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

back to top

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
back to top

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
back to top
  • 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
back to top

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
back to top

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.)

back to top

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
back to top

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
back to top

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)
back to top

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
back to top

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
back to top

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
back to top

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.

back to top

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.
back to top
  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.’
back to top

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
back to top

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
back to top

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).

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Notes on Stoic Physics from Stoicism by John Sellars

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being and deals with all questions about the physical world.  The fundamental ontological assertion of the Stoics “underpinning all of Stoic physics is the claim that only bodies exist” (p. 81, Sellars).

The Platonic position was a “claim that the material world that we experience is merely a shadow of another realm where real existence lies” (p. 81, Sellars).

Plato was attacking all hard-lined, as well as moderate materialist perspectives.  He wished for any and all materialists “to admit to the existence of something that is not a body” (p. 82, Sellars).

Stoics believe that for something to exist it must have a body.

To avoid the Platonic trap, Zeno claimed that certain intangible things like soul, justice, virtue, and wisdom actually do exist and are bodies.  He grants Plato’s assumption that only bodies can act and be acted upon (p. 82, Sellars).  But as was discussed in the chapter on Logic in Sellars’ book, propositions (cognitions, impressions we assent to) are physical entities and so therefore intangibles such as virtue, justice or wisdom would be considered bodies.

Incorporeals subsist.  The four types of incorporeals are: void, time, place and sayables (p. 83, Sellars).

The present moment “belongs.”  This means the past and the future are non-existent realities and therefore subsist.  But the present is more real than the future or past, but still “is not as real as a physical object” and therefore “belongs” (p. 84, Sellars).

Universals of Platonic ideas, according to the Stoics “neither exist nor subsist” and “such entities are dismissed as ‘not-somethings’” … but by labeling these as “not-somethings” it creates another “category within the Stoic ontological scheme” therefore they “explicitly reject universals conceived as Platonic ideas” (p. 84, Sellars).

The ‘Stoic trap’ that Chrysippus devises goes like this:

If someone is in Athens, he is not in Magara;
“man” is in Athens;
Therefore, “man” is not in Magara.

The point Stoics want to make is “to deny that the generic name ‘man’ refers to anything at all.”  Platonists would insist that “man” is someone or something, yet the argument shows it cannot be someone or something.  The Platonist would agree with the first two premises, but if he agrees with the conclusion, he will agree with the Stoics that “man” is not-something, while if he rejects the conclusion, he must reject that “man” is someone or something – which he won’t want to admit.

The two material principals are:
a) “that which acts (to poioun) and
b) “that which is acted upon (to paschon) or we might say the active and the passive; they are God and matter” (p. 86, Sellars)

“Ancient sources” and “modern commentators suggest that the Stoics proposed a strict monism, that is, a conception of a single unified material reality.”  This conflicts with the two material principals, because how can a unified body, with nothing beyond itself, both act and be acted upon?

One way to resolve this conflict is to think of the two principles as “merely abstract or conceptual” and that the Stoics wanted “to give an account of the material world that does not have to refer to anything outside of Nature in order to explain its movement or development” thus “they are able to say that the material cosmos both acts and is acted upon … itself” (p. 87, Sellars).

The three ways in which two material entities might be mixed together are:

  1. juxtaposition
  2. fusion
  3. total blending

Fusion is where the original two entities cease to exist and a third entity is created.

Total blending is where the original two entities continue to distinctively exist and a third entity is created.

Pneuma or breath is “the active principle in Nature, sometimes identified with God, sometimes with the soul of God” (p. 163, Sellars)

Pneuma has three principle conditions, “reflecting a different level of ‘tension’”

  1. cohesion (hexis) – the force that holds physical objects, such as a stone, together.
  2. nature (phusis) – the living force, which causes biological organisms to live.
  3. soul (psuche) – the principle of life in animals that have powers of perceptions (impressions), movement (impulses) and reproduction. (See p. 91, Sellars)

Sellars states, “It is thus possible to make Stoic physics sound quite modern and thoroughly naturalistic.”  The three levels of tension coincide to levels of life forms and consciousness as well as a division between things that are purely acted upon and things that act as well as a division between things that are acted upon and which can also act.  Thus a rock would only possess cohesion pneuma and would not possess nature or soul and would be acted upon.  Going up the continuum, algae and plants would possess both cohesion and nature pneuma and could act on dirt and rocks.  Animals would have soul pneuma and could act on plants and rocks and even within animals, some animals such as humans might have greater soul pneuma.  Any modern biology class would most likely show simple versus complex lifeforms, not unlike the pneuma principles outlined above.

