|May the source be with you, but remember the KISS principle ;-)|
|Contents||Bulletin||Scripting in shell and Perl||Network troubleshooting||History||Humor|
|Toxic managers||Stoicism quotes||Seneca||Perseverance Quotes|
|The psychopath in the corner office||Micromanagement||Over 50 and unemployed||Toxic stress||Burnout||Overload|
|The white-collar workplace||Corporate bullshit||Orthodox Christianity and Russian Religious Humanism||Humor||Etc|
|The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity
to enjoy less. – Socrates
Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realise there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. – Lao Tzu
It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. – Seneca
Stoicism as a philosophy has great value as a way of fighting female sociopaths, toxic managers such as double high authoritarians (quintessential kiss-up, kick down personalities) and even more dangerous corporate psychopaths. It also provides you an additional moral justification for quitting even if your financial circumstances are not that great and staying this way despite hardships until you find something better.
Admiral James Stockdale, who was shot down over North Vietnam, held as a prisoner and repeatedly tortured was deeply influenced by Epictetus after being introduced to his works while at Stanford University. As he parachuted down from his plane, he reportedly said to himself "I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus!" The same words can be repeated by IT specialist who are over 50 and became unemployed.
Stoics teach us that not everything is under our control, not it should be. There are some things we have control over (our judgments, our own mental state, to a certain extent our health) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects, whims of the society, like neoliberalism). they stress that much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not. The wisdom is the ability to distinguish things that we can control and those that we can not. This stoic attitude was aptly captured by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr[ (1892–1971) in his famous Serenity Prayer:
- God, give me grace to accept with serenity
- the things that cannot be changed,
- Courage to change the things
- which should be changed,
- and the Wisdom to distinguish
- the one from the other.
- Living one day at a time,
- Enjoying one moment at a time,
- Accepting hardship as a pathway to [inner] peace,
Loss of job is a hit comparable in its effects with the dissolution of the marriage or a death or a jail term of a close relative. In other words it is a emotional crash, traumatic event with long term consequences. Among them:
Stoicism directly address the problem of loss of self-esteem. The key idea of stoicism is that "personal virtue and courage in adversity is sufficient for maintaining high self-esteem".
|Stoicism directly address the problem of loss of self-esteem. The key idea of stoicism is that "personal virtue and courage in adversity is sufficient for maintaining high self-esteem".|
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions such desperation, lust and greed; the philosophy holds that the ability to see clearly your circumstances and fight them to the extent you can is an achievement in itself, toward which we all should strive. No matter what is the outcome of this fight. The Stoics taught that we fail far more often than we succeed, that to be human is to be fearful, selfish, and angry far more often than we’d like. But they also taught a realistic way to be less fearful, less selfish, and less angry.
Stoics also strive "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy" (The Stoic ideal of dispassion is accepted to this day as the perfect moral state by the Eastern Orthodox Church). They teach to accept everybody as "equals, because all men alike are products of nature." In their view the external differences which are considered of such primary importance in Western civilization, such as rank and wealth should not be primary criteria of judging others, not they should the primary goals in your life, or of primary importance in social relationships.
In the words of Epictetus (note that the word happiness here has slightly different meaning then in regular English language), you can be "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy..." If we assume that "happiness" means here the ability to maintain high self-esteem this quote might be more understandable. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads." One must therefore strive to be free of the distortions caused by "passions", bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of "passion" was more close to contemporary words "emotions", "anguish" or "suffering", that is, "passive reaction to external events, which is different from the modern use of the word. In other words you need the ability to dispassionately and persistently "stay the course" after you had chosen it with all the wisdom you are capable of; it is about "who controls whom.": either you control your your emotions, or your emotions control you.
The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy are: wisdom (Sophia), courage (Andreia), justice (Dikaiosyne), and temperance (Sophrosyne). The ability to fight in unfarobale, adversarial conditions, when odds are not in your favor, considered to be a virtue in stoic phylosophy. This stoical sentiment with the stress on desire to fight the adversity to the bitter end despite uneven odds has some commonality with Orthodox Christianity and was expressed in old Russian song Varyag (the cruiser that became became famous for her crew's stoicism at the Battle of Chemulpo Bay when she alone faced the whole Japanese fleet)
All to the upper deck and man your battle posts,
The last battle for our ship is coming
Our proud "Varyag" will not surrender to the enemy,
And none of us want their mercy.
Stoics teach that a person should strive to be just and moral in an unjust and immoral world (see alsoMoral Man and Immoral Society).
"Moral Man and Immoral Society", by Reinhold Neibhur, was published during the years of the Great Depression. In this work, Reinhold asserts the requirement of politics in the fight for social justice because of the depravity of human nature, that is, the arrogance of human beings. Neibur sees the flaws of the mind when it comes to solving social injustice by moral and wise means, "since reason is always the servant of interest in a social situation". This is his judgment of liberal Christian doctrine, which fully believes in the intellectual ability of humans to make themselves be good, and he admits this vulnerability as our existence. In other words, Neibhur accurately saw the evil of systems in society and its empty endeavors to better individuals and their insufficiencies.
Neibhur warns us about adopting "herd mentalities." According to him, individuals are morally able to think of the interests of others above themselves. That is, human beings can be kind. Societies, however, find it essentially impossible to manage intelligently the competing interests of subgroups. Societies, he contends, effectively gather up only individuals' selfish impulses, not their abilities for charitable thoughtfulness toward others.
According to Niebuhr, this group egocentricity of individuals-in-groups is immensely powerful. "In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others, therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships".
Avoidance of fight for justice is viewed by stoics a rejection of one's social duty.
Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included contemplation of hardship, training to value the life as it is (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation and Buddhism), and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions (by keeping a diary).
|Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included contemplation of hardship, training to value the life as it is (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation and Buddhism), and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions (by keeping a diary).|
Practicing Stoicism is an active process of preparation to overcome hardships that your destiny could send upon you with honor and courage (and viewing hardships as a test that God send to evaluate a person). As well as acquiring deeper self-knowledge and the knowledge of the society in the process.
In his Meditations (which were not written for print, but as a personal diary) Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:
It was stoicism that gave mankind the idea if equality of all men. In this situation it applies to those who suffer from the long term unemployment. Below are some quotations from major Stoic philosophers, selected to illustrate common Stoic beliefs:
While you can always read classic, a rather good introduction to Stoicism can be found in A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine. Here are some Amazon reviews of the book:
One of the great fears many of us face is that despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life. In A Guide to the Good Life, William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.
In A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine offers a refreshing presentation of Stoicism, showing how this ancient philosophy can still direct us toward a better life. Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Irvine offers a roadmap for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us. Irvine looks at various Stoic techniques for attaining tranquility and shows how to put these techniques to work in our own life.
As he does so, he describes his own experiences practicing Stoicism and offers valuable first-hand advice for anyone wishing to live better by following in the footsteps of these ancient philosophers. Readers learn how to minimize worry, how to let go of the past and focus our efforts on the things we can control, and how to deal with insults, grief, old age, and the distracting temptations of fame and fortune.
We learn from Marcus Aurelius the importance of prizing only things of true value, and from Epictetus we learn how to be more content with what we have.
Finally, A Guide to the Good Life shows readers how to become thoughtful observers of their own life. If we watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and later reflect on what we saw, we can better identify the sources of distress and eventually avoid that pain in our life. By doing this, the Stoics thought, we can hope to attain a truly joyful life.David B Richman (Mesilla Park, NM USA)The Best Introduction to an Ancient Philosophy, December 23, 2008 See all my reviewsIsmael Ghalimi (Palo Alto, CA)
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Hardcover)
I first read Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" while flying to the eastern United States for a scientific meeting. It was during a rather difficult period in my life and I had picked up on "Meditations" because of a mention of this work by Edwin Way Teale in "Near Horizons" as a book he turned to in times of trouble.
I was not disappointed by these insightful notes written for his own use nearly 2000 years ago by the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher. It was thus that I was primed to read William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy." This is one of those books that can be really life changing, if the reader is ready for it.
Irvine briefly discusses the history of Stoic philosophy and its relationship to other philosophies in ancient Greece and Rome. He concentrates most of the book, however, on the Stoics of the Roman Empire, namely Seneca, Gaius Musonius Rufus, Epictetus and of course, Marcus Aurelius. After his historical review Irvine spends some time on the practical aspects of Stoicism, including
- negative visualization (visualizing how your life could be worse),
- dichotomy of control (what we can and cannot control),
- fatalism (about the past and present, not the future),
- self-denial (putting off pleasure so as to appreciate it more when you have it),
- duty (what we owe to others),
- social relations (how we relate to others),
- insults (how to react to them),
- grief (how to deal with loss),
- anger (how to turn it to humor),
- personal values (how to deal with fame and fortune, or the lack thereof),
- old age (how to deal with the aging process),
- and dying (how to prepare for this certainty).
The last part of the book is devoted to the practice of Stoicism in the modern world, with both its pluses and minuses.
Although I would have to practice a modified Stoicism (I doubt that most of us would like to sleep even occasionally on a board or give up sex except for procreation), there is much of Stoicism that we can use in the modern world.
Unlike the Cynics who slept on boards all the time and generally followed ascetic practices, Stoics wanted to enjoy life and followed something akin to the Middle Way of Buddhism. This attitude could certainly be of use to counter the worst of this "me first" society of rampant consumerism. In truth you really cannot take it with you when you die and to act like you can is the height of folly.
This book is a fascinating exposition of Stoic philosophy and its possible uses in the present day. The current economic collapse and other disasters of modern living could be a fertile ground for a revival of Stoic ideas. I also recommend it as a refreshing antidote for the hectic modern world in general. Take what is useful, and leave the rest, but read it if you would live deliberately and thus be free!Stoicism Redux, February 20, 2009
Once in a while, one comes across an idea so profound that it has the power to change one's life. So was the case for me yesterday on my way to Columbus, OH. Feeling like Christopher Columbus (re)discovering the Americas, I re-discovered the ancient Stoic philosophy through the reading of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine's, thanks to a program I recently listened to on KPFA.
I had never read the philosophy of Zeno of Citium, Epitectus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, but I knew in my heart that such a liberating yet deceivingly simple way of living must have been devised before.
I just did not know where to look for it. And much like the author, I had been recently intrigued by Zen Buddhism, but could not fully relate to its esoteric nature.
Classic Stoicism preaches a way of life that can bring tranquility and joy to anyone. Through simple psychological techniques such as negative visualization, dichotomy (/trichotomy) of control, or internalization of goals -- all brilliantly described in Irivine's book -- one can suppress negative feelings such as anxiety, fear, or frustration, while learning how to better deal with insult or grief, and why fame and luxury should not be looked for (more on this later).
While reading through the 336 pages of Irivine's book, I was amazed at how natural the overall philosophy felt to me. Its guiding principles were some of the very few absolute values that I could genuinely call mine, and many of its techniques I had discovered myself over time. In the author's words, I must be a "congenital Stoic." Nevertheless, I had never been able to spell out such a coherent system on my own, nor had I come across anyone who had until now.
Reading through the book's last chapters, and especially Chapter Twenty-One -- Stoicism Reconsidered -- I experienced an exhilarating rush of wholesomeness, being confronted for the first time to a coherent philosophy of life. Religious minds would say I got a revelation. Being agnostic myself, I would call it an epiphany, and it came in the form of Irvine's proof that Stoicism was a "correct philosophy of life," not by referring to Zeus as the ancient Stoics did, but to evolutionary theory in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular. Not being a professional philosopher myself, I cannot adequately criticize Irvine's argumentation, but it made sense to me. In fact, I would even go as far as challenging the author's excessive modesty, and suggest that he actually delivered a modern proof for Stoicism's overall correctness.
To say the book convinced me is an understatement. It converted me, not only to the doctrine, but to the scholastic approach of ancient philosophy. And as Seneca put it, "I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters; I, too, have the right to form an opinion." (Seneca, "On the Happy Life," III.2). So let me offer some suggestions as to how Stoicism could be extended to benefit from more recent discoveries.
- First, the notion of "duty," which ancient Stoics justify by the mere fact that we are social creatures and that we all mutually benefit from virtuous social behavior, should be further developed. In order for it to become more acceptable, its justification should go beyond the benefits of harmonious inter-personal relationships, and include a notion best described as statistical Karma: if more people act benevolently with others in a pass-it-forward kind of way, the world at large will become a better place, and we will all benefit from it indirectly.
- Second, the notion that fame after death should not be set as a goal, while advisable at first, is unnecessarily challenging for those who do not believe in life after death. Instead, I believe that one's goal could (should) be to create a lasting legacy,
- either by passing the virtuous of a Stoic life to one's descendants,
- or by making positive contributions to mankind, small or large.
Such a legacy can reasonably be considered as some form of life after death by agnostic philosophers, or a component of life after death by their religious counterparts. Furthermore, because such a legacy will be judged by those who survive us after our passing, setting its creation as a primary life goal should not expose us to the usual traps of fame seeking. Last but not least, it should be obvious to anyone that such a legacy should be a positive one, as in one that will benefit those who survive us and for generations to come, as opposed to a free entry into history books for reason of crime against humanity.
- Third, I believe that the Stoic reaction to insult (offense might even be a more appropriate term) should be extended in order to include what is possibly the most powerful discoveries of the past two millennia: Christian forgiveness. Before explaining what I mean by that, let me give some personal background: my mother was born in France and received a Catholic education. My father was born in Algeria and was raised as a Muslim. I was born in France thirty-five years ago and grew up in a perfectly atheist environment, like many kids of this time in post-68, pre-socialist France.
Nevertheless, I later developed a keen interest for Christianity and its principles, originally through the watching of movies from David Lynch. Fire Walk with Me gave me an intuitive understanding of the notion of the original sin and its repercussions on our collective psyche as members of a Judeo-Christian community, while The Straight Story offered a moving demonstration of the power of forgiveness.
While I view the concept of original sin as fundamentally anti-Stoic, I consider the notion of forgiveness as the ultimate exercise of Stoic mastery. The reason for this is simple: on one hand, ignoring an insult or offense is neutral at best, even slightly negative as the author would admit, for it creates frustration on the side of the offender. On the other hand, genuine forgiveness, although tremendously challenging for the one who received the offense and arguably rare, has the power to deliver a transforming epiphany to the offender.
In other words, forgiveness could be the ultimate act of Neostoicism, and is positively viral by nature, therefore should be practiced whenever possible.
I am now sitting on a plane on my way back home. Practicing negative visualization, I realize how fortunate I am that the previous three legs of my trip were completed without any incidents. And while I contemplate the prospect of the plane crashing before we make it back to SFO, I know in my heart that I am living a good life now, at this very moment (carpe diem). I realize that I shared through these lines more than I expected to, and that it does not make me a proper stealth Stoic as advocated in Irvine's book, but I also know that many of the ideas he brought back to life were born through Socratic debate. I simply wish to contribute to the discussion, with as much innocence that my ignorance will afford me.
Tonight, I found my way (in a Taoist sense), and this brings me joy.Help other customers find the most helpful reviews
Comment Comments (2)
Jon Morris (Binghamton, NY USA)Grodge "Kalamazoo Post" (Kalamazoo, MI USA)
New Life for an Ancient Art, January 2, 2009
This review is from: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Hardcover)For the most part, reading contemporary philosophy is a bit like watching a rabid dog chase its tail: round and round it turns, growling here, nipping there, until exhausted it collapses in the same place it began, upon a sorry bed of deconstructed words, free-floating signifiers "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Ironically, philosophy has perhaps never been more sorely needed than now, and those who are skeptical of facile religious answers, and distrustful of scientific "theories of everything" (as String Theory claims to be), find themselves seemingly alone to contemplate life's most demanding questions. In this bleak scenario, William Irvine's book represents a timely exception, filling in a void and lighting a candle in an otherwise dark library.
