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Jan 22, 2020
Sep 3, 2019
I could get past the repetition of the intro and understand why its neccessary. The continuous promotion was grating, fine. the content however feels shallow most days, like talking to someone with a passing curiosity in the philosophy.
Jun 10, 2019
agree it could do without repeating intro, but great daily readings on stoicism. Important stuff when trying to lead a good life
Jun 3, 2019
In an era where long form podcasts dominate my playlist,there's a need for short, invaluable philosophy. This does the job brilliantly.
Mar 11, 2019
Unnecessary repetitive intro and excessive self promotion for the length of each podcast. Cut that down and it would be a 4 or 5.
Now Is The Time For Heroes
It was a decade or so ago, in the depth of the global financial crisis, that the musician and writer Henry Rollins offered a prescription that once again feels relevant. Indeed, it feels relevant because his advice was timeless, and applies in ordinary and extraordinary times alike. It’s advice worth following in times of triumph and great trials.
“People are getting a little desperate,” he wrote as unemployment spiked and markets crashed. “People might not show their best elements to you. You must never lower yourself to being a person you don’t like. There is no better time than now to have a moral and civic backbone. To have a moral and civic true north. This is a tremendous opportunity for you, a young person, to be heroic.”
Well, here we are in rough and uncertain times again. People are not showing their best selves. People are scared. For several years in a row now, people have had their true north obscured and disoriented by daily examples of bad leadership—of ego and selfishness and downright incompetence. But, in a way, that doesn’t matter. As Marcus Aurelius said, what other people say or do is not our concern. What matters is what we do.
We can choose to see this as a tremendous opportunity. This is a moment to be heroic. To think about others. To serve. To prepare. To keep calm. To reassure. To protect. This is a time to reevaluate our priorities. To ask ourselves what’s important and what we’re working towards.
Courage is calling you. Self-discipline is essential. We need your moral and civic backbone. And man, do we need wisdom right now more than ever. We need you to embody those things. We need them right now.
|Apr 06, 2020|
Daily Stoic Sundays: The Four Stoic Virtues
On today's episode, Ryan discusses the Four Stoic Virtues: Courage, Justice, Moderation, and Wisdom. Listen to find out why the Four Virtues are so important in today's world. And check out the new Daily Stoic Four Virtues medallion at https://geni.us/FourVirtues
If you enjoyed this week’s podcast, we’d love for you to leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps with our visibility, and the more people listen to the podcast, the more we can invest into it and make it even better.
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|Apr 05, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: Chris Guillebeau
In this super-sized edition of Ask Daily Stoic, Ryan talks about his visit to a Mastermind event in Nashville, where he shared ideas and inspiration with other successful authors. Ryan also chats with Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity, The $100 Startup, and the upcoming book The Money Tree: A Story About Finding the Fortune in Your Own Backyard.
If you enjoyed this week’s podcast, we’d love for you to leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps with our visibility, and the more people listen to the podcast, the more we can invest into it and make it even better.
Sign up for the Daily Stoic email: DailyStoic.com/signup
|Apr 04, 2020|
We’re Part of This Beautiful Tradition
Do you remember the first time you heard about the Stoics? Maybe you read about them in another book. Maybe someone you know recommended them to you. Remember that feeling though? When those words first started going through your brain and you felt them in your soul for the first time? It was an incredible experience right? One of the most important and transformative moments in your life.
Here’s the crazy thing though. Before the Vietnam war, James Stockdale had almost that exact experience when he was given a copy of Epictetus at Stanford. You could roll back the tape of history almost 200 years and find the exact moment that George Washington had his experience when, at 16, a neighbor passed along a copy of the works of the Stoics. Nearly 2,000 years ago almost the exact same thing happened, only instead of America it was in Rome, and a man named Junius Rusticus was loaning Marcus Aurelius a copy of Epictetus. A generation before that, someone was introducing Epictetus himself, then no more than a slave, to the works of Musonius Rufus. You could go back further still and sit in a book store and watch Zeno, washed up from a shipwreck, being introduced to philosophy by way of a reading of the works of Socrates.
It shouldn’t take away from the beauty of your experience to learn that it wasn’t singular. In fact, it enhances it. It ties directly into the most moving passages of Marcus Aurelius, where he points out how long human beings have been doing the same thing, how we’ve been falling in love and fighting over money, improving ourselves and falling short, and yes, having our minds blown by great books, since as long as there have been books.
We are part of a long tradition and it’s a long tradition that will continue after we’re gone. We’re not special. We’re a strong, but ordinary link in a timeless chain… that includes some of the greatest men and women to ever walk the earth. We don’t own these ideas. We are, as they say about Patek Philippe watches, just guarding them for the next generation. We are caretakers.
And that’s important.
|Apr 03, 2020|
The Way, The Enemy and The Key
We should always be looking for mantras and epigrams. Ideas that are true and applicable in every situation, to every generation, across all time. The Stoics had more than a few they liked:
“Character is fate,” which came to them from Heraclitus.
“Life is only perception,” which Marcus got from Democritus.
“You become what you give your attention to,” which Epictetus wrote.
Even memento mori and amor fati are short little reminders of concepts we should never forget. Lincoln was fond of the expression, “And this too shall pass,” which undoubtedly helped him through the depths of all the crises he faced.
Here are three others worth keeping at hand:
The obstacle is the way—there is nothing so bad that we can’t make some good out of it. We can treat every problem as an opportunity to practice virtue.
Ego is the enemy—no problem is ever solved by introducing ego. Pride makes us complacent and intolerable and ignorant; for we cannot learn that which we think we already know.
Stillness is the key—you can speed up by slowing down. People can only focus, be happy, and see clearly when they get rid of franticness and passions and get to that state of ataraxia that the Stoics talked about.
What’s in the way is the way. Improve yourself by thinking of yourself less. Slow down to speed up.
Remember, this philosophy is about taking ideas and applying them to our lives until they turn into muscle memory. Repeating it enough times to yourself that it becomes part of who you are. That’s what a mantra is—something to come back to, something to lean on in times of trouble and stress. It’s a tool for focus. A way of living.
The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key (all bestsellers that have reached millions of people around the world) are now available in a box set from Portfolio. You can check it out at Amazon right now.
“Ryan’s trilogy of The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, and Stillness Is the Key are for sure must reads.”
—Manu Ginobili, NBA Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist
|Apr 02, 2020|
From The Past, We Are Able To Tell The Future
Let’s imagine a scenario in which almost all our modern scholarship was lost. Imagine if some great fire at the Library of Alexandria wiped away the last few hundred years of breakthroughs in psychology and biology. Suddenly, countless research papers and books and discoveries were turned to ash. The cost would be immense, no question.
And yet, somehow, we’d be fine. Even if all that remained were just the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus. Because as much as our species craves new-ness, the truth is that most truths are very old. In fact, it’s these timeless truths that teach us more about the future and about our current times than most of our contemporary thinking.
As Douglas MacArthur wrote in the early 20th century, speculating about the future of warfare, the best lessons about what’s coming next come not from the recent but from the distant past. “Were the accounts of all battles, save only those of Genghis Khan,” he said, “effaced from the pages of history, and were all the facts of his campaigns preserved in descriptive detail, the soldier would still possess a mine of untold wealth from which to extract nuggets of knowledge useful in molding an army for future use. “
Of course, one should always avail themselves of the latest research and the newest books. The problem is that for far too many people this comes at the expense of availing themselves of wisdom from the wisest minds who ever lived. “I don’t have time to read books,” says the person who reads dozens of breaking news articles each week. “I don’t have time to read,” they say as they refresh their Twitter feed for the latest inane update. “I don’t have time to read fiction—that’s entertainment,” they say as they watch another panel of arguing talking heads on CNN, as if that’s actually giving them real information they will use.
Being informed is important. It is the duty of every citizen. But we go about it the wrong way. We are distracted by breaking news when really we should be drinking deeply from the great texts of history. We need to follow Marcus Aurelius’s advice to carve out “some leisure time to learn something good, and stop bouncing around.”
It is from this learning, from the learning of the distant past, from the wisest minds who ever lived, that we can know how to prepare for the future. Everything else is noise. Everything else should be ignored.
|Apr 01, 2020|
How a Few Can Help The Many
Perhaps you know the story of the 300 Spartans. It was first immortalized by Herodotus, and then has been passed down through the ages (there’s a wonderful Steven Pressfield novel about it). If you don’t know the story, here’s what happens: Facing an invading army of some 300,000 Persian soldiers that threatened to annihilate Greece, King Leonidas led just 300 Spartan warriors into battle in a desperate attempt to buy his neighboring countries a chance to coordinate and defend themselves. For three days, the soldiers fought at what’s known today as the Hot Gates, against so many Persian archers and soldiers that it was said their arrows blocked out the sun. Eventually, inevitably, the Spartans fell, but not before they had slowed Xerxes and his invaders down enough to save the free world.
In their honor, the poet Simonides provides this epitaph:
Stranger passing by, tell the Lacedaemonians
Here we lie, having obeyed their orders.
You sit here reading this email, in part, because of their brave sacrifice. Just as you sit here because of the soldiers who landed at Normandy, and, if you’re in a democracy, because of the sacrifices of Cato (who attempted to save the Roman Republic) and George Washington (who, inspired by Cato, founded America). These were missions that required immense selflessness, and all the Stoic virtues: Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom. The few helped to save and serve the many.
Have you seen the meme being passed around these days, in the time of COVID-19, the global pandemic ravaging countless nations? It shows a row of matches. The first several are burned out. One rests slightly below and all the matches to the right of it remain like new. “The one who stayed away,” it says, “saved all the rest.” (And think about the opposite: Patient 31 in South Korea, instead of staying away, potentially infected many people and may have ruined South Korea’s containment of the virus out of pure recklessness).
If you want to know what you can do right now, how to help in this crisis, it doesn’t require a sacrifice like the heroes mentioned here. It’s much simpler. Stay at home. Listen to the pleadings and warnings—these are not for fun. Yes, you’re young. Yes, you’ll probably survive catching the Coronavirus, but a person you give it to, or the hospital bed you take from them? That’s a much more serious scenario. Help them by flattening the curve. Help buy them and the system some time. Rush to the Hot Gates… by staying home.
|Mar 31, 2020|
These Are The Three Most Important Words of Wisdom
Almost 50 years ago, the Beatles whispered to us some words of wisdom: Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
One of the most relatable passages in Meditations is actually about just that. Marcus writes about sitting next to someone who smells or has bad breath. You can almost feel his frustration, as if he too has sat on an airplane center seat and had to jostle for the armrests that are clearly his. What is wrong with this person? Can’t they figure out how this works? Do they have to be so rude? And yet, he catches himself. If it’s such a problem, he says, then talk to them about it.
Or you know what? Just let it go.
As he writes, “You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can't control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”
It’s worth remembering today and every day. That we can just leave things as they are. We can let them be. We don’t have to get upset. We don’t have to have an opinion. We can listen to those words of wisdom…
|Mar 30, 2020|
Daily Stoic Sundays: Should I Watch The News
Ryan discusses the merits of watching the news, and how to tune out distractions, with Steven Pressfield.
|Mar 29, 2020|
Alive Time or Dead Time. What Will It Be?
Here you are, stuck indoors, stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. Maybe also you’re stuck because you’re 17 going on 30. Maybe also you’re stuck because you’ve got another two years left on your enlistment or because you’re waiting for a position to open up at a new company. Or you’re stuck because there is a global pandemic and, like a good Stoic, you’re listening to the authorities, and staying home, and helping to flatten the curve.
You can’t help that, the Stoics would say. But you can help what you do with this time. As we talked about recently, just because you’re stuck is not an excuse for killing time. More than two thousand years ago, Cato the Elder advised that in rainy weather, farmers must “try to find something to do indoors. Clean up, rather than be idle. Remember that even though work stops, expenses run on nonetheless.” Robert Greene says we always have a choice between alive time and dead time. What will it be? The answer determines the course of our life, whether what we face is an obstacle or an opportunity.
Issac Newton did some of his best research when Cambridge closed due to the plague. Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he hid out from the plague as well. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, while he was laid up in the hospital, expressly forbidden from working on something as tough as a novel. Malcolm X educated himself in prison and turned himself into the activist the world needed.
So we get it, you’re stuck. That’s not your fault. But what you do while you’re stuck? That’s on you. That’s what the Stoics meant when they said you don’t control what has happened, but you control how you respond. That’s what Marcus was talking about when he said we can turn everything that happens into fuel, and that the impediment to action can actually advance action
So that’s where we are right now. Faced with a choice. A choice to use this or not. Make something of it or not. It’s the only potential silver lining...and it’s totally up to you.
Check out the Daily Stoic Alive Time Challenge! It starts Monday 3/30, and is the perfect way to turn your quarantine into productive "alive time."
|Mar 28, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic - How Do I Use Stoicism To Fend Off Negativity?
Ryan talks about the Edmund Morrison biography of Thomas Edison, reads a passage from The Obstacle is the Way (on sale for a few more days), and fields more questions from his readers and fans.
|Mar 28, 2020|
When Things Are Tough, Remember This
Most languages have some expression to the effect of “When it rains, it pours.” For instance, in Latin malis mala succedunt means troubles are followed by troubles. In Japanese, they say, “when crying, stung by bee.” The point of these expressions is to capture an unfortunate reality of life: that what can go wrong will… and often all at the same time.
Obviously to the Stoics, the idea of premeditatio malorum is a kind of hedge against this. If you’re only prepared for a few, isolated and tiny things to go wrong, you’re going to be rudely surprised by how often difficulties come in pairs or triplets or entire litters. If you think life is going to be one lucky break after another, you’re going to be rudely surprised when, to quote Seneca, fortune decides to behave exactly as she pleases.
The real lesson from the Stoics on adversity comes from Epictetus, however, who believed that while we don’t control whether it’s pouring, we do control how we respond. We control whether we can find something productive to do inside, while it’s raining. We control whether we put on a jacket. We control whether we’ve been smart enough to build a roof while the sun was shining. And Epictetus would have also liked the quip from the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadwick, who reminds us that in space, “there is no problem so bad you can’t make it worse.”
So if you’ve been feeling some raindrops lately, first off, be prepared for things to really start coming down. Get ready for the bee sting on top of the stubbed toe. Get ready for your delayed flight to also have turbulence. But most importantly, don’t make it worse by overreacting, by taking it personally or doing something stupid. Whatever it is, know that perhaps the first step to making things better is just not making them worse.
|Mar 27, 2020|
No One Escapes This Law
This is not another note about memento mori.
It’s about a different immutable, inescapable law of human existence that comes to us from the Stoics through Heraclitus (one of Marcus Aurelius’ favorites): Character is fate.
After death and taxes, this is a timeless adage that the Stoics believed will determine our destiny whether we like it or not. And just a quick glimpse around the world and across history confirms it: Liars and cheats eventually destroy themselves. The corrupt overreach. The ignorant make fatal, self-inflicted mistakes. The egotistical ignore the data that challenges them and the warnings that could save them. The selfish end up isolated and alone, even if they’re surrounded by fame and fortune. The "robbers, perverts, killers and tyrants" Marcus Aurelius wrote about always end up in a hell of their own making. It’s a law as true as gravity.
Bad character might drive someone into a position of leadership—because of their ambition, their ruthlessness, their shamelessness—but eventually, inevitably, this supposed “strength” becomes an Achilles’ heel when it comes time to actually do the job. Who trusts them? Who actually wants to work with them? What kind of culture develops around them? How can they learn? How can they know where the landmines are?
If you want to know why things are the way they are right now—on Wall Street, in politics, in Silicon Valley, on college campuses, everywhere—it’s because character is fate. And for too long we have ignored the predictive—no, prophetic—power of character. When you make excuses for liars and cheats and egomaniacs because they agree with you, or they might benefit your business or help your cause in the short term, not only do you do so at your own long term peril, but you are exhibiting bad character yourself.
And that is what will come back to bite you. That is what is biting us right now, on every continent, in every corner of culture, at nearly every turn. Because character is fate. Always has been. Always will be.
|Mar 26, 2020|
We All Have Flaws… What Matters is What We Do With Them
Jeannie Gaffigan is a control freak. She takes charge. She cares about the little things and getting those things right. She always has. It’s hard to argue that this part of her personality hasn’t served her well. She and her husband, the comedian Jim Gaffigan, have created an enormously successful partnership that birthed not only multiple television shows and comedy specials but five healthy, well-adjusted children.
You can imagine, you have to be a stickler for details to pull all that off. The problem was when three years ago, a routine doctor’s appointment revealed a pear-sized tumor on Jeannie’s brain. A 10-hour surgery successfully removed the tumor, but not without a series of life-threatening complications, a few more surgeries, and a long road to recovery. Life does that to us. It takes the balance we’ve created or the systems we take comfort in and it dashes them to pieces.
In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s podcast, Jeannie explained how this obstacle required her to re-examine her life and her need for control. She really had no choice. “I am a person who naturally sweats small stuff,” she explained. “I didn't change my entire personality. I still sweat small stuff. I still get irritated by this and that. But I have a different level of awareness that it's small stuff. It doesn't have to ruin my day. I see the big picture.”
It was at this point in the conversation that Marc Maron, the host, responded about how he has managed this side of his personality as well:
“I understand that, you know, to take that pause… And the weird thing is, if you have that personality, you know you're going to do it. You're going to freak out. And it's really about trying to nip it in the bud a little bit. Like in the middle. or, it seems hard to do it before because sometimes maybe it's necessary. Maybe that's how you do it. But there's a point where you’re like, 'well I don't need this to be toxic. I don't need to ruin everyone's day. I don't need to make everybody crazy.'”
It’s important to realize that the Stoics were not perfect. Nobody was. It’s exceedingly unlikely that Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome, didn’t have a desire to control things. That he didn’t worry. That he didn’t sweat the small stuff. That he didn’t have the impulse to get up in other people’s business or to expect things to go his way.
We all have these inclinations. The key is that you don’t give yourself over to it entirely—that you pause and try to stop or slow it down before it spirals out of control. “Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet,” Epictetus said. “Say to it, ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’” And as Marcus told himself, “You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.”
The Stoics don’t hold us responsible for our initial impulses or impressions—we can’t be too hard on ourselves from habits we picked up from our own parents or in responses to experiences or responsibilities in our life. But what matters is whether we give ourselves over to these drives and flaws, or whether we actively work to improve ourselves. We feel anxiety or a desire to control. Ok. But does that mean we accept it unthinkingly? No. We must put it up to the test. We pause. We put it in perspective. We try not to vomit it all over other people, or let it ruin anyone’s day.
We can nip it in the bud. We can blunt its extremes. We can get awareness. We can get better.
|Mar 25, 2020|
You Can Seize This Moment
This is an email we weren’t expecting to send, but sometimes sudden events call for sudden responses.
Right now you, and much of the world, are locked down, doing your part to fight the spread of COVID-19. Perhaps you’ve already been trapped inside for weeks. Perhaps you just got back the test results and now you are in complete isolation. Perhaps your job has furloughed you and you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.
Things seem serious now, but the truth is, it’s only going to get more serious.
All of us are looking at the potential for some serious lost time. Dead time, as Robert Greene calls it. But do we have to be? A Stoic knows that while we don’t control what happens, we do control how we respond. So that’s the real question: How can we use this time to get better? To grow? To be of service and use? To create “alive time” where we’re actively getting better.
With that end in mind, we have been scrambling to put together what we’re calling the Daily Stoic Alive Time Challenge: Resilience, Productivity and Service in the Time of Coronavirus. It’s 14 days—the length of the suggested quarantine—of Stoicism-inspired challenges, practices and reading that will help you grow and help you help others.
If you’ve done any of our other challenges over the last two years, you know we pack them full of great content, actionable advice, and strategies to make the habits stick. This one will be all that… and incredibly timely. We’re taking our best material and the best insights from the Stoics and organizing it to help you make the most of this time we have. Why shouldn’t you emerge from this process having at least wrested from it some real advantages? Why would you kill time when you could be seizing that time? Why not use it to create better habits and a better perspective?
Since there is little time to lose, we are putting the challenge on sale right now and starting it this coming Monday (March 30th). The more of us doing it together, at the same time, the better (people who sign up late can still do it, but they’ll miss some of the fun). We’ll create a Slack channel for sharing and holding each other accountable. And we’ll do a wrap-up call at the end to discuss keeping these good practices going.
More important, we’re giving $5 of every sale (20% of all proceeds) to Feeding America. By doing this challenge together we can create what Marcus Aurelius calls a double bonus—doing good for ourselves and the people on the front lines fighting to keep us safe.
|Mar 24, 2020|
The World Is Trying To Teach You
This was all pretty sudden, wasn’t it? The economy was chugging along. Life was going well. We had travel plans. We had work plans. We had things we were doing. We had a sense for what we’d do next.
And then… bam. Now, here we are.
You know what that is? It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder that Seneca—a man who experienced exile, illness, financial setbacks, and all sorts of other adversity—wrote about more than 2,000 years ago. He told us “never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do.” His point was that events can change quickly, and that we have to be vigilant, particularly in good times, because vigilance is the first step towards preparation. “Whatever you have been expecting,” he said, “comes as less of a shock.”
The events of the last few weeks have been an expensive and merciless reminder of the truth of that advice. We ignored it at our peril, for too long, as humans often do. Fate is fickle. Reversals happen. Black Swans are real. Nothing is stable, change is the only constant. No one is so rich, so healthy, so strong or smart that they cannot be brought low. That is obvious to anyone looking around today. Yet we are likely, as things get better (which they inevitably will), to forget this fact if we’re not careful...and that is a waste of the pain we are experiencing right now.
The world is always teaching us. The question is whether we’re open to listening. The question is whether we’re ready to hear.
|Mar 23, 2020|
Daily Stoic Sundays: You Don’t Control What Happens, You Control How You Respond
In today's episode, Ryan reads his piece from March 12, "Remember: You Don’t Control What Happens, You Control How You Respond." He discusses how to stay safe amidst the COVID-19 pandemic—and how to think and act Stoically during this crisis.
|Mar 22, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: Keeping Calm About Coronavirus
In this week's Saturday episode, Ryan discusses the coronavirus pandemic and how to deal with it like a Stoic.
|Mar 21, 2020|
You Should Always Find Something to Learn
We all have our way of doing things. We have what we were directly taught. We have the values that our culture gives us. We have the lessons we picked up by experience. It’s understandable then, when we see someone else doing things totally differently, that we might assume they’re doing it the wrong way. That’s not how that’s supposed to go, we think to ourselves.
This, the Stoics would tell us, is a recipe for folly. “It’s impossible to begin to learn that which you think you already know,” Epictetus said. Cato the Elder, the great-grandfather of Cato the Younger, coined a maxim in his famous essay, On Agriculture, which explained best practices for farming in the Roman era. “Be careful,” he said about the management practices of your neighbors, “not to rashly refuse to learn from others.” This lesson was picked up on and rephrased by hundreds of writers since, including Ben Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack. Only an idiot turns up their nose at how other people do things. Sure, nine times out of ten, you’re right and they’re wrong. But that one time? That’s the game changer.
It’s worth always remembering that other people have different perspectives, different experiences, and, in some cases, better schooling than you. What if they discovered a shortcut? What if they learned, painfully—through trial and error—something that could save you from suffering? A Stoic cannot allow their logic and their habits to become rigid or their mind to harden into condescension. We have to be open. We cannot be rash or dismissive.