Two essential beliefs about the Stoic God are: God is not external to Nature, but rather God is Nature.  The other is “the cosmos is a living being” (p. 92-93, Sellars).

The orthodox Stoic belief was that Nature / the cosmos is conscious (see quotes from Zeno and Diogenes Laertius p. 93-94, Sellars).

The Stoic God is a conscious, living being that is Nature.

The Stoic cosmos can be described in a few points.

Point 1: there is nothing but void beyond the cosmos; therefore nothing external to the cosmos orders it: “The Stoics are thoroughgoing naturalists who want to give an account of the movement and order in the cosmos that does not depend on any entity outside the cosmos” (p. 95-96, Sellars).

Point 2: Nature / the cosmos “organizes and regulates itself” (p. 95, Sellars)

Point 3: Nature / the cosmos is a “living organism [and] is also conscious” (p. 95, Sellars)

Point 4: the cosmos is viewed as “a spherical being” and is “a finite cosmos” (p. 96, Sellars)

Point 5: the cosmos is “held together by the breath or pneuma that pervades it” (p. 97, Sellars)

Point 6: “at certain moments, the entire cosmos was dissolved entirely into fire” causing its destruction and birth.

Point 7: The destruction and birth are cyclical.  “The life of the cosmos in each cycle is identical to its predecessor.  The cosmos, governed by reason, has the best possible organization, this is repeated in each cycle.  Thus, there is eternal recurrence … as a single cycle, repeated endlessly” (p. 99, Sellars).

“Whole” or holon “refers to the cosmos.  “All” or pan “refers to both the cosmos and the infinite void surrounding it” (p. 97, Sellars).

Pneuma or breath holds the cosmos together and “is a conscious and rational organizing principal.  It is the soul of the cosmos, analogous to the soul of any other living being” (p. 97, Sellars).

Per the Wikipedia page, the phoenix “is a long-lived bird that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.”  This is an appropriate comparison to the Stoic eternal recurrence, where the cosmos goes through conflagration and birth in a single cycle, repeated endlessly.

Stoic fate is described as “a continuous string of causes, an inescapable order and connection between events” (p. 100, Sellars).

Stoic providence is described as “God, who pervades the entire cosmos, forms the cosmos into a harmonious whole and orders events in a providential manner.  The cosmos is ‘administered by mind and providence’” (p. 100, Sellars).

Fate and providence are reconciled by Stoics who argue that they “are in fact one and the same thing.”  God’s will is an ordered, continuous string of events and furthermore, because “God is supremely good and supremely rational, then there will surely be only one course of action open to him, namely the best and most rational course of action.”  And this “necessary and unalterable order of causes … is providentially arranged by God to be the best possible order” (p. 101, Sellars).

The theory of cosmic sympathy offers that all parts of the cosmos are continually interacting, such as the sun’s charged particles striking atoms in the earth’s atmosphere causing auroras to appear.  “This sympathy between all of the parts of the cosmos is a product of the fact that it is all permeated by breath or pnuema” (p. 103, Sellars).  Therefore, small events can have wide-ranging impacts.

Between Stoic fate, Stoic providence and cosmic sympathy, it would appear human will or agency is limited.  Some would suggest that individual humans have little to no free will and that their fate is entirely determined, regardless of their actions – so why should humans bother acting at all?  This is known as the “lazy argument.”

Chrysippus’ response to the “lazy argument” references two types of fated things.

  • 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.

Thus, humans can attempt to influence their fate when they are sick and may die at night.  While dying is an internal cause, dying at night is not a given as the human may call a doctor or take medication, thus influencing the outcome.

The cosmos is mirrored at the human level.  Where the cosmos has pneuma which constitutes God’s soul, the human soul is a fragment of the cosmic pneuma.  Where the cosmos is embodied in matter, so too the human body is a fragment of cosmic matter (see p. 104, Sellars).