Irvine's book works on many levels. In part, it is a manifesto, a call to arms -- an insistence that philosophy address life's most important questions -- about life, death, responsibility, etc.; in part, it is an attempt to revitalize interest in the offerings of a philosophical school that has been wrongly neglected, and as such it serves as a great introduction to its most important thinkers; and in part it is a guide, a personal look at how philosophy, particularly stoic philosophy, can empower a person.
The book will appeal to a large audience; indeed, the title and subtitle could easily be reversed. That is, one could read this book as a guide to the good life (without the ten-step pop-psychology), or, one might just as easily read it as an overview of "the ancient art of joy," a look at how the ancients dealt with problems similar to those which we face today, and how they found meaning and happiness despite (or even thanks to) them.
The Stoics have much to teach us in part because they lived in a period not unlike our own: as Rollo May, the existentialist psychologist, points out, "After the Golden Age of classical Greece, when the myths and symbols gave the citizen armor against inner conflict and self-doubts, we come down to the third and second centuries B.C.". The old myths and political ideals were collapsing and giving rise to doubt, anxiety, angst. This would continue for several centuries and carry over to the Romans. Just like they had gladiator sports, we have reality TV. This, of course, is a gross oversimplification, but it is worth mentioning because the Stoics, much more so than the representatives of current philosophical trends, provide us with tools to face the challenges of our time.
The book is divided into four sections, the richest of which are the second, "Stoic Psychological Techniques," and the third, "Stoic Advice." The table of contents is available, so I won't list the chapters. Suffice it to say, they address life's concerns--grief, anger, death and aging, personal values, etc.... Where Irvine's book really distinguishes itself is in its ability to synthesize the ideas of the Stoics into a coherent and orderly guide. Anyone who has read Marcus Aurelius has certainly found much to treasure, but as the book was a sort of diary, it jumps about, and so his thoughts on the nature of the universe, for example, are peppered throughout. Irvine does an excellent job of sifting through these rich texts and compiling the insights of the Stoics according to themes, in a way that is immediately accessible and stimulating.
In the final section of his book, "Stoicism for Modern Lives," Irvine is tempered but explicit in his critique of modern psychology and counseling. Stoicism teaches us to face and overcome life's greatest challenges; often, contemporary counseling does not.
Instead, it encourages victimhood or prescribes a feel-good drug. Here, too, TV is a good indicator. With thousands of veterans returning from the Middle East with PTSD, the book is again a timely corrective to our contemporary milieu. "It would be bad enough," Irvine says, "if grief counseling were simply ineffective. In some cases, though, such counseling seems to intensify and prolong people's grief ... it is the psychological equivalent of picking at the scab on a wound." Here, too, Stoicism represents an intelligent and ethical alternative.
Reading Irvine's book is a pleasure: jargon-free, personal and intelligent, it is an example of what philosophy can be and ought to be. Readers will also find the suggested reading list and bibliography helpful. Highly recommended.The author, a philosophy professor, appropriately subtitles his book The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
This is unlike any book I've read and presents philosophy in an entirely practical way. Sure, we've all read the standard Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, but Irvine begins by putting the study of philosophy into context. The ancient Greeks were the very first members of Western Civilization to have been afforded the luxury of time to actually think about the big questions of existence, happiness and metaphysics.
As such they sat down and codified the nature of the human condition and it's relationship with the natural and the divine. Irvine points out that a leap occurred in human understanding in the 6th century BCE and over the intervening centuries philosophers had every intention of solving the mystery of why we were here and what makes us happy and fulfilled. To me, they were like the Google and Apple engineers of their day.
Various systems, or schools, were developed: the Stoics, Aristotle's Academy, the Cynics, the Epicureans, etc. They competed for followers by presenting true philosophies for living and not just presenting ivory tower psychobabble. Irvine concentrates on the Stoics and points out that the goal of this system was to eliminate or mitigate negative emotions, only in the modern vernacular has stoicism (small S) come to mean the elimination of all emotion. In jargon-free prose, Irvine presents a readable synopsis of philosophy and puts it into a context that makes it real.
Irvine says that humans are programmed to seek pleasure and this is a constantly increasing urge that saps our enjoyment of the world. He terms this adaptive hedonism: that no matter how comfortable or pleasurable our lives become, we soon adapt and need more, more, more. Without breaking this cycle of ever-increasing hedonism, we become miserable.
Buddhists would call this attachment. Irvine presents psychological techniques developed by the first Stoics that are designed to increase our satisfaction with our current situation.
The first technique is negative visualization. The ancients would instruct their students to visualize, or imagine, the very worst case scenario or outcome. No matter how gruesome or disturbing, we should picture losing everything: our family, our job, our home, our health. This prepares us for the absolute worst and when these negative situations do not materialize, we gain more satisfaction and gratitude for the things we have. I would note that this is anathema to the usual teaching of modern Western society which instructs us to think positive! and avoid negative thoughts. Irvine points out that this attitude only increases our desire for more, and decreases our enjoyment of what we have.
Irvine admits that negative visualization seems counter-intuitive, but such active techniques are important especially in kids who can become jaded as they compete for the latest trendy consumer items or experiences. Just as a near-death catastrophe, such as a car accident or illness, can temporarily jolt someone out of their jadedness and put things into a cleaner perspective, negative visualization can do the same thing-- only it's actually more effective because it is done regularly, consciously and with discipline.
There have been several famous Stoics, including Zeno, Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca and the Marcus Aurelius. The Greek schools fell out of favor for various reasons as Christianity rose to political prominence in the first centuries after Christ.
The Stoics also advocate a program of voluntary discomfort, such as fasting or wearing too little clothing in the cold, or making other physical sacrifices-- a practice which is done by many if not most religions in some manner. The Stoics taught that such practices have positive consequences on levels of happiness and satisfaction in life, and it also prepares us for the times when such sacrifices are necessary. As such, we become more confident that we could withstand hard times, if they ever were to come our way, thus increasing our joy and satisfaction in our current plentiful situation.
Irvine also points out the power of self-deprecation, self-denial, concentrating only on factors that we can truly control (very few as it turns out), and eschewing worry about things we cannot change. The ultimate goal of the practice of Stoicism is to increase tranquility in our lives ... and to increase joy. Some individuals have natural tendencies toward Stoicism, while others would fight these techniques and view them as counter-productive or silly.
Irvine points out that most, if not all of Stoicism, can be perfectly consistent with other religions and can easily be incorporated into Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths.
Personally, I tend toward many of the Stoic ideals already, and always have. Reading this book was refreshing... to know that some of my crazy behaviors have actually been codified by ancient philosophers and that more modern psychological techniques describe some of my behaviors; negative visualization does not lead to pessimism, and has been invaluable to me in my job. Irvine gives examples of meditations and practices that follow this philosophy-- and it is way to live your life.
True happiness does come from living within your means, knowing your limitations and practicing self-control, and as Irvine says, the most amazing-- truly amazing-- thing is that sometimes out of the blue a burst of unrestrained joy will come when you least expect it.
My review has not done the book justice. Irvine is a gifted writer and philosopher and this book gets my highest recommendation.
cross-posted at Kalamazoo Post: kalamazoopost.blogspot.com/2011/05/guide-to-good-life-by-william-irvine.html
Jan 03, 2018 | farefwd.comNo matter how much planning my teacher did for our fourth-grade field trip to the Circle Line Ferry, my personal commitment to Stoicism must have come as a surprise.
We students had all packed lunches, which went in three big coolers, which were loaded onto our buses and were supposed to have come onto the ferry. Only two of the coolers were actually transferred, and the teachers were breaking the bad news to the children with no lunches, trying to forestall meltdowns. "All right, then," I said. "I just won't be hungry." My teacher seemed confused, so I explained, in my little, piping voice, "There's no point in being hungry if I don't have any food. I can't control whether there's lunch, I can only control if I'm upset about it. So I won't be."
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Dec 26, 2016 | exeter.ac.uk20 Replies ... ... ...
We Stoics always have to navigate a fragile balance when we present our ideas to the world. Many of our most powerful and appealing psychological tools revolve around accepting events that happen and recognizing that they are ultimately outside of our control. The reason that Stoicism is relevant to such a large and diverse array of people today is exactly because it purports to offer a powerful solution to almost any source of distress: "retire into yourself" ( Meditations , 7.28). We are perpetually at risk, however, of having our doctrine of "indifference" toward externals misconstrued for a "neglect" of externals. The benefits of inner peace speak for themselves-but the extreme emphasis that our philosophy puts on personal virtue as an "inner citadel" puts us in an understandably delicate position, politically speaking.
Any speech extolling the merits of inner peace and apatheia goes wrong-and in fact becomes positively toxic-the moment that the audience begins to suspect that our school advocates for complacency in the face of social injustice. A great deal of the world's harms are not inevitable, and in fact are immanently preventable (fate permitting), if only we humans could get our act together. If Stoicism teaches that we should be passive toward these fixable harms, or if our school is quick to "blame the victim" for their own unhappiness while simultaneously ignoring injustice, then our philosophy is immoral, and ought to be immediately rejected as such.
Of course, Stoicism teaches no such thing! To the contrary, we believe that no man or woman can be moral (or Happy) unless they work tirelessly for the benefit of all humanity. Justice and Benevolence must be a guide to all of our actions-"any action of yours," in fact, "which has no reference, whether direct or indirect, to these social ends, tears your life apart!" ( Meditations , 9.23). We do not believe that our doctrine of inner peace is mutually exclusive with Justice in any way whatsoever. "It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind," says Epictetus, "the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible" ( Discourses , 2.5.9).
People are right to be concerned, though, that Stoicism might teach an inappropriately shallow sort of fatalism. The more unilateral emphasis we put on the inner fortress as a shield against injustice, the more rational reason people have for fearing that we are abandoning our natural responsibility to work diligently in defense of the downtrodden. Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. "About the institution of slavery," say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press's series of Seneca translations, "there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter."
I believe that contemporary Stoics need to be absolutely unambiguous about the fundamental moral imperatives that are essential to our ethics. Say it loud and clear: the way that we treat each other-and the way that we allow others to be treated by our society-is not "indifferent" at all. Stoicism is a system of virtue ethics, not only therapy, and as such it demands that each practitioner strive to be a force for Justice and Benevolence at all levels of society.
The Need for Charity
There is a little anecdote, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, where we find Zeno confronting a man who had been strongly critical of Antisthenes. Zeno apparently felt that the man had not done his due diligence as a critic, and he reprimanded the man strongly for it: "are you not ashamed," he said, "to pick out and mention anything wrong said by Antisthenes, while you suppress his good things without giving them a thought?" ( Lives of the Eminent Philosophers , 7.1.19). Donald Robertson likes to retell this story and interpret it as illustrating a strong normative principle: if we are going to criticize a person or school, we ought to engage the best of their thinking along with the worst, and to acknowledge what their ideas have to teach us about virtue. This is an idea that philosophers sometimes refer to as the " principle of charity ." Far from prohibiting or undermining criticism, the principle of charity is supposed to make us better, more just, and more incisive critics of flawed ideas.
Threading the needle of Stoic Justice becomes doubly difficult when a Stoic tries to go about offering advice to activists about how they can better run their movement. In many cases, criticism of activism effectively amounts to telling victims of hardship, injustice, and oppression how we think they ought to bear their plight more virtuously. This is a very difficult thing for anyone to do in a fair and sensitive way-it requires a lot of research and a generous dose of the principle of charity. It is virtually impossible to achieve, moreover, if it is not clear whether you actually, in fact, care about the injustice in question in the first place.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of can of worms that Bill Irvine stirred up at Stoicon 2016 in his presentation on what he has called "insult pacifism." If you missed the talk, it closely follows a post he published the previous week on the Oxford University Press blog, titled " How would the ancient Stoics have dealt with hate speech? "
Irvine's central point is that we can teach people to be resilient to injustice. Insults don't need to be emotionally damaging, and when we judge them to be inherently bad and horrible, we end up suffering unnecessarily. Channeling the advice of the Stoics, Irvine argues that a stance of non-retaliation, or of "receiving these people's insults as jokes" (as Seneca puts it in De Constantia ), can not only protect us from emotional disturbance, but can in fact send a highly effective normative signal: "on failing to provoke a rise in his target," says Irvine, "an insulter is likely to feel foolish."
I am completely on board with the notion of insult pacifism. I was raised to value the principle that evil is best repaid with kindness (Romans 12:20), and "that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39). I'm delighted at Irvine's effort to popularize similar Stoic ideas in his books and elsewhere. In my own personal practice, in fact, I am currently trying to use pacifism toward automotive insults to counter my own tendency toward road rage: pacifism comes highly recommended when you are barreling down the highway in a 3,000 pound projectile!
Irvine's manner of treating the topic leaves a great deal to be desired, however, and I fear that it only reinforces the notion that Stoics are disinterested in Justice in general, and that modern Stoicism, far from taking a charitable interest in contemporary activism, is indifferent or even hostile to the concerns of marginalized people.
Irvine's Criticism of Social Justice
First, Irvine's Stoicon presentation is lopsided in that he is largely silent on the need for Stoics to work for Justice at all-a weakness that is shared by his 2013 book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt-And Why They Shouldn't (Oxford University Press). But his approach indeed becomes "worse than silence" when he chooses to frame his talk as a one-sided criticism of contemporary social justice activism.
In the chapter of his book titled "Societal Responses to Insults"-which could have included a discussion on how we can work to make the world a better, more Just place for everyone-Irvine opts only to zero in on what he calls the "political correctness code" that emerged in the 1970's and has since, in his opinion, gotten way out of hand. "If Stoic philosopher Epictetus had been alive to watch the rise of hate speech laws, and, more generally, the political correctness movement," concludes Irvine, "he would have shaken his head in disbelief. According to him, the best way to spare people the pain of being insulted is not to change the world so that they never feel insults; it is instead to change people so that they are, in effect, immune to insults" (p. 182).
Now, there is plenty worth criticizing when it comes to activism on college campuses and society more broadly. Whatever nuances may be involved, I don't for a moment pretend that all of the widely publicized cases in which students have inappropriately stifled free speech, inhibited their own exposure to challenging ideas, or capriciously assaulted the academic freedom of university professors in the name of "safe spaces" are defensible (if this specific issue is of relevance to you, I encourage you to have a look at the 102-page report that PEN America released this week; a short summary can be found here ). I myself accept the Stoic view that anger is always irrational and vicious-a position which, if I'm not careful, easily gets me into hot water with the activist community!
The problem is not that Irvine has criticized these abuses of popular social justice ideas, or even that he apparently finds the concept of microaggressions to be useless (though, personally, I would implore him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater). Rather, the problem is that, in the same way that he has approximately nothing to say in defense of Justice despite our school's well-known reputation for a shallow fatalism, Irvine chooses to show no sympathy-and instead only active contempt-for the fundamental concerns that motivate activism.
For contrast, I invite you to have a look at the nuanced criticism of trigger warnings that Massimo Pigliucci wrote last year-which delved headlong into similarly sensitive waters, but only served to spark a very productive and cordial conversation among a diverse readership. I think it forms an exemplary model of how Stoics can treat such difficult topics while remaining true to Zeno's advice, and while making it clear that we do care deeply about Justice.
Irvine, meanwhile, admits that he is "puzzled" by the surge in concern over social justice issues on college campuses. He is perplexed that students feel "humiliated and even downtrodden" by the behavior of their peers, when in previous decades these issues were not very high in the public consciousness. Rather than engaging the many complex reasons that these students and other activists might give for their societal concerns, Irvine chooses to blanketly suggest that the systemic injustice so many are working to dismantle is simply a product of the imagination of feeble-minded youths: the infamous "hypersensitivity" of the activist. He lays the blame for the most recent round of sensitivity in efforts to teach people to recognize microaggressions, which are "such will-o'-the-wisp things that it takes training to spot them." And the idea of microaggressions, he believes, is motivated-not by a concern that the longstanding systemic injustices that plague the United States are enabled and aggravated by deep and pernicious social norms-but by a singular and simple purpose: to find new and innovative ways to feel "insulted."
