as limited in time, changeable, and transient, or “contemplate impermanence.” (“This sensation only peaks for a few seconds at a time and then fades away; it will probably be gone in a couple of days.”) If you have an acute problem like toothache, you’ll have forgotten what it felt like years from now. If you have a long-term problem such as chronic sciatica, you’ll know it sometimes gets worse and so at other times it must be less severe. It makes a difference if you can focus on the notion that this shall pass.
  • Let go of your struggle against the sensation and accept it as natural and indifferent, what is called “Stoic acceptance.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take practical steps to deal with it, such as using medication to reduce pain, but you must learn to live with the pain without resentment or an emotional struggle.
  • Remind yourself that Nature has given you both the capacity to exercise courage and the endurance to rise above pain and that we admire these virtues in other people, which we discussed in relation to contemplating and modeling virtue.
Other, intentional practices of hardship will also go a long way in preparing for the worst to come.  Examples include:
  • fasting, intermittent or extended fasts
  • cold showers, ice bathes
  • tough, physical exercise, yard work, chopping wood, lifting weights, running, etc.
  • living like a pauper or homeless person, in which you try to live as minimally as possible
  • sleeping on the floor, with no blanket
  • walking barefoot
  • in ancient times, some embraced cold statues, with no clothes on - be mindful of decency laws in your country and city :-)
Seneca practiced poverty regularly.  In Moral Letters to Lucilius #18 he wrote,
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?" 6. It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.

circles of compassion
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The basis of Stoic desire is self-preservation, both physical and rational.  However, we ought to hold our rational self-preservation to be more valuable.  Once we have secured freedom for our rational natures, we ought to concern ourselves for those in our social circles.  This means helping others with self-preservation both at the physical and rational levels.

Einstein conveyed this message well when he said,
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
you are a part of a whole
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Marcus Aurelius spent time thinking that he was a limb playing its unique part in a greater whole body.
Rational beings collectively have the same relation as the various limbs of an organic unity - they were created for a single cooperative purpose. The notion of this will strike you more forcefully if you keep on saying to yourself: 'I am a limb of the composite body of rational beings.' If, though, by the change of one letter from I to r [melos to meros], you call yourself simply a part rather than a limb, you do not yet love your fellow men from your heart: doing good does not yet delight you as an end in itself; you are still doing it as a mere duty, not yet as a kindness to yourself. (Meditations 7.13)
While to many, the idea that a person is just a 'cog in the wheel' is offensive, it actually is an appropriate perspective.  Is a car truly a car when it is missing one or more wheels?  Don't take the analogy too literally.  The spirit of the exercise is to appreciate your position in the cosmos.


I'll simply conclude this post with a thoughtful analogy Epictetus used as he tried to get his students to commit to real change in their lives.  It is from Discourses 3.21
Those who have taken in the principles raw and without any dressing immediately want to vomit them up again, just as people with weak stomachs bring up their food. Digest them first, and then you won’t vomit them up in this way. Otherwise they do indeed become nothing more than vomit, foul stuff that isn’t fit to eat. But after having digested them, show us some resulting change in your ruling center, just as athletes show in their shoulders the results of their exercises and diet, and those who have become expert craftsmen can show the results of what they have learned. A builder doesn’t come forward and say, ‘Listen to me as I deliver a discourse about the builder’s art,’ but he acquires a contract to build a house, and shows through actually building it that he has mastered the art. And you for your part should follow a similar course of action: eat as a proper human being, drink as a proper human being, dress, marry, father children, perform your public duties; put up with being abused, put up with an inconsiderate brother, put up with a father, a son, a neighbor, a fellow traveler. Show us these things to enable us to see that you really have learned something from the philosophers.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Stoicism in Six Points

Often, people ask me for the summarized version of Stoicism.  The intent of this post is to get right to the heart of the Stoic disciplines without compromising the framework as a whole.  While the how is far more important, you will have a greater appreciation for Stoicism if you understand the why.  In this post, I will try to explain the why.  Then, in another post, I will explain the how.

the goal

First off, the goal of Stoicism, is to seek a flourishing, fulfilling life through excellence of character (arete).  It is also said the goal and end is eudaimonia, which is defined as happiness or well-beingThis is the summum bonum of philosophy, including the philosophy of Stoicism.

the framework

The framework of Stoic philosophy includes logic, physics and ethics; and this framework must be kept whole, to derive the full benefit of the philosophy.  It has been compared to an egg as well as a garden.