The rational human being has pneuma at four levels of tension (p. 105, Sellars):

  • hexis – cohesion of the body
  • phusis – being alive in most basic biological sense
  • psuche – animal faculties of impression and impulse
  • logike psuche – rational power of judgement that can intervene between receiving impressions and acting on impulses.

The commanding faculty of the pneuma is called hegemonikon and is comprised of three parts (p. 105, Sellars):

  • faculty of impressions; faculty of impulse; faculty of assent
  • Humans share the faculties of impression and impulse with animals.
  • The faculty that makes humans unique (their nature) is the faculty of assent.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Thoughts on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Chris & Robert Pirsig
If anyone saw me sitting in my truck, in a parking garage on Valentine's day at 5:43am in the morning, they would have found a grown man crying.

I had just finished listening to the Audible version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The book is about living a good (quality) life.  There are a number of stories in this book.

There is the story of the first person, who is taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and friends.

There is the story of Phaedrus who is the previous "version" of the first person.

There is the story of actual motorcycle maintenance.

And there is a story of the chautauqua - which ties all of the above stories together.

Some Thoughts on the Book

One problem he is trying to solve is the alienation of people ... conservatives, liberals, hippies, etc.  Somewhere along the line, people began to culturally reject the way society was living.  He tries to understand why and how can we (re)bridge the schism.  This is where he gets into the Romantic and the Classic view of the world.

The question that really got him thinking was from a teacher colleague about if he was teaching his students quality.

The Romantic view is enamored with the final product, as it were.  While the Classic view loves the inner workings.  Quality is a unification of the two perspectives.

The motorcycle, throughout the book is symbolic of any hobby, or career, or job or even the way of living life itself.  The motorcycle is symbolic of technology and modernization.  It's interesting to note, as I'm reading John Sellars' Stoicism I learned the Greek word technē is translated to art and is defined as "a practical skill requiring expert knowledge" (p. 163).

One way to solve alienation is to fall in love with something (a job, a career, a hobby such as motorcycle maintenance) and all of life, and to care about it - to love it - to make an art of it.  Too many people have not fallen in love with acquiring expert knowledge of modern life or how to live a quality life.

One of the most important somethings a person should focus on and acquire expert knowledge is that of philosophy - the art of living.  When you read the book, just substitute his discussions on motorcycle maintenance with the art of living or philosophy, and you will gain a lot of insight.

Attentiveness is needed for quality; you have to give a damn (about the subject/hobby/career/life).

He gets into aretē which has been translated into virtue or excellence (of the soul).  And although Pirsig writes:
“Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then…what’s this?!…’That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘excellence.’
Kitto had more to say about this arête of the ancient Greeks.  ‘When we meet arête in Plato,’ he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavor of it.  ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; arête on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.’”
... he discounts the virtue aspect of it.  When I look at it from a Stoic perspective, I see aretē is virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance) and a human shows these qualities no matter what the platform or technē / art he expresses himself in.  It is all-encompassing; in living as a quality father, a quality employee, a quality neighbor, a quality chess player, and on and on.

He later writes:
“Arête implies a respect of the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization.  it implies a contempt for efficiency — or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
Pirsig (the first person of the book and Phaedrus) is learning to grapple with the art of being a quality father.  He doesn't do such a good job on the road trip, but by the end, he finally realizes it and we can see the immediate changes in his style of fathering.

The book is a love book.  The love of a practical skill; the love of art; the love of being a parent; the love of being a teacher; the love of quality itself - of workmanship; the love of wisdom - philosophy.

I cried at the end of the book after listening to the epilogue.  Chris (the son), was stabbed to death in San Francisco just before his 23rd birthday.  Pirsig describes the death in detail and then discusses where and what Chris is after his death.

And one more thought ... I loved his description of how we see the present, past and future.  It is as if we are walking backwards.  We see all that we have passed up to the present.  That is all we can see and know.  But the back of our body/head faces the future - it's unknowable.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Notes on Stoic Logic from Stoicism by John Sellars

The different parts of classical Stoic logic were “reason, language or argument – in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology)” (p. 55, Sellars)

Today’s logic is usually understood to be “the formal analysis of arguments.”