There is always something to learn—from everyone and in any situation. Even if it is only a reminder of why you do the things you do the way you do them. But hopefully you seek out disconfirmation even more than confirmation.
Learn from others, always.
|Mar 20, 2020|
This Is One Thing You Must Not Do
It’s possible, Marcus Aurelius said, to not have an opinion. You don’t have to turn this into something, he reminds himself. You don’t have to let this upset you.
It’s not that the Stoics lived in a world where people didn’t do bad things or a world free from rudeness and cruelty. On the contrary—those things were far more prevalent in Rome than they are today. But what the Stoics worked on was not letting these things get to them, not letting it provoke them to anger.
If someone insulted Cato, he pretended not to hear it. When someone attacked Marcus Aurelius’s character, he tried to think about the character of the person saying it. When someone said something offensive to Epictetus, he told himself that if he got upset, he was as much to blame as they were. He also joked that if they really knew him, they’d be even more critical.
It wasn’t that the Stoics were apathetic or that they never tried to change the world. Clearly, they wouldn’t have been engaged in politics if all they cared about was the status quo. Why would Seneca have written those letters if he didn’t believe he could have an impact on people? It’s just that the Stoics saw only danger in getting angry. They refused to be provoked. They tamed their temper so they could do the work they believed they needed to do.
And that’s what you must do also. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t have to turn things into bigger things. You can control your emotions. You can do what you need to do.
|Mar 19, 2020|
When the System Breaks Down, Leaders Stand Up
It began in the East. At least, that’s what the experts think. Maybe it came from animals. Maybe it was the Chinese. Maybe it was a curse from the gods.
One thing is certain: it radiated out east, west, north, and south, crossing borders, then oceans, as it overwhelmed the world. The only thing that spread faster than the contagion was the fear and the rumors. People panicked. Doctors were baffled. Government officials dawdled and failed. Travel was delayed or rerouted or aborted altogether. Festivals, gatherings, sporting events—all cancelled. The economy plunged. Bodies piled up.
The institutions of government proved very fragile indeed.
We’re talking, of course, about the Antonine Plague of 165 CE, a global pandemic with a mortality rate of between 2-3%, which began with flu-like symptoms until it escalated and became gruesome and painfully fatal. Millions were infected. Between 10 and 18 million people eventually died.
It shouldn’t surprise us that an ancient pestilence—one that spanned the entire reign of Marcus Aurelius—feels so, well, modern. As Marcus would write in his diary at some point during this horrible plague, history has a way of repeating itself. “To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before,” he said in Meditations. “And will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history: the court of Hadrian, of Antoninus. The courts of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All just the same. Only the people different.”
This pattern of disease is nauseatingly familiar. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself like a fractal across history. Indeed, we could be talking about the Bubonic Plague (aka the Black Death), the Spanish Flu of 1918, or the cholera pandemics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as easily as we are talking about the Antonine Plague and thinking about the coronavirus pandemic that is spreading across the globe. As Marcus would say, all we’d have to do is change a few dates and names.
It can be a very jarring mental exercise for some—thinking about the way the history of disease repeats itself—because we like to view the evolution of human civilization as moving inevitably in some new, unique direction. We like to see history as steady progress. Then when bad things happen, when catastrophe strikes, we feel like the world is coming apart. We suffocate ourselves with breathless shouting about the sky falling and give ourselves heart attacks over not being prepared for what is to come.
It’s the same story, unfolded as if from an ancient script, written on the double helix of human DNA. We make the same mistakes. Succumb to the same fears. Endure the same grief and pain… then eventually exult in the same heroism, the same relief, and hopefully, the same kind of emergent leadership.
And that, really, is the key to survival, to persevering for the better: Just because history repeats itself is not an excuse to throw up your hands and give yourself up to the whims of Fortune. The Stoics say over and over that it is inexcusable not to learn from the past. “For this is what makes us evil,” once wrote Seneca, who lived two generations before Marcus and watched Rome burn. “We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from our past.”
Read the rest at https://dailystoic.com/marcus-aurelius-leadership-during-a-pandemic/
|Mar 18, 2020|
Your Obstacles Are Trying To Teach You Something
One way to go through life is to turn away from the things that are hard. You can close your eyes and ears to what is unpleasant. You can take the easy way, forgoing difficulty whenever possible. The other way is the Stoic way—it entails not only not avoiding hardship, but actively seeking it out.
In the novel Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian write to young Marcus Aurelius about his philosophy for learning and benefiting from all of life’s adversity and unpleasantness. “Whenever an object repelled me,” he says, “I made it a subject of study, ingeniously compelling myself to extract from it a motive for enjoyment. If faced with something unforeseen or near cause for despair, like an ambush or a storm at sea, after all measures for the safety of others had been taken, I strove to welcome this hazard, to rejoice in whatever it brought me of the new and unexpected, and thus without shock the ambush or the tempest was incorporated into my plans, or my thoughts. Even in the throes of my worst disaster, I have seen a moment when sheer exhaustion reduced some part of the horror of the experience, and when I made the defeat a thing of my own in being willing to accept it.”
Of course, this is fiction so Hadrian never said such a thing. But clearly somebody taught Marcus a lesson along those lines, because Meditations is filled with similar passages. Marcus writes about how a fire turns everything that is thrown into it into flame. He says that obstacles are actually fuel. “The impediment to action advances action,” he writes, “what stands in the way becomes the way.”
It’s a beautiful way to approach the world—and ultimately, the only one suited for our unpredictable and stressful times. To avoid difficulty would mean complete retreat from life. It would mean hiding in ignorance. Worse, this would make you dreadfully vulnerable to crisis if it did ever find you. Instead, we must strive—as Hadrian said—to welcome hazard. We can rejoice in the unexpected and even turn failure into something by deciding to own it. We can learn from unpleasantness and even soften our aversions.
This will not be easy. But that’s fitting, isn’t it? We are not naturally attracted to obstacles...which is precisely why we must work on finding out how to like them. This is the way.
And that's not all: to help you keep the book's message close at hand, we're offering a 20% discount on our Obstacle is the Way coin and pendant at the Daily Stoic store (use code OBSTACLEDISCOUNT). Mar 17, 2020
We Need You To Be Bold
On the Roman calendar, March 15th was known as the Ides of March—once most notable as the year’s deadline for settling debts. That changed in 44 BC when Julius Caesar walked into the Theatre of Pompey for a routine meeting with the Roman Senate. Caesar was then at his apotheosis. He had made himself Dictator Perpetuo. He was about to embark on a three year expedition, which, if successful, would, as Plutarch wrote, “complete this circuit of his empire, which would then be bounded on all sides by the ocean."
All of Rome hung on what would happen next. Would he name himself king? Would he destroy his remaining enemies? Would Rome destroy itself? Would it be content to be yoked under a tyrant?
We don’t know, because it was yesterday 2,064 years ago that Brutus, Cato’s son-in-law, and his wife, Porcia, took matters into their own hands. Soon, Caesar was dead. What remained was a bloody Civil War in which the Roman Republic was nearly restored. It didn’t quite go the way that Brutus hoped. Cato himself was not quite successful in his attempt to rally the Roman people to stand up to their traditions. But the example remains in history as a partly inspiring, partly cautionary tale: Can an individual change the course of history? Can things blow up in our faces?
Yes. The answer is yes to both.
That’s basically the complicated arc of Conspiracy, which tells the story of Peter Thiel's quixotic, bold, desperate, deranged, inspiring (your pick) plot to take down Gawker Media, the gossip blog that had outed him, that he felt had become too powerful.
The knock against the Stoics—one repeated by Thiel himself once or twice—is that they are too resigned, that they accept the status quo. This would have been surprising to Rome’s emperors, from Julius Caesar to Nero to Galba and Domitian, who were all convinced that the Stoics were plotting against them. It is almost ironic that Marcus Aurelius became the Stoic philosopher king, because nearly every single one of his predecessors believed that the Stoics were seeking to destroy the monarchy entirely. No one thought that Cato or Thrasea or Musonius Rufus were passive. They feared them. They believed they were radicals who sought to change things.
With yesterday being the anniversary of the Ides of March, we challenge you to think about where that spirit has gone. We could use more boldness, and less passivity. We could use more vision, courage, creativity, a sense of justice, a willingness to try and fail, to risk and hope. We could use more people courageous enough to reject the status quo and fight for change they believe in.
We could use more people trying.
|Mar 16, 2020|
Daily Stoic Sundays: Four Strategies for Reading Better
Ryan talks about how you can improve your reading skill and get more from the books you love.
|Mar 15, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: Austin Kleon
Ryan chats with Austin Kleon, author of great books like Steal Like An Artist.
|Mar 14, 2020|
You Must Be a Good Example
Think of the pressure Marcus Aurelius must have been under. Not just of the temptations and the corruptions of power, but all the eyes that were on him. Forget the judgments of history, there was literally an “emperor cult” in Rome that worshipped the man on the throne as a god to be sacrificed to and prayed for.
What we know is that Marcus took this pressure seriously. He strove to live up to the expectations and the dignity of his position, even if many of his predecessors had not. “Let people see someone living naturally,” he reminded himself in Meditations 10:15, “and understand what that means.” And in Meditations 10:16, that’s where he writes his famous line to stop talking about what a good person is like and just be one.
But what’s interesting is that while Marcus more or less lived up to this pressure, he claimed to be doing it for himself, not for other people. Actually the second half of the line in 10:15 talks about how he’s fine being killed for what he believes in, if people don’t understand it. He’s doing right because it’s right, not because people are watching. It’s sort of like that Chris Rock line about being a role model: Don’t not beat your wife because you’re a role model for young people, don’t do it because it’s wrong!
Remember what Marcus said about not expecting the “third thing”—that is, gratitude or acknowledgment. Be a good role model because you’re a good person, because you’ve trained yourself to like and enjoy being good. Be a good role model because that’s what this philosophy demands of you, because that’s what life is demanding of you. That it might help other people, that you are teaching your children or your audience at the same time? That’s extra.
Don’t talk about being a good role model. Be one.
|Mar 13, 2020|
How Prepared Are You To Start Over?
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig experienced both incredible good fortune and misfortune in his life. He was born into wealth; he met some of the great minds of his time, from Freud to Arthur Schnitzler; he traveled extensively and became Europe’s bestselling novelist. And in that span, he also experienced two terrible world wars and was driven from his home by Hitler’s antisemitism; first fleeing to England, then later going to the U.S, before finally starting his life over again in Brazil, where he spent the last two years of his life.
One would think that someone who had experienced so many good times in his first fifty years, would be unprepared for difficulty in his final ten. Not so with Zweig. During his many years of delightful and luxurious travel, he liked to play an interesting game—one very similar to a practice that Seneca had.
As soon as Zweig arrived in a new city—no matter how distant—he would pretend that he’d just moved there and desperately needed a job. He would go from store to store, checking to see if they were hiring. He’d read the help wanted ads in the newspaper. He would often go all the way through the hiring process until he got an offer. Offer in hand, he would then walk out and enjoy his trip, feeling the pride and comfort of knowing he could handle starting from scratch if he had to.
Seneca’s version of this was to practice poverty once per month. He’d wear his worst clothes and eat the cheapest food. He’d sleep on the ground. The point was to get up close and personal with the thing most of us secretly and subconsciously fear: losing everything. Being poor. Having nothing.
There is immense value in these practices. For fears that we have faced are less scary than those we can only speculate about. Uncertainties we have practiced are more confidently endured when they come to pass. The less unfamiliar misfortune is, the less power it will have over us. That’s what premeditatio malorum is about. That’s why we must, as Seneca said, keep all the terms of the human lot before our mind—exile, war, torture, grief, pain.
Because they happen. They did happen to Zweig, who had his possessions and his livelihood stolen by the Nazis (and yet managed to do some of his best writing in exile). We must be ready. We must know the fear, so that we may not be afraid when the worst finally comes.
|Mar 12, 2020|
You Should Always Find Something To Do
There was time to kill in Rome, just as there is today. A dinner started late. A meeting got cancelled. Travel delays meant being stuck in this place or that place for a couple days. Something would break and someone would need to go into town for supplies. The impulse then, as now, when faced with these kinds of situations, was to just wait. Or complain. Or mess around.
We all do it, writing stuff off as dead time, as we’ve talked about before. It’s a rather presumptuous thing to do, though, if you think about it. We kill time as time is literally killing us. Who says you’ll get more moments? Can you really afford to let any be wasted?
Cato the Elder was built of that sturdy, original Roman stock. He didn’t put up with laziness or poor productivity. He didn’t tolerate it from his workers or his family or himself. As he wrote in On Agriculture, there is no excuse for just sitting around. =“In rainy weather,” Cato advised, “try to find something to do indoors. Clean up, rather than be idle. Remember that even though work stops, expenses run on nonetheless.”
We can always find something to do, even when our original intention or plan is thwarted (that’s what the obstacle is the way means). We can read. We can think. We can clean up and prepare. We can squeeze in a few minutes of work while we sit in the waiting room. We can turn a rainy day into a family day.
There is always something to do. You can’t afford for there not to be.
|Mar 11, 2020|
You Might Never Be Famous — And That’s O.K.
Marcus Aurelius talked a lot about fame. He called it a worthless clacking of tongues and liked to point out things like how few people remember the emperors who preceded him, or how the generations to come will be the same annoying people he knows now. It’s easy to picture him writing these things in times where he caught himself falling for the allure of fame, of power, of how history might remember him.
Don’t we all fall for it? It is alluring. But if we’re honest with ourselves, it isn’t the fame we really want. it’s the validation that our lives are meaningful. Praise, recognition, millions of followers on Instagram, we think, are proof that we matter. And until we get those things, we’re not always so sure we do.
Emily Esfahani Smith wrote an amazing piece in the New York Times, titled “You’ll Never Be Famous — And That’s O.K.”. Reminding us of Marcus in the way Emily too said that fame is a foolish pursuit and not where meaning lies, we reached out to her for an interview. We asked Emily for advice on finding meaning—and how Stoicism can help us get there. She shared the opinion of the 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson, who said that a flourishing, meaningful life is one of “generativity”:
“When we’re young, we’re supposed to figure out who we are and what our purpose is. As we get older, we’re supposed to shift the focus from ourselves to others and be ‘generative.’ That is, we’re supposed to give back, especially to younger generations, by doing things like raising children, mentoring colleagues, creating things of value for our community or society at large, volunteering, etc. We each have the power to be generative. Fame and glamour are about the self—aggrandizing yourself. But generativity is about connecting and contributing to something bigger, which is the very definition of leading a meaningful life.”
It’s the Rick Warren line, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” There’s that silly thing that floats around the internet from time to time about how few people can name a gold medalist from the last Winter Olympics, but everyone can name that third grade teacher, that childhood neighbor, who changed your life. It’s the people we touch singularly. That’s the real test. That’s where you make your mark.
Let that be today’s great and simple pursuit: positively impact one person’s day. That’s it.
|Mar 10, 2020|
Why Anger Might Be The Worst Vice
There are many different vices out there. It’s long been a debate amongst priests and philosophers if some are worse than others, or if they are all created equal. Even amongst the Stoics there was some debate—were all sins the same? Was being or doing wrong a matter of degree, or was it black and white?
It’s one of those things that vexes philosophers but is obvious to normal people. Of course some vices are worse than others. Of course there is a grey area! Welcome to life, genius.
Seneca eventually concurred. As he writes in Of Anger, anger must rank fairly high on the list of vices because it has so few redeeming qualities. “It’s a worse sin than luxury,” he says, “since that is enjoyed by personal pleasure, whereas anger takes joy in another’s pain.” Malice and envy are similar, he said, because they are about wanting other people to be unhappy, not just yourself. Anger and envy are about inflicting harm on others, not just on oneself.
Point being: It’s better to be a little bit Epicurean (that is, to enjoy some pleasure) than it is to be an asshole. If you’re going to sin or give in to vice, make sure it only ruins your life. Make sure it’s something internal, not something like anger—which inevitably makes itself felt by the people around you.
To sin, to fall short, is one thing. To punish innocent people? Well, that’s even worse.
|Mar 09, 2020|
Daily Stoic Sundays: How a Stoic Deals with Bad News
Ryan describes how a Stoic can deal with bad news—and not just move past it, but use it to fuel their success.
|Mar 08, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: How Does a Stoic Deal with Aggressive People?
Ryan talks about the new Daily Stoic offices, reads a selection from The Obstacle is the Way, and answers your questions.
|Mar 07, 2020|
Wisdom is the Most Important Virtue
Courage. Temperance. Justice. These are the critical virtues of life. But what situations call for courage? What is the right amount? What is the right thing? This is where the final and essential virtue comes in: Wisdom. The knowing. The learning. The experience required to navigate the world.
Wisdom has always been prized by the Stoics. Zeno said that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen more than we talk. And since we have two eyes, we are obligated to read and observe more than we talk as well.
It is key today, as it was in the ancient world, to be able to distinguish between the vast aggregations of information that lay out there at your disposal—and the actual wisdom that you need to live a good life. It’s key that we study, that we keep our minds open always. You cannot learn that which you think you already know, Epictetus said. It’s true.
Which is why we need to not only be humble students but also seek out great teachers. It’s why we should always be reading. It’s why we cannot stop training. It’s why we have to be diligent in filtering out the signal from the noise.
Our goal is not just to acquire information, but the right kind of information. It’s the lessons found in Meditations, in everything from the actual Epictetus to James Stockdale entering the world of Epictetus. It’s the key facts, standing out from the background noise, that you need to absorb.
Thousands of years of blazing insight are available to the world. It is likely that you have the power to learn anything you want at your fingertips. So today, honor the Stoic virtue of wisdom by slowing down, being deliberate, and finding the wisdom you need.
Two eyes, two ears, one mouth. Remain a student. Act accordingly—and wisely.
Keep the four Stoic virtues in mind—courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. The fact is, they are all important, and you can’t neglect any one of them in trying to live virtuously. Study how best to embody each one as is called for, and you’ll be making good progress.
When you find yourself wondering what the right course of action is, pick the options that are most in accordance with the virtuous path they mark. It’s how you live successfully and happily.
|Mar 06, 2020|
Justice: The Most Important Virtue
There is no Stoic virtue more important than justice, because it influences all the others. Marcus Aurelius himself said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.” Stoics throughout history have pushed and advocated for justice, oftentimes at great personal risk and with great courage, in order to do great things and defend the people and ideas that they loved.
Countless other activists and politicians have turned to Stoicism to gird them against the difficulty of fighting for ideals that mattered, to guide them towards what was right in a world of so much wrong. A Stoic must deeply believe that an individual can make a difference. Successful activism and political maneuvering require understanding and strategy, as well as realism… and hope. It requires wisdom, acceptance and also a refusal to accept the statue quo.
It was James Baldwin who most brilliantly captured this tension in Notes of a Native Son:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but one must fight them with all one’s strength.
A Stoic sees the world clearly...but also sees clearly what the world can be. And then they are brave, and strategic enough to help bring it into reality.
|Mar 05, 2020|
Temperance is the Most Important Virtue
Yesterday we discussed the Four Virtues, and talked about the primacy of courage. Of course, life is not so simple as to say that courage is all the counts. While everyone would admit that courage is essential, we are also all well aware of people whose bravery turns to recklessness and becomes a fault when they begin to endanger themselves and others.
This is where Aristotle comes in. Aristotle actually used courage as the main example in his famous metaphor of a “Golden Mean.” On one end of the spectrum, he said, there was cowardice—that’s a deficiency of courage. On the other, there was recklessness—too much courage. What was called for, what we required then, was a golden mean. The right amount.
That’s what Temperance or moderation is about: Doing nothing in excess. Doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way.
In Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, the emperor Hadrian writes to Marcus Aurelius that “overeating is a Roman vice.” He explains that far too many of his fellow citizens “poison themselves with spice” and drown their plates in rich sauces. The result? They overwhelm their palates—and themselves. By succumbing to excess, they lose the ability to appreciate things and throw themselves off keel.
To Hadrian, simple pleasures were better. He tells Marcus that “moderation has always been my delight.” And not just when it comes to dinner. Fitness, being in good fighting form to face the challenges of each day, was critical, yet working out to the point of fanaticism was a step too far. That means refraining from both indolence and overexertion, cutting the middle course between the two poles to find that Golden Mean where one is neither over nor underprepared, but simply ready.
So today and every day, remember the Stoic admonition to find the middle ground. Do not adhere to one extreme or the other; make temperance your goal in every part of your life, and your future self will thank you for it.
|Mar 04, 2020|
Courage is the Most Important Virtue
The Stoics believed that a life well lived was one which always countered adversity with virtue. And they believed in four aspects of virtue: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Each and every situation calls for one or more of these four Stoic virtues, and nothing in life exempts us from their power.
Today, we begin with one of the most important: Courage.
If you’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s dark and beautiful novel All the Pretty Horses, you’ll remember the key question that Emilio Perez asks John Grady, one that cuts to the core of life and what we all must do to live a life worth living.
“The world wants to know if you have cojones. If you are brave?”
The Stoics might have phrased this a bit differently. Seneca would say that he actually pitied people who have never experienced misfortune. “You have passed through life without an opponent,” he said, “No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
The world wants to know what category to put you in, which is why it will occasionally send difficult situations your way. Think of these not as inconveniences or even tragedies but as opportunities, as questions to answers. Do I have cojones? Am I brave? Am I going to face this problem or run away from it? Will I stand up or be rolled over?
Let your actions etch a response into the record—and let them remind you of why courage is the most important thing.
Check out our newest product, the Four Virtues Medallion. It's designed to exemplify the Four Stoic Virtues—and help you keep them in your heart.
|Mar 03, 2020|
You Can Make This A Game...and Win
The Stoics said it over and over: the most important thing to remember about pain and suffering is that it is inevitable. It can’t be avoided, so don’t make it worse by fearing it, worrying about whether it will come, wondering how bad it will be. Seneca’s line was that we suffer more in imagination than in reality. The essential insight from Epictetus was: It’s not things that upset us, it’s our opinion about them. And Marcus Aurelius too: If you choose to feel like you’ve been harmed, you have been.
At just eight years old, Verity Smith was told that, due to a rare genetic disorder, she would soon lose her eyesight. She didn’t have a choice. She would be blind. All that was left to her was how she would respond to this demand of fate. In our interview with Verity, we asked her to take us back to that diagnosis and how she came to terms, mentally and emotionally, with the painful realities of losing her vision. Her answer is extraordinary:
I saw going blind as a challenge, a game...I understood that the darkness was coming and that it would steal the faces of those I loved and the views of the landscapes I lived in, but in my innocence, I set to work filling my memory with images that would never fade. It was a game against the clock. My challenge was to drink in every sight, to exercise every sense and to become good at being blind before the lights went out. With my bedroom curtains drawn and a blindfold on, I would rearrange my furniture in order to practice navigating through self-imposed blackouts. Being a practical child, I figured the best way to overcome my coming blindness was to learn how to get good at being blind…I began to understand the power of my thoughts—how if the sky was grey I could color it in blue in my mind’s eye, how I could paint the beautiful horizon upon the canvas of the dullest of views. The world became multi-dimensional. As my eyes went to sleep my other senses awoke.