In the egg analogy, the logic is represented by the shell, keeping faulty reasoning from entering the garden.  Physics is represented by the egg white, which provides the nurturing power by way of knowledge of the world and bodies and ethics is represented by the yolk, the ultimate practice of Stoicism.

In the garden analogy, the logic is represented by the fence physics is the dirt and ethics is the fruit produced from the garden.

Furthermore, each branch of Stoic philosophy is associated with a discipline.  These disciplines encapsulate practices, which when coupled with the demonstration of virtues, the Stoic lives arete (excellence) in his art of living.

With this framework in mind, I'll lay out how each branch of Stoic philosophy is related to a discipline.  With the three branches and three related disciplines, the why of Stoic philosophy can be explained in six points - hence the #StoicSix.


Stoic logic is important because it lays out the foundation for how humans learn (cognition).  Related to cognition is perception of experiences and impressions.  If we understand how humans perceive and how perceptions, impressions and value judgments are made, then we begin to understand what truly is in our control.

The key thing you need to understand is the process of the four stages of assent.  Below is a summary of those four stages based on John Sellars book Stoicism on page 67.
  1. “a perception of an external event or state of affairs”
  2. “an almost involuntary and seemingly unconscious value judgement that is made about the content of the perception”
  3. “the presentation to the conscious mind of an impression in the form of a proposition that is composed of both the perceptual data received from the outside and the unconscious value judgement”
  4. “the act of assent or rejection of the impression”
For a fuller treatment on Stoic logic, see my notes here.

discipline of assent

The discipline of assent is the process of strengthening our hegemonikon to assent (agree) with only valid impressions and to disagree or ignore invalid or incorrect impressions.

The world is filled with external events.  We are confronted with and bombarded by these events incessantly.  These events "propose" an idea or opinion to us and then we have to decide if we agree or not with that proposition.  But before we agree or disagree, we need to deconstruct events and things.

The best way to practice this discipline, is to lengthen the pause between event/thing and your impression of it; and then decide to agree or disagree.

Epictetus said, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, 'Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test'" (Discourses 2.18).

Another quote that I quite like goes, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."  I've heard this has been attributed to Viktor Frankl, but I'm not sure if that is confirmed or not.

In other words, we must mind the gap between perception and assent.  The more we can 'slow' that four stage process down, and the more we practice it, the better position we are in to make wise and accurate assents to a valid impression.


From Stoic physics we gain an understanding of Nature.  We learn and understand our own nature as human beings - that we have both a physical and rational nature about us, and that we are part of a social order, which is a part of the cosmos - which is Nature itself.

From Stoic physics, we learn of fate, both simple fated and conjoined fated.  Simple fated things are “necessary and [are] a product of the essence of a thing.”  An example would be death – all mortals will die.  Conjoined fated things are more complex and involve “two types of causes” called internal and external.  External causes would be things external to human nature that would impact the outcome.  Internal causes are things inherent to human nature (see Sellars, p. 104).

We also learn of differing levels of tension, which relate to an order of organisms, with nearly inanimate beings at one end of the spectrum and human beings at the other end of the spectrum.  The key idea here is that humans' true nature is that they are rational beings and that they must put their rational self-preservation above their physical self-preservation to truly live according to their unique nature.

As rational beings, humans are tasked with the responsibility to live according to and in harmony with both their own nature and Nature (with a capital N).

Nature is the Stoic god.  It is not a Christian, Islamic or Hindu or any other deity in the religious sense.  Rather, Nature is the cosmos.

