Learning to Live
Unlike many who study philosophy today, the ancients equated philosophy with actual living. That which they learned from philosophy, they also sought to incorporate "exercises" into their lives. They viewed this as "the art of living" (p. 83).
More importantly, people who practice ancient philosophy sought conversion "which turned [their] entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it" (p. 83). The conversion sought to change the life to an "authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom" (p. 83).
The ailments which philosophy sought to mend were "unregulated desires and exaggerated fears." These in turn, caused people to suffer and to experience disorder and were lead by a passion-filled life. Philosophy proposes a path to "get rid of your passions" (p. 83) by education so that you "seek only the good [you] are able to obtain, and to try to avoid only those evils which it is impossible to avoid" (p. 83). Thus moral good and moral evil, which are entirely within our power, can be obtained and avoided respectively.
Many Stoic spiritual exercises related to living have been identified by Philo of Alexandria. Hadot groups the two lists provided by Philo, into four areas:
- Meditations and remembrances of good things
- Reading, listening, research and investigation
- Self-mastery, accomplishment of duties and indifference to indifferent things
Attention or prosoche "is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit" (p. 84)
The purpose of constant attention is so that the Stoic is "fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully" (p. 84). The Stoic will always have "at hand" the distinction of what depends on us and what does not depend on us.
"Attention to the present moment, is in a sense, the key to spiritual exercises." If we focus on the here and now, our ability to focus our attention increases. We become more aware of our surroundings, our world and even the cosmos. Subsequently, we begin to see the wisdom of the universe and what is. The more consistently we focus our attention, the more we "accede to cosmic consciousness" and align our will to the Whole.
Meditation on and remembering things we've previously learned, is another key spiritual exercise. In this exercise, we are writing to our minds the correct dialogue and discourse with our-self. This allows us, when an event occurs, to have the right reaction and perspective on it. For example, praemeditatio malorum is the practice of meditating on what our life would be like if we experienced the death or suffering of a loved one, or perhaps our own poverty. As we contemplate these events happening in our life, we remember that these things are out of our control and they are not morally bad, and that there are virtues such as courage and fortitude, which we could exercise in order to demonstrate our abilities given to us by Nature. And when these events actually happen, we are prepared and are much more accepting of our fate.
Of course, as part of this exercise, we ought to write the dialogue we would have with our-self. This becomes the basis for remembering what we have learned from our meditation. Then, in later practices of meditation or during the course of our daily routine, we would repeat these maxims.
A similar practice is to look ahead to our future day and anticipate any events that would happen and then we should "decide on the principles which will guide and inspire our actions" (p. 85). Then, later in the evening, we must meditate on our actions and recall what good and bad we did during the day. And like a good coach, correct our bad actions and thoughts and attitude. Carried out, day after day, we develop a strong inner discourse, which then becomes a reflexive response to events that happen.
Investigation, reading, listening and research are required in order to meditate and for self-instruction. For the modern Stoic, this spiritual exercise would involve reading and studying Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca and others.
Hadot also places the discipline of assent in this section. "'Research' and 'investigation' were the result of putting instruction into practice. For example, we are to get used to defining objects and events from a physical point of view, that is, we must picture them as they were situated within the cosmic Whole. Alternatively, we can divide and dissect events in order to recognize the elements into which they can be reduced" (p. 86).
Habituation is the result of the preceding spiritual exercises. As we develop inner habits, our outward habits are shown in acts of kindness to others and indifference to indifferent things. We desire less the things that don't really matter, while spending more time on the things that do. Pursuit of wealth, fame, and immortality diminish while our yearning to grasp each present moment with present company swells. Thus inner work produces outward results.
"For the Stoic, then, doing philosophy meant practicing how to 'live': that is, how to live freely and consciously. Consciously, in that we pass beyond the limits of individuality, to recognize ourselves as part of the reason-animated cosmos. Freely, in that we give up desiring that which does not depend on us and is beyond our control, so as to attach ourselves only to what depends on us: actions which are just and in conformity with reason." (p. 86).