In short, just as Zeno worried, Irvine opts to "pick out and mention" everything that is wrong with contemporary activism, but to "suppress the good things without giving them a thought." He allows the imprudent behavior of a misguided minority of activists-behavior which otherwise very much deserves to be criticized-to completely overshadow and eclipse the efforts of those who are working seriously and virtuously to bring Justice to the world. This approach is incomplete, reactive, and cavalier, and it is doubly problematic in a talk that explicitly purports to give marginalized people advice on how best to cope with oppression and hate speech.
Pigliucci, meanwhile, also strongly rejects what he sees as the general thrust of student activism with regard to trigger warnings. But he takes care to acknowledge the legitimate concerns, where they exist, that motivate the various voices involved in the controversy. Faculty have a human and professional duty, he says, "to be sensitive, rather than dismissive, to students' concerns." The result is not just a presentation that is less likely to offend, but one that comes across as better researched, commonsensical, and highly persuasive. These are the fruits of charity.
No doubt, Irvine only meant to use a few vicious behaviors by some college students as an illustrative example for his ideas. I'm sure that Irvine does believe that Justice is important (even if he chooses not to emphasize it for fear of exacerbating existing abuses in the activist community). Instead, however, his contribution to Stoicon gave a strong impression that modern Stoicism is indifferent or even hostile to the social concerns of historically marginalized groups and minorities-such as women, people of color, and LGBTs. Between his deafening silence on the moral imperative to Justice and his uncharitable characterization of activist's concerns, his presentation lends credence to the erroneous idea that because Stoics believe that "true freedom is internal freedom," they also believe "the external sort does not really matter."
The Alienating Effect on Minorities
As Irvine delivered his pithy summary of campus activism, the predominantly white male audience laughed heartily-oblivious, it seems, to the sensitivity of the subject.
In the meantime, my wife-a black, female graduate student who is probably better educated in the scientific literature on microaggressions than both Irvine and 90% of the Stoicon audience-was having a very different social experience. She had come along to New York as a favor to me, to see what this philosophy is that I've become so interested in lately, and to learn about how it relates to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and REBT. But in that moment, she became acutely aware of one simple fact: it did not appear that ethnic minorities or their distinctive concerns are welcome or wanted, much less understood, in the modern Stoic community. "Alienating" is perhaps too weak a word to describe how she experienced Stoicon.
Stoicism is remarkable among the world's major religio-philosophical traditions for its history of including the voices not just of emperors and wealthy statesmen but also of people with physical disabilities, mental illness, and chronic pain, victims of torture and PTSD, and prisoners serving life sentences. But when marginalized people encounter Stoicism today, do they come away believing that Stoicism has something to offer them? Or do they come away with the impression-right or wrong-that Stoicism is just one more system created by privileged people who are out of touch with the severity of the world's fixable injustices?
If people find modern Stoicism's advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine's call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.
Stoics for Justice
Stoicism is not a political theory. I agree with Pigliucci when he says that demanding a specific social vision from our school is a "category mistake." To the contrary, he says that "one can be a Stoic conservative or progressive, as well as a Stoic atheist or theist. But as long as we all practice virtue and attempt to become better people, we will be more likely to engage in constructive dialogue over what and how to change society for the better."
I believe that Stoicism can do amazing things in the world of politics and philanthropy if we create a space for those "constructive dialogues" to take place-especially if those dialogues are rooted in Zeno's principle of charity, and if they implement the Socratic model, in which we "stop at point after point, and make out what each person is willing to admit and what he denies" (Cicero, De Finibus , 2.3).
Moreover, I strongly suspect that the Stoic emphasis on the four cardinal virtues offers a uniquely powerful antidote to the pervasive miscommunication, polarization, and rancor that seemingly attend all political arguments. A Stoic is someone who cares about personal resilience and Temperance, but who also cares deeply about Justice. If we present ourselves this way, the world should never have reason to be confused on this point, or to doubt our support for both social justice (whatever exactly that means) and personal virtue. Our school teaches that virtue is one, after all, and that if we separate it into pieces, we destroy it.
In my opinion, Stoicon left something to be desired when it comes to getting these values across (notwithstanding Christopher Gill's excellent and helpful presentation on the history of Stoic activism). But the conversations at Stoicon were neither the first nor the last word on the matter.
That is why, starting now, some of us are coming together to form a Facebook group called " Stoics for Justice ," as a space to push Stoic philanthropy forward and to find ways of working together to pursue the "common benefit" (as Marcus liked to say). Whether you prefer radical activism aimed at disrupting oppressive power structures, or whether you see your role in the world as focused on community building, education, and hands-on philanthropy-or, yes, even therapeutic training in becoming resilient to insults-you should be able to find a role to play in any hypothetical Stoic-led movement for Justice and Benevolence.
Come join us at Stoics for Justice and let us know how you think we might move Stoic philanthropy forward on the issues you care about most!
Thank you to Kristen de K., John Martin, Charmika Stewart, and Arianna Scott for their very helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.
Eric "Siggy" Scott writes the blog Euthyphroria . He is interested in moral practice as a way of life, and in how secular and religious people can find common ethical ground (a question which Socrates raised in Plato's Euthyphro ). In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.
Dec 26, 2016 | www.amazon.comBy Naila B McKenzie on November 11, 2016 Format: Kindle EditionI reflected on life after reading this5 stars Excellent guide to stoicism! By Athea Howard on November 1, 2016 Format: Kindle Edition | Verified Purchase This is a very readable, easily understood book; a short guide to the philosophy of stoicism. The author gives a history of this philosophy, some good suggestions of practical uses of stoicism, and ends with how he personally practices stoicism. I have to conclude that stoicism has a great deal to contribute to a psychologically balanced, happy attitude. It makes us aware of how we often sabotage ourselves by negative or unrealistic thinking.
" My thoughts after reading this book: we do not know what the future holds and we have to accept the fact that life is full of surprises whether bad or good, we have to face them. Life is short so we better make every moment count. We have to be steadfast, strong and in control of ourselves. And finally, we are often not satisfied with what life has to offer because we always let our emotions dominate us rather than seeing the logic behind every situation. I know it will take time for me to internalize all of these, but it makes sense to me now why most stoics lead a happier life than most of us.
Dec 26, 2016 | www.amazon.comBy Karl Janssen on July 20, 2015 Format: Paperback Verified PurchaseApplying ancient philosophy to modern life4.0 out of 5 stars STOICISM: Shift your values to what is truly good, beautiful and virtuous By Ernest Kienzle on December 27, 2014 Format: Paperback | Verified Purchase STOICISM TODAY is the Western counterpart to Buddhism. 2014, the year of the Stoic, heralds the awakening of a new golden age of practical, living philosophy led by Stoic physics, logic, and ethics. Actually, Stoicism was never asleep. Read articles in this book by modern philosophers, therapists, and professionals who reveal the link between ancient stoic techniques and modern challenges in the world we live in.
" Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC. It is a practical philosophy, intended as a guide for how to live one's life. The Stoics stressed that we have no control over what happens in our lives, only control over our perceptions. They advocated living one's life in accordance with nature (not "nature" as in grass and trees, but "nature" as in the order of the universe). By concentrating one's thoughts and choices on what is good and virtuous, and disregarding the "indifferent" distractions of everyday life, one can avoid negative emotions like fear, anger, grief, and frustration, and live a life of happiness and tranquility.
In recent years, there has been a burgeoning resurgence in Stoicism, with modern writers producing manuals on how to apply Stoic principles to life in today's world, such as William B. Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life. Along similar lines, Stoicism Today is a blog published out of the University of Exeter in England, edited and largely written by a team of British philosophers. This 2014 book, edited by Patrick Ussher, is the first volume of writings reprinted from the blog. 36 articles are included in the collection, covering a mixed bag of Stoic-related topics.
The collection starts out strong with essays summarizing and explaining the core concepts of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. These ancient Roman writers are the most prominent Stoics whose teachings survive today. The 21st-century writers clarify the ancient Stoic precepts and discuss their applicability to modern life. Though the bloggers hold PhDs in philosophy and command a thorough understanding of their subject, they do a great job of expressing these complex concepts in language that is accessible to the general reader, without dumbing down the subject matter.
While the first half of the book provides a good, broad education on Stoicism, the second half covers a diverse assortment of topics and perspectives. A section called "Life Stories" consists of accounts by people of various walks of life on how they use Stoicism in their daily lives and work, including a lawyer, a doctor, and a woman who suffered a traumatic brain injury. The most fascinating and inspiring story is that of Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic who became mayor of Vancouver. Next is a section on how Stoicism can be applied to parenthood and the education of children. This is followed by a section on Stoicism and psychotherapy which will mostly appeal to psychiatric professionals, as it will likely be over the head of most general readers. Three articles deal with the concept of Stoic "mindfulness" and its relation or lack of relation to Buddhism. Finally, the book falls apart somewhat with its final section on Stoicism in popular culture. It includes an excerpt from a Stoicism-infused novel about prison inmates which is OK, but also a sample chapter from a horrible science fiction novel. The book's final selection is a pretty good examination of the portrayal of Stoicism in the Star Trek television series.
This collection by its very nature is a hodgepodge, and the selections vary greatly in quality as well as subject matter. The core team of philosophers are good writers for the most part, but the ensemble cast of guest bloggers is hit and miss. Nevertheless, if you've read all the Stoic classics and are looking for further advice on how to put Stoicism into practice, you're bound to find something here that will interest you. Had A Calming Effect By Elizabeth Echavarria on March 24, 2016 Format: Kindle Edition | Verified Purchase After getting through some of the stories I was able to gain some perspective on what it means to be stoic and utilize some stoic principles in my own life.
Dec 26, 2016 | exeter.ac.uk
Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.
The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.
But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.
It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.
... ... ...
In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults... The Stoics' advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can't. We can't control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.
I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as "victims." They are certainly targets , but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.
When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a "victim" among them-and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn't have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.
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William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn't . For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website .
- Alan Pitman 19th Nov, 2016 at 11:32
I cannot help but agree. Identity politics and political correctness diminishes agency and casts entire groups as "victims" – this strikes me as in opposition to the stoic call to individuality and self examination, and as William argues, formulating strategies for living that sometimes reveal harsh truths.
As William also points out there is much logical incoherence and moral inconsistency at the heart of political correctness. I would draw your attention to Professor Jordan Peterson, a Canadian academic and Psychologist currently challenging key tenants of campus style social justice and at risk of losing his position at the University of Toronto.
- O.D. 19th Nov, 2016 at 14:31
Outstanding post! "Political Correctness" and "Social Justice" are only concerned with silencing debate, and they need to be confronted wherever and whenever they try and push their misguided beliefs.
- Duff 19th Nov, 2016 at 20:01
When a friend who is not a Stoic is experiencing external challenges such as the loss of a loved one or debilitating physical illness, I could respond in one of two ways:
1) I could tell this person that their hardship is illusory for it is outside of the sphere of choice, and thus they are being irrational by causing themselves needless suffering. I could talk about how they would be better served by hardening themselves against all externals, and about how people in developing nations have it far worse so their concerns are unimportant. I could talk about how they are exemplifying a politically correct culture of crybullies that is just attention seeking and needs to get over it.
2) Or instead I could listen to their story, I could offer my sympathy and condolences. I could empathize by imagining what it would be like to be in their position. I could seek to understand why this person is so affected by this event. And then perhaps after all that, I could ask them what is in their control to do now, or perhaps make a suggestion for how they might respond wisely and effectively to the external event.
Which option is more virtuous? I would propose the latter is the clear winner for a practicing Stoic.
Even if you feel like your friend is upset over nothing - for as Epictetus recommended to say to all externals, "this is nothing to me" - it is still more virtuous to empathize and at least *pretend* for the moment that externals really do cause people to feel bad.
Then after some time, perhaps it would be useful and wise to offer a perspective that could help your friend to become more resourceful and respond more effectively.
Even you completely disagree with a particular activist or an entire activist movement, justice is still one of the four central virtues of Stoicism. Seneca frequently talked in his letters about being human to people, even when they suffer "needlessly" from externals. Marcus Aurelius talked about loving all people as our brother (or sister), even those annoying people who bother you every day because they don't know good from evil.
When we ignore justice, or diminish the experiences of those who suffer from unjust systems, we lose out on an opportunity to practice virtue with practical wisdom. I think the Stoic Sage is clearly the person who listens and empathizes first, and that's the type of person I aim to become.
- Palamedes 26th Nov, 2016 at 01:05
Review your premiss: The concept of a 'just' of 'fair' world is very modern. The Spartans trained their youth that the world was NOT fair or just. No Stoic ever claimed our world to be either fair of just: they spoke of fortune and of doing what is right for you, the individual. Thus: if YOU think you or others are not being treated fairly or justly, you would do better to change you thinking than to attempt to change the world.
- E. O. Scott 26th Nov, 2016 at 01:23
Palamedes: "if YOU think you or others are not being treated fairly or justly, you would do better to change you thinking than to attempt to change the world."
But doesn't a the virtuous person always do both at once? Why must it be either or?
Stoicism teaches that virtue is the only good-and surely you don't believe that it is virtuous to be an idle bystander to injustice!
- Brian Vuong 28th Nov, 2016 at 03:50
Amazing post. Thank you for sharing
It is indeed amazing how much more energy you have to work with when you aren't letting yourself play a victim to fate
Great analogy with any treatment that is to cure you will cause discomfort at first
Dec 26, 2016 | exeter.ac.ukThe second strand of ethical development centres on our relationship to other people. The Stoics believed that, alongside the natural motive of self-preservation, there is a second natural motive, namely to care for others of our kind. The instinct, found in all animals, including human beings, to love and care for our children, is a clear example of this motive. As we develop, human beings express this motive in more complex and rational ways, which also express a growing understanding of the virtues. This leads to two main kinds of outcome. One is social involvement (in family, communal, or political life), in a form that expresses understanding of the virtues. Another is the recognition that all human beings – because they are all capable of this process of rational, ethical development – are, in a sense, brothers and sisters to us, or fellow-members of a single world-community. Although different Stoic sources emphasize one or other of these outcomes, they are often seen as compatible or mutually supporting. Social or political involvement in a specific, local context is achieved in the best way (the way that expresses the virtues), if it is combined with recognition of the fundamental kinship or co-citizenship of all human beings as rational agents.
This Stoic theory of ethical development makes sense, I think, of their thinking on political involvement. Our evidence for their ideas on this topic is rather limited, and, as with other topics, different Stoics seem to have interpreted these ideas in somewhat different ways. But there are some consistent themes.
First of all, the Stoics thought that, other things being equal, we should get involved in community and political life in our specific or local context – unlike the Epicureans, for instance, who thought such involvement was likely to undermine our own peace of mind.
Secondly, our involvement should be carried out in a way that also expressed and promoted our understanding of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, self-control).
Thirdly, our involvement at a local level should also reflect the recognition that, although different kinds of people have different claims on us, all human beings as such have a kinship and in a sense co-citizenship with us. These principles have a direct bearing on the sense in which Stoicism encourages us to be political active; it also has a bearing on how far one can be a Stoic and also a political activist, which usually means challenging the established political order in some way. I'll give some examples of how the ancient Stoics put these ideas into practice and then discuss how they might help us to formulate our own approach now.
First, were ancient Stoics active in politics and if so how? In looking at this question it's worth bearing in mind that, for much of the time that ancient Stoicism was most active (from the third century BCE to the second century CE), Greece and later Rome were ruled by kings or emperors, even though at other times, Athens had been a democracy and Rome a republic. It's also worth noting that, for the most part, and unlike some other ancient philosophies, Stoicism did not consistently recommend one form of government as the best one absolutely.
Rather, they maintained that, whatever context we find ourselves in (with exceptions noted shortly), we should be involved politically in a way that is consistent with our specific situation in life, character and talents, and our ethical principles. In Hellenistic Greece (that is, third to first century BCE), the main options were either involvement in local or community politics or being a philosophical advisor to a king, and some Stoics played both these roles.