For a fuller treatment on Stoic physics, see my notes here.

discipline of desire

Your desire for self-preservation needs to be grounded in your nature as well as the desire of Nature

The desire of Nature is found in macro/global/universal events that are out of your control.  You should work to align your desires with the desire of Nature (the cosmos).  This can be difficult in some circumstances, but the Stoics would say, "Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)

Pierre Hadot puts a unique perspective on this by making macro events exceptionally personal.  In his book, The Inner Citadel, he writes,
This brings us back to the theme of the present. A particular event is not predestined for me and accorded with me only because it is harmonized with the World; rather, it is so because it occurs in this particular moment and no other. It occurs in accordance with the kairos ("right moment"), which, as the Greeks had always known, is unique. Therefore, that which is happening to me at this moment is happening at the right moment, in accordance with the necessary, methodical, and harmonious unfolding of all events, all of which occur at their proper time and season.
To will the event that is happening at this moment, and in this present instant, is to will the entire universe which has brought it about. (see p. 143, as well as p. 75, 260)
Regarding your personal desire, you should desire and yearn for opportunities to practice virtue and excellence of the human soul.  Arete (virtue/excellence) is the sole good, according to the Stoics.  Therefore, in every event and circumstance, you should desire and be motivated to practice some virtue (wisdom, justice, discipline, courage) according to the how the situation and context dictates.  This demonstrates how excellent your soul is, given a fated circumstance.

When this is connected to the discipline of assent, we learn to lengthen that pause, we then need to ask ourselves, "what can I learn from this?  What virtue can I exercise given the situation?"

By practicing the discipline of desire, we place our rational nature above our physical nature and we learn to see our proper place in Nature (the cosmos).  Successfully practiced, our soul is content and at peace, leading to eudaimonia.


Stoic ethics is the action or the practice the philosophy.  It is based on how humans are oriented - namely that human beings have an impulse for self-preservation.  And the ultimate self-preservation for human beings is to preserve their rational nature by living a life of arete.

In ethics we learn that arete is the sole good.  It is demonstrated with virtue, such as wisdom, justice, courage and temperance.  It is also demonstrated by avoiding vices.

Anything that does not fall into the categories of virtue or vice, falls under the category of indifferents - things that do not ultimately matter.

One thing that set the Stoics apart from other philosophy schools was their division of indifferents into preferred and non-preferred.  Preferred indifferents generally support the self-preservation of the body, such as health.  But even without preferred indifferents in a Stoic's life, he can still seek after the sole good of virtue and attain eudaimonia.  Cynics reject the notion of preferred indifferents and take a stauncher approach to virtue as the sole good.  Aristotelians lean in the other direction and support the seeking of preferred indifferents in the pursuit of happiness.

So what does all of this have to do with ethics?  Remember, the basis for action is self-preservation.  Humans share the need for physical self-preservation with all animals, but what makes our nature truly unique, is our rational nature.  We preserve our rational self when we pursue a life of virtue and excellence.  Therefore, all our actions should be viewed through the lens of arete.  Just as drinking clean water is good for the body, so to is living a life of arete good for your soul (your rational nature).

The other important idea regarding Stoic ethics is social oikeiosis.  Once a Stoic understands how to truly preserve himself (rational self-preservation), he will extend that circle of care and compassion to those nearest him.  From there, he casts a wider net of concern for his neighbors, then to strangers and other people in the world and he continues to cast a wider net of concern until he see himself as a true cosmopolitan of Nature.

For a fuller treatment on Stoic ethics, see my notes here.

discipline of action

Having lengthened your "pause" in judgement and having learned proper desire, you are now willing to act.

I am not well versed in Epicureanism, but I have heard and read many other aspiring Stoics discuss the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism.  The Epicureans believed pleasure was the sole good and believed the best way to accomplish this was to "to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires." (source)  One way to achieve this was to disengage with society and seek tranquility in a garden or peaceful place.  Indeed this sounds wonderful and peaceful; however Stoicism offers this same peace and tranquility while engaging with society.  For the Stoics, virtue is the sole good and the only real way to practice virtue is in society.  One cannot practice discipline, courage, wisdom and justice unless there are other human beings around, who would give the aspiring Stoic opportunities to practice said virtues.