When adversity struck, Marcus liked to remind himself, “It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it...It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it.”
Not everyone would choose to see something so unfair as a game, like Verity did. Not everyone could do that, as she did. So in that sense, it is fortunate that it happened to her. Certainly, what she managed to make of it is incredibly impressive and fortunate. Since being unable to compete in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games, Verity has been training hard for the 2020 games in Tokyo. In 2017, she was ranked 12th in France at the Elite Able-Bodied level and has recently been selected for the French Para Dressage Team. Aside from her plans to bring home a gold medal in 2020, Verity also hopes to become the first equestrian disabled athlete to represent her country as a member of both the Paralympic and Olympic teams.
She made her situation a game...and became world class at playing it. That’s what a Stoic does. That’s what you can do, whatever you’re going through today or in the future. You choose how you respond. You choose what you will make of this. You don’t have to suffer.
|Mar 02, 2020|
Daily Stoic Sundays: How to Have Your Best Week Yet
Ryan uses eight Stoic lessons to teach us how to have the best week ever.
|Mar 01, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: Guest Starring Steven Pressfield
This week's extra-long Saturday episode of Ask Daily Stoic features Ryan talking about, and speaking with, author Steven Pressfield, writer of classic books such as The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and The War of Art.
|Feb 29, 2020|
You Must Wash Away This Dust
Life is a dirty, dusty affair. It was that way in Rome and it’s that way today. The puddle in the street splashes us. Someone else’s nasty mood sullies our demeanor. The heat makes us sweat. The news of the world makes us worried. We spill some food, we spill out some frustration.
We wake up in the morning fresh and ready to go and by the end of the day, we are covered in dust. The dust of emotions, of work, of stress, of everything.
The Stoics knew this and they knew also that it was critical to find ways to, as Marcus Aurelius put it, wash away the dust of earthly life. There were many ways to do this, literally and figuratively. Seneca noted that Socrates liked to play music and to play games with children to relax and have fun. Cato liked to have long meals over wine where philosophy was discussed. We also know from stories that he would frequent Roman baths, as did Seneca, where the grime of the city could be scrubbed away, but where also they might have some time to think. Even that observation from Marcus Aurelius, in its fuller context, gives us an insight. Marcus was talking about washing away the dust of earthly life by taking a moment to look up at the stars at night. And where was he “talking” about this? In the journal where he often retreated to clear his mind and his soul; where he could find solace and hold himself accountable at the same time. Stoicism and journaling—as we show in The Daily Stoic Journal—are hard to separate for that reason.
The question for you, today and always, is how are you washing yourself clean and clear? Do you have a fun hobby? Do you meditate? Is it a weekly therapy session? Is it swimming laps? Maybe it’s the time after the kids go to bed when you and your spouse read and talk? Maybe it’s a morning walk or an evening prayer?
It certainly can’t be just two weeks of vacation every year. It can’t just be a shower every couple days. It has to be a practice. It has to be a process. This is a dirty, dusty world we live in. And without ritual cleaning, even the purest and strongest souls will become filthy and corrupted.
|Feb 28, 2020|
You Are A God
The Stoic writings alternate between reminding us of our humility and our power. For humility, we have the concept of amor fati, for example—we should learn to love our fate, “good or bad” because we’re powerless to do anything about it. And with equal sincerity, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that if something is humanly possible, he should believe he is capable of doing it.
Humility and power. Power and humility. It’s not a contradiction. It’s a balance. On some days we need a reminder of the former, and on other days, the latter. Today, let’s do the latter. How’s this: The Stoics believed each of us was a god. As Cicero writes in his dialog, Scipio’s Dream:
“The true self of each person is the mind. Know therefore that you are a god. For a god is someone who moves, who feels, who remembers, who looks to the future, who rules over and guides and directs the body he is master of, just as that Supreme God directs the universe. And just as this eternal God controls the universe, which is partly mortal, so too your eternal spirit directs your fragile body.”
It’s a pump-me-up that should have you ready to run through walls this morning. Sure, we are powerless over so much. We can be tossed around by the oceans, we can be struck down by disease, we’re not even as strong as a small chimpanzee. But over our own mind? There we have god-like powers. There, we are supreme masters. There we can direct and control the world like those mythical beings from Mt. Olympus.
You’re a god. Know that. Now use that power wisely. Go do something that matters with it.
|Feb 27, 2020|
Repeat These Three Words To Yourself Constantly
“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams once said, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” How true it is. It’s an idea that goes to the very essence of what Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus spend so much time talking about.
Reality is a stubborn thing. As much as we might want events to go or be one way, this has little bearing on the way they are. We wish we had been born tall, to a rich or royal family, we wish that special someone we fell head over heels in love with would return the feeling (or be the person we idealized them to be in our hearts) and yet, that is not how things are. We put in the work and yet, somehow, the person who was less talented won. We held our nose and voted for one candidate and, still, somehow the greater of two evils ended up winning.
What do we do? It’s so unfair. It’s so frustrating. It’s just not right. Yet, yet, yet...
In ex-Marine Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, a novel based on his experience fighting in the Vietnam War, the line, “There it is,” appears nearly thirty times, spoken by different characters. Your post Ivy League graduation plans were thwarted by a war? There it is. You have no experience leading a platoon of marines? There it is. You don’t get to sleep for two days because of an enemy invasion? There it is.
Life is “There it is.” Stoicism is an acknowledgement of that fact, it’s a coping mechanism and a response to this fact. That’s what Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and Seneca were all talking about in their own way: How to make the most of a world to which most of what happens is not up to us and, in fact, seems to go contrary to how we would choose if it were.
We can get angry and announce our disapproval. We can throw our hands up, curse the sky, and tell whoever will listen about how unfair this or that is. But as much as we argue, we can’t alter reality. So, we must embrace it. We must love it. All of it. Amor fati. “There it is.”
And then do our best. And then make the most of it.
|Feb 26, 2020|
You Must Read… and Re-Read
It’s no secret that John Adams is one of history’s brilliant minds. He was widely respected as a lawyer, a politician, a president, and as a husband, a father, and a friend. But for all this, he was often overwhelmed by anguish, despair, discontent, loneliness, doubt, fear, uncertainty, and the rest. “I can as easily still the fierce tempests or stop the rapid thunderbolt,” he once lamented in his journal, “as command the motions and operations of my own mind.”
Like many of us, Adams longed for stillness, for “tranquility of mind,” vowing to one day “wear out of my mind every mean and base affection.” But it was a long time coming—indeed, it nearly came too late.
In 1819, the year after the death of his treasured wife of fifty-four years, the devastated Adams turned to Cicero’s essay on growing old gracefully, De Senectute. It was an essay he had read “for seventy years, to the point of nearly knowing it by heart,” but somehow, now, in the quiet stillness, he found something new in it. As he wrote:
I never delighted much in contemplating commas and colons, or in spelling or measuring syllables; but now...if I attempt to look at these little objects, I find my imagination, in spite of all my exertions, roaming in the Milky Way, among the nebulae, those mighty orbs, and stupendous orbits of suns, planets, satellites, and comets, which compose the incomprehensible universe.
It might take a lifetime for us to finally “get” it—but the stillness and the understanding will be worth it.
|Feb 25, 2020|
Don’t Be Zero-Sum
Steven Pressfield, whose historically-driven novels about ancient Greece have sold millions of copies, wrote a recent post that posits that there are two kinds of people in the world—Zero-Sum and Non-Zero-Sum.
Hitler was zero-sum. He believed that the Aryan race could only survive if it took from and eliminated other races. Abraham Lincoln was non-zero-sum. Yes, he believed that slavery was a horrible evil and needed to end, but he did not believe that the North needed to crush and destroy the South. In fact, his famous Second Inaugural Address is all about how both sides shared the blame and both could be redeemed by the suffering they had endured in this horrible Civil War. Martin Luther King was non-zero-sum. So were the Spartans at Thermopylae, who sacrificed their lives just to buy a little more time for their Greek allies to prepare. Almost all villains in history and in fiction, on the other hand, are zero-sum. They believed that someone else’s loss was their gain—and that their own pain justified the infliction of pain on other people.
Over and over again in the Stoic writings we see reminders intended to nudge us towards seeing the world as non-zero-sum. If you want to find some good, Marcus Aurelius writes, all you have to do is look inside yourself—it’s just there ready to bubble up. Wherever there is another person, Seneca writes, we have an opportunity for kindness. The best revenge, Marcus writes, is to not be like the people who have wronged you. What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee. What is the concept of sympatheia but a realization that harming other people does not benefit you? That you can’t steal your way to prosperity or harm your way to happiness?
And yet, so much of what we do is selfish and zero-sum. That’s why we lie. Or cheat. Or vote for politicians who promise to aggressively fight for our own interests, even if it means that other people will suffer terribly.
Pressfield’s beautiful article is a call to a higher standard to all of us. It’s worth quoting the final sentences of it here in full:
In the non-zero-sum world, on the other hand, resources are infinite. The love a mother gives to her child (and that the child returns) grows greater, the more each loves. There is and can never be a shortage of love.
|Feb 24, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: How Do You Recognize What's in Your Control?
|Feb 22, 2020|
Do What’s Right, Not What’s Easy
It was a somber scene as the pallbearers marched down Pine Street carrying the coffin of General William Tecumseh Sherman on this day 129 years ago. It grew more somber still as the rain started to drizzle and then rain steadily. The temperatures dropped as the procession winded through the streets. Repeatedly along the seven mile walk, the former Confederate General Joe Johnston, then old and frail, but who had faced off in battle against Sherman many times, was asked if someone could take his place so that he might go inside and warm up.
No, Johnson said, I’m fine. An aide suggested that he at least put on a hat to keep dry. Once again, Johnson refused. It would be impolite. It would be disrespectful to the dead. “If the positions were reversed,” he said, “Sherman would not do so.” So he continued to carry the coffin, bare-headed in the rain, in honor of his former enemy, the man who had beaten and dominated him.
Marcus Aurelius wrote of how we should do the right thing, whether it’s cold or warm, whether we’re tired or well-rested, whether we’re despised or honored. Johnson faced each of these dilemmas that day. He was tired, he was cold, he could not have been been particularly popular with the thousands of Yankees who watched his labored steps. But he did what he thought was right— like his former opponent, he lived by a code and that was all that mattered. He wanted to pay his respects, even if it was inconvenient, even if it wasn’t fully understood.
And he was willing to sacrifice more than just a few minutes of comfort to make that statement. Because at that funeral Joe Johnson caught pneumonia. Within a month, he was dead.
|Feb 21, 2020|
Who Can You Adopt?
One of the most remarkable traditions of ancient Rome—and one for which we have no real modern analog—was the tradition of wealthy, successful families adopting and raising young men (sometimes women) to be their heir. Scipio Aemilianus, one of the early patrons of Stoicism, for instance, was adopted into the famous Scipio family, while his elder brother Quintus was adopted by the Fabii family, an equally grand legacy.
Seneca was not adopted (nor did he adopt anyone), but his brother Novatus was adopted by Lucius Junius Gallio, an admired rhetorician, and eventually changed his name accordingly. You might be familiar with it, in fact, because Gallio—Seneca’s brother—appears in the Bible, having fairly adjudicated a legal case against the apostle Paul. Marcus Aurelius himself underwent a similar process when Hadrian (adopted by Trajan) adopted Antoninus who in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius.
The point of today’s email is not to tell you to rush out and sign up to be a foster parent—although it would be wonderful if more people did this—but to suggest a more modern analogy. The process of choosing a promising young person, mentoring them, guiding their ascent into public life, looking out for them, helping pass along some of the advantages and wisdom you have accumulated—this is a timeless idea. It makes rational sense why fathers and mothers do this for their own children (and grandchildren) but it is truly beautiful when strangers do it for each other. When we help others get ahead not because they are our blood, but because we see something in them, or simply because we are in the privileged position of having such benefits to share.
Remember, the Stoics believed that we were all in this thing together. That we were all part of the same hive, that we were all serving the same great cause—be it the empire, the nation, the human race—and therefore we are obligated to help others. To lend a hand. To adopt. To advocate for. To cultivate.
|Feb 20, 2020|
Why Be Angry About Something That’s Already Gone?
It’s another mess. It’s not your fault, but you’re dealing with it. It’s another rude person— representing a company you are paying money to—who doesn’t seem to get how this is supposed to work. It’s another example of disrespect, or bias, or plain discrimination. It’s precisely the kind of thing that pisses you off.
So you’re angry. It shouldn’t be like this. It doesn’t need to be like this. When will it stop?
The Stoics have an answer. It might not be the one you want to hear, but it’s an answer. The answer is that this will stop soon. It always does. Everything does.
Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone — those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the ‘what’ is in constant flux, the ‘why’ has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us — a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.
This is one of the reasons the Stoics were big advocates of “the pause” (which we talk about in our Taming Your Temper course). Yes, this thing is angering you right now. But the truth is that it will be gone soon enough. And so will you for that matter!
Life is short. Do you want to spend it being upset? Most problems resolve themselves. Most bad news is followed, eventually, by good news. Most frustrations lessen with time. Use that to your advantage. Don’t give them more substance and permanence than they deserve. Go with the flow.
Don’t be angry. It’s pointless.
|Feb 19, 2020|
How To Be Proven Wrong
Imagine writing a book that sells millions of copies over the course of nearly a decade, and then, out of nowhere, another author comes along and challenges it. What would you do?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s massive bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, he posits that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required to master any skill. Implicit in Gladwell’s argument is that success is the manifestation of specialization. If you want to be among the best at something, you have to focus solely on that singular skill.
David Epstein first disputed the 10,000-hour rule in his book The Sports Gene. He was then invited to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to debate Gladwell on this topic of specialization. Neither they or their critics would have predicted the friendship that came out of the debate. But their discussions spawned the ideas that became Epstein’s second book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World—which doesn’t just challenge the 10,000-hour rule, it may well debunk it. How did Gladwell take it? As Epstein explained in our interview with him for DailyStoic.com:
He could have viewed our ideas as in zero-sum competition. But he didn’t. He viewed it as an opportunity to engage in more discussion—often politely antagonistic but very productive discussion—and consequently we learned from one another. [This] set in motion what became not only a really productive intellectual relationship for me, but also a model of how two people publicly associated with certain ideas can engage without forcing zero-sum competition.
Seneca deliberately read and immersed himself in the work of people he disagreed with. He frequently and unapologetically quotes Epicurus, the head of a rival philosophical school! Knowing this may be perceived as abandoning the writings of his avowed philosophical school, he often clarifies his intentions. “I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp,” he explains, “not as a deserter, but as a scout.” Like Gladwell and Epstein, he didn’t view Epicurus’ ideas as in zero-sum competition with his own. They were a chance to learn. They were not an obstacle but an opportunity to broaden and bolster his intellectual arsenal.
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change,” Marcus said. “For I seek the truth, by which no one ever was truly harmed. Harmed is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance.”
It’s so easy today to close ourselves off at the first sight of an opposing view. On all points along the political spectrum, people are close-minded and sensitive to their perspectives being challenged. Let David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell be your models today. Break out of your filter bubble. Prioritize speaking with someone you are likely to disagree with. Practice quieting your ego and opening yourself up to learning something new. Practice seeing things from someone else’s point of view. Seeking the truth, keeping an open mind, having the humility to accept you might be wrong—this is how we grow.
|Feb 18, 2020|
Don’t Take the Money. Don’t Take the Money.
Cicero and Cato both refused to take bribes, despite how widespread the practice was for politicians at the time. Cato refused to be enriched by his office in any form, even though that was even more common. Marcus Aurelius refused inheritances that were offered to him, much the same way.
Although they never gave us their exact reasons, it’s pretty easy to deduce. Because corruption is a betrayal of the public trust. Even if it weren’t, Marcus and Cato would likely have declined all the same. Why? Because to accept the money would have been to sacrifice their autonomy. They lived along the same principle so brilliantly expressed, thousands of years later, by the photographer Bill Cunningham: “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”
Just look at Seneca. While there is no evidence he took outright bribes, he did accept a paycheck from Nero. He accepted piles and piles of gifts. He couldn’t see that Nero was slowly buying him, trapping him in a gilded cage. Seneca’s fortune grew—soon, he was the second richest man in Rome—but his control over his own life diminished. He was tied up in Nero’s misdeeds; he was at the mercy of his whims. When Seneca tried to walk away, Nero said, “Nope.” When Seneca tried to give all the money back, he learned that’s not how it works. Nero called the tune now. Nero owned him.
To a Stoic, that was a form of death (indeed, Seneca died not long after this, at Nero’s hand). Blood money comes at the cost of your soul. Bribes and corruption are not just wrong; they’re dangerous. It’s corrosive. There are always strings attached, whether the money comes in the form of a salary or an envelope of cash slid under a table. Let Seneca be an example of that. Let Cato be an inspiration.
But most of all, remember what Bill Cunningham said: If they pay you, they get to tell you what to do. Remember: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom is the most expensive.”
|Feb 17, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: Who Are Some Famous Figure Influenced By Stoicism?
|Feb 15, 2020|
This Is a Command, Not a Mere Reminder
Like most solo pursuits, the artist’s life is one that ceaselessly tests one's mental fortitude. Steven Pressfield likens it to dragon slaying. The dragon being what he’s coined the “Resistance”—that voice that questions your abilities, your worth, your sanity. “Resistance never sleeps,” Pressfield says. “It never slackens and it never goes away. The dragon must be slain anew every morning.” Anyone who sets out to make a career in the arts is confronted with this reality quickly, if not immediately.
The two-time finalist for the Pulitzer prize, Russell Banks, was in his mid-twenties—just married, an apprentice plumber, living frugally—when he took the leap into the dragon’s den of creative expression. It was then that he happened upon a plaster angel statue in the window of a used furniture store. It wasn’t the angel that caught his attention. “I was pointedly irreligious and whatever the opposite of puritanical is,” as he puts it. It was the words carefully carved on the angel: Remember Death.
Something about this particular reminder got through to me, as if I had never linked the two words together before, had never probed the meaning of either one alone or truly considered the imperative mood, and I had to own it, had to bring it home to our little apartment and hang it above my writing table, so that every time I looked up from my struggle to write my first poems and stories, I would see it, and I would remember death...On a profound level, beyond the purely personal, beyond pop-romanticism, beyond politics, beyond history, beyond even genocide and terrorism, it’s saying, Never forget. I took it as a command, not a mere reminder.
In the half-century with his memento mori, Banks has lived all over the world, he’s written some two-dozen novels, and received widespread acclaim, but “Wherever I have set up my desk and sat myself down to write, my angel has looked down and murmured, Remember Death.”
No one becomes immune to the evil inner-voice that makes us doubt ourselves, that tells us we’re inadequate or incapable, that puts us in a rut and tries to keep us there. What separates those who do great things is the ability to quell those voices before they swell. That’s what we see in Marcus’s routine writing of his impending death. He said, “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.” When we do, we’re freed from the Resistance, inspired into action.
That’s the power of memento mori. It isn’t morbid. It isn’t dark or depressing. No, it pulls us out of the dark and depressing by transcending those petty doubts and fears. Whether it’s an angel statue on your desk, a medallion in your pocket, a pendant around your neck, a statue of Marcus Aurelius himself, or a sticky note on your computer—memento mori.
And use it to propel you.
|Feb 14, 2020|
You Must Think For Yourself
It’s never been easier to get information than it is today. You have access to Wikipedia, to podcasts, to social media, and a near infinite library of books. You can chat with just about anyone about anything. We live in a wonderful time where facts and opinions are abundant like truly never before in history.
But there is danger in all this abundance as well. Because with this access has come instant connection and viral sharing, which means that for all the diverse sources of information out there, it’s also never been easier to see what other people are thinking. The algorithms of Facebook and Twitter can create a filter bubble. The public-ness of our discourse now makes it easier to enforce political correctness and consensus-thinking. It incentivizes virtue signaling and a mob mentality.
Think about how impressive it was that Marcus Aurelius didn’t need to publish his Meditations. He didn’t need to get credit for his ideas. All he cared about was truth. He was thinking for himself, literally. What made someone like Cato so powerful and inspiring was that he didn’t care what anyone else thought. He also thought for himself. In fact, he actively practiced inoculating himself against public opinion by walking barefoot and bareheaded through Rome. He wanted to get used to being laughed at, to being different. It shouldn’t surprise us then that when nearly everyone in Rome was willing to rationalize Julius Caesar’s norm-breaking behavior, only Cato could see it for what it was. Only he was willing to stand alone.
A Stoic has to be willing to do that. A Stoic has to think for themself. A Stoic doesn’t care what the mob thinks—they don’t need to “consort with the crowd,” as Seneca put it. Yes, it’s wonderful that we have access to all kinds of knowledge and tools that the Stoics didn’t have. But how we use these assets is essential. Are we just going to agree with everyone because we don’t want trouble? Are we going to seek out only what we like and what confirms our worldview?
Or are we going to think for ourselves? Are we willing to stand alone?
|Feb 13, 2020|
Can You Be Still?
There is probably no piece of literature that the Stoics were more familiar with than the Odyssey. Seneca quotes it. Marcus Aurelius quotes it. Pretty much everyone in the ancient world was so familiar with Homer’s verses that they could be quoted without attribution and people would know what the speaker was referencing
It makes sense. It’s a beautiful, inspiring poem with all sorts of lessons and images. But here’s one that the Stoics never mentioned, that is easy to miss unless you read all the way to the end. In fact, in some translations it’s cut off or ignored. What does Odysseus do after nearly ten years of war and then ten more years of struggle to make it home? What does he do shortly after arriving home after having been gone so long that his wife’s hair was grey and his old dog was barely alive? After he slaughtered the invaders in his home and secured his kingdom that he was blocked from for so long?
It’s almost unbelievable: Almost immediately after coming home, he gets ready to leave again! As Emily Wilson beautifully translates Odysseus giving the insane news to his long suffering wife:
But now we have returned to our own bed,
As we both longed to do. You must look after
My property inside the house. Meanwhile,
I have to go on raids, to steal replacements
For all the sheep those swaggering suitors killed,
And get the other Greeks to give me more,
until I fill my folds.
Isn’t that the human condition in a nutshell? Isn’t that restlessness exactly what got Odysseus in trouble in the first place? The insatiability and greed that nearly took him and his men to the brink a hundred times? As Blaise Pascal put it, “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” Because we cannot be happy, because we can’t just be, we waste years of our life. We go begging for trouble. We invent problems. We flee, as Seneca once put it, from ourselves. Clearly that’s what Odysseus was doing. No one who actually likes themselves or their lives spends twenty years fighting to get back to it...and then leaves the day after they get there!
We must realize that stillness is the key. Stillness is how you connect to yourself and others. Stillness is where true happiness comes from. Where is all this rushing taking you? Where was Odysseus pointing his ship toward? We are rushing toward death. A life of restlessness is not what we’re after. That’s not where meaning comes from. No one is saying that Odysseus should just lay back and lounge for the rest of his life—but if he can’t take even a few minutes with his family after that long of an absence, something is wrong with him. Turns out the war with Troy was the sideshow—the real battle was in this guy’s head and heart...and it was against the fear of not being in motion constantly. Sadly it’s an affliction shared by a good portion of ambitious, talented people.