Also, simply being a philosophical teacher in Athens was regarded as a kind of public or political role. It's worth remembering that this often meant teaching and arguing in a public place, such as the colonnade or Stoa after which the school was named. In Rome, a number of members of the political élite adopted Stoicism as their philosophy, and combined this with various forms of political involvement. These included being a leading politician and general under the Republic (Cato the younger, first century BCE), advising an emperor (Seneca, advisor to Nero, first century CE), and being the emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius, second century CE). At the other end of the social scale, Epictetus, an ex-slave (first-second century CE), took on the role of a philosophical teacher; he had no direct involvement in politics, but taught many students who went into political life. So, ancient Stoics seem overall to have practised what they preached, and to have become involved in politics to the extent that was feasible in their context and personal situation.
How far did this involvement express distinctively Stoic values? And did it lead them to engage in political activ ism , that is, challenging political authority on the grounds of injustice? This is, in fact, a very well-marked feature of political life in the late Roman republic and Empire. It mainly took the form of exemplary gestures, designed to signal moral disapproval of a given political ruler or regime, typically a dictator or emperor. Although Stoicism did not reject sole rule as a constitutional form (or indeed any given constitutional form), they rejected tyrannical abuse of power, seeing it as an exercise of injustice in the political sphere. This is the common thread underlying a series of famous exemplary gestures.
Cato committed suicide (in 46 BCE), in a very deliberate and obvious way, rather than submit to what he saw as Julius Caesar's illegitimate and unjust replacement of the Roman republic by dictatorship. A number of Roman senators, such as Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus (both first century CE), signalled their disapproval of the injustice of the emperor in power, for instance, Nero or Domitian. They did so by refusing to attend the senate, by remaining silent there, or walking out in protest – and these gestures were recognized as challenges to the regime and often led to exile or execution. (There was in fact a general expulsion of philosophers in 89 CE under Domitian, in response to this kind of attitude.)
Seneca's attempt to retire from his role of Nero's adviser, when it was clear his attempt to control Nero's excesses had failed, was taken as a gesture of disapproval and led to his enforced suicide in 65 CE. These are clear cases where Stoic principle (the refusal to be complicit in an unjust political order) led certain Romans from being politically active to being political activists , using exemplary gestures in the way that Gandhi did successfully in his campaign of passive resistance to the British rule of India which he saw as unjust.
This passage of Marcus Aurelius Meditations sums up the two features of Stoic political thought considered so far. ' through him [Severus] I have come to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and have grasped the idea of a state based on equality before the law, which is administered according to the principles of equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy, which values above all the liberty of its subjects' (1.14).
Marcus refers to a number of the well-known Stoic activists I have just discussed. Marcus also sums up his own credo as an emperor. Although not all Stoics would necessarily have shared this approach, it clearly represents a Stoic type of ideal, namely Marcus' attempt to play his role in life (as an emperor) in a way that was consistent with expressing the virtues in a political context.
What about the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humanity or co-citizenship in the world? What role did this play in their political thinking? Sometimes it provides a kind of objective or broader framework for more localized political action, placing this in a broader moral framework: as in this quotation from Marcus. 'As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being, it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me' (6.44.6). At other times this idea is brought more directly into moral or political decision-making. Antipater, one of the Hellenistic heads of the Stoic school (in 159-129 BCE), argued that when we are doing business, for instance, selling a house, we should be open and honest about the faults of the property, even if we make less money , bearing in mind that all those involved are members of the brotherhood of humankind and deserve just treatment (Cicero, On Duties 3.52). Cicero (106-43 BCE), though not a Stoic himself, sometimes adopted Stoic principles; he maintained that anyone who becomes a tyrant (unjust ruler) puts himself outside the brotherhood of humanity or the 'body' of rational human agents. More controversially he maintained that this principle justified the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE ( On Duties 3.22-28, 32).
These examples give us some idea how the idea of the brotherhood of humankind was used to support both political involvement and social and political activism in the sense I am considering here.
Finally, what lessons can we learn from Stoic thinking and practice on this subject that might help us today? I would not want to suggest that Stoic political principles provide a straightforward answer to any given political question, for instance how we should have vote in the British referendum on our membership of the EU (June 2016) or the recent US presidential election (November 2016), but they certainly can provide ideas on which we can reflect in making such decisions. In particular, I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind or co-citizenship of the world has a special value for us in the present political climate.
Many of the most intense debates today on both sides of the Atlantic centre on how we should respond to the claims of refugees from war-zones, how we should respond to people who want to become immigrants in our country, or how we should treat people whose religion is different from our own, or from that prevalent in our country.
I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind can help to place these questions in a broader perspective and can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable. More generally, I believe the Stoic approach of locating questions of political involvement and activism within the broader framework of human ethical development is a helpful one.
I think there is considerable value in trying to view one's life as an on-going project of ethical progress, centred on bringing together our growing understanding of the virtues and of how to treat other people better; and that this view can help us to adopt a more thoughtful and constructive view of political engagement than is often held.
- Nigel Glassborow 12th Dec, 2016 at 08:08
Old Rambo here is a prime example of where Stoicism without its faith can take us. Stoicism is neither 'left' nor 'right' of the political spectrum – it is for what is appropriate and such is mostly the middle path.
The middle path is where wisdom, courage, justice and moderation lead, where Stoic wisdom is based on the knowledge that we are all part of the One and the One is the living conscious Cosmos.
Take out the faith and the basis of what is virtue can be easily lost. Which is why if one is going to go down the path of Neo-Stoicism one needs to have a very strong basis for one's moral compass otherwise much of the Stoic practices and training can lead to the 'idiote' believing that they are 'perceiving' matters correctly and that they are making 'correct value judgments' when all the time their judgments are based only on what they erroneously believe is in their own individual best interest having not correctly considered what is in the interest of the whole.
... ... ...
- Nigel Glassborow 11th Dec, 2016 at 12:59
To pull the debate together:
- Christopher Gill says, " treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable."
- C. Florius Lupus says, "When people become a threat to us, to our kinship or to justice itself, then logic and reason demand that they have to be destroyed. It would not be stoic, if we let irrational affections and feelings prevent us from doing what is necessary, even if it requires harsh actions against other human beings."
- Ron Peters says, "Rather, he's warning against the kind of blanket hatred of all Muslims that is being encouraged by many high-profile, thoughtless and cruel politicians in the UK, the EU and US. And that kind of hatred is simply unjust and insupportable by Stoics."
As we can see this subject is mostly considered against what are intellectualised emotionally driven generalisations.
Yes, hatred of whole groups of people is irrational and mostly fear based with the fear being driven by the natural 'tribalism' that is part of our make up where we are naturally careful, even wary of those who live amongst our 'tribe' but who are 'different' and/or make little or no effort to fit in.
It is perceived that such 'outsiders' are a threat to our collective control over our 'tribe's territory'. Whether it be through warfare or invasion, in accordance with our nature as 'animals', group instincts start to kick in whereby our natural inclination to be sociable to our fellow kind (humanity) is overridden by the drive to see the 'invader' as not of our 'tribe' (less than human), whereby we start to pull the circle of universal inclusion back in so as to be able to allow the instincts that support us in self-defence to override the instincts that support us as 'social animals'.
So we have need to be careful both regards the risk of triggering the 'they are not us' instincts through oration and regards letting situations get out of control whereby the 'they are not us' instinct is going to be triggered regardless – just by the sheer mass of any migration of 'others' into our 'national' territories, especially where a minority of the 'outsiders' are known to be a threat in the manner of 'wolves in sheep's clothing'.
If the leaders and the thinkers are seen to be blinded to such considerations by fear of being accused of being xenophobic or racist then those who feel 'threatened' will feel even more insecure and fearful and so will surrender yet further to the defensive instincts of humankind – defensive instincts that have been built into us all by the processes of Nature, the very Nature that we as Stoics turn to for guidance as to what is appropriate.
Politicians need to be allowed to look to the need to control any influx of 'outsiders' so as not to cause mass insecurity without being berated by those who have not looked to the wider picture. Western politicians also need to stop the crusade whereby they peddle their chosen system of government and so upset the balance in other counties so causing the mass migrations.
In accord with classical Stoicism, good governance is what is to be encouraged regardless of if it is based on a monarchy, a dictatorship, a senate of powerful individuals or some form of elected term limited dictatorship that we in the West tend to call democracy. After all democracy is not and never has been the be-all-to-end-all.
We also need to look to what we consider to be good governance. Some peoples, because of their culture and their history, need the 'strong leader' form of governance. We in the West have been gradually trying to remove all such 'strong leaders' from power – with disastrous effects. Better some issues of individual freedoms etcetera rather than whole counties being decimated due to the loss of the necessary 'tough' leadership that keeps warring tribes from tearing each other apart.
In accord with Stoic ideas, diplomacy will achieve much where 'regime change' will bring nothing but chaos.
Evolution ensures the 'survival of the fittest' through competition and diversity. Any drive to force what are 'tribal' animals to live totally as one people with no 'boundaries' will lead to great suffering.
As with much in Stoicism, opposites are compatible. So there is a need to accept division as well as unity.
The intellectual drive towards globalisation is leading to an opposite drive towards division and warfare whereby countries are breaking down into 'warring' clans and tribes be they based on territory, nationality, ethnic divisions or just opposing political parties.
We have need as Stoics not to just consider intellectualised principles, but to also consider the nature of the animal that we are and so to encourage the 'establishments' to govern us appropriately.
As Dutch says, "Getting from those largely self-regarding fundamental principles to the philosophy's broader ethical outlook as discussed here takes time and a fair bit of study."
This is why the Stoic is taught to view themselves as a servant of the whole while also being an autonomous individual – where 'one' is both the whole and the individual.
- "Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them." (Ench. 5)
- "If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone." (iii.24.2)
- "Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself." (viii.40)
- "Everything is right for me that is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late that comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me that your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return." (iv.23)
- "If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this." (iii.12)
- "How ridiculous and how strange is to be surprised at anything that happens in life!" (xii.13)
- "Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone." (v.19)
- "Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also" (vi.19)
- "Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us - how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space-and most of it uninhabited. How many people there will be to admire you, and who they are." (iv.3)
Seneca the Younger:
- "The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live." (Ep. 101.15)
- "That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away." (Ep. 59.18)
- "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes." (De Provid. v.8)
- "Virtue is nothing else than right reason." (Ep. 66.32)
Dec 18, 2016 | www.sott.netMarcus Aurelius (121-180CE) was emperor of Rome at the height of its influence and power. One can only imagine the pressures that a person in his position might have experienced. The military might of the empire was massive, and much could happen in the fog of war. Conspiracies ran rampant through the imperial court. What might be lurking right around the corner seemed unforeseeable. Economies flourished and fell into ruin. Barbarians at the Gates! And if Marcus was stressed out, how much more might the ordinary Roman suffer from this uncertainty?
But, as we start 2015, is Marcus's world really all that different from ours?
Today, global financial markets seem to move of their own accord as life savings vanish . Conflict around the world and violence at home seems hopelessly incomprehensible for most of us . US elections have seen some of their lowest voter turnout in recent memory, and the country seems more polarized than ever. The constant flow of information from the media and internet can make one feel small and ineffectual.
If all these stresses push one into a state of despair, or at least a sense of futility, maybe we can follow Marcus' advice and turn to philosophy. In particular, the philosophy of Stoicism.
The principles of Stoicism
Stoicism was founded in Athens around 300 BCE, and had its zenith during the Roman Imperial period of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, in the writings of such thinkers as Seneca and Epictetus, as well as Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism promised that a good life is available to us even in the face of overwhelming circumstances, which might partly explain its attractiveness to even the mighty emperor of the most powerful empire of its time.
Central to this life, according to the Stoics, is a certain set of cognitive approaches to what goes on in the world around us.
First, we must recognize that the vast majority of circumstances and events are out of our control. What is in our control is how we react to them. Thus, what matters to having a good life is not what happens to us, but rather how we deal with it.
The second major point is that those things under our control - - our thoughts - are both the source of our suffering, and something that we can learn to control. When we learn to have the appropriate reactions and thoughts, we can then live a happy and fruitful life even in the face of enormous difficulties.
In the words of Epictetus:If you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.Stoicism applied to contemporary life
A growing number of deeply thoughtful people, from scholars to practicing therapists, are following Marcus' advice today. For example, a group at the University of Essex in the UK has developed "Stoic Week," and produced guidelines for anyone to participate in stoic practices for a week and share their experiences.
Having just concluded its third iteration, this experiment in stoic living has indicated that stoicism may in fact be a helpful tool in modern life. Preliminary results from the first stoic week suggest that the majority of participants had significant reductions in negative feelings associated with stress and anxiety, etc.
The practice of stoicism is also now being pursued in the US. The University of Wyoming hosts a Stoic Camp, first run in May of 2014, putting students and faculty together to live by stoic principles on a 24 hour basis.
Stoic camp in Wyoming
Based in the Snowy Range outside of Centennial, WY, the initial camp hosted only students from Wyoming, but further iterations will accept students from other universities.
On a typical day, campers rise early in order to practice meditation based in the ancient texts and use this practice to help structure the rest of the day. Each morning and afternoon, the camp breaks into groups to read and discuss portions of Marcus's Meditations and consider how they reflected his stoic values and advice. By repeating this process, these ideas can become part of our cognitive equipment. Campers also engaged in outdoor activities to emphasize our affinity with nature and the universe as a whole.
© Robert S. Colter
Engaging with philosophy in Wyoming. Some of the campers were deeply affected by their experience. One camper told me, "Stoic camp was a continual reminder that so little is under our control, and also that there is no reason to stress over it. The repetition made this realization longer lasting, and gave us tools to use in living life in the face of stressful situations."
So, these cognitive realizations and tools may help us to live a happy, fruitful life. As the Stoics emphasize, however, such a life cannot consist in making the world bend to our will . Rather it must consist in making ourselves more fit to live well in the world as it is.
As Marcus says, "Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live ... while you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good."
Comment: As a follow up on Marcus's quote, read what George I. Gurdjieff wrote about The Last Hour of Life:Imagine, that you have only a few minutes, maybe an hour left to live; somehow you have discovered exactly when you will die. What would you do with this precious hour of your stay on Earth? Would you be able to complete all your things in this last hour, do you have a conscious idea about how to do it?
And letting go your last breath would you feel satisfaction from knowing that you have done everything possible in this life to fulfill that you are constantly present, always vibrating, always waiting, like the son is waiting for the father-sailor? In the manifested world everything has its beginning and its end. In the Real World everything is always present and one beautiful day you will be allowed to forget everything and leave the world "forever".
Freedom is worth a million times more than [political] liberation. The free man, even in slavery, remains a master of himself. For example, if I give you something, let's say, a car, in which there is no fuel, the car cannot move. Your car needs a special fuel, but it is only you who is able to define what kind of fuel is needed and where to get it.
You have to define yourself how to digest my ideas to make them yours, so that they belong only to you. Your car cannot work on the same fuel my car is working on. I suggest to you only the primary material. You have to get from it what you can use. So, more bravely, sit down at the steering wheel.
The organic life is very fragile. The planetary body can die at any moment. It is always one step from death. And if you could manage to live one more day, it is only a chance accidentally given to you by nature. If you will be able to live even one more hour, you can consider yourself to be a lucky person. From the moment of conception we are living on borrowed time.
Living in this world you have to feel death each second, so settle all your life affairs, even in your last hour. But how can anyone know exactly his last hour? For the sense of security make up your things with nature and yourself in every hour given to you, then you will never be met unprepared. The man has to be taught this starting from the [esoteric] school: how to breath, to eat, to move and to die right. This has to become a part of an educational programme. In this programme it is necessary to include the teaching about how to realize the presence of "I" and also how to establish consciousness.
Question: How to act if you do not feel that there is something unfinished?
Gurdjieff answered after a pause. He took a deep breath and replied:
Ask yourself who will be in difficulty if you die like a dog. At the moment of death you have to be wholly aware of yourself and feel that you have done everything possible to use all, within your abilities, in this life which was given to you.