Furthermore, Stoics would bring others into their circle of care by wanting others to flourish.  The technical Greek term for this is social oikeiôsis.  It can be roughly translated as "familiarity" or "affinity".  Practically speaking, it means each of us as individuals, are naturally programmed to care for ourselves, physically and logically.  While we practice to be better at that, we can also extend our circle of affinity to those closest to us, then on to an ever-widening circle, until we have that same affinity to all citizens of the cosmos; we become true cosmopolitans.

Albert Einstein provides a great visual for circles of compassion:
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
With these two principals in minds, (acting with virtue in the context of society and viewing all people as "in our circle of care"), Stoicism gives us the tools to enter the world every day and engage with others and keep our tranquility.

action required: stoic exercises

The ancient Stoics, especially Epictetus, were very keen on putting their doctrines into practice.  Musonius Rufus made it clear regarding which was more important: theory or practice.  He asked people if they would rather be healed by a physician who can expound on all sorts of medical theory, but lacks vital experience, or would they rather be healed by an inarticulate doctor with loads of experience and a good track record.  It's rather clear, that most would prefer the experienced over the inexperienced (see p. 33, Sellars, Stoicism).

Similarly, Epictetus made the point using an athletic analogy.  "Come now, show me what progress you're making in this regard.  Suppose I were talking with an athlete and said, Show me your shoulders, and he were to reply, 'Look at my jumping-weights.'  That's quite enough of you and your weights!  What I want to see is what you've achieved by use of those jumping-weights" (p. 11).

In sum, Stoics need to walk the talk, and they demonstrate the walk with Stoic exercises or practices.  Then, as you make these exercises a habit in your life, you will begin to see the benefits as you go through the day by day events and you will be prepared for life altering events - both preferred and non-preferred.  You will be an artist whose media is lived experience.

Stoic exercises help you make the transition from theory to a lived philosophy, in all that you do.  For a detailed treatment on Stoic exercises see my post Stoicism in Practice.


I know I may have taken a bit more time to explain all that, but hopefully the read wasn't too long.  If you want more in-depth analysis on this, I suggest you read my blog post On Happiness - Part Two: Stoic Style.

Also, I highly recommend The Path of the Prokopton Series by Chris Fisher.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Notes on Stoic Ethics from Stoicism by John Sellars

The beginning, the foundation and basis for Stoic ethics is oikeiosis.  This is “the nature of living beings.”  Roughly translated into English, it means ‘orientation’ and ‘appropriation’ (see p. 107, Sellars).

The theory of oikeiosis is that animals, including human beings, first and foremost have a desire and impulse for self-preservation – they love to physically exist and wish to protect that desire.

With this innate impulse to survive and to continue existence, humans will ascribe good and bad values to things that will help them preserve their existence.  Platonism, alternatively, “posits the existence of an absolute, transcendent concept of ‘the Good’ to which all value ascriptions may be referred” (p. 108, Sellars).  It is on this basis that Platonism looks to in order to understand everything else.  The Stoics, on the other hand, will honestly and seriously consider “the primitive behavior of animals and human beings, and [they do] not try to pretend that selfish motivations are not at the heart of most people’s actions” (p. 108, Sellars).

As discussed in the previous chapter on physics, we learned pneuma has different levels of tension; and the levels of tension increase in complexity from cohesion up to having a soul.  The nature of humans is unique in that self-preservation not only exists for the physical body, but it also exists for our rational nature.  As Sellars states, “If I am to survive as a rational being and not merely as an animal then I must pursue those things that will help preserve my rationality as well as those things that will preserve my body” (p. 108).  And furthermore, humans will put a higher priority on their rational existence over their physical existence.  Therefore, if an individual’s freedom as a rational being is put at risk with the threat of physical death, then the rational choice may be to commit suicide rather than give up rational independence.  This was the choice Socrates, Cato the Younger and Seneca faced, and all chose suicide.

“Zeno divided things that exist into three groups:” (p. 110, Sellars)

  1. good / virtue / arete / and things that participate in virtue
  2. bad / vice / kakia / and things that participate in vice
  3. indifferents / adiaphoron – things such as life, reputation, health, poverty or wealth, external objects

arete / virtue is the only good.  A broader translation would be “excellence” or “an excellent disposition of the soul … perfect rationality” (p. 110, Sellars).