There is no greatness that is not at peace, Seneca reminds us. There is no greatness if we cannot be. We must be still.
|Feb 12, 2020|
Here’s How To Become an Informed Citizen
When people hear Epictetus quoted to justify not watching the news—“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters”—they get upset. It’s understandable. For generations, especially in America, people have been conditioned to think that consuming journalism, be it in newspaper or television or online form, is the duty of every informed citizen.
Unfortunately, only the second half of this supposition is correct. Yes, it is the duty of every citizen—especially those with voting rights—to be informed. No, the news is not the way to do that. In fact, in today’s world of clickbait and sensationalism it may be the worst. Just a few years ago, the head of CBS (who also happened to be a serial sexual harasser) noted glibly how a certain presidential candidate was clearly bad for America but “damn good for CBS.” “This is going to be a very good year for us,” he said, faux apologizing. “It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on... Keep going.”
If that isn’t evidence for you that you should not keep going, and should definitely stop watching so much news, there’s not much else to be said. But perhaps there’s another way to think about it: The best way to be an informed citizen is to follow the path of the Stoics, who had no such thing as real-time journalism. You should study history. You should study the law. You should study human nature. As Machiavelli, who was forced into a retreat from public affairs, once observed, “Anyone who studies present and ancient affairs will easily see how in all cities and all peoples there still exist, and have always existed, the same desires and passions." Marcus Aurelius said very much the same thing: History is the same thing happening over and over again.
If you want to be an informed citizen, if you want to actually understand—rather than know trivia about—what’s going on in the world, then pick up a biography. Pick up Thucydides. Pick up Plutarch. Pick up Robert Caro or Edward Gibbon. Read Doris Kearns Goodwin. Forget tweets about political witch hunts, read Stacey Schiff’s new book about actual witch hunts. Read Machiavelli. Read Seneca. Read about Seneca and Nero and their complicated relationship. Read psychology. Go read the actual constitution of the country you live in—read The Federalist Papers or the Magna Carta.
Go deep. Go backward. Go to the real truths. That’s what informed people do. And they are fine being seen as ignorant about every other silly thing.
|Feb 11, 2020|
It Takes What It Takes
Watching a master do their work is always impressive. Whether it’s an orator working a crowd or an athlete contorting their body with ease and finesse, it’s incredible to see what people are capable of. We see things and wonder how they’re possible. We hear of the feats of brilliance, of courage, of endurance, and of wisdom pulled off by Cato or by Thrasea and wonder how they managed to do it.
The answer, in every instance, is simple. They did the work.
“First, tell yourself what you want to be, then act your part accordingly,” Epictetus said. “This, after all, is what we find to be the rule in just about every other field. Athletes decide first what they want to be, then proceed to do what is necessary."
The renowned mental conditioning expert Trevor Moawad put it even more simply: Greatness takes what it takes.
As Russell Wilson’s mental skills coach, he has seen what that process looks like from the inside. His new book (with that awesome title), It Takes What It Takes, is about the kind of work we have to do to achieve our biggest goals. We interviewed him for Daily Stoic and he explained it a bit further:
It goes back to a conversation I had with NBA star Vince Carter when I was consulting with them. He said at 38 the behaviors for him to keep playing were clearly defined. It “took what it took” and he had to decide whether to do them or not...That conversation helped me better explain the simple truths behind success to athletes. It also safely allows for people to choose an average set of behaviors, but the outcome will be pre-determined.
Remember, the Stoics—Marcus Aurelius especially—talked repeatedly about doing what his nature demanded. They also believed that character was fate. The work you put in, the traits you inculcated, that’s what kind of person you would be, the kind of results you would get.
“Behavior, which you’ve drilled into your muscle memory,” Moawad says, “will dictate what happens next.”
So how can you be like Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius or Russell Wilson or Vince Carter? Set your sights on the goal and do the work. Put in what it takes. Do what your nature and the job demands. Build the muscle memory. And the outcome will be fated.
|Feb 10, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: Can You Be Informed Without Cable News?
|Feb 08, 2020|
You Still Have Time. You Have So Much Time.
Seneca’s life is worth looking at for anyone who thinks they missed their shot, who thinks it might be “too late” for them. Because in his early twenties, just as his career as a lawyer was taking off, Seneca was struck with a terrible blow of tuberculosis. He was sent away by his doctors to Egypt, where he spent the next ten years recovering. Eventually, he returned to Rome, and though many would have suspected his window had closed, he quickly made a name for himself as a politician and a philosopher.
Then, just as his career was taking off, he was banished to Corisca on trumped up charges by jealous enemies. There he had to spend eight years, eight years of the prime of his life, on an island far away from home. Yet, he eventually returned to Rome, rebuilt and remade himself, and soon found himself one of the most powerful men in the world, advising the Emperor.
You might be sensing where this is going, but once again, at the height of his influence, he was forced to retire from Nero’s service, as the Emperor became increasingly unstable. Still, Seneca managed to re-dedicate himself to philosophy and publish some of his most brilliant works.
What Seneca’s life proves is something much more bluntly phrased in Gary Vaynerchuk’s viral video, “You’ve Got Fucking Time.” It might feel like you are too old, that things have not turned out like you planned, that you’ve been royally screwed by bad luck. And that may be so—but the fact remains that you still have time. You can still make something of this life. You can still be grateful for whatever—and how much ever—time you have left.
What if you had just woken up from a coma? What if you had just gotten exonerated and released from death row? What if you’d found out your cancer was in remission? Would you be thinking 'I'm getting a late start' or ‘woe is me?” Or would you be thinking, 'I'm so lucky. This is the beginning of my new life'?
There is no too late, not as far as ordinary life goes; just get started. Or get back to work. That’s all we can do.
|Feb 07, 2020|
You Must Look Beneath The Surface
Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, like all Romans, seemed to have loved the theatre.
Seneca, in particular, had a great fascination for what “actors in theatre who imitate the emotions” could teach him about dealing with people in real life. Many actors appear “most dangerous when they redden,” Seneca observed, but “they were letting all their sense of shame escape.” From that, he realized that with Sulla “when the blood mantled his cheeks” it was always “due...to the novelty of a situation.” And “Fabianus also, I remember, reddened when he appeared as a witness before the senate; and his embarrassment became him to a remarkable degree.”
Evan Puschak, creator of the wildly popular Nerdwriter YouTube channel, made a great video a couple years ago, titled “Jack Nicholson: The Art of Anger.” The video is not only an eight minute montage of Nicholson’s very entertaining freak outs, it’s a distillation of a very human emotion. Like Seneca, Puschak wanted “to get a sense of the larger shape of anger as a human phenomenon.” Here’s what he learned:
For Nicholson—and everybody else, for that matter—anger can be a form of desperation, a noise so loud that you don't have to hear your own insecurities. The larger and louder it is, the closer he is to recognizing a vulnerability in himself. That's the challenge for an actor playing this emotion. You're not just playing anger; you're playing what's under it. Most anger isn't psychotic. It's only a thin veneer for what's brewing below, and you have to be able to turn up the volume while preserving traces of this deeper motivation.
This is a really powerful insight. To see that anger is not anger but often a glimpse of what is unresolved underneath. Sulla was revealing his weakness, his inexperience, his uncertainty. Fabianus was revealing his embarrassment. In The Border, Puschak points out, Nicholson was revealing fear. “Fear at what he's gotten himself into. Fear that he won't be able to get himself out.”
Although the Stoics spend a lot of time dealing with the symptoms of anger, they don’t spend enough time really looking at what’s underneath. Marcus Aurelius couldn’t remind himself to go to therapy because it didn’t exist then. Seneca couldn’t talk about processing trauma because we didn’t really understand that yet. The Stoics lacked even some of the healing strategies that result from the Christian emphasis on forgiveness. But just because they didn’t have these things, it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from them now. It’s not enough to just stuff your anger down or cut it off at the pass—you have to figure out what’s going on way before that. You have to look at the root causes. You have to look back at the road you traveled to understand how you got to this place, this moment.
Tear off the mask. Look below. Look behind. And deal with it.
|Feb 06, 2020|
If Everyone Is Woke, Then No One is Awake
It’s unquestionably a good thing that the world is waking up to the idea of social justice. For too long, marginalized groups have been precisely that—marginalized. Oppression, racism, unequal access to opportunity have been too common for too long in America and the world. People have been way too insensitive to the trauma that all sorts of people have experienced in life, and indifferent to how those traumas are exacerbated and triggered by the way we do things.
Of course, we should be awake and aware of this. Kindness and fairness and human dignity are core Stoic virtues, so there would be no objection from Marcus Aurelius or Seneca to the idea of social justice. Certainly Epictetus, a former slave, would have fit right into our modern discussion about privilege and equality.
But it’s also true that the Stoics would have looked quite warily on the increasing radicalization of the so-called “woke” activists. Nor would they have been surprised at how quickly its self-righteousness has created alarming abuses of power (and in some cases, been guilty of the same injustices they claim to fight against.) Administrators and activists at Oberlin College in Ohio egged on a mob that wrongly accused a small-town bakery of racism and tried to run them out of business. The #MeToo movement, which has brought all sorts of terrible sexual predators to justice, also—it seems—prematurely deprived Al Franken of due process and cost themselves an ally in the Senate. There have been countless other examples, from the Covington Kids and the Yale Halloween costume controversy to using physical force to deprive people of their right to free speech and a surprising level of tolerance for anti-semitism, where jumping to conclusions and moral certainty have caused embarassing lapses in judgement.
These movements are supposed to be about truth and justice and fairness. But like any movement, when they become a mob, or become blind to nuance or empathy, they can do real harm to people. When everyone is woke, then no one is awake.
The Stoics believed in virtue, not virtue signaling. They were not naive. They knew the world was full of injustices and evil and believed that it was not just important, but every person’s duty to fight against it. At the same time, Marcus Aurelius reminded himself that most people who did wrong were not doing it on purpose. He spoke of the importance of mercy, of forgiveness and understanding. Most of all, he spoke about practicing what he preached. He couldn’t control other people, but he could control whether he did wrong himself.
And this is an important lesson for everyone out there fighting for the important cause of social justice. Radicalization is dangerous, whether it’s on the right or left. Anger is the problem, not the solution. Righteousness can easily become self-righteousness.
We must be careful. We must be kind. We must be fair. We must always act with the virtues that the Stoics believed balanced out the pursuit of justice: courage, moderation, and wisdom.
|Feb 05, 2020|
It’s Better To Share
For Julius Caesar’s grip on power to be complete, he had to eliminate his rivals. So too did Octavius, Caesar’s nephew who succeeded him. Claudius eliminated senators who threatened his reign. Nero, even with the moderating influence of Seneca, violently dispatched his mother and stepbrother. That’s basically the entire history of emperors and kings—an endless parade of heirs getting rid of other potential heirs and anyone who might exert influence on the throne.
All this makes what Marcus Aurelius did upon ascending to power all the more remarkable. Because he too had a rival, at least on paper: his stepbrother, Lucius Verus, the biological son of Antoninus Pius. Yet what did Marcus do? What was the first thing he did with the absolute power that we all know corrupts absolutely? He named his brother co-emperor. He willingly ceded half his power and wealth to someone else. Imagine that.
Why did he do this? Well, for starters, he had a problem with murdering people just because they might want what he had. But more philosophically, Marcus was wise enough to understand that there was plenty of power to go around—that the job of emperor was really hard and it might actually be better to split the duties with someone else rather than to try to selfishly shoulder the whole burden yourself.
It would be wonderful if we could get better at seeing this ourselves. That someone else’s gain is not our loss—in fact, it might actually make our lives easier. That historically, those who try to maintain an exclusive and tyrannical grip on the reigns don’t actually tend to hold them that long. That we are improved by the process of sharing and collaborating and bringing people in (did you notice that there are two authors for The Daily Stoic and The Daily Stoic Journal? Both those books were incalculably improved by Stephen Hanselman’s translations and insights. Sharing works!).
It’s lonely to go through life alone, to try to do everything by yourself and for yourself. That approach rarely brings out the best in anyone or anything. So start sharing.
|Feb 04, 2020|
You Must Win The Morning!
One of the most relatable moments in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the argument Marcus Aurelius has with himself in the opening of book 5. It’s clearly an argument he’s had with himself many times, on many mornings—as have many of us: He knows he has to get out of bed, but so desperately wants to remain under the warm covers.
It’s relatable...but it’s also impressive. Marcus didn’t actually have to get out of bed. He didn’t really have to do anything. One of his predecessors, Tiberius, basically abandoned the throne for an exotic island. Marcus’s adopted great-grandfather Hadrian hardly spent any time in Rome at all. The emperor had all sorts of prerogatives, and here Marcus was insisting that he rise early and get to work.
Why? It’s because Marcus knew that winning the morning was key to winning the day and winning at life. He wouldn’t have heard the expression that “the early bird gets the worm,” but he was well aware that a day well-begun is half done. By pushing himself to do something uncomfortable and tough, by insisting on doing what he said he knew he was born to do and what he loved to do, Marcus was beginning a process that would lead to a successful day.
It’s one that we have to follow today and every day. We should get up early. We should not delay. We should get the nutrients we need. We should practice good habits. We should go right into whatever the biggest or most important task of the day is. We want to win the morning so that the rest of the day (much of which will be out of our control) has less power over us.
Well-begun is half won. So get started.
|Feb 03, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: How Do I Deal With Long Term Problems?
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|Feb 01, 2020|
Shine On, You Crazy Diamond
There has always been an odd streak in the Stoics. Zeno used to practice begging people for money, even though he had plenty. Cleanthes worked as a manual laborer for so long, some in Athens thought it might be a front for something. Cato used to walk around bareheaded and barefooted, wearing dingy clothing. Seneca was completely unafraid both of regularly practicing poverty (despite his wealth) and unafraid of showing his wealth (despite his reputation as a Stoic). He also experimented with vegetarianism at a time when it was deeply transgressive in Rome. And can you imagine the scene Marcus Aurelius created when he would write and read philosophy while the gladiatorial games raged on beneath his box seats in the coliseum?
The Stoics were not afraid to be themselves, to be seen as weird. In fact, that’s something Epictetus said: If you want to improve, if you want to achieve wisdom, you have to be okay looking strange or even clueless from time to time. Epictetus also tells us the story of Agrippinus, who refused to keep a low profile during Nero’s reign, who refused to conform or tamp down his independent thinking. Why do this, Agrippinus was asked, why not be like the rest of us?
Because you consider yourself to be only one thread of those which are in the tunic. Well then it was fitting for you to take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to the other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright, and makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like the many? And if I do, how shall I still be purple?
Beautifully said. And a reminder to all of us today. Embrace who you really are, embrace what makes you unique. Let your freak flag fly—because chances are it’s special. Shine on you crazy diamond. Be purple. Be the small part that makes the rest bright.
We desperately need you to do that.
|Jan 31, 2020|
If You Don’t Read, You’re Functionally Illiterate
General James Mattis is part of a long line of tradition of Stoic warriors. Just as Frederick the Great carried the Stoics in his saddlebags as he led his troops, or Cato proved his Stoicism by how he led his own troops in Rome’s Civil War, Mattis has long been known for taking Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations with him on campaign.
“Reading is an honor and a gift,” he explains, “from a warrior or a historian who—a decade or a thousand decades ago—set aside time to write.” Yet many people spurn this gift and still consider themselves educated. “If you haven’t read hundreds of books,” Mattis says, “you’re functionally illiterate.” Channeling Marcus Aurelius, Mattis notes that human beings have been fighting and dying and struggling and doing the same things for eons. To not avail yourself of that knowledge is profoundly arrogant and stupid. To fill up body bags of young soldiers while a commander learns by experience? It’s worse than arrogant. It’s unethical, even murderous.
Well, the same is true for much less lethal professions. How dare you waste your investor’s money by not reading and learning from the mistakes of other entrepreneurs? How dare you so take your marriage or your children for granted that you think you can afford to figure this out by doing the wrong things first? What is the upside of trying to make it in the NFL all on your own, and not looking for shortcuts and lessons from seasoned pros and students of the game who have published books? There is no real job training for an emperor or the advisor to the emperor, but you can imagine both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca read heavily from and about their predecessors. The stakes were too high for them not to.
In Mattis’ view, no Marine, and no leader, is excused from studying. Consider yourself assigned to this as well. It’s wonderful that you’re reading this email, but more is demanded of you. Drink deeply from history, from philosophy, from the books of journalists and the memoirs of geniuses. Study the cautionary tales and the screw ups, read about failures and successes. Read constantly—read as a practice.
Because if you don’t, it’s a dereliction of duty.
|Jan 30, 2020|
How You Look At Things Matters
If you’ve ever been stuck in Los Angeles traffic at night, you know it’s miserable. But if you’ve ever seen a helicopter shot of Los Angeles at night, you’ve seen how this same miserable experience can suddenly be made to seem beautiful and serene. We call one a traffic jam, the other a light show.
The chaos of international politics can strike us with fear—wars break out, property is destroyed, and people are killed. Yet if you zoom out just slightly, all those terrifying CNN updates seem to blur together into an almost coordinated dance of nations lurching towards a balance of power. We call one journalism, the other history.
Same thing, different perspective.
Life is like that. We can look at it one way and be scared or angry or worried. We can look at it another and find an exciting challenge. We can choose to look at something as an obstacle or an opportunity. We can see chaos if we look up close, or order if we look from afar.
Which is the right lens? What perspective does the Stoic bring to each experience? That’s a trick question. The Stoics alternate between lenses, choosing to see things in the way that allows them to move forward, to reduce anxiety, to find humility, or even humor. As Epictetus said, each situation has two handles—one that will bear weight and one that won’t. We have to choose carefully and properly.
The world is dyed by our thoughts, colored by the glasses we decide to wear. So that’s what you have to think about today and always. How are you going to look at things? Which perspective will you choose? Will you choose to be miserable or awed? Terrified or reassured? It’s up to you. It’s up to us.
|Jan 29, 2020|
You Have To Be Kind To Yourself
There’s no question that much of what we talk about in this philosophy is hard. Specifically, it’s hard on the person practicing it. Stoicism asks you to challenge yourself. It doesn’t tolerate sloppy thinking or half measures. It wants you to undergo deprivation, it asks you to look in the mirror and examine your flaws.
But it’s important that we don’t mistake all this with self-flagellation and a lack of self-esteem. The early Stoic Cleanthes once overheard a philosopher speaking unkindly to himself when he thought no one was listening. Cleanthes stopped him and reminded him: “You aren’t talking to a bad man.” One of the most beautiful passages in Seneca’s letters is the one where he talks to Lucilius about how he was learning to be his own friend. He wrote that as a very old man. He was still working, even then, on being kinder to himself. The same man who was so hard on himself—practicing poverty and diving into freezing rivers—wanted to make sure that he was also loving himself like a good friend.
Are you doing the same? Do you know that you’re a good person? Are you your own friend? There is a line in a great song by The Head and The Heart about this:
Until you learn to love yourself
The door is locked to someone else
It’s true. It’s also locked to wisdom. The point of this philosophy we are writing and talking about is not self-punishment, it’s self-improvement. Nobody improves for a teacher that loathes them. No one trusts someone that is out to hurt them.
Forget cutting yourself a break today. Instead, just be kind. Be your own friend. Catalog some of your strengths. Smile at all the progress you’ve made. Tell yourself, “good job.” And then promise that you’re going to keep going and keep working because you know you’re worth it.
|Jan 28, 2020|
Stop Freaking Out. None of This Is New.
You think this hasn’t happened before? Whatever it is, whatever you’re freaking out about?
A crisis at the borders. Agitators riling up the youth. Excess and immorality. Rising demagogues. Distrust in institutions. A backlash against free speech and expression.
It’s scary because it seems new—like things are breaking down, right? Except it’s not remotely new. Each one of those things was happening during Marcus Aurelius’s reign. They were happening during Seneca’s time. They were happening a hundred years ago. They were happening back in America while James Stockdale was locked away as a POW in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
What the Stoics want us to see is the big picture. All of this has happened before, Marcus wrote to himself. It happened before and it is happening now and it will happen again. Zoom out, he says, look at this from space, not with your ear to the ground. See how small it really is.
Look back through the pages of history, the Stoics urge us. You’ll find that most of the things people were worried about never came to pass. The trends peter out. The revolution loses its force. Sanity is restored. You’ll find that the things they should have been concerned about, they totally missed. You’ll find people who were so focused on the trends and the symptoms of problems that they lost opportunities to address the root causes.
And most of all, you’ll find that none of us are around long enough to waste any time on worry anyway. So relax. See the big picture. Focus on what you control. Change what you can. Make a difference where you can. Let go and keep going.
|Jan 27, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: How can I get my partner interested in Stoicism?
|Jan 25, 2020|
You Must Think The Thing You Cannot Think
It’s fitting that one of the most important things you can do as a parent requires you to think about something that’s very nearly impossible for a parent to consider. It comes to us from Marcus Aurelius by way of Epictetus.
As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.” Don’t tempt fate, you say. By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?
No one wants to think about that. You want to think only good things about your kids. Damn these philosophers and their silly, academic exercises. Except that’s not what this is. Marcus wasn’t speaking flippantly. He lost nine children. Nine! Seneca, we gather, lost one early too. It should never happen, but it does. It heartbreakingly-world-wreckingly-nobody-deserves-it does.
The point of thinking about this unthinkable thing is not morbidity. It has a purpose. A parent who faces the fact that they can lose a child at any moment is a parent who dares not waste a moment. A wise parent looks at the cruel world and says, “I know what you can do to my family in the future, but for the moment you’ve spared me. I will not take that for granted.” That’s what you must do—about your children, about your wealth, about peace in your nation, about the fair weather.
It can all go away in a second. There’s nothing we can do about that. We can, however, drink in the present and be grateful for every waking moment.
If you’re a parent looking to apply some ancient wisdom to one of the toughest jobs on the planet, you might try signing up for our email at DailyDad.com. Each morning, like DailyStoic.com, we send out an inspiring email designed to make you better, more present and more prepared. Join us now.
|Jan 24, 2020|
You Have To Learn Something From Everyone
The Stoics were learners. It’s hard to escape that conclusion when you read their writings. Marcus Aurelius begins Meditations by cataloging the lessons he learned from the many people in his life, big and small. Seneca was constantly looking at other people, studying their lives and what they did well and not so well. When Epictetus said that you can’t learn what you think you already know, he was describing his own worldview as well as the worldview of his hero—Socrates—who went around constantly questioning and putting things up to the test.
All of them would have agreed with Emerson’s observation that we can learn something from everyone we meet, because everyone is better than us at something. The trouble with that advice—which few would argue with—is how easily it can be inhibited by the self-righteousness that Stoicism can sometimes accidentally encourage. Right after Marcus Aurelius finishes thanking all those people in his life, what does he talk about? He talks about all the awful, stupid, mean, and frustrating folks he is going to see in the next 24 hours. Needless to say, such judgments close us off from opportunities to learn.
In her beautiful book, Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian try to instill in a young Marcus the antidote to that egotism. He explains to Marcus that he has actively looked at the strengths of the maligned emperors who preceded him and tried to find a virtue he could take from them.