Now you do not know much about yourself. But with each day you dig deeper and deeper into this bag of bones and start knowing more and more details. Day by day you will be finding out what you should have done and what you have to re-do among the things you have done. A real man is one who could take from life everything that was valuable in it, and say: "And now I can die". We have to try to live your lives so that we could say any day: "Today I can die and not be sorry about anything".
Never spend fruitlessly the last hour of your life because it can become the most important hour for you. If you use it wrongly, you may be sorry about it later. This sincere excitement that you feel now can become for you a powerful source of the force that can prepare you for perfect death. Knowing that the next hour can become the last one for you, absorb the impressions which it will bring to you as a real gourmet. When lady death will call you, be prepared, always. The master knows how to take from each tasty piece the last bit of the most valuable. Learn to be the master of your life.
When I was young I learned to prepare fragrances. I learned to extract from life its essence, its most subtle qualities. Search in everything the most valuable, learn to separate the fine from the coarse. One who has learned how to extract the essence, the most important from each moment of life, has reached a sense on quality.
He is able to do with the world something that can not be done by an aboriginal.
It could be that in the last moments of your life you will not have the choice where and with whom to be, but you will have a choice to decide how fully you will live them. The ability to take the valuable from life - is the same as to take from the food, air and the impressions the substances needed to build up your higher bodies. If you want to take from your life the most valuable for yourself, it has to be for the good of the higher; for yourself it is enough to leave just a little. To work on yourself for the good of others is a smart way to receive the best from life for yourself. If you will not be satisfied with the last hour of your life, you will not be happy about the whole of your life. To die means to come through something which is impossible to repeat again. To spend your precious time in nothing means to deprive yourself the opportunity to extract from life the most valuable.
In this world, to live life through, from the beginning to the end - means another aspect of the Absolute. All greatest philosophers were carefully preparing for the last hour of their life. And now I will give you the exercise to prepare for the last hour on the Earth. Try not to misinterpret any word from the given exercise.
Look back at the hour that has passed, as if it was the last hour for you on the earth and that you have just acknowledged that you have died. Ask yourself, were you satisfied at that hour?
And now reanimate yourself again and set up the aim for yourself. In the next hour (if you are lucky to live one more) try to extract from life a little more than you did in the last hour. Define, where and when you should have been more aware, and where you should have put more inner fire.
And now open your eyes wider, and by this I mean - open more possibilities for yourself, be a little more brave, than you were in the previous hour. Since you know that this is your last hour and you have nothing to loose, try to gain some bravery - at least now. Of course, you don't have to be silly about it.
Get to know yourself better, look at your machine as if from the outside. Now, when you are dying, there is no sense to keep your reputation and your prestige.
And now onward, until the real last hour, aspire with persistence to receive the most you can from life that is of value, develop your intuition. Take just a few moments each hour to watch at the hour that passed, without judgment, and then tune yourself to extracting more from the following hour.
If we look at each hour like at a separate life unit, you can try to do as much as you can to use every unit totally. Force yourself and find the way to make the next hour much more than the one before, but also be aware that you have taken care of the debts you collected till now. Increase the self-sensing and self-knowledge of yourself, and also increase the ability to master yourself, this will change the work of your machine, which is always out of your control. And these abilities can become the indication of the real changes. And it is absolutely unimportant what the machine is thinking about this.
...To live the rest of your life rehearsing your death hour by hour - is not at all pathological. None can receive more from life than the cancer patient, who knows approximately when he will die. And since he already recognized how he wishes to spend the rest of his life, he will not have to make the total change in it, but he will be able to go somewhere, where he always wished to go, but would not do it in other circumstances.
The man who knows that he will die soon, will try to use to the maximum every hour of the rest of his life. This is exactly what Christ meant when he said that the last days will come soon - the days before the Last Judgment. We are all standing in front of the Judge, but it is not the others who are judging us, but we ourselves do the last estimation of our life. We do not have to fail the most important examination, where the most serious judge is ourselves.
Each moment, taken alone, represents the particle of the eternal Creation. Therefore each moment we can extract the most subtle substances, that we can call "the essence of life".
Imagine yourself the substance "air" or the substance "impressions". Finally, draw in your mind the substance "moment". Yes, even the moments of time are the substances.
If we will be able to extract the finest substances from the coarser, sooner or later we will have to
pay for it. This law is called The Law of Balance. That is why we will learn how to pay immediately for those that we receive from life. Only then we will not have any debts. To pay immediately - this is what is called "real doing". "To do" - is to think, to feel, to act, but "real doing" - is to pay immediately.
To do - may mean only one thing: to extract the essence from each moment of life and at the same moment to pay all the debts to the nature and yourself; but only when you have "I", can you pay immediately.
Real life is not a change of activity, but a change of the quality of the activity. Destiny - is destiny. Each one of us has to find himself in the whole order of things. It is not too late yet to start doing it now, although you have spent the greater part of your life in sleep. Starting from today you can begin to prepare yourself for death and, at the same time, to increase the quality of your living. But do not delay with the start - maybe you really only have just one more hour of life.
Question: Can we share this with others? I think it is very important what we have heard about this evening.
- You can retell it word by word, but until you will [can?] do this [exercise] yourself, it would mean nothing for others. Existence is the means, or the instrument, for action. Think about this and you will find out why it is so.
Question: Therefore, we cannot pay the debts, if we do not exist, or if our "I" is absent?
- Why do you have such a need to pay? Pay for what? If life is only a coincidence, then there is no sense to go on. This does not mean that you have to end your life with a suicide. Opposite, you have to put all your effort into "to live". Ordinary man always lives, just going with the flow. He is not just sleeping, he is absolutely dead. To really live, it is necessary to support the efforts of nature, to take actively from life, and not to act passively - wherever it flows.
Extracting from life the most precious, you have to be able to operate your emotions. See how fairly you can estimate yourself. Look attentively at yourself and you will see many remarkable ways to be fair. Each time notice for yourself different moments when the desires appear. Act as before, but always be aware of their presence. Transport to the world the part of your blood, but one of the higher level.
At the end of each hour after you have estimated its usefulness, imagine that you just woke up in the absolutely unknown in comparison to the previous one gone by. It is important to note that the apparent continuation of the last hour is in reality changing with every hour, although things and people seem the same as before. With the time you will learn to see yourself as a spirit of a special substance, who is coming from one world to another, as an uninvited guest of nature.
Looking from this point of view evaluate everything you do in your life. Looking at the results of all your efforts of the past and think what sense they all have now, in the last hour of your life. Those who are engaged in the Work, are dead to this world and at the same time they are more alive in this world than anyone else. Work...something strange, imperceptible, but for many it is impossible to live without it.
The ordinary way of understanding life is vanity of vanities. However big the result is according to earthly measures, sooner or later it will fail. Even the sand is being rubbed into dust by time. Even the most significant people of history are being forgotten. To understand the real possibilities of this world, it is necessary to find what we can reach in this world that will be very useful in the Real World.
Attentively look at the lives of all the greatest people, those who were commanding armies, who had power over others. What is the benefit for them from all their great actions now, when they are dead? Even when they were alive, all these great actions were no more than empty dreams. We are not here to praise ourselves and to prove ourselves, the most disgusting in the ordinary man is the ability to quickly satisfy his flesh.
The majority of people find many excuses not to work on themselves. They are in a complete prison of their weaknesses. But right now we do not speak about them, but about you.
Understand me right, I do not need followers, I am rather interested in finding the good organizers, the real warriors of the new world. I understand the weakness of the organization, because right now we do not speak about the usual organisation which would consist of initiates.
I remind you once again, learn to live each of your hours with a bigger benefit. Create a detailed plan of the last hour of your life. To understand how one should die, you should grow deep roots into life, only then you will be able to die like a human being, not like a dog. Although, it is not given to everyone - to die. You can become manure for our planet, but it does not really mean do die. To die to this world forever - is an honour. For this honour you have to pay with Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering. You have to earn this right.
Try to imagine yourself relatively clearly the last hour of your life on earth. Write a kind of a script of this last hour, as if you were writing the script for a film. Ask yourself: "Is this how Iwant to dispose my life". If you are not satisfied with the answer, rewrite the script until you likeit.
Look at life like as business. Time is your money for life. When you came into this world, a definite amount of money was given to you and this you cannot exceed. Time is the only currency with which you pay for your life. Now you see, how you used the biggest part of it in a stupid way. You have not even reached the main goal of life - to have rest. You failed as a businessman, and as a user of life - you deceived yourself. All your life you thought that everything is given to you for free, and now suddenly you discovered that - it is not free. You pay for using the time, that is why each moment of your stay here costs something.
So how would it be possible for you to reimburse [recover] at least somehow these losses? Check, if the deficit on your bank account is only temporary or is it perhaps constant? Did you loose the time or could you invest it successfully? If you have spent all your money on vacations, then there is nothing to do but to be sorry about the past.
For many years you have been spending you life as if your parents gave you a bank account with unlimited credit. But now the amount is used and you see that you are all alone and that there is none to rely on. There is no more time on your bank account. Now you are forced to earn each hour of your life. All your life you behaved like a child and spent time just like a newly married couple on their honeymoon.
Our main enemy, which is hindering us from applying the necessary efforts - is hopelessness. I know, you will have many excuses not to prepare yourself for the last hour of your life. The habit is a big force, but starting once, you can learn to do each time more and more.
Do not fiddle all day, force yourself at least one hour a day to make an effort, otherwise you will loose everything. Think about the rehearsal of your last hour as if it was ballet exercises - you have to do it all your life.
I dedicate four hours a day for this exercise, but when I was young, I spent on it two times longer.
Translation from Russian by Alexandra Kharitonova, with free English rendering by Reijo Oksanen. unearthed by Ilya Kotz & Avi Solomon of the Jerusalem Nyland Group.
Dec 18, 2016 | www.sott.net
Some of us are stressed. Others are overworked, struggling with the new responsibilities of parenthood, or moving from one flawed relationship to another. Whatever it is, whatever you are going through, there is wisdom from the Stoics that can help.
Followers of this ancient and inscrutable philosophy have found themselves at the centre of some of history's most trying ordeals, from the French Revolution to the American Civil War to the prison camps of Vietnam. Bill Clinton reportedly reads Roman Emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius's Meditations once a year, and one can imagine him handing a copy to Hillary after her heart-wrenching loss in the US presidential election.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy which was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century and then progressed to Rome, where it became a pragmatic way of addressing life's problems. The central message is, we don't control what happens to us; we control how we respond .
The Stoics were really writing and thinking about one thing: how to live. The questions they asked were not arcane or academic but practical and real. "What do I do about my anger?" "What do I do if someone insults me?" "I'm afraid to die; why is that?" "How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?" "How can I deal with the success or power I hold?"
There also happens to be a decent amount of advice on how to live under the looming threat of a tyrant ("I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I'll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor," wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca). All of which makes Stoic philosophy particularly well-suited to the world we live in.
While it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than "stoicism"- with its mistaken connotations of austerity and lack of emotion - in fact, nothing could be more necessary for our times than a good dose of Stoic philosophy.
When the news media provokes us with overwhelming amounts of information, Epictetus, another Roman philosopher, cuts through the noise: "If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters." When it feels like people are ruder and more selfish than ever, Marcus Aurelius urges us to ask when we ourselves have behaved the same way - and says that the best revenge is simply "to not be like that".
When the natural inclination is to focus on achievement and money, Seneca's reminder to his father-in-law, who had just been removed from a prominent position, rings true: "Believe me, it's better to produce the balance sheet of your own life than that of the grain market."
In their writings - often private letters or diaries - and in their lectures, the Stoics struggled to come up with real, actionable answers. They held duty and honor as sacred obligations and they believed that every obstacle they faced was simply an opportunity - to test themselves and be better.
Now Stoicism is finding resonance with new followers. Just last month in New York, a conference called Stoicon was declared to be the largest gathering of Stoics in history.
This kind of philosophy is not an idle pursuit but a crucial tool. As Seneca said, "Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own."
About the author
Ryan Holiday is the author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (Profile Books, £9.99). To order a copy for £8.19, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Dec 07, 2016 | exeter.ac.ukAs happens with many Stoics, my Stoic practice developed spontaneously as a response to difficulties in my life. I was orphaned when I was seven, causing the life I had known to evaporate. In order to survive this loss, using my own intuition I developed some potent Stoic techniques for tolerating difficult situations. Unfortunately, I did not develop any techniques for avoiding difficult situations. Thus my personal brand of Stoicism carried me straight from suboptimal foster care right into a bad marriage.
A couple of decades and several life changes later, my boyfriend introduced me to Stoic philosophy. I was shocked to discover how much of my self-developed philosophy of living and coping techniques those ancient Greeks had known about all along. Thus, well into middle age, I started the formal practice of Stoic philosophy. Those ancient Greeks had a trick or two to teach me. My life got even better with their help.
At this point, I rely on my Stoic techniques when things start to go wrong inside my head. Earlier this week, a dying patient was reviewing his life with me. He told me about how much he valued the teamwork he and his wife shared to raise their children. It is a beautiful story and my eyes start to fill with tears. No problem so far. I am not expected to be without feelings, but if my feelings take control of my thinking, I cannot focus enough to be a good doctor.
As I listen to my patient talk about how raising their children deepened his relationship with his wife, I realize the one thing I wanted most out of life was to raise my kids well. I married and had children with a man who always had his way and whose method of childrearing I disagreed with. I could not figure out how to challenge his child rearing ideas or how to divorce him for twenty five years. Now I am too old to have more children, and will never get to have the experience of raising a child with a partner. I didn't get a father; I only got a mother for seven years. Life couldn't even deliver me a decent husband. I don't ask for much. My eyes are dripping tears now and I realize that I am not paying any attention to my patient.
I need to pull myself away from the attraction of self-pity and into the present. Even if I had the skills to turn my feelings off, that would not be helpful; I need them in order to take care of my patient. I remind myself of the Stoic maxim: "It seemed so to you at the time."
I have a sense that I am shoving my foot in a slamming door. If I can keep the door from closing, I can maintain control of myself, and my equanimity will be only briefly disturbed. It feels as though the force of emotion that wells up must be countered with something forceful. If what I bring to bear on it is not forceful, it will fail. Once the tears start forming, my Buddhist practice has nothing to offer me. Once I have started to lose my equanimity, my emotions flood me if I attempt to use Buddhist techniques. I have found that only Stoic techniques overcome the waves of emotion. Buddhist techniques feel more general and unfocussed.
What my Buddhist meditation practice does offer me is a decrease in my overall reactivity. When I am meditating regularly, I am less apt to be bothered by the unavoidable emotional events of life. This pattern has repeated itself a dozen or more times. I fall away from my meditation practice. I become more easily riled. I recognize this and resume meditating. Things improve until I fall away from my meditation practice again.
I asked people on the Facebook Stoicism Group about their experiences, and learned this is typical. The only consensus was that Stoic mindfulness practices are useful for the immediately present threat to equanimity, and Buddhist mindfulness practices help strengthen equanimity overall.
It is not surprising to me that Buddhist meditation works well for us on a daily basis because it has been honed over thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of people. What is surprising to me is that it does not always work well for me and my Facebook friends. It surprises me that our Buddhist practice fails us in the pinch.
Why does Buddhism not include techniques like "Amor Fati" or negative visualization? Are these incompatible with the Buddhist philosophy? I do not know enough about Buddhism to answer that.
It seems to me that if there were a significant fraction of people whose needs were not being met by Buddhism, and that there were non-Buddhist techniques that met their needs, then Buddhism would have figured out how to respond to them. Either these techniques would have been incorporated into Buddhism or variant forms of Buddhism would have developed that were compatible with these techniques. I think it is more likely that the Buddhist techniques worked well enough for most people in the society in which Buddhism developed.