Just as food is valuable because it ensures the viability of our physical body, virtue is valuable because it “contributes to our survival as rational beings” (p. 110, Sellars).

There are three reasons why virtue is the only good: (see p. 110-111, Sellars)

  • First, as the basis of self-rational-preservation, exercising excellence in rationality preserves this unique trait in rational beings.
  • Second, indifferents are a means to an end – either for good or for bad, therefore they are not inherently good.
  • Third, externals cannot guarantee happiness in rational beings.  But virtue can.

Indifferents were divided into three categories: (see p. 111, Sellars)

  1. preferred
  2. non-preferred
  3. indifferent

It is natural to prefer wealth, health and respect to the non-preferred indifferents of poverty, illness and ill repute.  In a sense, these things bring value to physical well-being of rational beings.  They can also bring an added measure of happiness in one’s life.

There are no varying degrees of vice.  If something is bad, it is all bad (see p. 112, Sellars).

The Cynics, Stoics and Aristotelians are on a rough spectrum when it comes to what brings happiness in a rational being’s life.  On the one end, the Cynics strictly adhered to the notion that virtue is the sole good and “they would reject any attempt to prioritize among the indifferents.”  One the other end, the Aristotelians “argued that such things [indifferents] are necessary along with virtue for a happy life.”  The Stoics do not go to either end of the spectrum, and say externals are not necessary for a happy life – that virtue alone is sufficient – but they do recognize that preferred indifferents add to the value of a physical life (see p. 112-113, Sellars).

Epictetus categorized the good, the bad and the indifferent into two categories: things that are “up to us” and things that are “not up to us” (p. 113, Sellars).

Epictetus said that spending time and effort choosing between preferred and non-preferred indifferents was not a good use of time and energy.  We would be much better off if we spent “all our attention on developing the only thing that is genuinely good, namely our virtue or excellence.”  Furthermore, he would contend that there is a slippery slope from “frustration to a violent emotion” for those people who would pursue preferred indifferents (see p. 114, Sellars).

The one thing that is good (virtue / arete / excellence) is also found completely within our control by means of “our faculty of ‘choice’ (prohairesis)” (p. 114, Sellars).  This means, we can always choose virtue and live virtuously, no matter the circumstance or what preferred or non-preferred indifferents we possess.

Zeno held emotions to be the product of judgments instead of thinking emotions are judgments (as Chrysippus contended).  Zeno’s reasoning is more reasonable due to the notion that people’s actual emotions of an event (say a death of a parent) will usually fade over time.  But, the person’s opinion of the death of their parent may be that the death was still a terrible thing, even years later.  Therefore, if we assume judgments are emotions, then it would stand to reason the emotion from an event, should be just as strong (years later) as at the time of the event.  But since this is usually not the case, we can conclude the judgement causes emotion instead of judgement being emotion.

The process leading to the formation of an emotion (p. 115-116, Sellars):

  1. “receive impressions that present external objects to us” over which we have no control
  2. “we make a judgment” and “sometimes we add an unconscious value judgement to our impressions”
  3. “if we assent to impression that includes one of these unconscious value judgments then we shall create an emotional response”

First movements are “immediate physical responses” people will sometimes experience “before they have had a chance to form a judgement about what is happening” (p. 116, Sellars).

The difference between first movement and a genuine emotion is the gap in time and thinking of the presentation of the external event or object.  Seneca notes that genuine emotion is in the act of surrendering to these snap, unconscious judgments (see p. 116, Sellars).

The more often we practice proper reasoning, in order to avoid mistaken judgments and “assents to impressions that include unwarranted ascriptions of value” the better off we can control our emotions.  And since our rationality and ability to judge and assent are entirely within our control, our emotions can be entirely within our control (see p. 117, Sellars).

The three good emotions are: joy, caution and wishing (p. 118, Sellars).

Caution can be a good emotion as “rational avoidance” in counter to fear.  Caution is good (wise) as one takes measures “to prevent the loss of ones’ virtue” (p. 119, Sellars).