“I looked for example even to those twelve Caesars so mistreated by Suetonius,” she had him write, “the clear-sightedness of Tiberius, without his harshness; the learning of Claudius, without his weakness; Nero’s taste for the arts, but stripped of all foolish vanity; the kindness of Titus, stopping short of his sentimentality; Vespasian’s thrift, but not his absurd miserliness. These princes had played their part in human affairs; it devolved upon me, to choose hereafter from among their acts what should be continued, consolidating the best things, correcting the worst, until the day when other men, either more or less qualified than I, but charged with equal responsibility, would undertake to review my acts likewise.”
This is the attitude we must take with us, day to day, in whatever position of leadership or followership we occupy. It’s not enough to just learn from history or to be grateful to the explicit lessons we get from our teachers. We must keep our eyes open always, and actively look for opportunities to learn from everyone, including people we know are flawed or even evil. We must not let our own moral progress block us from learning from those further behind us on the road. Because, as Emerson said, everyone is better than us at something—even if it’s a little thing—and if we want to keep getting better, we should focus on that more than anything else.
|Jan 23, 2020|
A Good Morning Creates A Good Life
The Stoics believed in the power of ritual, particularly at the beginning and the end of the day. For them, routines and rituals were not productivity hacks, but ways of living. In a world where so much was out of our control, committing to a practice we did control was a way of establishing and reminding ourselves of our own power. It was about preparation. It was about creating peace.
We recently talked to Amy Landino—who reads The Daily Stoic each morning—about her book Good Morning, Good Life. A title whose essence the Stoics would have likely agreed with. If you can win the morning, you can win the day. Amy told us that it doesn’t matter if you have an hour or only five minutes, if you’re home or on the road, if the kids have you up at the crack of dawn or you sleep in until your body’s clock naturally wakes you—there are three keys to a good morning:
Or, as Seneca said, "Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life...The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind.”
Or, as Marcus said, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” And then once he got that out of the way, he was ready to go meet those folks with a smile on his face.
Or, as Epictetus said, paraphrasing Socrates, “One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement.”
Move your body. Clear your mind. Do something to improve yourself. That’s it. You do those three things, you’re ready to have a good day...and a good life. It’s been true for two thousand years.
Start tomorrow with the three M’s.
|Jan 22, 2020|
Do It Because It’s Right. Not So They’ll Like You
We’ve talked a lot recently about the importance of not making yourself a slave to outside approval. Because it’s not something you control. Because your own standards should be so high that you already have plenty to worry about.
Still, there is so much more to be said about this very human desire for external validation. Indeed, it is a timeless and universal problem. Marcus Aurelius, like us, wanted to be liked—by his imperial staff, by the Senate, by the citizens he met in the street, by history--but he also always tried to really think about why he wanted to be liked. He wanted to get his mind wrapped around it, so he knew what was driving him and he could neutralize its power.
“You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes,” he asks rhetorically in Meditations, “the approval of people who despise themselves?”
It’s such a great point. Being liked seems important...for some it can seem like the most important thing in the world. Until you start to consider the people we seem to be so desperate to impress. Until you think about the silly things they are impressed by, and the amazing things they don’t “get.” Until you realize that they don’t even respect themselves. Then all of the sudden being liked feels almost...juvenile.
To be clear, the point of freeing yourself from this external burden isn’t to make it easier for you to be a selfish jerk. On the contrary, it’s to free you up to do the right things for the right reasons. Not to pursue virtue for praise, but for its own sake with no regard for whether we take heat for it later. Many great decisions are not popular, many brilliant innovations (and creative people) are poorly understood. Should they change for the sake of people who kick themselves? Or don’t understand themselves?
No. And neither should you. Do right—do your best—because it’s who you are. The rest doesn’t matter.
|Jan 21, 2020|
Everything is Figureoutable
We all have problems. We have an employee we can’t figure out how to motivate. We have a kid with behavioral issues. We have a job we want to leave, or a couch we want to get up a complicated flight of stairs. We have clients who ask for things that seem impossible and we have trouble fitting an exercise regimen into our busy lives.
What do we do with all this? How do we handle it?
We must repeat to ourselves a beautiful mantra from the writer and entrepreneur Marie Forleo: Everything is Figureoutable. Everything is Figureoutable. Everything is Figureoutable.
Because it’s true. The Stoics knew it was. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is filled with constant reminders that if he just slowed down and put his mind to it, he could figure just about anything out. Take it action by action, he wrote, no one can stop you from that. “Are there brambles in the path?” he asked, then go around. If it’s humanly possible, he said, then know that it’s possible for you. Think about Epictetus exhorting us to put each impression—each fear or worry—up to the test. It’s the same thing. Slow down, really look at it, figure out what to do next.
Nearly every problem has a solution. It’s just a fact. It might not be the solution you want, but there is a solution. In fact, that’s the essence of the idea that the obstacle is the way. Each problem presents you an opportunity to move forward, to improve. No one said this would be easy, or even that it would be fun, but it is a fact that there is always something you can do. The question is only whether you will do it or not.
Are there some utterly unsolvable problems in life? Like death? Or pi? Yes, sure, but Marcus Aurelius has that figured out too. As he said, those problems mark the end of all your other problems, too. So don’t worry about that. In the meantime, get to solving what you can.
Everything is figureoutable.
|Jan 20, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: The Stoic Response to Getting Your House Burgled, and more
|Jan 18, 2020|
When It Comes To Family, We Have To Be Kind
Marcus Aurelius’s step brother Lucius Verus was hardly a great man. Unlike Marcus, he was not as driven or as a smart. He was not always so diligent in his responsibilities. We hear that he liked to party. But still, Marcus loved his step-brother and not only found a role for him leading the troops, he celebrated his accomplishments as well, sometimes at the expense of his own. Would Marcus have treated his other generals so generously? Doubtful.
In Rome it was said that “not all men could be Catos” and that included Cato’s own brother, Caepio. Caepio was more Stoic than Lucius Verus, but he also loved luxury, at least compared to his brother. Did it bother Cato that his brother wore perfume? Would he have judged other men harshly for doing the same thing? Probably.
But as Bruce Springsteen put it in one of his greatest songs—“when it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way.” Is this Stoic? To hold people you love to different standards? To let them get away with things you wouldn’t do yourself? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s also life.
In Epictetus’s famous metaphor that “everything has two handles,” one which will hold weight and the other which will not, he actually references this exact kind of situation. You can choose to grab hold of the fact that something wrong has been done to you, or you can choose to grab hold of the fact that it was done by your brother, someone you were raised with, someone who loves you and has a good heart. Which one of those is a better handle?
Marcus Aurelius and Cato could have looked down on their brothers. Instead, they loved them. When Cato’s brother died, he told a friend he’d rather part with his life than his brother’s ashes. And they were willing to look away not just for brothers, but with all the people they lived with and were related to--regardless of the transgression. Marcus did this with his wife, who was rumored to be unfaithful, and of course with his son, who clearly went astray. Cato did this with his sister who had a torrid affair with Julius Caesar, his worst enemy.
We must be kind to our family. We must forgive. Because they are all we have. Like us, they are not perfect. Not by a long shot. In fact, they might be obnoxious or deeply flawed. But they are our blood. We share a past. If we want to share a future, we need to see what is good in them and encourage that. Up to a point of course, but now, let’s grab the kindness handle, the forgiveness handle.
Look for it, look for love...then look away.
|Jan 17, 2020|
All We Can Do Is Propose
There is a great expression: Man proposes, God disposes. You don’t have to be religious to understand or agree with it. It just means: All we can do is plan...then life intervenes.
Certainly, the Stoics built much of their philosophy around this humble but brilliant insight. Seneca spoke repeatedly of the power of Fortune to dash all our plans and intentions to pieces. All we could do was be ready—was prepare for a whole swath of possibilities. What we get from Marcus Aurelius was the idea that it’s better to accept what God—or the logos—disposes. To say to these sudden changes in plans, “Oh, actually, that’s what I wanted all along. It’s actually even better this way!”
That’s what Amor Fati is. A love of fate. An embracing of what happens, even if it is the exact opposite of what we proposed. Because it still presents its own opportunities. Whatever we have been deprived of by this swing of circumstances, we remain in possession of our character and our power to respond.
Today, what you’ve proposed may not come to pass. Your plans may well be dashed to pieces. And so? Shrug it off. It was never your call anyway—all you were entitled to was a request. Then the chips fell. Now you have to respond. And propose what you plan to do about it.
|Jan 16, 2020|
You Win Some, You Lose Some
Politics, like all contests, involves winners and losers. Cato lost elections, such as his first run for praetorship in 55 BCE and his run for consul in 51 BCE. Cicero lost some as well. James Stockdale lost in a landslide as Ross Perot’s running mate, after one of the worst drubbings in vice presidential debate history. As long as there have been Stoics running for office—from the days of ancient Greece through Rome and up to today—there have been Stoics who lost. The same is true for all Stoics for all time. Chrisyppius, the philosopher and distance runner, would have certainly lost races. There were Stoics who lost battles (Cato being one) and Stoics who lost deals or experienced crushing financial setbacks (Zeno being another).
How should a Stoic respond to such a loss? With humor, with determination, and with perspective.
Zeno, remarking on the fact that he had lost his entire fortune when a convoy of ships carrying his goods was wrecked, joked, “Thus Fortune did drive me to philosophy.” Other Stoics said less...they just kept going. They ran for the next public office, rebuilt their fortunes, retreated with their troops for the next battle. More recently, Mitt Romney, who lost to Barack Obama for the Presidency in 2012, captured the proper attitude as well, when asked by a reporter who seemed to assume he was still dwelling on that setback.
“My life is not defined in my own mind by political wins and losses,” Romney said. “You know, I had my career in business, I’ve got my family, my faith—that’s kind of my life, and this is something I do to make a difference. So, I don’t attach the kind of—I don’t know—psychic currency to it that people who made politics their entire life.”
But more than what he said, Romney seems to be living with the right attitude. In 2018, he ran for an open Senate seat in Utah and won it—taking office with a long list of things he wanted to accomplish, not for himself but for what he thinks his grandchildren will expect of his generation. As for becoming president? He’s got no need for higher office. He’s making do with what’s in front of him.
“I’m not in the White House. Tried for that job,” Romney said. “I didn’t get it. So all I can do from where I am is to say, ‘All right, how do we get things done from here?’”
It’s inevitable that we will lose in life. We’ll get passed over for the promotion. We’ll get beaten in the final game of the season. A competitor will take all in a winner-take-all market. The question for the Stoic is not “Why?” or “How come?” or “Isn’t life unfair?” It is simply: “Ok. What next?” It is, as Romney said, “How can I get things done from here?” It is: What will I do in response?
|Jan 15, 2020|
We Are All Equal At The End
"Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both." It is one of Marcus Aurelius’s most withering lines. The most powerful conqueror on earth was, Marcus implied, in the end, no better or no less mortal, than the man who drove his baggage cart.
It is a powerful point, particularly when one considers that, for thousands of years, we haven’t been sure what actually killed Alexander. He died mysteriously at age 32, far from home. Was he killed by his men in a mutiny? Did he have a type of typhoid? Or cirrhosis from alcoholism? No one knows.
One new theory has emerged, this time from health scientists in New Zealand, and it only further enhances Marcus's humbling analogy. The evidence points to the idea that Alexander was killed by a rare autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome that pits the body's immune system against its nervous system. It would have been excruciatingly painful and terrifying as Alexander was suddenly struck with a fever and sharp abdominal pains. Soon enough, he would be paralyzed and unable to speak. As his breathing slowed to next to nothing, his perplexed doctors and friends would pronounce him dead—even though he lived, frozen and alone, speechless and scared, for several more days. His men would cry at the sight of his body, which showed no signs of decay, believing it to be proof that he was a god. But Alexander was all too mortal. He was dying right there in front of them—unable even to cry for help or stop them from burying him alive. (You may remember a similar meditation we have on this very terrifying idea)
In a way, Marcus did not go far enough with his biting line. What happened to Alexander the Great was likely far worse than what happened to his mule driver—who, for all we know, may have died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by loved ones. No amount of money or fame or military achievement could insulate Alexander from this brutal stroke of fate. In the end, he was equal—or less than equal—to everyone else who ever lived. He died and he had no control over how.
The same is true for us. Being a billionaire or a four-star general doesn’t stop the growth of malignant cells into cancer. It won’t prevent your plane from crashing. It can’t change your genetics. And even if it does increase your lifespan, in the end, you end up in the same ground as everyone else.
We all end up as worm food, soon enough. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Let’s live and be good while we can.
|Jan 14, 2020|
The Kind of Opportunity You Should Always Say Yes To
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca both made no secret of their objection to escapism. They both spoke negatively of people who frittered their existence away, chasing one tourist destination after another. Seneca likened these folks to someone tossing and turning in bed, just trying to get comfortable. Meanwhile, they were sleeping their lives away. The only real retreat could be found by looking inward, Marcus said, by escaping into your own soul.
So you might think that the Stoics were homebodies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cato visited countless places across the vast expanse of the Roman empire. So did Panaetius and Cicero and Seneca. Marcus Aurelius traveled as far as Budapest, some 750 miles from Rome. When he said he was a citizen of the world, he meant it—for he had seen large swaths of it. It can hardly be said that he or any of the Stoics were overly inclined to stick close to home.
However, what the travels of all those Stoics tended to have in common is that they were mostly done as part of their official duties. Cato traveled to visit philosophers under whom he wanted to study. Cicero traveled for official postings in distant lands. “Life is warfare and a journey far from home,” Marcus wrote, likely from Carnuntum, a distant Roman fortress near the borders of present-day Austria and Slovakia. Unlike his stepfather Antoninus, who never left Italy, Marcus Aurelius was on the road a lot as Emperor. Although it wasn’t always pleasant, it undoubtedly influenced his philosophy and his world view. He could have sent someone else to inspect the troops on his behalf, but he chose to go. He almost always said “Yes” to the opportunity to explore and see places he hadn’t been to.
And so should you. Even if it’s only a trip to Akron or Tampa. Even if it means a multi-leg flight in coach. There is beauty everywhere. Things to learn everywhere. New perspectives everywhere. History everywhere. If the calls of duty and the road converge, count yourself lucky and go.
Like everything within Stoicism, balance and moderation remain key. Don’t ditch your family for the chance to attend an unnecessary conference in Vegas. Don’t neglect your work just because someone is offering you a companion ticket to who knows where. Don’t use traveling as an excuse to indulge bad habits or disrupt your daily rituals. But the world is an incredible place, and we have only a short term here, so when you get the chance to explore, take it!
|Jan 13, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: January 11, 2020
|Jan 11, 2020|
You Don’t Get To Not Care
There are a lot of tensions in Stoicism, as we have talked about before. How do you balance acquiescing to fate and embracing your own agency? How do you balance being aware of the dangers of the future without worrying about or fearing it? How do you think regularly of your own death without losing your taste for life?
But perhaps the most relevant tension today is the one about balancing a philosophical detachment from external events and our obligations to contribute to society and democracy. As the statesman Pericles said, “One person’s disengagement is untenable unless bolstered by someone else’s commitment.” If you decide not to vote because voting seems so statistically insignificant, or you ignore the injustice happening in the world because it doesn’t affect you, it make might your life a little more peaceful, but the result is an incremental increase in the suffering of others—whether that is the additional burden placed on others to carry your part of the load or an elongation of the injustice they are trying to ameliorate.
Every famine, every plague, every genocide, every repressive regime that has terrorized a part of the globe since the end of World War II and the reorganization of the world order, one could argue owes the length of its reign to just the kind of disengagement Pericles was talking about. Five years, ten years, thirty years—those numbers could have been halved, if they weren’t happening so far away that it didn’t affect us. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
Clearly, the Stoics believed that turning off noise and chatter was not in conflict with actively participating in civic life. How could Marcus have been emperor or Cato and Seneca senators if it were otherwise? In fact, what they would argue is that by choosing to ignore the trivial we free up energy to engage with and care about the essential. Yes, there is a lot going on in the world. Yes, a lot of it is outside of our control—or in the big scheme of things is very inconsequential. But this is not an excuse for apathy or for retreating exclusively into your private affairs.
We are all in this thing together. We are obligated to contribute to the common good. Because if we don’t...the whole thing falls apart. Not caring is privilege. Complete detachment is criminal self-indulgence. It is a rejection of our duty and our potential.
Speaking of which, there is a profound humanitarian crisis happening in the United States that,. no matter your views on immigration reform, we can all agree needs to be addressed—innocent children do not deserve to suffer. Currently, we have thousands of children being housed on American soil in abhorrent conditions — they have little access to adequate food, hygienic products, medical care, and safe places to sleep. Children are sick, traumatized, even dying. Click here to donate to any one of a number of charities and organizations that are doing work on the border to help those in need.
It’s our duty to help.
|Jan 10, 2020|
Here’s an Important Power You Have
The ask is just an ask, you know.
Whether they’re asking you to pass the salt or asking you for a hundred thousand dollar loan, whether they’re asking you what you weigh or if you can come in and work on Sunday, the ask is just the ask.
We decide that it’s offensive or presumptuous or rude.
That’s what Epictetus was saying when he observed that it’s not events that upset us, but our judgement about events. The request is objective—just words coming out of someone’s mouth. The opinion that it’s objectionable is just that. Your opinion.
We have to remember that we hold this power. We don’t need to get upset. We don’t need to be taken apart. We just need to realize that all someone has done is utter some words at us, and that we are free to ignore them, grant the request, or politely explain why we’re not interested.
Epictetus said that when we get offended—when we get upset and think, “How dare they?” or “Wow, that’s a huge imposition they just tried to foist on me”—we are complicit. We have chosen to be upset. We have chosen to hear or read the request that way.
We could have just let it go. We could have seen it for what it was—simply an ask. And then moved on. We have that power. We choose whether we exercise it or not.
|Jan 09, 2020|
Where Are They Now?
It’s a staple of entertainment shows and those clickbait-y links at the bottom of the page on news websites: Where are they now? What happened to those famous TV stars of your youth? You’ll never believe what so-and-so is up to today.
Funnily enough, Marcus Aurelius liked to play this game too. He’d say: Think about the emperors who came before you. Think about this famous conqueror or that notorious philosopher. Think of the wealthy or the powerful with their insatiable appetites and ambitions. Where are they now?
They’re dead. That’s what he’d say. They’re dead and gone and almost completely forgotten.
It’s a humbling thought, one that we could all be reminded of from time to time. Because the celebrity stories are skewed by the survivorship bias. The reporter either tells you about how so-and-so went on to huge stardom or how they struggled with addiction for years but are finally turning things around. Maybe the story tells you that the band broke up and now that rockstar is a school teacher in Cleveland. But inevitably, where they are now is “alive.” It’s never that the hard hand of fate took them from us too early. It’s never that international fame helped them beat cancer. It’s never that they got old, drifted into obscurity, passed away, and the world moved on.
But this happens and it is inexorable. No matter who we are or what we’re doing. We all, in our own way, with enough time, end up like the punchline in this Clickhole article: 7 Famous Dogs From The ’90s That Are Definitely Dead Now.
|Jan 08, 2020|
Try This Secret Roman Party Trick
The Greeks and the Romans were known for their parties. They threw huge ones. Seneca famously owned—not rented—three hundred ivory tables for entertaining. Imagine that. The ancients also knew how to drink. Cato liked to drink. So did Socrates. There’s no evidence that Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus and Seneca didn’t either
But the accounts of their drinking don’t square one to one with our modern times. You see, the Greeks and the Romans were famous for watering down their wine. In fact, anyone who didn’t water down their wine was considered barbaric—someone who was out of control. The poet Hesiod—a favorite of Marcus and Seneca and many of the Stoics—actually said that three parts water and one part wine was the proper ratio. Nobody but the drunks drank their alcohol neat.
For much of history the symbol of mixing water and wine has been a kind of symbol for that essential Stoic virtue that we talk about so much here: Moderation. Their wine was quite strong in those days, so to take this intoxicating but enjoyable pleasure and dilute it a bit? That was not only necessary, but it was an important metaphor.
It’s one we should think about today. What vices or indulgences do we have that we might “add a little water” to? Maybe if you drink soda, you can start mixing in some diet. Or if you like lemonade or tea, you can mix a little bit of sweetened into your unsweetened—rather than the other way around. Water down your television time by reading during the commercial breaks. Water down your night out with friends by listening to a podcast or an audiobook on the way out. Water down your workout regime with rest days. Water down your whirlwind love affair with time apart.
Moderation is key. Don’t overdo anything. Don’t take virtue or vice in its pure or unadulterated form. Balance. Soften. Enjoy.
|Jan 07, 2020|
All You Control is How You Play
It would be wonderful if teams didn’t cheat and refs always got the calls right. It’d be wonderful if people in the media knew what they were talking about and didn’t stake out positions just to be controversial or contrarian. It’d be wonderful if other politicians operated in good faith and put country above partisanship. It’d be wonderful if drivers were courteous and followed all the rules of the road.
But we know that this is simply not how things go. They never have, and they never will.
An athlete doesn’t control the weather or the conditions on the field. They only control how they play. A politician doesn’t control the game of politics, only how they choose to play it. We don’t control whether we get credit for our good deeds, or whether our hard work is noticed. We don’t control the economy. We don’t control whether we were born rich or poor. What we control is what we do in response. What you control is how you play.
You control how you play.
Not whether you win.
You control how you play.
Not if people like you.
You control how you play.
Not if the crowd cheers you on.
|Jan 06, 2020|
Ask Daily Stoic: January 4, 2020
|Jan 04, 2020|
Pain Is Self Chosen
“My pain is self-chosen,” Layne Staley sings on the melancholy Mad Season hit, River of Deceit. “At least I believe it to be.” That belief, the Stoics would concur, is well-founded. Pain is a choice.
Now before you get upset hearing that, wait a second. We’re not talking about physical pain. You don’t choose the stabbing pains from a knife wound or a back injury. It’s not your fault that cancer treatment is brutal, and no one is saying that people ask to be abused, physically or otherwise.
What the Stoics refer to as a chosen pain is the sense of being wronged. "Choose not to be harmed,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed—and you haven't been." He means that if you don’t feel like you’ve been singled out or screwed over, then were you? No, because that’s subjective. Just as it was subjective whether you thought the intention of this email was victim-blaming or whether you see it for what it is: a different way to think about the situations we find ourselves in throughout life.
Getting cut from a team—that’s objective. A sense that you were dealt a grave injustice? That isn’t. The resentment you decide to nurse for getting cut? That’s self-chosen pain. And choosing it usually comes at the expense of getting back to work and earning your spot (or changing teams so you’re no longer at the mercy of that capricious coach). Being born poor or dyslexic or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s not your fault. No one is disputing the realness of the pain that would cause. But what is less real—what’s chosen—is the chip you carry on your shoulder about it. So is deciding to lay down and quit. Or to focus on who you can blame.
|Jan 03, 2020|
You Become What You Practice
The Stoics were all about routine and repetition. It wasn’t just about knowing what the right thing was, it was about doing it daily. Fueling the habit bonfire, they said. It was about creating muscle memory.
Epictetus said that philosophy was something that should be kept at hand every day and night. Indeed, the title of his book Enchiridion actually means “small thing in hand,” or handbook. Seneca, for his part, talked about repeatedly diving back into the great texts of history—rather than chasing every new or exciting thing published. We quoted him on that exact idea last week. “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works,” he said, “if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.”