For the Stoics, logic was divided into two principal divisions: rhetoric and dialectic.

Rhetoric is defined as: “the art of speaking or writing effectively” (Merriam-Webster).

Dialectic is defined as: “discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation” (Merriam-Webster).

The central them of Stoic logic is “the acquisition of knowledge” (p. 79, Sellars).

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge – “the process by which the individual gains knowledge” (p. 64-65, Sellars)

Birth of Cognition

At birth, human infants possess little to no knowledge.  Jean Piaget’s knowledge experimentations on babies conclude infants are born not knowing much.  To quote a Time magazine article, “Piaget's work led him to conclude that infants younger than 9 months have no innate knowledge of how the world works or any sense of "object permanence" (that people and things still exist even when they're not seen). Instead, babies must gradually construct this knowledge from experience” (The Brain: What Do Babies Know? Time, Monday, Jan. 29, 2007).  The article later notes modern experimentation have drawn the same conclusions as Piaget.

Humans gain information about our world, largely through impressions and sensations – through experience, as stated in the previous point.

Empiricism is defined as: “a theory that all knowledge originates in experience” (Merriam-Webster).

Regarding the epistemology of the Stoics, Sellars notes, “Whereas most impressions are assumed to come from sensation, and so the Stoics might broadly be characterized as empiricists in epistemology, they do also acknowledge impressions received from the mind that are the product reasoning” (p. 65, Sellars).

An example of an inadequate impression might be light coming into a room and someone thinking it is day, when in fact, they’ve not gone outside to check that it is night, and it was a fire or street light causing the light to enter the window.

An example of an adequate impression would be someone thinking it is day while they are standing outside at noon, with the bright sun over their head.

The Stoic response to the Skeptics’ claim that we can never know if an impression is adequate, would be to “reply by saying that over time it will become possible to develop a certain ability to recognize adequate impressions.  One might not be infallible at first, but one might eventually be able to become highly accurate with certain sorts of impressions” (p. 70, Sellars).  Therefore, a Stoic can point to the sun directly above our heads and be absolutely certain that it is day; while at the same time, the Stoic can accept the possibility of mistakes by suspending judgement when uncertain (see p. 73, Sellars).

When we give assent to an impression, the impression is called an adequate impression (p. 73-73, Sellars).

When we withhold assent to an impression, we are suspending judgment (p. 73, Sellars).

The Greek word for cognition is katalepsis (p. 70, 164, Sellars).

An instance of cognition is “an assent to an adequate impression; a building block for knowledge” (p. 70, 164, Sellars).  It is the mental process of knowing (by experience or through reasoning) by giving assent to an adequate impression.

For the Stoics, knowledge (episteme) is more substantial than cognition.  To me, it represents putting experience from cognition together into a system or structure.  Cognition provides the basis and building blocks to make something – knowledge – which is to see a wider, bigger picture as it were – something greater than the individual part.

Cognition Analysis

Sellars states “An adequate impression is an impression that is so clear, vivid and distinct that it is its own guarantee of its accuracy” (p. 69).  We can also guarantee the accuracy of an empirical impression by observing the “causal history” and ensuring that nothing has interfered with “one’s sense organs, the object in question, and all the other variables involved are not obstructed or in an abnormal state” (p. 69).

“The impressions we receive that present external objects to us are not within our control.  We do not have the power to choose them; instead they force themselves on us.  However, we do have the power to choose whether to assent to these impressions or not” (p. 66, Sellars).  Stoics will often be forced to confront these external circumstances and will at least have the choice to behave virtuously and serenely, but this does not mean they will choose to do so every time.  Because “first movement” emotions come to all humans, many people do not question or analyze these emotions and propositions before assenting to them.  The Stoic will try to pause and reflect on the emotions and proposition from the “first movement” before fully assenting to or rejecting an external object.  Assuming a Stoic consistently practices this pause before assent, then over time, the Stoic will act correctly (virtuously) and serenely more often than not.