The three good emotions produce six good emotional states as follows:

  • joy --> mirth and cheerfulness
  • caution --> modesty and reverence
  • wishing --> benevolence and friendliness

A rational being preserves oneself as a rational being “by cultivating virtue” (p. 120, Sellars).

The names of the two types of appropriate actions (kathekon) that one should pursue are middle or intermediate (meson kathekon) and perfect or completely correct (katorthoma) (see p. 120-121, Sellars).

According to Stoics, non-rational animals can pursue appropriate actions, but they cannot pursue completely correct actions (see p. 121, Sellars).

When two people perform appropriate actions throughout their life, in exactly the same way, but the first person does so “without much conscious thought or consideration” and the second person acts consciously and deliberately and has “come to a firm conclusion that these are the most appropriate actions to undertake” then the second, ‘conscious’ person is said to have taken “completely correct” action and their behavior would be preferable to the first person’s.  Furthermore, the second person would be able to explain exactly why they have taken appropriate action – they would be able to explain their art and craft of living and would be able to sustain their way of life in the future (see p. 121-122, Sellars).

Sellars writes, “Being virtuous is good because in some sense it is good for me to be virtuous” (p. 122).  Returning to the basis of Stoic ethics is the idea of self-preservation both physically and rationally.  Not only should rational beings not harm themselves physically or rationally, but they should do what must be done to promote well-being within themselves in both the physical and rational sense.  In other words, they would want to flourish physically and rationally.  Therefore, choosing a life based on arete and striving for that excellence in living is good for (beneficial for) the rational being.

“The Stoics, like the vast majority of ancient philosophers, are “eudaimonists.”  Eudaimonia has been translated to mean ‘happiness.’  “It refers to a substantive well-being in one’s life … [and] is sometimes translated as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’” (p. 123, Sellars).  Ancient philosophers considered eudaimonia to be universally desired and therefore there was no reason to explicitly state that the end of all philosophy was to achieve eudaimonia.  They simply viewed it to be “the summum bonum, namely that ‘for the sake of which everything is done but which is not done for the sake of anything else’” (p. 123, Sellars).

Regarding the translation of arete to ‘virtue’ – it would be better to simply use the word arete as there is no precise translation and the meaning is much broader than ‘virtue’ alone.  Sellars defines it as “an excellent disposition of the soul” and sometimes the translation is shortened to ‘excellence.’  In sum, one should educate himself of the full definition and meaning of the word and use the word rather than simple English translations.

Eudaimonia (translated as happiness) is the end-all of philosophy.  It is not some external benefit (i.e. preferred indifferent) like health and wealth.  Since the Stoic can act with excellence of soul and thus possess eudaimonia, and this effort is entirely within the control of the rational being, happiness, therefore, is not an external benefit – it is the end.

The Stoics, beginning with Zeno, have stated that to achieve the summum bonum one must live in harmony or consistently with Nature.  There are three aspects to living according to Nature (see p. 125, Sellars).

  1. “living harmoniously with oneself … living consistently and free from internal emotional conflict”
  2. “living in accordance with one’s own nature … as a rational being” and actively pursuing this rather than “passively reacting to external forces”
  3. “bringing oneself into harmony with Nature as a whole”

There are two aspects to human beings: the physical and the rational.  Sellars only discusses the rational.  But one could say that a human should live in harmony with their physical nature.  Choosing to live free from external physical conflict by doing what should be done to promote a healthy, sound physical body.  Sellars gets close to addressing this on page 128 when he writes, “Thus it is in harmony with Nature (my own nature) to choose those things that will contribute to my own self-preservation, things such as health and wealth …”  And he goes on to clarify that it is in the choosing that we remain in harmony with Nature, and that actually obtaining those things is beyond our control.

We become cosmopolitan when we widen our circle of self-preservation to those nearest to us and then extending that concern outward to neighbors, communities, cities, states, nations, then eventually the world and the universe.  This is known as “social oikeiosis” (p. 131, Sellars).

Albert Einstein shared a similar sentiment when he consoled a grieving father who lost his young son to polio.  Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (source).