One of the reasons we wrote The Daily Stoic was to help accomplish just that. We thought it was pretty remarkable that despite more than two thousand years of popularity, no one had ever put the best of the Stoics in one book—let alone one that was easy to carry, read and study. It’s been pretty incredible to see the success it’s had since its release in 2016, having now sold well over a half million copies in more than a dozen languages. The book has spent more weeks on the bestseller list than any other book about Stoicism ever. In celebration of that—to help encourage another year of Stoicism for you and everyone you know, the ebook is $1.99 in the US (and on sale in the UK) for the next week if you haven’t picked one up yet!
Of course, the success of the book is a reflection of the power of Stoic teachings more than anything else. But it’s also a testament to the power of combining the right idea with the right medium. Marcus Aurelius was a brilliant mind and a beautiful writer, but his Meditations is not organized in any coherent way. While Marcus acknowledges many other Stoics, including Epictetus, neither Marcus nor Epictetus acknowledge Seneca in the writings they left, even though Epictetus was also in proximity to Nero’s court at the same time. What we have from Epictetus is really a collection of quotes and highlights from his lectures jotted down by his student Arrian, and what we have of Arrian’s work is only half of what originally existed. Just ploughing straight through those writings is, for many, not the best way to digest the philosophy—it’s almost un-Stoic in its disorderliness.
Good practice is not random. It is organized. Stoicism is designed to be a practice and a routine. It’s a lifelong pursuit that requires diligence and repetition and concentration. (Pierre Hadot called it spiritual exercising). That’s one of the benefits of the page-a-day (with monthly themes) format we organized the Stoics into (and the weekly themes in The Daily Stoic Journal). It’s putting one important thing up for you to review—to have at hand—and to fully digest. Every single day over the course of a year, and preferably year in and year out. It's something you’re supposed to keep within reach at all times—which is why a collection of the greatest hits, presented daily, was so appealing to us.
So here we are, beginning 2020, and we hope you’ll give The Daily Stoic a chance, in print or with this discounted ebook. And that you’ll pick up journaling with The Daily Stoic Journal or some other notebook. Because if 2020 is anything like 2019, you’re going to need it.
|Jan 02, 2020|
All We Control Is The Beginning of Things
Clearly the Stoics were doers. They ran for public office. They fought in the army. They started business ventures. They created artistic works. How can this fit, though, with what Marcus called “the art of acquiescence?” Isn’t this resignation a contradiction? If you believe in a kind of predetermination, why bother?
Perhaps the way through this puzzle is best captured in a quote from Democritus, a pre-Socratic philosopher admired by the Stoics (Seneca most of all). Democritus said, “Boldness is the beginning of action. But fortune controls how it ends.”
What that means is that the Stoic believes in their power to, say, write a book, but not in their power to determine whether people will like it or buy a lot of copies of it. A Stoic will fight bravely in battle but know that the outcome is determined by so many other things. They will run for office, they will start a business, they will compete in an athletic event—but whether they win? That’s not up to them. Whether they give it their best, boldest, and hardest effort? Well, that is.
That’s the message for today—in fact, it’s the perfect message for today, as we begin a new year and a new decade. All we control are the beginnings of things. We control how we start. We control our first move. Whether we say hello to a pretty stranger, but not whether they reciprocate. We can make the pitch, or the apology, but fortune controls whether its accepted. We can plan the trip, but not when or if we arrive. We control this first minute of the long year ahead.
It’s not a lot...but it’s enough, so let’s do it right. Let’s do it boldly.
|Jan 01, 2020|
Do Not Ignore This Warning
In Greek mythology, the god Apollo curses the Trojan princess, Cassandra, with the power of accurate prophecy that will always be ignored. In Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, Cassandra is brought back to Greece after the capture of Troy as one of the great spoils of war. Unlike Agamemnon, who is happy to be home, Cassandra predicts ominous deaths for both herself and her new master.
“I know that odor,” she says, “I smell the open grave.” She warns him that death is near, but he won’t listen. Agamemnon ignores the obvious signs and walks right into a trap—taking her with him. Soon enough, they are both murdered by Clytemnestra, his jealous, cheating wife.
Cassandra might not be real, but the essential truth of her warning to Agamemnon is real enough: Memento mori. The grave is dug and waiting for each us. We know this, it was prophesied to us at birth—that one day we would die—and yet we go around living as if that isn’t true. We spend our time as if we have an infinite amount of it, as if someone isn’t waiting to steal our kingdom like Clytemnestra.
A new year sits before us, but how many of us are holding our noses? Plugging our ears? Closing our eyes? Pretending as if we know for certain that we have plenty more left. Blithely acting as if nothing threatens us, as if we can afford to be entitled and unprepared. As Marcus said, we could leave life right now. We could leave life this week, this year, this morning. Are you ready? Have you been living with that in mind? Or have you been in denial?
Do not wait for the doctor to deliver the prophecy to you a second time: You have cancer. You have leukemia. We’re not able to stop the bleeding. It will be too late when you hear these words. You’ll never get back what you wasted.
Don’t ignore Cassandra’s warning. Do not doom yourself to a rude awakening—or rather a very rude and sudden sleep. Be ready. Be prepared. Listen. Live. While you still can.
|Dec 31, 2019|
You Have To Do What You Think Is Right
There will come a moment in your life when you are faced with an important decision that appears to have two choices: one that feels like the status quo, the path of least resistance, the way things have always been done.
And then there is the one that appeals to you most. The exciting one; the new, risky one. The one that, if you make it, people are going to think you’re crazy.
They’re going to think you’re stupid.
Think of your career, they’ll say. You worked so hard to get here.
You can’t listen to that. You can’t listen to the mob or to the doubters. You can’t look at the averages or concern yourself with the odds. If it’s right, Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, you have to do it. No matter the circumstances. No matter the fear. No matter the well-wishers who hope you’ll choose a safer path.
History is made by those who take risks. Who stand on principle. Who defy expectations and conventional wisdom. The battles are won by those who are willing to go further, to go alone, to do it a way it’s never been done before.
You have to do what you think is right. For you. For your family. For your country. For what you believe in.
The rest doesn’t matter.
|Dec 30, 2019|
Ask Daily Stoic: December 28, 2019
|Dec 28, 2019|
Tell Yourself: This Is All Worth It
Even if you’re not a college basketball fan, you may have heard about this incredible upset in 2018, when top-ranked University of Virginia was defeated by University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the first time in the tournament’s 80 year history that a number 16 seed beat a number one seed. Virginia had been the favorite to win the entire 68-team tournament, and then the biggest of underdogs came in and surprised everyone, pulling off one of the greatest victories in sports history.
The Virginia loss ruined millions of brackets and could very well have ruined one man’s career. As one local Virginia newspaper put it, Virginia and head coach Tony Bennett “will be remembered in years, perhaps decades, to come, for becoming the first No. 1 seed...to lose to a No. 16 seed. That stain,” the article continued, “does not easily, if ever, wash away.”
Maybe you’ve experienced a loss or a setback like that in your life. Maybe it’s worrying about that kind of failure that keeps you up at night--and keeps you out of big-time moments. God, we think, I hope that never happens to me. But that’s not how Bennett saw it. He decided to accept it—to take the hit. Because that’s all you can do, if you want to play on the biggest stages, at the highest levels, and test yourself against the best.. As he explained in a press conference after the game:
That's life. We talk about it all the time...If you play this game, and you step into the arena, this stuff can happen...And all those who compete take that on. And so we'll accept it.
That’s the first part. The Stoics knew you had acquiesce to misfortune, to the reality of life. If you play the game, sometimes you’ll lose. Sometimes you’ll lose big. What matters is what you do next. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, perhaps after one of his failures, “If you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself—another piece of what you’re trying to assemble.”
The second part is beyond acceptance. It’s amor fati. It’s deciding to love what happened, to realize it was meant for you. Because it’s teaching you something. It’s leading you somewhere and preparing you for something...if you let it. For Coach Bennett, that was winning the national championship the following year. That’s right, Coach Bennett and his University of Virginia Cavaliers went from being the basketball world’s biggest goats in 2018, to “The GOAT” in 2019. As Coach Bennett explained in a recent speech:
"All of the ridicule, all of the criticism, all the humility, all the things that happened, at that moment, it was crystal clear that it was all worth it...If you learn to use failure, suffering, adversity right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way."
Acceptance. Amor Fati. That’s the recipe, that’s the right way to use adversity. That’s life. It’s buying us a ticket to a place we wouldn’t have gone any other way, but now that we’re here, let us get the most out of it.
Accept it. Love it. Use it. It’ll take you somewhere great.
|Dec 27, 2019|
Here is a Pleasure You Can Have Anytime
The Stoics did not reject worldly pleasures. They rejected the reckless ones. The dangerous, ephemeral ones. The Stoics were not afraid of joy. They just wanted to earn it.
Epictetus loved to quote Socrates: “Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.”
Delight! Not a word you’d expect from Epictetus, but there it is. And to be found in such an unexpected way. Not in material things. Not in a hobby. But in oneself—in improving oneself.
We can imagine Marcus Aurelius actually having fun while writing his Meditations, because he was attending to his own development. The same goes for Seneca as he did his crazy philosophical practices, whether it was diving into a freezing fountain at the beginning of the new year or living frugally to prepare himself for changes in fortune. Cato took real pleasure in challenging himself—to walk barefoot and bareheaded, to sleep on the ground with his soldiers, to dress simply and to work hard.
And so can you. We can become our own hobby. We can become our own source of satisfaction. The economy determines what we can do professionally, but no one can stop us from working on ourselves personally. Nor can anyone or anything take away the pleasure we earn by getting better day by day.
This is just one of the reasons we’ve set up our New Year New You Challenge, which starts in just six days. Now’s your chance to commit to attending to your own improvement in 2020 and to experience the joy and rewards that come from challenging yourself.
|Dec 26, 2019|
Always Focus on the Response
It was December 25th, 1776. One of the darkest times in the American Revolution. George Washington was planning to cross the Delaware, a desperate move necessitated by a string of setbacks and ebbing support for the revolution across his struggling country.
Whose fault was this despair? How had things gone so poorly?
Washington wasn’t interested in those questions. As he wrote in a letter to Robert Morris from his headquarters that day, “it is in vain to ruminate upon, or even reflect upon the Authors or Causes of our present Misfortunes.” Instead of looking backwards, Washington said, “we should rather exert ourselves,” meaning they should focus on how they were going to respond. His response was a daring attack on the Hessian Troops in Trenton the next day, which may well have saved his army and the floundering nation.
This mindset is part and parcel of the Stoicism that Washington had known and followed all of his life. Looking at events in the calm light of mild philosophy, as he liked to quote from the Stoic philosopher Cato, deciding not to be ruled by his phantasai and instead focusing on what he’d do next. And that’s what we should take a minute to think about this Christmas, whether we’re busy working or taking some time with family or planning out how we’re going to use 2020 for a fresh start.
Not what caused our troubles. Not who authored them. Not how much blame they deserve. Those questions are irrelevant distractions—answering them an exercise done only in vain. What matters is how we plan to exert ourselves, how we plan to fix our situation, how we plan to respond to what life has thrown at us. Whether it’s a passive aggressive family member, a struggling business, or a series of bad personal choices, we have the power to decide what we’re going to do next.
We can exert ourselves. We can still turn this around.
|Dec 25, 2019|
This is a Day About Love
Here we are on Christmas Eve once again. The last couple of years, we took time during this holiday to look at the beautiful symmetry between two of the greatest philosophers to ever live: Jesus and Seneca.
It’s incredible to think that these two men were born in the same year, in similarly distant provinces of the Roman empire. Few would have expected the impact that both would have on the world. Nor would Seneca or Jesus have imagined how their journeys would mirror each others’: Both would be immensely popular in their own time, and long after. Both would run afoul of the powerful interests of their time. Both would be forced, in their final moments, to live their teachings—Jesus, on the cross, asking for forgiveness for the people who had wronged him. Seneca as he comforted his friends and family when Nero’s goons came to demand his suicide. Tacitus would note how long ago Seneca had made plans for such an ordeal, writing that “even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life’s close.” So too had Jesus.
Because, despite their brilliance and their blessings, both these men—like us—were mortal.
We could spend hours sitting and thinking about the remarkable similarities between Jesus and Seneca...and them and us. As much as life has changed in two thousand years, as unique and unprecedented as their circumstances were, it’s not that different than our lives today.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing to spend some time thinking about tonight. Rather than focusing on what presents you’re going to get tomorrow, try to think of what you’re going to do with the gifts you were born with. Instead of thinking about what you’re going to eat, think about all the people without anything at all. Don’t think about your vacation. Think of this present moment, because it’s all you have.
Take a minute to sit with some of the ideas from those two great men and what they learned about life and love:
“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” —Jesus
“Nature bore us related to one another … She instilled in us a mutual love and made us compatible … Let us hold everything in common; we stem from a common source. Our fellowship is very similar to an arch of stones, which would fall apart, if they did not reciprocally support each other.” —Seneca
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” —Jesus
“Hecato, says: ‘I can show you a philtre, compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch's incantation: If you would be loved, love.’ Now there is great pleasure.” —Seneca
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” —Jesus
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” —Seneca
Whether you’re a Christian or a Stoic, today is a good day to remember that these ideas are not just something to “believe.” They’re something you do. You have to put the words, whether they are Seneca’s or Jesus’, to work. You have to live them.
Not just with your crazy family, not just on Christmas, but every day of your life.
|Dec 24, 2019|
You Must Commit to This Task This Next Year
As a new year is about to begin, many of us are thinking about how we’d like to get healthier, wealthier, and wiser over the next twelve months. Of course, to the Stoics, what really mattered was that final bucket—getting wiser. Understanding yourself and the world better was their primary focus.
So if your goal is to get smarter this year, where will you start? For most people, the obvious answer is books. A lot of people begin the year committing to read a certain number of books. I am going to read 50 books this year. I am finally going to finish the entire works of Howard Zinn. Once again, the Stoics might urge caution.
They would encourage you to begin this year by committing not to read widely, but read deeply. To dive into a handful of the wisest texts and come to know the authors like you had lived with them. As Seneca advised Lucilius in one of his letters:
You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere...And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner...There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.
Today, with 2020 bearing down on us, we are encouraging you to follow that timeless wisdom. Listen to David McCullough’s advice, too. “Study a masterpiece,” he says, “take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again.”
While we’d never claim that The Daily Stoic is a masterpiece, it is one of those books you can return to again and again. It’s designed that way, in fact. (It’s also on sale for $1.99 on Amazon in the US right now, and on sale in the UK as well). Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom is similar. One page a day, every day, for a year. It’s an awesome format, one not used often enough.
But you could also break down Seneca’s letters this way—read one letter a day. Or one passage from Marcus each morning. Or one poem from Emily Dickinson each day. Or one page of the Bible each evening before bed. For thousands of years, the Jewish people have divided up the Torah in what they call Parashat ha-Shavua (portion of the week) to be read aloud at synagogue, so that the entire Torah can be cycled through annually.
A new year sits before you. Use it wisely. Commit to read deeply and regularly. It will change you over the next fifty two weeks...and then January 1st next year, if you’re still here, you can start again as a new person and be changed once more.
|Dec 23, 2019|
Ask Daily Stoic: Dec 21, 2019
|Dec 21, 2019|
Remember: You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But You Can’t Make It Drink
There is a fascinating statue of Seneca and Nero done by the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Barrón in 1904. Even though it depicts a scene centuries after the fact, it manages to capture the timeless elements of the two men’s characters. Seneca, well into old age, sits with his legs crossed, draped in a beautiful toga but otherwise unadorned. Spread across his lap and onto the simple bench is a document he's written. Maybe it's a speech. Maybe it's a law being debated by the Senate. Maybe it's the text of his essay and warning to Nero, Of Clemency. His fingers point to a spot in the text. His body language is open. He is trying to teach. He is wisdom embodied, hoping to instill in his young charge the seriousness of the tasks before him.
Nero, sitting across from Seneca, is nearly the opposite of his advisor in every way. He is hooded, sitting in a throne-like chair. A fine blanket rests behind him. He's wearing jewelry. His expression is sullen—both fists are clenched and one rests on his temple as if he can't bring himself to pay attention. He is looking down at the ground. His feet are tucked behind him, crossed at the ankles. He knows he should be listening, but he isn't. He'd rather be anywhere else. Soon enough, he is thinking, I won’t have to endure these lectures. Then I’ll be able to do whatever I want.
Seneca can clearly see this body language, and yet he proceeds. He proceeded for many years, in fact. Why? Because he hoped some of it—any of it—would get through. Because he knew the stakes were high. Because he knew his job was to try, and he was going to die trying (indeed, he did) to teach Nero to be good.
In the end, Seneca made only minimal impact on Nero, a man who was clearly deranged and had little interest in being a good emperor. Seneca lost much of his reputation in the process of working for Nero (criticism which has merit). But another way to see this exchange—and perhaps that’s what Eduardo Barron intended—is that it’s an illustration of a Stoic lesson: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. You control what you do and say, not whether people listen.
All a Stoic can do is show up and do our work. And we have to keep showing up, even if we are rebuffed, scorned, or ignored. Because the work is important.
|Dec 20, 2019|
Just Shrug It Off Pt 2
Epictetus tells us the story of a Stoic philosopher named Agrippinus, who, during Nero’s reign, was delivered some awful news one morning: He was exiled. Effective immediately. Agrippinus’s response? “Very well, we shall take our lunch in Aricia.”
Meaning: We might as well get this show on the road. No use bemoaning or weeping about it. Hey, is anyone else hungry?
That’s how a Stoic responds—they shrug off the emotional weight of even the worst news. They have humor about it. They focus on what they can control and they let go of everything outside of it. Like Agrippinus, like Walker Percy did, like you can if you put in the work. If you practice, if you rehearse, if you steel yourself for the fact that life inevitably will deliver these moments to us.
Being exiled. Finding out you got fired. Hearing that your computer just deleted a year of hard work. Being informed that you just lost the election. None of that is fun. It’s often unfair. You can let it crush you. You can fall to your knees and tear out your hair.
Or you can shrug it off, and start thinking about lunch.
It’s your call.
|Dec 19, 2019|
You Must Train The Coward Inside You
There's a long-standing connection between philosophy and soldiering. Marcus Aurelius, Cato, Socrates, and many other philosophers were all soldiers. James Stockdale, whose A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Vietnam, was too. As he recounts: “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.’” It turned out to be seven years in a Vietnamese prison, and he credited Stoicism with saving his life.
That’s what Stoicism was built for. It teaches us to—as they say in the military—“embrace the suck” and find security and peace even in the midst of warfare and crisis. Nick Palmisciano, CEO of Ranger Up and former Infantry Officer in the United States Army, discovered Stoicism at a young age and, like Stockdale, credits it with helping him get through some tremendously tough situations. Nick details many of them in our interview with him for DailyStoic.com. The thread, what Stoicism taught him and what he continues to cultivate, is about being comfortable with suffering:
Everyone has a breaking point. For most people, that point is very low, which is why many people never push themselves past their comfort zone. The military demands suffering. It provides you with increased opportunity to suffer at every turn...The guys we revere are the guys that have suffered the most... And the dirty little secret is that everyone has a coward inside them, and if you really want to be tough, and I mean that both physically and mentally, you have to push that coward to the breaking point and then push past it every day. You have to embrace suffering.
Epictetus as a slave, Stockdale as a prisoner of war, Zeno shipwrecked—if you go down the list of Stoics, you find story after story of tremendous resilience in the face of tremendous misfortune. You also find that it’s never some innate superpower. It’s trained. “But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once,” Epictetus said. “He must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself.”
Nick continues to train in jiu jitsu, not because it will help with combat but “to get my suffering in and push the coward inside me past my breaking point.” That’s our challenge to you today: get out of your comfort zone, push the coward inside you, embrace suffering. Get it on the calendar. Undergo hardship voluntarily. Then, you will be better prepared for life’s involuntary hardships.
|Dec 18, 2019|
Blame Yourself—Or No One
The causes of things are complicated, and rarely do they go how we’d like them to go. So it’s easy to point the finger—at other people, at unfair conditions, at the weather, at the advice we got. If it hadn’t been for _______, I’d have won. Why did so-and-so have to get involved like that? It’s all _______’s fault.
And yet, the causes of things are also quite simple—at least according to the Stoics. Because to them, the fault always lies with us. We’re the one who chose to listen to that advice, they’d say. We’re the one who left the outcome up to chance, who didn’t plan for all the contingencies. We’re the one whose expectations set us up to be disappointed.
Marcus Aurelius’s rule was: Blame yourself—or blame no one. It’s the other side of the idea we were talking about not long ago, that the only place to look for approval is within yourself. The same goes for disapproval and fault-finding. As soon as you try to get it from other people, you’ve compromised your integrity. You’ve handed over your power.
So either don’t blame anyone...or blame yourself. For whatever happens. For everything that happens. Those are the options.
|Dec 17, 2019|
A New Year is a New Opportunity
We are what our choices make us. Do we walk the fifteen minutes to work, or do we take an Uber? Hit the snooze button, or get up early? Do we have the difficult conversation, or hide from it? Is good enough really good enough?
Will you resolve to be better this year? Or just stay the same?
It’s your choice. And what you choose is who you are.
The Stoics believed that a beautiful life was the result of beautiful decisions. They also believed that the only way to freedom, to strength, to wisdom, was through continual effort.
“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident,” Epictetus said, “but by working on yourself daily.”
The question for you today, then—and really, for this upcoming year as well—comes down to one word: When?
To quote Epictetus again: How much longer are you going to wait to demand the best of and for yourself?
Because life is short. The time is now. And gains are cumulative.
The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll see results, the further you’ll end up going.
For the last two years, we have been doing what we call “challenges” and, on January 1st, we’re starting again with a new challenge for the new year—and for a new you. We’re calling it the Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge, and it’s designed to help you do exactly what Epictetus was talking about, and what we have spent so much time talking about in these emails: Take action on becoming the person you know you’re capable of being.
It would be easy to let December bleed into January, to let 2020 meander and stultify just as you did with 2019. But that’s not what Stoicism is about. That’s not what you want to be about. Instead, we must seize the moment. We must seek out challenges.
That’s why we created this 21-day Stoic challenge: to do just that—to help you create a better life, and reshape a new you here at the start of a new decade that is set to reshape the world.
The Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge is a set of 21 actionable challenges, presented one per day, built around the best, most timeless wisdom in Stoic philosophy. 21 challenges designed to set up potentially life-changing habits for 2020 and beyond, that will help you become the kind of person you know you are capable of being—the kind that can handle any of the uncertainty and difficulty and opportunity that the next year and the next decade are sure to throw at us.
Some people are going to hire a personal trainer in January. Others will hire a nutritionist or a life coach. You have the chance to get step-by-step instruction and encouragement from three of the greatest thinkers in history: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
We’ll tell you what to do, how to do it, and why it works. We’ll give you strategies for maintaining this way of living not just for this coming year, but for your whole life.
What is getting rid of one bad habit worth? What would you give to add a new positive way of being into your daily routine? What would you give to be a positive person? And how great would it be to become a part of a community—part of a tribe—of people just like you, struggling and growing and making that satisfying progress towards the kind of personal reinvention that produces the kind of human beings they never knew they could one day be?