When I receive a disturbing impression and begin to formulate my response to it, Buddhism would say that I need to distance myself from that nascent thought and to examine it scientifically as I would someone else's emotion. So far, this is very similar to the Stoic teachings on disturbing impressions as I understand them. Buddhism recommends that I next lean into the unpleasant emotion, to really examine it, get to know it and to realize that it will pass soon. This technique results in me wallowing in my emotion as I wait for it to pass. I become so attracted to it that I will grasp it firmly and become unable to function. Perhaps if I practiced this technique for decades, it would work, but the dying patient in front of me does not have decades while I grapple with my inner demons.
Stoicism offers me techniques that I can use right in the moment. Instead of leaning in, I counter the emotion with a maxim that I have prepared and have at the ready for whenever disturbing emotions arise. The part of my mind that is not wrapped up in my personal tragedy can recite Stoic maxims forcefully to counter the attraction of "I didn't get and I want." Stoicism gets between my mind and the idea it is about to grip onto and stays my grasp before it happens. For me, for the most disturbing impressions, this is what works.
There is an idea in neurology of over-learning. Things which one repeats thousands of times during one's lifetime such as the ABC's or the response to "how are you today?" are over-learned. When a person is demented and has lost the ability to think in any meaningful fashion, they can often still recite the ABC's or other over-learned phrases. It seems to me that when I am caught by my deep feelings of deprivation and grief that I am like a demented person and can only say over-learned things. The little bit of my brain that is not sucked into the black hole of "I lack" can barely squeak out "It seemed so to you at the time." If it can however, it breaks the spell and the attractiveness of the disturbing impression is diminished.
Another common observation is that Western culture has more emphasis on independence and individuality. It seems likely that this emphasis develops minds that are more likely to work with individually oriented techniques. Stoicism emphasizing my personal inner citadel rather than Buddhism emphasizing dissolution of myself feels more comfortable to me. When I am most in pain, standing steadfast against an ocean crashing against the seawall of my personal virtue makes me feel less pain whereas the paradoxical teachings of Buddhism simply frustrate me.
I find that Buddhist techniques on an ongoing basis combined with Stoic ones on an as needed basis work best for me to maximize my equanimity. I do not have a good explanation for why. I am more at peace, at rest and am flourishing more than ever before in my life.
This reminds me of another Stoic technique that I practice. It has a Buddhist analog: I am grateful.
Mary Braun, MD is a board certified hospice and palliative care physician. In her work she helps people make decisions about their medical treatment, helping them elucidate their values, preferences, and goals given the constraints of their medical situation and their limited time to live. Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism as a child. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She finds Stoicism essential, not only for her personal life, but also to avoid having patients, their loved ones, and herself becoming overwhelmed by the difficulties of taking care of the sickest and most fragile patients in the medical system .
Dec 07, 2016 | rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com
However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them? (Buddha)
It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself. (Epicurus)
Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live. (Marcus Aurelius)
I have been pondering for a while that there are some striking similarities among the three ancient philosophies of Buddhism , Epicureanism and Stoicism . Let me premise that I don't know as much about the first as about the latter two, and even there I'm certainly no expert, so take what follows with a commensurately sized grain of salt.
Buddhism is the more complicated of the three, largely - I think - because it has a much longer history as a live philosophy. It has therefore had significantly more time to develop diverging schools of thoughts and interpretations. It is also different from Epicureanism and Stoicism in belonging to the Eastern rather than the Western philosophical tradition, which means that it is more imbued with mysticism and much less grounded in the Greek style of logical argument (it is not by chance that Buddhism, but not the other two, is often referred to as a "religion," though even there the term only applies partially and only to some Buddhist traditions).
Interestingly, all three philosophies arose in similar times, both chronologically and in terms of social setting. The founder of Epicureanism was, of course, Epicurus, a historical figure about whom we know a good deal. He lived between 341 and 269 BCE in Greece. Stoicism was established, also in ancient Greece, by Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), who was therefore a contemporary of Epicurus (indeed, the two schools were rivals throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods). The birth of Buddhism is much less clear, but it originated in the northeastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE (so about one and a half centuries before Epicureanism and Stoicism). Not as much is known about the actual life of its founder, Siddhārtha Gautama, but there is no reason to believe that he was not an actual historical figure and that the general course of his life took place along the lines accepted by tradition.
Perhaps more interestingly, though, all three philosophies arose and thrived in times of social and political turmoil, within their respective geographical areas. This is relevant because I think it may go some way toward explaining some of the similarities I am interested in. Of course, Buddhism still thrives today, with hundreds of millions of followers. Epicureanism and Stoicism, on the contrary, largely exist in textbooks, the main reason being Christianity: as soon as the Christians took over the Roman empire they put their newly found political and military might in the service of the one true god and persecuted both Epicureans and Stoics. Both schools were officially abolished in 529 CE by the emperor Justinian I, that prick.
There are several interesting aspects of all three philosophies that I will simply ignore here, particularly their more scientific ones (such as, most prominently, Epicurean atomism, which was inherited from pre-Socratic thinkers like Leucippus, Democritus, Heraclitus and Parmenides). I will concentrate instead on the metaphysics and ethics of the three schools. I also need to add that I am quite skeptical of the attempts that various people make of attributing almost miraculous "scientific" insights to ancient philosophies. Yes, the Epicureans were talking about atoms, but that concept had very little to do with modern physics. The same goes for the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion, allegedly anticipating modern neuroscience. Indeed, in the latter case, I think that treating the self as an illusion is a profound mistake, based on a misunderstanding of neurobiology (but not of Buddhism, which really does claim something along those lines!). But that's another story for another post.
Let's begin, then, with the basics of Epicureanism. Of the three, it was by far the least mystical set of doctrines. Epicurus was a pretty strict materialist, and even though he believed in the existence of a god, said god had nothing whatsoever to do with the origin of the universe or human affairs, and indeed he was made of atoms just like everything else.
Thanks to sustained Christian slurring, we moderns associate Epicureanism with hedonism, but Epicurus' principle of pleasure had very little to do with sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. His basic idea was that human suffering is caused by our misunderstanding of the true nature of the world (a thought common also to Stoicism and Buddhism), and to our preoccupation with human matters such as - ironically - sensual pleasures and political power. All of this, according to Epicurus, interfered with the real goal of human existence, reaching a state that he called ataraxia (which usually translates as tranquillity). To achieve ataraxia one has to eliminate both bodily and mental pains, and particularly one has to conquer the fundamental fears of death and punishment in the afterlife. Hence, Epicureanism's profoundly anti-religious, and eventually anti-Christian, character. Indeed, Epicureans' only social involvement was in the fight against religion and superstition, which they regarded as a principal cause of human unhappiness.
It seems to me that the Epicurean concept of ataraxia , as well as their teachings on how to achieve it, are not that different in spirit (though they certainly are in detail) from the Buddhist idea of nirvana , the highest happiness possible for a sentient being. Indeed, nirvana derives from a Sanskrit word that means something along the lines of "cessation of craving and ignorance," an idea that both Stoics and Epicureans would have been very comfortable with (though nirvana has a decidedly more mystical meaning than either the Stoics or especially the Epicureans would have been comfortable with).
Basic Buddhist teachings begin with the Four Noble Truths . (I noticed that Buddhists have a penchant for numbering things: there are four noble truths, the noble path is eightfold, there are four "immeasurables," three "marks of existence," "three jewels" to seek refuge in, five precepts for basic Buddhism, and so on. You get the idea.) The four noble truths are: i) that dukkha (suffering) originates from physical and mental illness, the anxiety engendered by constant change, and a general dissatisfaction pervading all life forms; ii) that the origin of dukkha can be known by human beings, and that its roots are craving and ignorance (see Epicureanism above!); iii) that the cessation of dukkha is indeed possible; and iv) that such cessation is achieved through the noble eightfold path.
Said noble eightfold path , in turn, is essentially a recipe to achieve the cessation of dukkha and eventually nirvana , the eight components being meant to be pursued in parallel, not sequentially: 1) Right View, viewing the world for what it is, not as it appears to be (easier said than done, but still); 2) Right Intention, the pursuit of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness; 3) Right Speech, speaking truthfully and without harming others; 4) Right Action, acting without harming others; 5) Right Livelihood, living without causing harm; 6) Right Effort, that is making an effort to improve oneself (yes, you will notice the recurring deployment of the notion of self in Buddhism, despite the fact that it allegedly doesn't exist); 7) Right Mindfulness, which means awareness of both how things are and of the reality within one self (!); and 8) Right Concentration, engaging in meditation or concentration of the right kind.
One of the most problematic Buddhist concepts, I think, is that of karma , which refers to a cosmic force driving the cycle of suffering and rebirth of every being. The idea is that one's actions during a lifetime determine one's rebirth at the next cycle. (I think that there is a fundamental contradiction between the Buddhist rejection of the idea of an enduring self and the very concept of beings that go through different lifetimes. Buddhists do have answers to this objection, of course, but I find them extremely unconvincing.) The goal, so to speak, is to be reborn on higher "planes of existence" (there are 31 of them, grouped in 6 "realms"), until eventually one achieves enlightenment and escapes the cycle of rebirth altogether.
I say that karma is problematic for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it seems to be plucked out of nowhere, with neither empirical or even logical support. It amounts to an automatic cosmic scoring chart which will affect a new being who has, in fact, no memory of what his "predecessor" actually did to gain positive or negative karma points. Ethically, it is hard to imagine why one should be responsible for (or should gain from) the previous round in her or his "dependent arising."
Be that as it may, the idea that there is a cosmic framework within which we act is reminiscent of (though it is quite distinct from) the Stoic idea of logos , which is a sort of universal reason that determines the unfolding of events. For the Stoics too, the goal is to become clear about reality, and a major objective is to develop a degree of self-control that allows one to overcome destructive emotions (which arise precisely from errors of judgment about how the world works). Again, the parallels with both Epicureanism and Buddhism seem obvious.
Stoics aimed not at getting rid of emotions (despite the popular caricature of Stoics as Spock-like figures), but rather to channel them in a more productive direction. This was achieved through a combination of logic, concentration and reflection, and eventually evolved into various contemporary forms of cognitive behavioral therapy. (In this sense, both Buddhism - with its various meditative techniques - and Stoicism have entered the realm of modern practices, which can be pursued essentially independently of the philosophies that gave origin to them.) The ultimate goal of the Stoic was apatheia , or peace of mind, which I think is akin to both the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia and the Buddhist goal of nirvana (again, with due consideration given to the significant differences in the background conditions and specific articulation of the three philosophies). And of course Stoics too had a ready-made recipe for their philosophy, in the form of a short list of virtues to practice (nothing compared to the above mentioned panoply of Buddhist lists though!). These were: courage, justice, temperance and wisdom.
I am sure one could continue with this conceptual cross-mapping for a while, and of course scholars within each of the three traditions would object to or modify my suggestions. What I am interested in here, however, is pursuing the further questions of what the common limitations of the philosophies of Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism are, as well as what positive contributions they have made to humanity's thinking about (and dealing with!) the universe.
I am inclined to reject both Buddhism's and Stoicism's metaphysics, being significantly more happy with the Epicurean view of the world. I don't think there is any reason to think that concepts like logos or karma have any philosophical substance, nor do they do any work in actually explaining why things are the way they are. The Epicurean embracing of a materialist metaphysics, instead, is in synch with the development of natural philosophy and eventually of modern science. True, there are no "atoms" in the sense in which Epicurus and his predecessors where thinking of them, and the free will-enabling "swerve" seems a rather arbitrary conceit that has been superseded by better philosophical treatment of the problem it was supposed to address. But all in all I think Epicurean metaphysics handily beats the other two.
However, of concern is the limited social engagement of all three philosophies. While they do differ in degree on this count too, Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism all preach a level of detachment that seems alien to being human and that may easily lead to social disengagement. On this issue, I'm with David Hume (and with much modern neuroscience) when he argued that emotions aren't something to get rid of or overcome (or drastically alter), but instead they are the very reason we give a crap about anything to begin with.
All three philosophies certainly imply a good measure of compassion for our fellow creatures, but the Epicureans in particular expressly rejected involvement in politics, and their only social engagement was manifested in their relentless attack on religion and superstition as the primary causes of fear. The Stoics were opposed to slavery and preached brotherly love, but their insistence on understanding and accepting whatever the logos set out easily slides into a somewhat passive stance devoid of social action. And even in Buddhism it is hard to find much in the way of political or social engagement, outside of a general attitude of compassion (and, again, acceptance) for the suffering of creatures. I won't go as far as agreeing with Marx that the point is not to understand the world, but to change it, but surely a positive philosophy has to explicitly engage with how to improve the human condition, not just at the individual level, but socially.
As I mentioned earlier, though, perhaps this common degree of passivity toward the social and emphasis on the individual's understanding and acceptance of the world resulted from the fact that all three philosophies were born at a time of social turmoil and uncertainty, when surely an attitude of recoiling into one's internal world must have seemed like the only available option in the face of events that were hard to control and that often resulted in painful consequences for large swaths of society.
On the positive side, I am a firm believer that philosophy is a continuous source of valuable insight into the human condition, so I think most philosophies offer something that is worth plucking and adding to the store of our collective wisdom. In the cases of these three, and despite my reservations about their dearth of social engagement, there is quite a bit to be recommended.
Epicureans insisted on the value of friendship, for instance, which I do believe is a fundamental component of a flourishing existence. Their assault on fear-engendering superstition can also be counted as one of their most enduring legacies. Both Buddhists and Stoics, for their part, developed techniques to improve people's mental well being, and there is good empirical evidence that those techniques do work (though my personal preference is for the more reflective Stoic approach rather than the overly meditative Buddhist one). And all three philosophies have in common the idea that it is wise to attempt to understand the world as it actually is, as opposed to the way it superficially appears to be (though, again, I think the Buddhists were more off the mark than the other two, particularly the Epicureans).
In the end, I don't consider myself an Epicurean or a Stoic, and I am certainly no Buddhist. But this does not preclude me from appreciating what some of the greatest minds of human antiquity had to say to their fellow travelers. Their thoughts still resonate vibrantly more than two millennia after they were first conceived, and that is no small accomplishment by any human standard.
The New York TimesThroughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live "hic et nunc," in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).
Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in "On Anger": "What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?"
Stoicism, of course, may not appeal to or work for everyone. It is a rather demanding philosophy of life, where your moral character is pretty much stipulated to be the only truly worthy thing to cultivate in life (though health, education, and even wealth are considered to be "preferred indifferents"). Then again, it does have a lot of points of contact with other philosophies, as well as religions: Buddhism, Christianity, and - I think - even modern secular movements such as secular humanism or ethical culture. There is something very appealing for me as a non religious person in the idea of an ecumenical philosophy, one that can share goals and at the least some general attitudes with other major ethical traditions across the world.
There are also challenges that remain unresolved. The original Stoicism was a comprehensive philosophy that included not just a particular view of ethics, but also a metaphysics, a take on natural science, and specific approaches to logic and epistemology (i.e., a theory of knowledge). Many of the particular notions of the ancient Stoics have ceded place to modern science and philosophy, and need to be updated.
Take, for instance, the Stoic concept of Logos, the rational principle that governs the universe. For the Stoics, this was the manifestation of a divine creative mind, a notion I certainly cannot subscribe to as a modern secular philosopher and scientist. But I am on board with the idea that the universe is organized according to rational-mathematical principles (otherwise we could not understand it scientifically), and I share the Stoic belief in universal cause and effect, which in turn has profound implications for the way Stoics look at both our place in the cosmos and our conduct of everyday life.
Given all this, I am willing to invest some time into exploring just how much one can recover of the original Stoic spirit, update it with modern knowledge, and still reasonably call it "Stoicism" (or, more properly, neo-Stoicism). If it turns out that it can't be done, I will at least have learned much from the search.
In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.
The need for this sort of insight seems to be universal.
Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. He edits the Scientia Salon webzine and produces the Rationally Speaking podcast. His latest book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is "Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem."
www.quora.comSourav Roy, Mar 27, 2014Assaph Mehr, Failed Stoic. Miserable Existentialist. Atheist. Sep 4, 2013
I was introduced to stoicism by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. The stoic learns from mistakes and practices tranquility of mind in the face of chaos, and hence is very much applicable in today's time. Taleb says,My idea of the modern stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.Stoicism is often misunderstood as being a cold or glum. This is far from the case. Taleb saysRecall that epic heroes were judged by their actions, not by the results. No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word ..There is nothing wrong and undignified with emotions-we are cut to have them. What is wrong is not following the heroic or, at least, the dignified path. That is what stoicism truly means. It is the attempt by man to get even with probability ..stoicism has rather little to do with the stiff-upper-lip notion that we believe it means ..The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life's gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life's dirty tricks.Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion and is therefore applicable in all periods of time and compatible with all faiths including atheism and agnosticism. In some ways stoicism resembles a Western form of Buddhism.I think so, or at least I'd like to think so :)Anonymous, Updated Sep 3, 2014
Before anything else, I would highly recommend you read The Antidote (Amazon.com: The Antidote: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking eBook: Oliver Burkeman: Kindle Store). There is a lot in it about modern Stoicism.
Now as for the point of view of someone who tries to live life Stoically (on the emotional detachment level): It's bloody hard, that's what it is!
Besides providing pithy quotes and inspirational sayings, I think you have to accept the following existential views as the road:
In essence, accept that it will not be easy. As things affect you, catch yourself in the act and ask why? And then re-route your thinking on the subject, for next time.
- You have one life, and this is it
- The is no "end goal" in life, it is all about how you live each moment. Put another way, the meaning of life is how you chose to live life itself
- Perfection is not something you achieve, it is something you strive towards
- Stoicism is an ideal. Keep striving while accepting occasional failures. Some tools that might help you on your way:
- The above book. Probably an easier read than Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus (at least for me)
- Mindful meditation. This will help you recognise your own thoughts, so that you can catch yourself in the act and re-route thoughts and neural pathways.
- Start with Existentialism (e.g. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning), in the sense that you accept that the only thing you can control are your words, your actions, your thoughts and your emotions. When faced with a situation brought on by external circumstances and people and that affects you, analyze yourself as to why it does and how can you use it (this is where meditation helps).
- I have heard good things about NLP, but there are a lot of mixed and bad reviews as well.
Anything that helps you do this - meditation, NLP, philosophy books - is good, but it's a very personal journey.I think it is impossible to be a true and honest Stoic in any single era, because of the logical inconsistencies in the entire ethical philosophy. By Stoicism, I am assuming you are talking about the ethical aspect rather than the other advancements they made such as logic and natural theory.
To first answer this question directly, I think that it is certainly more difficult nowadays to achieve the Stoic dream than ever because of the rampant Romanticism that envelops us all in the modern age. I think the ethical discourse in the modern age encourages a neo-Romanticism aspect on almost everything, from relationships, to consumerism, dreams (American Dream especially), propaganda (e.g. KONY 2012), and advertisement.
The world has learned to thrive on positive illusion to drive reality; the world of the Ideal controls the Material more and more through illusory concepts, half-baked in our Romantic minds. Because the Stoic ideal depends on self-mastery and reason rather than emotion, it certainly is more difficult than ever before to be a Stoic.
Now onto the problems of Stoic ethics and the impossibility of Stoicism:
By ethical aspect, I mean their philosophy of happiness derived mainly from the texts of Aurelius and Epictetus, in which it is generally accepted:"The Stoics did, in fact, hold that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage-a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection-would not undergo them."Stoicism mirrors Buddhism in the renunciation of desire, and that I believe is the fatal logical flaw. It is impossible to rid yourself of all desires. The life well lived to the Stoics depends upon the extinction of all desire, whereas a more common-sensical approach would be the moderation of desires, the philosophy that the opposing school of philosophy (Epicureanism) proposed.
Human beings are emotional first, and reason is nothing but a string of empathy that extends throughout our shared experiences. The goal of Stoicism is impossible in nature, and to fully shut out emotions is a terrifying way to live. At best, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we have no desire, and in that case our "Stoic" lives become lies.
To become a Stoic is a desire in-itself. Thus the entire prospect is doomed from the start.
The Stoic dream is a desire to have no desires -- and that is a nightmare of a life.
Another issue I have with Stoicism is in the ability to ignore all circumstances in order to find happiness. Find exactly what you are responsible for, and if the negative event is not of your own bringing, then you have no reason to be unhappy. Incapability is not a valid reason to feel no unhappiness. Because you could not have done otherwise, even in a deterministic system fails to validate the disappearance of emotion.
Epictetus also proposed that self-mastery and knowing oneself would lead to this keen ability to distinguish between self and circumstance. He makes it out to seem as if a conclusion can really be reached. For example, if I am trying to intervene in a friend's suicide, what can I do? Should I:
- A) Come to understand that it is out of my control, and state that my free will only goes so far as to not interfere with another's free will? (Rousseau).
- B) Should I try anyways in conclusion that any attempt may help this friend of mine from committing suicide?
- C) Should I believe that it is fully my responsibility being in my friend's presence to prevent suicide?
There is little we can do in tough decisions and states of being to draw a line between self and circumstance. We ourselves are not aware of the limits of our influence, and thus this self mastery is a joke. Our influence does not always depend on us. It is a matter of circumstance, itself. We are circumstance.
Stoicism depends upon self-mastery and heavy introspection which is of course valued across the board -- it is the dream of the Enlightenment and can be found in Kant's What is Enlightenment? Therefore, it is not an accomplishment specific to Stoicism. After all, that dream of the Enlightenment is also disputed, especially since it often depends upon the notion of free will.
Other than a collection of "inspirational quotes" by Aurelius and Epictetus for the layman, there is little else that makes sense in Stoic ethics.
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Stephen Matthew, Student • View UpvotesNo, Stoicism's ethical philosophy is flawed right from the beginning. Can you ever imagine emotionally satisfying each human being on Earth? Ethics have always been dictated by people with power and capacity and the world is organised by power hierarchy rather than ethics.
Ethics is important in many day to day human interactions but loses its hold after a point.Eastern philosophy on the other hand propose ethically wholesome lifestyle while giving primary importance to transformation of human energy or expanding one's consciousness.Once there is a conscious absorption in higher forms of energy/intensity it will make him powerful enough to dictate ethics.Increasing and bringing clarity of perception in life is much more important than being ethical.
Following is the criticism of any ethical philosophy(including stoicism) as proposed by Eastern Philosopher -Sri Aurobindo:
" The Limitations of Morality
There is an area of our being which is a source of both great difficulty and great power. A source of difficulty, because it blurs all the communications from outside or above by frantically opposing our efforts to silence the mind and bogging down the consciousness at its own level of petty occupations and interests, thus hindering its free movement toward other regions. A source of power, because it is the outcropping of the great force of life in us. This is the region located between the heart and the sex center, which Sri Aurobindo calls the vital.
It is a place full of every possible mixture: pleasure is inextricably mixed with suffering, pain with joy, evil with good, and make-believe with truth. The world's various spiritual traditions have found it so troublesome that they have preferred to reject this dangerous zone altogether, allowing only the expression of so-called religious emotions and strongly advising the neophyte to reject everything else. Everyone seems to agree: human nature is unchangeable. But this kind of moral surgery,57 as Sri Aurobindo calls it, has two drawbacks: first, it does not bring about any real purification, because the higher emotions, however refined they may appear to be, are as mixed as the lower ones, since they are sentimental in essence and hence partial; secondly, it does not really prevent anything – it merely represses. The vital is a force of its own, entirely independent of our rational or moral arguments. If we try to overpower it or ill-treat it by radical asceticism or discipline, the slightest letup can bring on an open rebellion – and it knows how to take revenge with interest. Or, if we have enough willpower to impose our mental or moral rules upon it, we may prevail, but at the cost of drying up the life-force in ourselves, because the frustrated vital will go on strike and we will find ourselves purified not only of the evil but also of the good in life: we will have become colorless and odorless. What is more, morality works only within the bounds of the mental process; it does not have access to the subconscious or superconscious regions, or to death, or to sleep (which happens to take up one day out of every three in our existence, so that a sixty-year life span would entitle us to forty years of waking moral life and twenty years of immortality – a strange arithmetic). In other words, morality does not go beyond the limits of our small frontal personality. "
Sri Aurobindo: So long as you need to be virtuous you have not attained the pure spiritual height where you have not to think whether the action is moral or not. These people hastily conclude that when you ask them to rise above morality, you are asking them to sink down below good and evil. That is not at all the case.
- They believe that a man can advance only by morality, i.e. by remaining moral.
Sri Aurobindo: Nobody denies that. By morality you become more human, but you do not go beyond humanity. Morality has done much good to man, maybe; it has also done much harm. The question is whether you can rise to something above man by morality. That sort of mental limitation is not conductive to the growth into the Spirit.
- But they always confuse morality with spirituality.
The Upanishads and the Gita are loud with and full of the idea of going beyond morality. For instance, when the Upanishad says: "he does not need to think whether he is doing is good or bad" (sadhu, asadhu). Such a man attains a consciousness in which there is no need to think about morality because the action proceeds from the Truth.
"The attempt of human thought to force an ethical meaning into the whole of Nature is one of those acts of wilful and obstinate self-confusion, one of those pathetic attempts of the human being to read himself, his limited habitual human self into all things and judge them from the stand-point he has personally evolved, which most effectively prevent him from arriving at real knowledge and complete sight."
So,Stoicism's ethical theory makes one incapable of self defense in a sense lifeless.But I agree with with other aspects of natural theory like the concepts of Logos and Eros.
The opposition of good and evil is not finally resolved in ethical plane but can achieved through spiritual/human energy focus & transcendence
Abi Saafir, Written Aug 28, 2013
Had a thought, then thought more thoughtsNot in a historical sense. The Stoics were an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded in Athens during the Hellenistic period.
In a philosophical sense, you can absolutely become a Stoic. I recommend starting with the Roman Imperial stoics, Epictitus and Seneca.
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- Greek Philosophy: How can one become a stoic?
- Stoicism: How do I become Stoic when I fail to learn a skill or it becomes difficult to understand what I am reading or trying to solve a prob...
- Stoicism: How should a stoic respond to the harsh effects of income inequality and environmental degredation?
- Can stoics have possessions?
- Stoicism: How do Stoics justify Negative Visualization?
- What does it mean to be stoic?
- Stoicism: How would one best explain ' Stoic Syllogistic' to a ten year-old?
- Was Spinoza a Stoic?
- Do the Stoics follow Aristotle's principle of non-contradiction?
- What are some mind exercises that will help me be equanimous or stoic?
Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, and Epicurus' Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years. It proved especially popular among the Romans, attracting admirers as diverse as the statesman Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The works of these three authors have come down to us and have won admirers from the Renaissance through to the present day. Although the philosophy of Stoicism as a whole is complex, embracing everything from metaphysics to astronomy to grammar, the works of the three great Roman Stoics focus on practical advice and guidance for those trying to achieve wellbeing or happiness. Here are four central ideas:
- Value – the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness. External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness. Although there is nothing wrong with these things and they do hold value and may well form part of a good life, often the pursuit of these things actually damages the only thing that can bring us happiness: an excellent, rational mental state.
- Emotions – our emotions are the project of our judgements, of thinking that something good or bad is happening or is about to happen. Many of our negative emotions are based on mistaken judgements, but because they are due to our judgements it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions. Despite the popular image, the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn't have them in the first place. This isn't as cold as it might at first sound: we ought to overcome harmful, negative emotions that are based on mistaken judgments while embracing correct positive emotions, replacing anger with joy.
- Nature – the Stoics suggest we ought to live in harmony with Nature. Part of what they mean by this is that we ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control. There is nothing to be gained from trying to resist these larger processes except anger, frustration, and disappointment. While there are many things in the world that we can change, there are many others we cannot and we need to understand this and accept it.
- Control – in the light of what we have seen, there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not. Happily the one thing we do have control over is the only thing that can guarantee a good, happy life.
The three Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius offer a wide range of practical advice aimed at helping people incorporate these ideas into their daily lives.
Sep 28, 2012 | Forbes
we've spent the past few years studying and writing on another politician famous for his coolness: Cato the Younger.
He was a practitioner of Stoicism, an ancient Greek religion that he helped bring to Rome. We aren't claiming that the president's a secret Stoic. But we do think that the public response to his self-control shows how poorly Stoic qualities can go over in our times: a philosophy built on emotional control seems strange in the age of over-sharing.
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We think that's a shame. Stoicism still has a tremendous amount to teach us, especially in these passion-saturated times. What's more, the Stoic legacy has shaped our world in more ways than you might expect. Here are five reasons why Stoicism matters:
1. It was built for hard times.
Stoicism was born in a world falling apart. Invented in Athens just a few decades after Alexander the Great's conquests and premature death upended the Greek world, Stoicism took off because it offered security and peace in a time of warfare and crisis. The Stoic creed didn't promise material security or a peace in the afterlife; but it did promise an unshakable happiness in this life.
Stoicism tells us that no happiness can be secure if it's rooted in changeable, destructible things. Our bank accounts can grow or shrink, our careers can prosper or falter, even our loved ones can be taken from us. There is only one place the world can't touch: our inner selves, our choice at every moment to be brave, to be reasonable, to be good.
The world might take everything from us; Stoicism tells us that we all have a fortress on the inside. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who was born a slave and crippled at a young age, wrote: "Where is the good? In the will If anyone is unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone."
While it's natural to cry out at pain, the Stoic works to stay indifferent to everything that happens on the outside, to stay equally happy in times of triumph and disaster. It's a demanding way of life, but the reward it offers is freedom from passion–freedom from the emotions that so often seem to control us, when we should control them. A real Stoic isn't unfeeling. But he or she does have a mastery of emotions, because Stoicism recognizes that fear or greed or grief only enter our minds when we willingly let them in.
A teaching like that seems designed for a world on edge, whether it's the chaotic world of ancient Greece, or a modern financial crisis. But then, Epictetus would say that–as long as we try to place our happiness in perishable things–our worlds are always on edge.
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3. If you're Christian, you're already part-Stoic.
Imagine a religion that stressed human brotherhood under a benevolent creator God; that told us to moderate and master our basic urges rather than giving into them; that nevertheless insisted that all humans, because we're human, are bound to fail at this mission; and that spent a lot of time talking about "conscience" and the multiple aspects, or "persons," of a unitary God. All of that might sound familiar. But the philosophy that invented all of those ideas was not Christianity, but Stoicism.
It makes sense that Christianity is a deeply Stoic religion. Stoicism dominated Roman culture for centuries - and Christianity went mainstream in the same culture. What's more, many of the leaders of the early Christian church were former Stoics. Of course Christianity borrowed much of its thought and terminology from Stoicism – because thinking about religion in the early 1st millennium meant thinking like a Stoic.
As Christianity continued to grow, church leaders, who wanted to emphasize the uniqueness of their faith, began to downplay this Stoic connection. But Stoicism is still there at the foundation of the Christian religion, in some of its most basic terms and concepts.
4. It's the unofficial philosophy of the military.
In 1965, James Stockdale's A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Vietnam. He later remembered the moment like this: "After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed And so help me, I whispered to myself: 'Five years down there, at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.'"
Stockdale spent more than seven years in a Vietnamese prison, and he wrote that Stoicism saved his life. Stockdale had spent years studying Stoic thought before deploying, and he drew on those teachings to endure his captivity. These words from Epictetus kept coming back to him: "Do you not know that life is a soldier's service? If you neglect your responsibilities when some severe order is laid upon you, do you not understand to what a pitiful state you bring the army?" While some of his fellow POWs tormented themselves with false hopes of an early release, Stockdale's Stoic practice helped him confront the grim reality of his situation, without giving in to despair and depression.