The four stages of assent are (p. 67, Sellars, emphasis added):
  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 to an adequate impression or we suspend judgement of the impression
Propositions have corporeal and incorporeal aspects.
  • The corporeal aspect would be physical utterance or written word of the proposition.
  • The incorporeal aspect would be the meaning of the physical element presented.
  • Incorporeal propositions subsist, if they are never spoken or written and remain as a cognition in our mind.
"The meaning or sense of a proposition is a sayable", which is purely in the mind of the utterer and listener, is incorporeal.  “Sayables only subsist” (p. 79, 63, Sellars).

Sellars notes, “What is perhaps unique to the Stoic position is their rejection of meaning as something that exists.  As incorporeals, sayables only subsist” (p. 63).  How does this explain how the meaning of words can cause action?  The key aspect would be in the assent of the person comprehending the sayable.  A man shouts a warning to a woman that a ball is being thrown her way.  She hears the words the man shouts, she comprehends the sayable, she assents to the meaning and therefore chooses to act, either to catch the ball or move out of the way to avoid being hit by the ball.

There are two kinds of sayables – complete and incomplete (p. 62, Sellars).
  1. A complete sayable would be: Rocky is typing on his computer.
  2. An incomplete sayable would be: is typing.
Complete sayables are used in dialectic.


“An assertible is a complete sayable” (p. 58, Sellars).

The four important characteristics of assertibles are (p. 58-59, Sellars):
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Simple assertibles can be
    • affirmative
    • negative
  4. Complex which include logical connectives
    • conditional ... if
    • conjunction ... and
    • dis-junction ... either/or
    • pseudo-conditional ... since
    • causal ... because
    • comparative ... more/less-likely
While not characteristics, all assertives can be distinguished by their modality:

  • possible - an assertible which can become true and is not hindered by external things from becoming true
  • impossible -  an assertible which cannot become true or which can become true but is hindered by external things from becoming true
  • necessary - an assertible which (when true) cannot become false or which can become false but is hindered by external things from becoming false
  • non-necessary - an assertible which can become false and is not hindered by external things from becoming false

The four kinds of assertibles listed above are the propositions that can be combined to form Stoic arguments for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.  These arguments are called syllogisms (p. 59, Sellars).

Summary of Stoic Logic (p. 79, Sellars)

  1. “the mind at birth is like a blank sheet of paper”
  2. “via sensory experiences or impressions … we gain information” of an external event or state of affairs.
  3. we experience "first movements" which are almost involuntary and unconscious value judgements
  4. “the impressions we [initially] assent to are presented to the mind in the form of propositions” which are composed of the perceptual data and the unconscious value judgement.
  5. we either assent or reject the impression as either adequate or inadequate.
  6. "a proposition is a physical entity” or corporeal [spoken or written] which carries meaning/sense, which subsists and incorporeal.
  7. Sayables are the subsistence of the meaning of the proposition.
  8. Sayables are either complete or incomplete.
  9. Complete sayables are called assertibles used in Stoic dialectic.
  10. Four kinds of assertibles (true/false/simple/complex) can be combined with other assertibles to form syllogistic arguments.
Syllogistic arguments “form the foundation for systematic scientific knowledge of the world.”  A syllogism is an argument with premises and a conclusion.  Aristotle was the first to use the syllogism (p. 56, Sellars).
Aristotelian syllogisms used universals with letters, whereas Stoic syllogisms could use either universal or particular assertibles for their propositions. In Stoic formal logic, ordinal numbers replace propositions, not individual terms. (p. 57-59, Sellars).

An argument may be valid “in its logical form” but if we doubt the premise, the conclusion may not be true. So, we can just say, "no." :)

An example of a logically valid argument that is untrue would be:
All Texans are human;
All humans are male;
Therefore, all Texans are male.

An example of the 3rd Stoic argument using ordinal numbers:
Not the seventh and the eighth;
The seventh;
Therefore, not the eighth.

The above example would contain a complex negative conjunction assertible as one premise and a simple assertible as the second premise.

An example from the physical world of the 3rd argument would be:
The temperature is not both hot and cold;
It is hot;
Therefore, it is not cold.

Examples of the other four arguments (1, 2, 4, 5):

If the man is in Texas, then he is in the United States;
The man is in Texas;
Therefore, the man is in the United States.

If the boat is sailing, then it is on the water;
The boat is not on the water;
Therefore, the boat is not sailing.