Well, here’s your chance.
|Dec 16, 2019|
Ask Daily Stoic
The first Saturday Q&A episode. In each of these episodes, Ryan will answer questions from fans about Stoicism. You can also find these videos on the Daily Stoic YouTube channel.
|Dec 14, 2019|
Why You Should Help Others
In his fascinating biography, The House of Percy, Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes a beautiful scene involving William Alexander Percy, the son of a senator, a poet, and lifelong student of the Stoics. Percy is sitting on a hill looking down into the ruins of an ancient Greek amphitheatre, thinking of Marcus Aurelius.
“Though pagan,” Wyatt-Brown writes, “the Stoics recognized the brotherhood of man. The greatest virtue was helping others for one’s own sake and peace of mind as well as theirs. Justice, goodness of heart, duty, courage, and fidelity to fellow creatures, great and lowly, were abstractions requiring no divine authority to sustain them; they were worth pursuing on their own.”
This observation contains a lot, so it’s worth unpacking. First, it’s clear that this scene is one of those wonderful moments of sympatheia. William, sitting there by himself in nature, is suddenly reminded of his connection to other people and his role in this larger ecosystem that is the world. We need to seek out these moments because they humble and empower us simultaneously. Next, what does he mean by pagan or divine authority? The author is making an important point about Stoicism. Most religions tell us to be good because God said so. Or they tell us not to be bad because God will punish us. Stoicism is different. While not incompatible with religion, it makes a different case for virtue: A person who lives selfishly will not go to hell. They will live in hell. And both these points are related to the final and most important part: We are all connected to each other, and to help others is to help ourselves. We are obligated to serve and to be of service.
The Percys are a great example of a family that did this. Despite being wealthy, they served in politics. Despite being white and from Mississippi, they fought to keep the Klan out of their hometown. When the Flood of 1927 hit, the Percys saved thousands of lives. When William’s cousin died, he adopted his three second cousins. Because the family was duty-bound. Because they believed they were part of a brotherhood of man. Because it was worth doing for its own sake.
And so it goes for us.
|Dec 13, 2019|
How to Raise Your Kids Like Seneca Did
Although we know nearly nothing about Seneca’s family life or how his children turned out, we know at least that he gave good advice. We know that as a wealthy, powerful, and famous man, the deck was stacked against him. These are corrosive, corrupting influences, particularly on children. Yet it was clearly quite important to Seneca to raise a normal kid—and to encourage everyone else to do the same thing.
Below is some advice from Seneca on parenting:
Seneca understood that parenting is a balancing act. You want your kids to be confident but not obnoxious. To feel special but not entitled. Comfortable but not spoiled. You want them to be happy, but also know how to handle disappointment and rejection. To not have to struggle but know how to overcome. To be self-sufficient, but also know how to be a team player. To be carefree, but also value hard work.
For us, that means we must always keep in mind the end goal, not just what will make this moment easier for them or for you. Assess each situation and strike a balance so your kid will too.
|Dec 12, 2019|
Don’t Be a Fool
There are lots of ways to spot a foolish person. They say dumb things. They make unforced errors. They make the same unforced error over and over again. You tend to recognize one when you see one.
Seneca, quoting Epicurus, had a good test: “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also—he is always getting ready to live.”
Indeed, just about the most foolish thing you can hear—coming from someone else or coming out of your own mouth—are the words: “Some day, I’ll…” “When I’m older I hope to…” “I’m not ready right now but…” “If I ever finish this, then I’ll...”
What makes you think you have that luxury? What makes you think you’ll have the time? Forget about issues of self-worth and status and dues-paying for a moment. From a practical perspective, you can’t get ready for something that’s already here. And that’s what life is. It’s right now. Right this second.
Don’t be a fool. Live today. Be the best you can be now.
|Dec 11, 2019|
Why You Should Do Your Own Writing
There is something strange you find when you study the early Stoics. Not Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus, but the Stoics who influenced them. The names you don’t hear much: Cleanthes. Posidonius. Panaetius. Aristo. Antipater. Chrysippus. What you find—beside the fact that these were living, breathing, human beings with all sorts of interesting experiences—is that you start to notice just how big a role they played in the shaping of the classic Stoic texts we know and love.
For instance, the interesting analogy about how a philosopher should be like a wrestler—a fighter dug in for sudden attacks—that Marcus Aurelius famously makes in Meditations? That actually originates from Panaetius, a Stoic philosopher from the 2nd century BCE that Marcus studied. There are allusions to the insights of Aristo and Antipater and Chryssippus in Seneca. A deep dive into Epictetus shows not only how he was influenced by Zeno, but reveals how many unattributed quotations of Epictetus appear in Marcus Aurelius!
So what is this philosophy then? Just a bunch of people repeating the same old insights? Hardly. Remember, Stoicism is a practice, not merely a set of principles. The act of sitting down and journaling—writing and rewriting—about ideas from the earlier Stoics is a kind of meditative experience. It’s almost like a prayer. It’s what transforms an epigram into a mantra...and then later into action when it counts.
Besides, have we not learned from music how powerful and creative the art of remixing can be? It’s in this writing and rewriting that each successive generation of Stoics was able to come up with new insights and further refine the philosophy (a tradition that continues today with writers all over the world). Blaise Pascal, whose book Pensées is eerily similar in tone and style and content to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, puts it well when he writes, “Let no one say that I have said nothing new, the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players use the same ball, but one plays it better."
Today, your job is to sit down and do some writing—using this old material. Sit down with The Daily Stoic Journal. Sit down on Twitter and put some quotes in your own language. Riff on the ideas with your kids. Write a reminder to yourself on your phone. Pick up the ball and play with it. Practice the philosophy.
|Dec 10, 2019|
Remember: You’re Just Passing Through
Reputation is a powerful thing. The desire to keep it, maintain it, to not betray it, was a force that made someone like Cato unstoppable. On the other hand, the desire to make it—to have a name that people know—can just as easily be a kind of deceiving, seductive distraction. Marcus Aurelius warned against chasing fame, because of how worthless it was and how easily it could be achieved by ignoble means. Yet that’s precisely what motivates most of us: We want to do great things so people will think we’re great, so they’ll remember us for forever.
Blaise Pascal sounds like he was channeling Marcus and the Stoics when he pointed out that we “do not care about our reputation in towns where we are only passing through.” Isn’t that what life is? Aren’t we all just passing through? Some of us for a little longer than others, of course, but none of us are truly here to stay.
Realizing that what other people think about you is not important—because we’re all just passing through—is freeing. It’s not a hall pass for bad behavior. On the contrary, it frees you to do the right thing regardless of the criticism that may come from it. It frees you from the petty squabbles and gossip of the town you’re in and lets you think about what really matters. In the end, we suspect that’s what Cato was actually doing. That people happened to respect him in his own time, that his unbending moral strength earned him fame that survived far beyond his life—that was not the end goal. The goal was doing the right thing and not giving a damn what other people thought. If they’d showered him with stones instead of praise, he’d have kept doing what needed to be done.
Because what should he care—what should you care—of the opinions of people in a town you’re only passing through?
|Dec 09, 2019|
On a Long-Enough Timeline, We Are All Blips
Here’s an interesting exercise. Pull up a Spotify playlist for hits from the ‘90s. Or turn on a satellite radio station built around that time. As you listen to the songs, note how many you recognize and how many you’ve never heard of. Now go back an era or two and do the same thing for the ‘80s or for the second wave of classic rock. Then do it again for real oldies. As you keep going backwards, the familiarity will fall further and further away until you’ve heard none of the “hit” songs before—and all the “famous” names sound strange or even made up.
The point of this stroll through music history is not nostalgia or even about discovering some forgotten greats. It’s a reminder of how ephemeral we all are. How fleeting fame and life is.
Words once in common use now sound archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus...Scipio and Cato...Augustus...Hadrian and Antoninus and..everything fades so quickly, turns into legend and soon oblivion covers it.
He points out something that is worth noting about the music we just flipped through as well: The names we no longer recognize are the most famous ones, the ones who shone for at least a few minutes. The vast majority of people, of art that’s made, of events that happen, are “unknown, unasked-for" and don’t even get this. They were not even blips, they were less than blips.
The lesson from this, as with so many Stoic lessons, is humility. We are not nearly as important as we think we are—and even if we are important, the passage of time is an unforgiving leveler. The other lesson is about priorities. If all fame is fleeting, if even the most accomplished and most influential—the writers of the biggest hits and the owners of the greatest songs of their time—are eventually forgotten, why chase it? Why let it make you miserable—why let getting it make you miserable, or not having it make you miserable?
Why not focus on right now? On living the life you have as best you can?
|Dec 06, 2019|
Don’t Blend In. Stand Up and Stand Out.
In a famous exchange—which we wrote about a while back—Agrippinus explained why he was spurning an invitation to attend some banquet being put on by Nero. Not only was he spurning it, he said, but he had not even considered associating with such a madman.
A fellow philosopher, the one who had felt inclined to attend, asked for an explanation. Agrippinus responded with an interesting analogy. He said that most people see themselves like threads in a garment—they see it as their job to match the other threads in color and style. They want to blend in, so the fabric will match. But Agrippinus did not want to blend in. “I want to be the red,” he said, “that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful…’Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?” He wanted to be red even if it meant being beheaded or exiled. Because he felt it was right. Because he wouldn’t be anything other than his true self.
It’s like Mark Twain’s line: When we find ourselves on the side of the majority, we should pause and reflect. Because it means we might be going along with the mob. We might have turned off our own mind. We might be muting our true colors.
Our job as philosophers, as thinkers, as citizens, is not to go along to get along. We are not just another replaceable thread in an otherwise unremarkable garment. Our job is to stand up. To stand out. To speak the truth. To never blend in.
And in so doing, we make the most beautiful contribution of all.
|Dec 05, 2019|
You Are Part of a Team (Whether You Know It Or Not)
One question you hear the comedian Marc Maron ask a lot of standups and actors at the beginning of his interviews is: Who did you come up with? Who were your guys? By that he means, who were the comedians starting out around the same time as you? Who was there at the beginning with you?
It’s interesting how almost every one of Maron’s guests seems to be part of some kind of a cohort of fellow comedians or performers who cut their teeth in the same clubs or the same theaters at the same time. You can look at their careers and see how many of them got big breaks around the same time, and developed their careers along similar lines. There might have been some cutthroat competition between them, but as the years passed, it became clear that they all shared a common origin, almost as if they were part of the same graduation class.
In a way, this is just another illustration of that Stoic concept of sympatheia. That, whether we know it or not, we’re all on some kind of team, all part of some collective that is much bigger than us. It’s easy to lose sight of this, of course, when we are fighting for the #1 spot or trying to get noticed, but that’s only because each of us is naturally self-obsessed. But anyone with some distance, anyone in the audience or in the press, can’t miss it: We are shaping the scene we are in, just as it is shaping us. Our fate is bound up with other people—and their gain is not our loss. Quite the contrary, we each help each other—and help the world—when we excel and fulfill our potential.
We are all part of a scene. We all came up—and are coming up—with a cohort. Even the truly innovative mavericks did (Elon Musk, for instance, comes from the so-called PayPal Mafia). Try to spend some time thinking about that today. What scene are you in? Who else is in your graduating class? Who are your guys? Eventually you’ll come to appreciate being a part of it, and, with time, you’ll understand and be grateful to have shared the stage with these folks. Everyone does. That’s guaranteed.
What’s not promised are the lazy, nostalgia filled days of old age. So why wait to appreciate them? Why let decades pass when you could do it right now? When you could thank them now.
|Dec 04, 2019|
There is Only One Place to Look for Approval
We all want to be liked. We want the acceptance of our peers. We want to be chosen. We want the stamp of approval—from the critics, from the crowd, from the market.
This makes sense...except it doesn’t.
Is it not true that most people are not very bright, hold regressive or alarming opinions, and generally follow the herd? And yet somehow we think it’s vindication when they love us? It’s nonsense. It’s pretty strange how much we value the respect of people we don’t respect...and the lengths we’re willing to go to get it.
"If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval,” Epictetus said, “realize that you have compromised your integrity. If you need a witness, be your own." This was something Marcus Aurelius wrestled with more than Epictetus because he was a public person. He saw crowds cheering him in the street. People flocked to court to heap praise on him (before asking for favors). He also had to put up with their jeers and criticisms.
Eventually he realized that he couldn’t pay attention to any of it. He had to hold himself to his own standard—an inner scorecard—and ignore everything else. The clapping was meaningless. The boos were too. What mattered was his own integrity—he had to be his own witness.
And today, so do you. It doesn’t matter what other people say or think. Approval and disapproval are equally meaningless. What matters is what you know is right, and whether you do it.
|Dec 03, 2019|
We All Need Monuments to Guide Us
Nobody cared more about statues than the Greeks and the Romans. In fact, the only reason we know what many of the Stoics looked like is because they were preserved in marble by sculptors many thousands of years ago. It wasn’t just philosophers who knew the value of statues. Leaders put up statues in nearly every important place within the realms that they ruled so that we might look upon and be inspired by the deeds and the principles of the great men and women they honored.
In 175 AD, Marcus Aurelius was honored with the creation of a bronze statue depicting him atop a horse addressing his troops, perhaps following some great victory on the battlefield. It was placed in the heart of Rome on the Capitoline Hill. Bronze equestrian statues like this one were commonly created to laud the most notable Romans, yet this is the only statue of a pre-Christian emperor to survive to the modern era. While dozens of other statues were being melted down to make coins or destroyed by revolutionaries, this statue remained on display, through the centuries. In fact, it was Michelangelo who, at the height of his powers as an artist, designed a new base for it in the Piazza del Campidoglio, where it stands to this day.
And we are all the better for it. Because each generation needs guidance. We need to be called to honor the greatness of our past, or in the case of some monuments, reminded of the failures and mistakes that humanity has made. We need to see—in tangible form—the principles that we as a people hold dear, that we aspire to mirror in our own lives
In 1863, the English writer Matthew Arnold wrote about why the endurance of the symbols of Marcus Aurelius are so important, and what a grand tradition it remains.
Long after his death, his bust was to be seen in the houses of private men through the wide Roman empire. It may be the vulgar part of human nature which busies itself with the semblance and doings of living sovereigns, it is its nobler part which busies itself with those of the dead; these busts of Marcus Aurelius, in the homes of Gaul, Britain and Italy, bear witness, not to the intimates' frivolous curiosity about princes and palaces, but to their reverential memory of the passage of a great man upon the earth.
A nation—an era—is judged by the monuments it erects just as a home is judged by the mementos and family artifacts hung on its walls and displayed on its shelves. So that’s the question for the world and for you as an individual today: What statues are you putting up? Who are you honoring? Whose presence is inspiring you to follow in their example? What is calling you to be the person you know you can be?
We’ve just released our newest Daily Stoic creation to help you keep in mind the example of Marcus Aurelius: a limited edition bust, modeled after the that inspired The Obstacle is the Way. This hand-sculpted bust is individually hand-numbered with a beautiful verdigris finish. It’s mounted on a black marble base and comes wrapped in a green velour pouch along with a signed certificate of authenticity. We’ve only had the sculptor produce a limited quantity from his original clay model, so if you’re interested, the time is now to check it out at DailyStoic.com/Statue, where we’ve included a great video showing how the bust was made. We also conducted an interview with the bust’s sculptor, E. S. Schubert. Not only is Schubert an amazing sculptor who has crafted statues for cities and stadiums, he is also a passionate student of Stoicism. You can
|Dec 02, 2019|
You Must Avoid The Orgy of Materialism and Greed
The viciousness of the mob is one of the darker themes in Roman history. There was the angry crowd that tore Saturninus to pieces during Marius’s time. There were the grieving, angry citizens who, riled up by Mark Antony’s funeral oration after the death of Caesar, murdered the poet Cinna just because he had the same name as one of the conspirators.
It’s scary what a group of people can do when the unwritten rules of civil society break down. There is perhaps no better day to think about this than Black Friday in America. Fresh off the gratitude of Thanksgiving, we decide to reward ourselves by greedily gorging on stuff.
It is hard to think of a day whose entire purpose sits in greater conflict with the Stoic notion of sympatheia. The same people who were previously sitting peacefully with their family are now ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat over a deal on a flat screen television. Instead of enjoying the time off, people have been lined up for hours in the cold to buy more and more crap they don’t actually need, at lower and lower prices. Not to replace the crap they bought last Black Friday, mind you, but to add to the pile. The only cost Black Friday shoppers don’t mind paying for these savings? Yelling matches, countless traffic accidents, and the collateral damage of retail employees being trampled to death. (There’s a website that tallies ‘Black Friday Death Counts’ if you’re really curious.)
As Marcus wrote in Meditations, “What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee.” It’s hard to argue that Black Friday is good for anyone or anything but the bottom line of big business. So instead of following the masses on a shopping spree—and possibly a killing spree—it would be nice if you spent this morning thinking about the bigger picture—the biggest picture.
We should be humane to each other because we are all human, all part of the same larger body. We spring from the same soil and will each return to it alike one day. When we forget this, it not only hurts other people—makes countless millions mourn—but it hurts us as well.
“Revere the gods, and look after each other,” Marcus Aurelius reminds us. “Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” That is what sympatheia is about. That’s what Oikeiôsis, affinity for your fellow humans, is about. We should live that every day, frankly, but we should be especially mindful of it today.
As the exact opposite of a Black Friday deal, we’re selling our Sympatheia coins at full price at Daily Stoic, until Monday December 2nd 6am. BUT, if you buy one, we’ll give you another one free to give to a friend, family member, or colleague who could benefit from it.
As we begin the holiday season, we hope you keep this concept in mind when you’re dealing with difficult in-laws, travel delays, or crowds and long lines. Don’t let the modern spirit of materialism and selfishness infect you. Instead, we must all focus on reminders that we are not alone, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that there is a greater good to which we all owe a duty, above and beyond our own selfish co
|Nov 29, 2019|
Be Grateful for Everything—Even the Tough Stuff
On this day of American Thanksgiving, we’re supposed to make time for thanks, to actively think about that word that has become almost cliché in wellness circles: gratitude. But what is gratitude? Some people think of it as being thankful for all the good things you have in your life. Others see it as the act of acknowledging what people have done for you or what you appreciate about others.
While the Stoics would have agreed that was all important, they practiced a slightly different form of gratitude. It was more inclusive and counterintuitive. It wasn’t just about being grateful for the good, but for all of life. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” was how Marcus Aurelius put it, “that things are good and always will be.” The first key word there is everything. The other key word is convince. Meaning: you have to tell yourself that it’s all good, even the so-called “bad stuff.”
Is it possible to be grateful for that nine-hour travel delay that has you sleeping on a bench in the airport? Is it possible to be grateful for your father’s affair that tore your family apart, and which now means you’re celebrating two Thanksgivings in two houses because your parents can’t be in the same room together? Or that dark period you went through in college, when your grades fell to pieces and you thought about killing yourself? It’s not easy to be grateful for any of this, but it is possible.
In the Discourses, Epictetus says, “It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance, and a sense of gratitude.” On the surface, much of what we’re upset about or wish hadn’t occurred is so objectionable that gratitude seems impossible. But if we can zoom out for that more complete view, understanding and appreciation can emerge. First off, you’re alive. That’s the silver lining of every shitty situation and should not be forgotten. But second, everything that has happened and is happening is bringing you to where you are. It’s contributing to the person you have become. And that’s a good thing. This understanding, Epictetus said, helps you see the world in full color—in the color of gratitude.
The Stoics believed that we should feel gratitude for all the people and events that form our lives. We shouldn’t just be thankful for the gifts we receive, and our relationships with friends and family. We should also be aware of and grateful for the setbacks and annoyances. For the difficult coworkers and the nagging in-laws, for the stress they put on us and whatever other difficulties we might be experiencing. Why? Because it’s all of those things, interconnected and dependent on each other, that made you who and what you are today. It is only by seeing the totality of things, good and bad, that you gain the understanding necessary to be truly grateful.
It could be that terrible relationship that imploded spectacularly, but which led to you meeting the love of your life. It could even be the passing of a relative, something that caused you great sadness but which also spurred you to build stronger relationships with your loved ones. All of these things are sad, and they may not even lead to a happy ending—but they still define the course of your life, and it wouldn’t be you sitting there right now without them.
As you gather around your family and friends this Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other celebration you might partake in, take the time to appreciate the moment and give thanks for all the obvious and bount
|Nov 28, 2019|
Don’t Let Time Surprise You
Queen Elizabeth I was a remarkable woman. She was uncommon and special is so many ways. She was believed to have known nine languages. She was considered one of the best educated women of her time. And she presided over many English battle victories.
And yet in one other way, she was incredibly common—not unlike so many of us: She basically refused to think of her own mortality. Maybe she was too afraid. Maybe she thought she’d live forever. Either way, she refused to plan for a successor in any form. She never got married, despite numerous courtships. She never had children. If she had been an ordinary person, this would have been her prerogative, but she wasn’t. A queen without an heir puts the entire kingdom at risk. A ruler who doesn’t consider what comes after them is bequeathing chaos and carnage on their subjects.
Sir Walter Raleigh, writing late in Queen Elizabeth’s life, saw this happening. He saw the Queen getting older and her options disappearing, as she grew older and grey. She was, he said, “a lady whom time has surprised.” What a great phrase! Because it describes so many of us. It’s the CEO who can’t groom the next generation of leadership in the company. It’s the partier whose twenties have turned into their thirties and can’t see how pathetic they look. It’s the grandma or grandpa who shudders at that word—old—who, me? I’m not old!
We have to remember, as Seneca told us, that old age and death aren’t this thing that lies off in the distant future. It’s a process that’s happening to us always and everywhere. We cannot let time surprise us. We must be thinking of it always. That’s how we make sure we are living for today, that we are leaving nothing unfinished or unresolved. We have a duty to ourselves and others, Seneca said, to live each day like a complete life. To keep our affairs in order because we have no idea what’s going to happen or how much time we will be given.
Don’t delay. Don’t deny. Don’t be surprised. Do your duty. Face your fears...and your mortality. Today and always.
|Nov 27, 2019|
You Have The Power To Straighten Your Back
One of the most inspiring themes in the history of Stoicism is how the Stoics responded to tyrants and to adversity. There was Cato, refusing to roll over and just let Caesar destroy the Republic to which Cato had dedicated his life. There was Thrasea defying Nero, “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” There was Agrippinus shrugging off exile, refusing to kowtow to anyone who wanted him to bow to the regime. There was Marcus Aurelius, who stayed in Rome even as it was ravaged by the plague, who served with great dedication even when his health failed in later years. There was James Stockdale in that prison camp in Vietnam, unbreakable, defiant, dignified despite all his powerlessness.
This is what Stoicism is about. It’s that iron backbone. That strength of conviction. The sense of duty and purpose that makes it impossible to do anything but stand up, that will never accept less than it’s due. People with that power end up changing the world, regardless of how entrenched or overwhelming their enemies are.
Martin Luther King Jr. captured it perfectly. “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up,” he said, “they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.” That’s the question for you today and for all of us fighting for something, trying to make change. Are we going to straighten up and stand up? Or are we going to bend and give in? Are we going to let them ride us or are we going to refuse to roll over?
We have the power. Let’s use it.
|Nov 26, 2019|
You Must Take All This in Stride
Some people will love you. Some people will hate you. One day, Marcus Aurelius wrote, the crowd will cheer and worship you. Other days they’ll hit you with brickbats and hate.