Stockdale was not alone as a military man who drew strength from Stoicism. In her book The Stoic Warrior, Nancy Sherman, who taught philosophy at the Naval Academy, argued that Stoicism is a driving force behind the military mindset – especially in its emphasis on endurance, self-control, and inner strength. As Sherman writes, whenever her philosophy class at Annapolis turned to the Stoic thinkers, "many officers and students alike felt they had come home."
5. It's a philosophy for leadership.
Stoicism teaches us that, before we try to control events, we have to control ourselves first. Our attempts to exert influence on the world are subject to chance, disappointment, and failure–but control of the self is the only kind that can succeed 100% of the time. From emperor Marcus Aurelius on, leaders have found that a Stoic attitude earns them respect in the face of failure, and guards against arrogance in the face of success.
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Stoicism has an appeal for anyone who faces uncertainty–that is, for all of us.
...Cato the Younger subscribed to this philosophy from his young adulthood to his death, but he was also prone to violent outbursts of anger, obstinate pride, and occasional drunkenness.
Yet in his most courageous moments–when he faced down the army of Julius Caesar and certain defeat without blinking–Cato lived out the Stoic ideal. The Stoics taught that we fail far more often than we succeed, that to be human is to be fearful, selfish, and angry far more often than we'd like. But they also taught a realistic way to be more.
The more we practice Stoic qualities in good times, the more likely that we'll find them in ourselves when they're most needed.
Oct 22, 2015 | Observer
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So a little over a year ago, I decided to look elsewhere for advice, I decided to look to ancient wisdom and created a project for myself that I call The Ancient Wisdom Project.
The rules of the project are simple:
- Choose one ancient religion or philosophy that is 500 years old and that stills exist in some form today
- Select one practice from the religion or philosophy that would help cultivate a desirable virtue (compassion, humility, etc.)
- Perform the practice for thirty days and write about it
I kicked off my project with a month long experiment in Stoicism. I was first introduced to this ancient philosophy in college, and found it quite appealing.
After some research, I decided to embrace Stoicism by taking daily, 20-minute ice baths and practicing negative visualization. Though the Stoics did not specifically recommend ice baths, they encouraged practitioners to periodically and deliberately seek out physical hardship so that they could learn to appreciate times when their lives were relatively tranquil.
After some research, I decided to embrace Stoicism by taking daily, 20-minute ice baths and practicing negative visualization. Though the Stoics did not specifically recommend ice baths, they encouraged practitioners to periodically and deliberately seek out physical hardship so that they could learn to appreciate times when their lives were relatively tranquil.
Negative visualization (a term coined by the modern Stoic William Irvine) is the practice of imagining all the ways your life could be could be worse. You imagine losing your job, your partner leaving you, your family members dying, etc. This is the mental version of the ice baths. It trains you to appreciate your present circumstances and somewhat inoculate you against actual tragedies that happen to you.
What I learned was powerful, especially when applied to problems of modern life. I share this with you in the hope that you will be inspired to look to the ancients the next time you face some sort of problem or dissatisfaction.
Body and mind in the game
After I prepped my first bath, I just stood there, watching it, imagining how cold it was going to be. I thought to myself that maybe there were other Stoic activities that I could do that wouldn't involve lowering my core body temperature.
Eventually, I psyched myself up and got in.
It was…not warm.
The second day was tough, but less difficult. As was the third, and fourth, and by day 30, it was no problem getting in.
Stoicism was founded in 3rd century BCE Greece and later spread through the Roman Empire. What is particularly interesting about Stoicism is that it was embraced by a wide variety of people from all parts of the socio-economic spectrum. Epictetus was a former slave, Seneca was a wealthy Roman statesman, and Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the Roman emperor.
Why would these incredibly different people embrace the philosophy of Stoicism?
It appears that regardless of our actual circumstances, all human beings have a knack for creating problems for themselves, both real and imagined.
Epictetus who as a former slave experienced all manners of injustices (it's rumored his master broke his leg and crippled him), wrote;
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles.
It is human nature to want to create narratives as a way to understand things. This is generally good and useful. It would be difficult to live life without thinking in terms of scripts, but often, these scripts can cause us significant anxiety.
My first ice bath was particularly anxiety inducing because I was making a judgment about cold water. The "principle and notion" I was operating under was that cold water is bad and painful.
The correct judgment for this situation is that cold water is neither good or bad, it is simply…cold. There is nothing to fear or get anxious about, it is what it is.
When I was in the ice bath, I learned to pay close attention to actual sensations. I paid attention to the initial sensation of the water on my skin, I focused on my fingers and toes becoming numb, and I enjoyed the comfort of the water warming up a bit.
Though it took a week or two, I learned to separate my judgment of ice baths from the actual sensations of ice baths, and while it didn't become enjoyable, they were no longer terrible.
I chose ice baths because the practice was physically uncomfortable. And this practice taught me how closely linked our minds and bodies are, and how it is sometimes necessary to separate the two.
Though the Stoics did talk about enduring physical discomfort, they were also very attuned to the metaphorical ice baths that we inevitably encounter in our lives
Hell is [your perception of] other people
During my Stoicism month, I was riding the metro and someone was playing their music really loudly; everyone in our car could hear it through the guy's headphones. That irritated me.
Another day, someone cut me off on the highway; that annoyed me.
Someone at work suggested a stupid idea and everyone else agreed with it. That made me want to smack everyone.
Marcus Aurelius was a second century Roman emperor and practicing Stoic. As you can imagine, someone in his position would have crushing responsibilities and an endless number of people that want something from him.
There's something unique about annoyances that come from our fellow human beings. Though annoyances of fate (car accidents, stubbing your toe, etc.) can be irritating, they have far less impact on our spirit than we perceive someone else to cause us harm. Because we view others as autonomous individuals with free will and because we are generally self-centered, we believe that others deliberately attempt to get under our skin or that they get up every morning plotting your destruction.
Marcus Aurelius offered this advice to start your day in his Meditations:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.
To start your day thinking other people will be irritating sets the bar pretty low. If you expect people to behave poorly, then they can't disappoint you.
But the late Roman Emperor didn't just say expect the worst from the others. He also ended his advice with an uplifting message, one that explains why people behave they way they do and the appropriate response to them.
They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own- not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
To see that we all share a common nature, a "share of the divine," is a great challenge, but one that ultimately leads us to accept others for what they are and to lessen their power to anger or irritate us.
My girlfriend and I hosted a houseguest for a few days during my Stoic month. She had just moved to D.C. and hadn't found a place to live yet.
We live in a one-bedroom apartment so while it's enough room to host an additional person, it felt crowded very quickly.
Benjamin Franklin wrote "houseguests and fish stink after three days." Mine stunk after one. She rummaged through our fridge and was a complainy-pants about how hard it was to find an apartment, get a job, etc.
Fortunately, I was able to embrace the Stoic practices of negative visualization and "consider the nature of things." I used negative visualization to imagine all the ways my life could be worse. When I moved back to D.C. I lived in a hostel. I shared a room with 5-8 other strangers every night for a whole summer. Usually, there was a middle aged snoring man in it. My life has been and could be far worse than living in my own apartments with a guest for a few days.
I also rationally examined the sources of my irritation. All the guest was doing was looking through the fridge and making comments about her apartment search. Why should this bother me? It's only because I think she is violating some houseguest norms and is less optimistic than she should be that I'm irritated. If I wanted to simplify it ever further, it is just movement and noise, nothing to suffer over.
We are still friends with the houseguest and she has successful settled in the DC area. It's now easy to see that she was simply struggling with the initial transition and that her behavior as a guest was not representative of her true nature.
To see through the fog of our own perceptions is a great challenge, but practicing this can ultimately help us not only be less irritated, but also positively contribute to someone else's well being.
Success is virtue
Though we often associate being "Stoic" with being some sort of pain endurance machine, there was also an active, positive component to the philosophy as well, one centered on duty and the cultivation of virtue.
I read an article about Goldman Sachs that talked about how awesome it was to work there, and of course, how much money its employees made. After seeing that the average compensation was $380k, I was just about ready to brush up on my stock trading skills and leave for New York. One of the core beliefs in American culture is that anyone, with hard work and a little luck, can become successful. It's the land of opportunity. Cadillac released a commercial last year that aptly portrays what many of us value: working hard to buy stuff and attain prestige.
It's clear how Stoicism can help us when we are striving to achieve something and we encounter obstacles. The lessons of detachment are powerful, and worthy of adoption. But Stoicism can also teach us what things are and are not worth striving for.
Epictetus was a former slave who learned to live honorably and virtuously in spite of his circumstances. He did not complain about everyone that had wronged him, or mourned what could have been. He played the metaphorical cards he was dealt.
Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another's.
Seneca was a wealthy statesman and advisor who taught that living a life dedicated to philosophy was the highest path one can take. It is not just a pastime, but rather, a way of enriching and adding meaning to life.
Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It molds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind. Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius did not complain about the immense burden of his position as Roman Emperor. He knew that he had a duty to serve the people of the Roman Empire to the best of his ability, and do it virtuously.
If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage- than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what's beyond its control- if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations-it must be an extraordinary thing indeed-and enjoy it to the full…
It would be wrong for anything to stand between you and attaining goodness-as a rational being and a citizen. Anything at all: the applause of the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of them might seem to be compatible with it-for a while. But suddenly they control us and sweep us away.
These Stoics never said you had to join the ranks of the upper middle class to be successful. They never said you had to win awards or fame in order to confidently say your life was worth living. In fact, they said fame and wealth are not worth striving for, and can actually be detrimental to your soul.
For every hour of TV you watch, you are bombarded with approximately 20 minutes of commercials. They seem harmless enough, even entertaining. But the cumulative effect of advertising (TV or otherwise) is highlight detrimental to our search for meaning and happiness. TV commercials are obvious in their intent, but we absorb harmful messages from other medium as well.
The Goldman Sachs article I mentioned, while not explicitly an advertisement, advocates a life dedicated to attaining wealth for wealth's sake. We might think we're immune to this message and that we're not as greedy as those evil investment bankers, but think about all the times you've researched other jobs because you felt you were underpaid and that you deserved more. Or perhaps you've been disappointed by the fact that you can only afford Ikea furniture and can only window-shop at Pottery Barn.
Unless we explicitly reject the pursuit of wealth and success as a good in and of itself, we are at risk of being swept away by this pursuit.
Better that we learn from the Stoics how to use every moment of our lives as an opportunity to demonstrate virtue. Has someone offended you? Learn to control your anger and remember that you too, share the same flawed nature. Didn't get that promotion you thought you deserved? Analyze the nature of titles and recognition and discover that they are mostly meaningless. Instead, focus your energies on serving others, to making the life of another a little bit easier.
Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you.
Revere the gods; watch over human beings. Our lives are short. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish act-Marcus Aurelius
During my project, I started volunteering at a homeless service organization that serves meals to the homeless. Though I only make a very small contribution, those few hours a month force me to focus on someone other than myself. It's actually quite a relief! Thinking about yourself and what you want but don't have is exhausting.
That lesson spans across all the religions and philosophies I have experimented with to date, which makes me believe that it is worth embracing.
It's easier said than done.
I recently became an independent contractor and work on a project for my former employer. I now make double what I did before, and I work less hours overall.
I'm happy about the change, but I've noticed I've become quite obsessed with making more money. I think about different ways I can increase my hourly rate, new projects I can I join, the different investments I can make, etc.
While some amount of this thinking is prudent and useful, it is also a distraction from the Stoic goal of embracing virtue. I think less about how I can serve others and more about my own financial future.
What this tells us is that we must remain vigilant and aware of our own, baser desires and that we must incorporate reminders into our daily lives to ensure we strive to be better than we normally are, to strive to serve others, to be detached from material ambitions.
The virtue-centered path is not easy, and certainly less sexy than trying to become a worldly success, but the benefits will be far more impactful and reach deeper into the core of who we are.
Should you take ice baths and embrace ancient wisdom?
I started The Ancient Wisdom Project not because I wanted to find out which religion or philosophy was the "best" or to try to convert myself. I started it because I felt something lacking in modern life and modern advice wasn't cutting it. What I've learned so far is that ancient philosophies and religions and philosophies that have survived until present-day are far greater sources for advice and wisdom on how to live than the latest self-help/lifestyle design/productivity/business book.
Ancient wisdom prescribes guidelines for dealing with hardship, transcending the ego, and serving others. It teaches us what things can lead us astray from the things we should care about, and how to deal with them. It teaches us how to be okay with our imperfect nature and to move on.
There is nothing about ice baths that will make your life better per se. But anchoring an ancient wisdom idea or principle in a concrete ritual or habit will make it more tangible and help you absorb it in a deeper way. It's one thing to read about Stoicism, it's another to manifest them in your daily actions.
If you feel that some part of your life feels off or unsatisfactory, I highly recommend looking to Stoicism or other ancient philosophies and see if any of their advice is applicable to your situation. Once you do so, find some way to actually act on that advice in a routine or habitual way. Every time you perform the ritual, reflect on the ideas you've discovered.
I am certain that the results of this exercise will be far more meaningful than reading articles about finding your passion or starting an online business and will ultimately help you live a good and virtuous life, one in accordance with your nature.
The only thing that isn't worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don't.-Marcus Aurelius
Dale Davidson is the creator and author of The Ancient Wisdom Project. He works as a government consultant in the Washington, D.C., area where ancient wisdom is sorely needed.
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ABUSE: IPs or network segments from which we detect a stream of probes might be blocked for no less then 90 days. Multiple types of probes increase this period.
Groupthink : Two Party System as Polyarchy : Corruption of Regulators : Bureaucracies : Understanding Micromanagers and Control Freaks : Toxic Managers : Harvard Mafia : Diplomatic Communication : Surviving a Bad Performance Review : Insufficient Retirement Funds as Immanent Problem of Neoliberal Regime : PseudoScience : Who Rules America : Neoliberalism : The Iron Law of Oligarchy : Libertarian Philosophy
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Vol 25, No.12 (December, 2013) Rational Fools vs. Efficient Crooks The efficient markets hypothesis : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2013 : Unemployment Bulletin, 2010 : Vol 23, No.10 (October, 2011) An observation about corporate security departments : Slightly Skeptical Euromaydan Chronicles, June 2014 : Greenspan legacy bulletin, 2008 : Vol 25, No.10 (October, 2013) Cryptolocker Trojan (Win32/Crilock.A) : Vol 25, No.08 (August, 2013) Cloud providers as intelligence collection hubs : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2010 : Inequality Bulletin, 2009 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2008 : Copyleft Problems Bulletin, 2004 : Financial Humor Bulletin, 2011 : Energy Bulletin, 2010 : Malware Protection Bulletin, 2010 : Vol 26, No.1 (January, 2013) Object-Oriented Cult : Political Skeptic Bulletin, 2011 : Vol 23, No.11 (November, 2011) Softpanorama classification of sysadmin horror stories : Vol 25, No.05 (May, 2013) Corporate bullshit as a communication method : Vol 25, No.06 (June, 2013) A Note on the Relationship of Brooks Law and Conway Law
Fifty glorious years (1950-2000): the triumph of the US computer engineering : Donald Knuth : TAoCP and its Influence of Computer Science : Richard Stallman : Linus Torvalds : Larry Wall : John K. Ousterhout : CTSS : Multix OS Unix History : Unix shell history : VI editor : History of pipes concept : Solaris : MS DOS : Programming Languages History : PL/1 : Simula 67 : C : History of GCC development : Scripting Languages : Perl history : OS History : Mail : DNS : SSH : CPU Instruction Sets : SPARC systems 1987-2006 : Norton Commander : Norton Utilities : Norton Ghost : Frontpage history : Malware Defense History : GNU Screen : OSS early history
The Peter Principle : Parkinson Law : 1984 : The Mythical Man-Month : How to Solve It by George Polya : The Art of Computer Programming : The Elements of Programming Style : The Unix Hater’s Handbook : The Jargon file : The True Believer : Programming Pearls : The Good Soldier Svejk : The Power Elite
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Last modified: October, 01, 2017