Either is it night or it is day;
It is night;
Therefore, it is not day.

The animal is either a mammal or a reptile;
It is not a reptile;
Therefore, it is a mammal.

More on Stoic Logic:

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Notes on Introduction and The Stoic System from Stoicism by John Sellars

Below are some notes and key things I learned from reading and studying the first two chapters of Stoicism by John Sellars.

While fragments of early Stoic writers have been found through the years, the earliest, complete surviving record of the philosophy comes from Cicero around 45 BC.

The founder of Stoicism is Zeno of Citium.  Citium is in modern day Larnaca Cyprus.

Zeno actually studied at two philosophy schools before founding the philosophy of the porch.  He studied with Polemo at Plato's Academy, and then studied with Stilpo at the Magarian school.

Zeno published a work entitled Republic in which he advocated for the abolition of law courts, currency, marriage and traditional education.

One of the first arguments in Stoicism was about "preferred" and "non-preferred" indifferents.  Zeno's student Aristo did not want the classification - he wanted to call all of them simply "indifferents."  But he lost the argument with other students.

The second founder of Stoicism was Chrysipus.  As Diogenes Laertius said, "If there had been no Chyrisippus, there would have been no Stoa" (p. 7, Sellars).  Chyrisippus advanced the philosophy by bringing all the ideas of his predecessors together, and then adding his own original material, thus leaving a highly systematic philosophical system for students learning Stoicism for the first time (see p. 7, Sellars).

In 128 BC, Panaetius became head of the Stoa.  He deviated from his predecessors in three major ways.

First, he "rejected the Stoic doctrine of the periodic destruction of the world" and instead declared the world eternal (p. 9, Sellars).

Second, he denied that virtues was "sufficient on its own" for a person to achieve happiness.

Third, he shifted "the focus of attention from the ideal sage to the average person on the street" (p. 9, Sellars).

The Stoic Posidonius was important because his most famous pupil was Cicero.  Posidonius was also a polymath, studying history, geography, astronomy, meteorology, biology and anthropology.

Both Panaetius and Posidonius deviated from the early Stoic doctrines.  Had they not deviated, perhaps they would been faithful disciples rather than philosophers who “expanded and developed” the early Stoic philosophy.  Posidonius deviated from Stoic orthodoxy in psychology.  Early Stoics did not separate reason and emotion into distinct faculties, whereas “Posidonius followed Plato in proposing a tripartite psychology, dividing the soul into the faculties of reason, emotion and desire” (p. 10, Sellars).

We own much to Seneca, who was born between 4 and 1 BC and survived until 65 AD.  We own him our gratitude for his diligence in writing.  Many of his texts have survived and have also "[shaped] the image of Stoicism in the West" especially as he was seen by the early "Church Fathers, medieval reading and Renaissance humanists" as sympathetic to Christianity" (p. 13, Sellars).

Musonius Rufus is sometimes called the third founder of the Stoa due to “his status as a Stoic sage … combined with his influence as the teacher of Epictetus, Euphrates, Dio and others” (p. 15, Sellars).

Sellars makes brief notes on Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but nothing new for me.

Sellars notes the decline of Stoicism around 200 CE.  While the decline can be explained by the rise of Neoplatonism, he also believes that the decline can also be attributed to the strong teaching and focus of Epictetus practicing the philosophy as opposed to commentating and theorizing on it.  As Sellars notes, Epictetus placed “value on deeds rather than words” (p. 26).  Coupled with Epictetus’ fame as a philosopher, followers would have spent more of their time practicing the philosophy rather than writing about it, hence writings of Stoicism would have diminished.

While I personally appreciate Epictetus’ sentiment on applied Stoicism over theoretical Stoicism, I do admit that we of the present day, owe it to subsequent generations to keep the flame alive as it were.  And being a rudimentary student of history and knowing how quickly knowledge can be lost, I feel it should be a duty and obligation of scholars and librarians to preserve the record as much as possible.  For my part, I take notes on what I read and commentate on Stoic books.  I try to share what I’ve learned with others, including my children and close friends.  In sum, we need to continue to learn and practice what we’ve learned.  However, in that process, we need to preserve in writing the theoretical.

Sellars said, “If we assume that the Stoics were philosophers simply in the same sense in which a modern academic is a philosopher, then we run the risk of countless misunderstandings and distortions” (p. 31).  If I understand the context correctly, then it would seem the modern academic philosopher is one who studies the various philosophies that have been developed over the centuries.  The academic philosopher would be able to describe frameworks and philosophic paradigms and may not necessarily practice any of the philosophies.  Whereas the ancient Stoics sought love of wisdom in practice – it was a never-ending pursuit for identifying the proper way to live and then demonstrating that knowledge.  They viewed philosophy as the way to properly live life and not simply describe how it ought to be lived.  Much like a doctor who demonstrates her ability to heal as opposed to writing a book on it.  The value is in the doing and practicing, rather than the learning and teaching.

The Epicureans hold pleasure to be the key to happiness.  The Peripatetics “hold virtue to be the key to happiness, but [required] favorable external circumstances” as well (p. 32, Sellars).  The Stoics, on the other hand, “must be able to translate those doctrines into concrete behavior.  It is not enough to say that one can be virtuous, and thus happy, regardless of circumstances; one must actually be happy regardless of circumstances, whether one is in danger, disgraced, sick or dying” (p. 32, Sellars).  Therefore, the Stoics differ from the Peripatetics by dropping the requirement for favorable external circumstances.  They view that happiness is found entirely from one’s attitude and perspective and adherence to virtue, no matter the circumstances or external factors.

Regarding the sage -  the problem with the sage is the near impossibility of the criteria for a person to become a sage.  The qualifications for sage-hood would be a person who is “never impeded, who is infallible, who is more powerful than everyone else, richer, stronger, freer, happier and the only person truly deserving of the title ‘king’” (p. 36, Sellars).  The qualifications for being a sage are so high, the Stoics could hardly produce an example of someone who embodied the Sage.  “There is something inevitably futile about devoting one’s life to trying to become a sage if that is an impossible goal to reach” (p. 41, Sellars).  Stoics addressed this problem by providing some examples of people who embodied various examples of specific Stoic doctrine.  Therefore, while Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic may not have been a full Sage, they nonetheless practiced key teachings that Stoicism embraced, and subsequently, provide examples for people who are trying to live the philosophy (see p. 41, Sellars).

There are various similes which represent the three parts of Stoic philosophy.

One is the animal, where logic corresponds to bones and sinews, and where ethics corresponds to the fleshy parts and physics corresponds to the soul.

Another simile is that of an egg: shell is logic, the white is ethics and the yolk is physics.

Another simile is the orchard: the fence is logic, fruit is ethics and soil and trees are the physics.  Posidonius rejected the orchard simile because the representations of the orchard could exist independently of each other (p. 42-43, Sellars).

The second stage of philosophy after one learns doctrines or theory, is “to put those doctrines into practice” through “a series of exercises (askeseis)” or what Pierre Hadot called “spiritual exercises” (p. 45, Sellars).  The purpose of this practice “is to habituate the soul so that one’s consciously chosen philosophical beliefs can shape one’s unconscious habits, and so determine one’s everyday behavior” (p. 46, Sellars).

Is the two-stage paradigm of learning and live philosophy necessary?

Socrates maintained that if a person gains knowledge of something, they will necessarily follow on with the correct behavior.  This stands against the Stoic notion of practice, because the first stage is sufficient and all that is needed to change behavior.

It appears not all classical Stoics were united on the two-stage process.  Aristo argued exercises would be of no benefit for someone who is ignorant and for someone who is free from ignorance, the exercises are unneeded.  Seneca cites Cleanthes “who held that this second stage of philosophical education ‘is indeed useful, but that it is a feeble thing unless it is derived from general principles’” (p. 49, Sellars).

I think the two-stage process is needed for people (like me) who have never seriously inquired about their personal philosophy until much later in life, having lived in a world full of false judgements and emotions.  However, for a young person who is taught philosophy from youth, perhaps with right knowledge written on a somewhat ‘blank mind’ then right actions will naturally follow and therefore, practice is not needed.  With all that said, I am of the opinion that the large majority of people will need to learn then practice before full absorption takes hold.