You get a lucky break sometimes—get more credit and attention than you deserve. Other times you’ll get held to an impossibly unfair standard. They’ll build you up, and then tear you down—and act like it was your fault you got way up there in the first place. They’ll criticize you in public and privately tell you it’s all for show.
There will be good years and bad years. Times when the cards come our way, times when the dice keep coming up snake eyes. That’s just how it is. That’s just life.
The key, Marcus Aurelius said, is assent to all of it. Accept the good stuff without arrogance, he wrote in Meditations. Let the bad stuff go with indifference. Amor fati. Take it all in stride, whether it’s undeserved heat or slobbering praise. Let none of it affect you, take none of it personally.
Just keep moving. Keep doing your work. Keep being you.
That’s the way of the Stoic.
|Nov 25, 2019|
Set This Before Your Eyes Every Day
We talk about the importance of positive thinking. Of making sure we are surrounded by good vibes and good energy. Of cutting out the negative influences of social media and the news. Of looking for the good in everything we see.
And, of course, that is important. But it can also be dangerous. Because it sets us up to be disappointed, even horrified, when our bubble is pierced. When we are forced to come face to face with the fact that the world is not a positive place. There are things that go bump in the night. There are bad people and tragic events.
That’s why Epictetus’s advice—in his version of premeditatio malorum—was to do the opposite. “Set before your eyes every day death and exile and everything else that looks terrible,” he said, “especially death. Then you will never have any mean thought or be too keen on anything.” You will also never be disappointed, you will never have your illusions shattered or your expectations gone unmet.
In fact, if you keep this darkness in mind, you might just be surprised by all the light you find in the world. You’ll be grateful for each day you wake up, still alive. You’ll appreciate each moment you’re not in exile. You’ll be glad each time Murphy’s Law turns out to be wrong.
Indeed, just as there is no hot without cold, there is no light without dark. Today, spend some time with the dark. Become familiar with it, set it before your eyes, so that you do not mistake it for blankness and set yourself up, once you walk out of it, for the light to be blinding.
|Nov 22, 2019|
How To Concentrate Like a Roman
There is so much on our plate. We have emails to respond to. Calls to make. There is that meeting in a couple hours. The folks we met with yesterday are waiting on an answer or a decision we promised we’d make. Twitter beckons. So do our hopes and dreams.
And yet as many directions as we find ourselves pulled in, it’s safe to assume that Marcus Aurelius was under even more tension. Make no mistake: The ancient world was not some quiet, peaceful place. It too was filled with crises and distractions, gossip, and ambitious goal-setting. All the temptations we face today have their analogs in the past—plus things were scarier, deadlier, and more precarious.
So we should listen to the command that Marcus gave himself after one of those trying days, when he was struggling to stay focused. “Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man—” he wrote, “on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”
And he wasn’t just chiding himself to do some impossible thing. There was a method to this concentration, he said. What was it? Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life. (That’s the power of Memento Mori). The key, Marcus said, was to not let your emotions override your mind and to give yourself a strong purpose (aimlessness is an enabler of distraction).
You can do that. You have the power to concentrate like a Roman. You can know how to do this thing in front of you. You can treat it right. And most important, you should. Because it may well be the last thing you do in your life.
|Nov 21, 2019|
Thoughts and Prayers are not Enough
The cycle would be almost humorous by now if it were not so sad. Politicians who have sat idly by, not doing their jobs to address the vexing, pressing problems of our time, rush in when tragedy strikes. Whether it’s a natural disaster that caught a city off guard, or another senseless mass shooting, these folks are there—or rather are there on Twitter—to offer their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims. Then, of course, the crowd shoots back, “That’s not enough!”
Let us unravel this according to the Stoics. First, there’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers, per se, particularly if they are heartfelt. However, they aren’t remotely sufficient to solve most political or social problems. And yet, yelling at the people offering them is its own hollow form of virtue signaling too.
While the Stoics did talk about the importance of acceptance and about our limited control of the world around us, they would reject this modern rejection of our own agency. They would be disappointed in our learned helplessness. The obstacles of life—be they in politics or the environment or the actions of evil doers—require action. They require effort. They require that we seize what’s in our control to affect change and improve the status quo.
When Rome’s borders were threatened, Marcus Aurelius didn’t simply send his prayers to the citizens who were killed. No, he led an army to defend them. When a plague struck Rome, he didn’t flee the city and then come back to speak at funerals. He braved the terrible conditions, doing everything he could to stop the dying. Whether he was successful or not is almost secondary to the fact that he at least tried.
Because that’s what a Stoic does. We take action. We organize. We vote. We try to solve problems. We try to prevent problems from happening again. And if the leaders we’ve elected aren’t going to help with that—meaning they’re part of the problem themselves—we don’t just yell or complain about it and demand that they do better...we set about solving for that too. We do better. We make sure they do too.
No one is coming to save us. But we can save ourselves.
|Nov 20, 2019|
If You Want Tranquility, Here's How to Find It
We all want more peace, right? More stillness. The quiet confidence that comes from being on the right path, as Seneca described it, and not being distracted by all those which crisscross ours.
Well, how do you get that?
It’s simple, Marcus Aurelius wrote. Stop caring what other people think. Stop caring what they do. Stop caring what they say.
All that matters, he writes, is what you do. Everything else is beyond your concern. You can let it all go. You can ignore it entirely.
We find tranquility when we stop stressing about things we cannot control, whose influence we are impotent to constrain. We find tranquility when we narrow our focus, when we look inward, when we look in the mirror. When we still the uncontrollable passions in our heads, hearts, and bodies.
Stillness is the key to a better life. The bad news is that there is only one way to get it. The good news is that it’s easy. You just have to stop. Stop caring what they think or say or do. Start caring deeply about what you do.
Stop...and start now.
|Nov 19, 2019|
You'll Have to Beat Me First
There is a famous moment in the history of Sparta, when they were threatened with invasion by Phillip, King of Macedon. Phillip, whose son was Alexander the Great, demanded the submission of the Spartans. It would be better to submit to him now, he said, because "If I conquer your city, I will destroy you all.
The Spartans’ reply to this was just one word: “If.”
They were not the kind of people who gave up easily, even in the face of incredible odds, because they believed in their own capabilities. If they had even a 1% chance of persevering, they were willing to take it. They weren’t going to lay down their arms without a fight—you were going to have to come and take them.
While the Spartans had little time or interest in philosophy, we should see the Stoics as the heirs to this tradition of tenacity and determination. Cato’s impassioned resistance against Caesar was a man giving everything he had to a cause most people thought was lost—and he very nearly won. George Washington and the Stoic founding fathers of America fought a similar cause against the greatest army in the world, and did win. James Stockdale looked at his captors at that prison camp in Vietnam and said, “If.” He said, “You’re going to have to beat me.” And as close as they came at times, they never managed to.
Stoicism is not resignation. It is, in fact, a philosophy that shines brightest when the outlook is darkest. It makes that distinction between what is not in our control and what is in our control for a reason—so we can focus 100% of our energy on what is in our control...even if the odds of success are low, even when everyone else thinks the smarter move is submission. If it’s humanly possible, Marcus Aurelius said, know that you can do it. If there is a 1% chance, that means there is a chance. It means you can do it.
So do it.
|Nov 18, 2019|
Don’t Run From Pain, Embrace It
It makes sense that we avoid pain. We don’t want to cause it and we don’t want to feel it. We’d rather life be easy. This makes sense—at least in the short term.
But the Stoics knew that in the long term, such an attitude made you weak, made you soft. The NASCAR driver and student of Stoicism, Brad Keselowski, recently talked about how Stoicism has taught him to take whatever is hardest or most difficult in his life and “double down and appreciate it.” Because it’s teaching you something. Because it’s making you stronger. Too many people run from pain, he said, but that’s the wrong way to do it. “Over time,” he said, “you start to realize that pain is your body flushing out weakness.”
In Seneca’s writing, we see that theme come up time and time again: Don’t be afraid of challenges. They are preparing you for an uncertain future. In Marcus Aurelius we see him look even at physical pain—we get the sense that Marcus Aurelius had some chronic injuries or illnesses—as a kind of crucible that was forging him into being a stronger person. You can endure this, he would say over and over again. You can get through this. You will get through this.
Of course, we should not be glib about pain or misfortune in life, but we can take all of these ideas and apply them to what we face today. There’s no need to turn away from what comes our way. Instead, we can embrace it. We can double down and appreciate what we had to do—even though it’s hard. Amor Fati. We can endure. We can flush weakness out.
And we can become better and stronger for it. Whatever it is.
|Nov 15, 2019|
Remember that People Avoid the Truth
Time and time again, we hear the Stoics tell us to say what is right, to do what is right, to be comfortable swimming upstream or rejecting the choices of the mob. Marcus Aurelius said this. Seneca said it. Cato said it. Nassim Taleb says it still today.
What usually goes unsaid alongside these inspiring calls—whether it’s “If you see fraud, say fraud” or “If it’s not right do not do it, if it’s not true do not say it”—is anything about the consequences. Because while history admires whistleblowers and men and women of principles, their contemporaries often have the opposite reaction. Because speaking the truth and standing up for what’s right is an implicit rebuke of the status quo. It challenges people’s identities. It indicts them for not doing the same
This is important to know and to constantly remind oneself of. It’s almost like you need to do a premeditatio malorum for what happens when you commit to being a good and honest and courageous person. Because it’s not going to be easy. People are not going to throw you a parade. They’re much more likely to throw brickbats. Or insults.
But you have to do what you think is right, and, as Marcus Aurelius said, treat the rest like it doesn’t matter. Who cares if they unsubscribe from your emails? Who cares if they report you? Or try to take away your sponsors? Try to run against you in a primary election? Or leave nasty comments? Or try to bully you?
Because the truth is that none of these things matter. Or at least, they don’t matter more than your duty.
|Nov 14, 2019|
There’s Nothing Special About Philosophers
If you ask most people to describe a philosopher, they end up painting a picture of somebody who works at Harvard and wears a lot of wool and tweed and corduroy. Maybe they’ll describe somebody from ancient history, dressed in a toga, talking about big ideas, oblivious to the everyday happenings around them. It’s an understandable impulse, because philosophy can seem so distant and the people who practice it somehow above or apart from the rest of us.
This is a mistake. It’s not only not what philosophy is supposed to be, but it’s also historically inaccurate. As Blaise Pascal explains, writing some five hundred years ago, "We always picture Plato and Aristotle wearing long academic gowns, but they were ordinary decent people like everyone else, who enjoyed a laugh with their friends.” Pascal took pains to point out that the books they wrote were written for pleasure and enjoyment—they were not stuffy, pretentious documents meant to intimidate people. On the contrary, Aristotle and Plato and Socrates were writing to help people, to pass along what they had learned.
The same was true for the Stoics. Why is Meditations so straightforward and easy to read? It’s because Marcus was writing to help himself. Why does Epictetus seem so conversational? It’s because that’s literally what he was doing. He didn’t “write” anything—what survives to us are essentially transcripts of conversations he had with students. Think about Seneca writing his letters. There was a real person on both sides of that communique, a writer and a recipient. True friends trying to help each other by being clear, not confusing.
Philosophers aren’t different from us or better than us. They are us.
The best philosophers are regular people with a passion for self-improvement, with a love for their fellow human beings struggling in the real world. There might be Harvard professors who fit that bill, but too many of them don’t. It’s critical that you ignore them and don’t let them lead you astray (or intimidate you). Philosophy isn’t about books and big words and theories and complicated metaphysics. It’s about getting better, in a real practical sense. It’s about realizing your potential—intellectually, morally, spiritually.
As Blaise Pascal concluded, the writing that Aristotle and Plato did was actually the “least philosophical and least serious part of their lives: the most philosophical was living simply and without fuss."
Beautiful. Let that inspire you. And try to follow in its example today and always.
|Nov 13, 2019|
This Is How You Get Tranquility
Marcus Aurelius said that pain either affects the body or the soul. What’s the difference? “The soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them.” Pierre Hadot’s metaphor for this was the “inner citadel.” Hadot said that Marcus worked to create a soul, a core, an inner fortress that fate, chaos, hysterics, vice, and outside influences could never penetrate or break down.
Ada Palmer—a historian, professor, and novelist—knows the importance of building an inner citadel. In addition to the tummults of academia, publishing, and constant deadlines, Ada is also disabled and suffers from chronic pain. She says that, sounding like Hadot, “Stoicism is about achieving interior tranquillity.” Hadot said that Marcus wrote to himself to strengthen the walls of his citadel, to achieve interior tranquility. In our interview with Ada for DailyStoic.com, we asked her about how she does it:
I use a variety of different techniques to battle the gloom, "morbid thinking," and other mental effects of chronic pain. I self-monitor carefully, keeping an inner lookout for when I find myself dwelling on something that's upsetting me, and I have a sort of triage of responses. I ask myself (A) can I find an actionable solution to the problem? If not (B) can I get myself to stop worrying about the problem and let go? Can I laugh at the problem? Can I ask myself whether this will really matter in a year or five years? Sometimes that alone can break the spell, but if it doesn't this is where I find the maxims, especially the vivid images, often help.
One of my favorites is the stoic image of life as being like being a guest at a banquet. Many great platters are being passed around for you to take from, but occasionally one arrives already empty, everyone else has already taken it all. It's easy to be angry, and it is unfair, but the food wasn't yours to begin with, it was a gift from your host, and you didn't really need it, there is plenty of other food. Sometimes just thinking about that can make me less upset by something. It's amazing how that kind of reframing, zooming out, or changing perspective can sometimes dispel the stormy thoughts that are really what are causing one's unhappiness.
Cultivating your inner citadel doesn’t mean reaching a point where one is immune to life’s disturbances. It’s about having your systems in place, your battle-tested line of defense, ready to fend them off when they inevitably do show up. For Marcus, it was journaling. For Ada, it’s stopping, reframing, changing perspectives. What is it for you?
|Nov 12, 2019|
You Have To Find The Good In People
Marcus Aurelius was clearly torn about his fellow man. He was loving and kind and spoke repeatedly of serving the common good. He was also clearly frustrated and disappointed with the flaws of the people around him. Like many great men, he had trouble understanding that not everyone had his gifts, not all of them were capable of what he was capable of.
You can see in Meditations how he wrestled with these feelings. In the opening passage, he talks about just how obnoxious and annoying (and awful) the people he was likely to meet in the course of the upcoming day. And then, just as you think it can’t get any more depressing and dark, he turns around and reminds himself that they’re doing the best they can, and that it’s not their fault that they have been cut off from truth.
In the passage that inspired The Obstacle is the Way, Marcus is less forgiving. He talks about how the people who obstruct or bother us are “irrelevant”—how we can shut our minds off to them. It’s a theme that comes up a lot: People are a problem. People are weak. Push them away. You get the sense that he would have been hard to work for, hard to have as your father, hard to please—even for talented and committed people.
If only Marcus Aurelius could have heard the (fictional) advice from his adopted grandfather, Hadrian, that Marguerite Yourcenar writes into her prize-winning book Memoirs of Hadrian. “Our great mistake,” she has Hadrian say, “is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.” How much happier Marcus would have been had he been more able to see the good in people, and how much better a leader he could have been had he leaned into their strengths rather than disdained their weaknesses.
Each of us would benefit from that advice as well. We have to focus on what we can learn from other people. We have to focus on what is special and unique about them instead of zeroing in on the ways they are not as good as us. We have to be forgiving and patient, kind and appreciative. We have to engage with what they bring to the table, not lament the things they take from it. Then we have to work to make those people around us better...not write them off as hopeless and broken.
|Nov 11, 2019|
Remember: You Are Not Everything
One of the most haunting moments in all of literature is the moment when King Lear hits rock bottom. He has destroyed his kingdom. He has lost his family. He has lost his sanity.
He says to Gloucester as they stand on a cliff:
“They told me I was everything. 'Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.”
In short, all the illusions of the king have been shattered, his ego destroyed. Everything he had worked for was gone, and all that was left was the inescapable conclusion that it was his fault. He had believed the flatterers and let power go to his head. Then, after unbelievable folly and meanness, it all came crashing down.
This temptation to believe that we are everything, that we are immune to the constraints or flaws of other people is the source of so much pain and misery in the world. Pain for the believers and for the bystanders who become its collateral damage. Which is why the Stoics—particularly the ones who found themselves in positions of leadership—spent so much time working on their egos. Marcus Aurelius actively practiced his philosophy so that he would not be corrupted by his absolute power. Seneca wrote essays to Nero to try to steer the young man away from ego, to tell him: You are not everything. You have to stay sane and sober. It didn’t always work, but he tried.
Ego is the enemy. Of what we’re trying to accomplish. Of the people we’d like to be. Of relationships. Of kindness. Of the ‘objectivity’ and rational thought that Stoicism prizes. We must remember this always, even as others puff us up or success accumulates around us. We are not everything. We are ordinary. We are mortal.
We are not exempt.
|Nov 08, 2019|
These Are The Keys To Success
For nearly three decades, Tom Morris, one of the world's top public philosophers and pioneering business thinkers, has been on a mission to bring philosophy back to the center of daily life. Travelling the globe working with world-class business executives, athletes, coaches, administrators, and entrepreneurs, Tom realized that, regardless of the field or industry, everyone wanted the same thing: advice about excellence. So began his search to find the universal conditions for success and the skills or arts involved to achieve it. “My claim,” Tom said in our interview with him for DailyStoic.com, “is that for success in any challenge, the great practical philosophers have taught me that we need what I call The 7 Cs of Success”:
“You can find all seven of these ideas in the writings of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius,” Tom added. “The great thinkers understood greatness.” You’ll notice that all of Tom’s 7 Cs of Success fall under what the Stoics called the dichotomy of control. Basically, we can control some things and can’t control others—and we should focus on what we can control. The Stoics knew that in the chaos of life, as in sports, fixating on things we can’t control is not a recipe for success, but for great agony and despair.
The road to success—winning championship titles in sports, becoming a bestselling writer, or a successful entrepreneur— is just that: a road. And just like you travel along a road in steps, excellence is a matter of steps. Excelling at this one, then the next, and then the one after that. Today, spend some time with Tom’s 7 Cs of Success. Where are you along the road? What can you do to make the next step? Focus on that—the things you do control.
|Nov 07, 2019|
Is It Even A Question?
The little known Stoic philosopher Agrippinus was apparently the king of one-liners. There was the time he was informed he’d been exiled and responded, “Very well, we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” There was another time, we are told by Epictetus, that Agrippinus was asked by a fellow philosopher whether or not he should attend some banquet put on by the abominable Nero.
Agrippinus told the man he should go. But why, the man asked? That’s when Agrippinus got him with another one of his brilliant barbs: Because you were even thinking about it. For me, Agrippinus said, it’s not even a question.
In a way, this is a pretty good—albeit cavalier—test of the progress we are making with our character. Hemming and hawing about the right thing and then doing the right thing—now obviously that’s better than doing the wrong thing. But what we should be shooting for is developing the kind of moral compass that’s so clear and strong that we don’t even have to do that. Where doing wrong isn’t even a question. Where the right thing is just obvious.
|Nov 06, 2019|
Don't Die Before Your Time
We’re busy. We’re tired. We have so much to do. We had dreams once, sure, but they slowly deflated. The mortgage, the kids, the job, watching TV, that’s how we fill our days.
It’s a slow downward spiral that Bruce Springsteen sang about in Racing in the Street:
Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
If you’re not that guy, you at least know him or her. They’re a mainstay of the modern world. Overworked, undersexed, overtired, and underappreciated. Facebook is to blame right? The capitalist pigs are responsible, yeah? It’s because of the 24-hour news cycle.
Certainly none of those things help, but the truth is that this is a timeless problem. It goes back much further than Bruce or even this century. Because Seneca spoke about those guys too. “How much time has been lost to groundless anguish,” he writes, “greedy desire, the charms of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time.” Wake up, he says. Stop sleepwalking. Stop giving away what you can never get back. That’s from his essay The Shortness of Life, where he tried to get the reader—as Bruce Springsteen does in his best songs—to “realize that you're dying before your time."
We only get one life. Once time ticks by, it never comes back. Yes, each of us will die. That’s a fact. But for the moment, we’re alive. Which is why we have to live. Which is why we have to protect our time, our dreams, our spirit. We can’t give it up piece by piece. We can’t start dying before our time.
We have to live. Now. While we still can.
|Nov 05, 2019|
You've Chosen Your Own Hell
In Marcus Aurelius’s time, Roman religion was a hodgepodge of different rituals and ideas, which were evident in Marcus’s own behavior. For instance, he deified his wife and his stepfather Antoninius, but at the same time spoke repeatedly about how this life we are living is all there is. It goes without saying that he also rejected the teachings of the Christians, who he thought of—as a product of his time—as threats to the authority of the empire, but it also turns out that the Stoics and the Christians held beliefs that were much closer than Marcus understood. Particularly as it related to hell.
As far as we know, the Stoics didn’t believe in hell. Their writings make only a few vague allusions to the idea of an afterlife. Similarly, the idea of “hell” is not as clear in Christianity as conventional wisdom might dictate. Nowhere in the Bible is there anything close to the hell that believers talk about today—a place where bad people and nonbelievers go after they die to be tortured and punished for their sins for all eternity. Even the word “hell,” which varies from translation to translation, appears only a few times, with different contextual meanings in each case. One of the most frequent occurrences is as the word “Gehenna,” which was an actual, literal place—though admittedly not a good one (there is some thought that it was Jerusalem’s trash dump).
What might Jesus and the Christians have been speaking of when they spoke of hell? Perhaps it was the same thing the Stoics spoke of—not a place that we go after we die, but a place far too many people are in right now, based on how they’ve chosen to live. Marcus Aurelius didn’t warn against indulging and cheating and lying and stealing because he thought you’d be punished for it later. He knew these “pleasures” would produce tortures in the here and now. As Rob Bell, the pastor and author, writes in his beautiful book Love Wins:
“People choose to live in their own hells all the time. We do it every time we isolate ourselves, give the cold shoulder to someone who has slighted us, every time we hide knives in our words, every time we harden our hearts in defiance of what we know to be the loving, good, and right thing to do.”
Whatever you believe—whether you’re closer to Marcus Aurelius or a follower of Jesus—there is something to learn from where these two schools converge. It’s a matter of faith whether hell exists after death. It is a fact that it exists here on earth—in Gehenna and in our souls. If there is hell in the after life, whether or not you go there will be God’s decision. The hell that exists for certain right here and now, you can choose to take up residence in or move as far away from as you possibly can.
So what’s it going to be?
|Nov 04, 2019|
There is Only One Place to Look
There was a Stoic named Diotimus who messed up. Like really messed up. Sometime around the turn of the first century BC, he committed what can only be described as an unjustifiable crime. He forged dozens and dozens of letters that framed the rival philosopher Epicurus as a sinful glutton and depraved maniac. It was an act of despicable philosophical slander, and Diotimus was quickly brought up on charges.
Some accounts say he was executed for this crime, but that seems unlikely. Chances are he was exiled or fined, which is actually more interesting: What does a Stoic do after they really screw up? What can they do?
Perhaps we can take a cue from the name of the podcast hosted by Lance Armstrong, another guy who has made big mistakes. What does Lance call his podcast? He calls it The Forward. Because that’s really the only thing you can do in life: go forward. That’s what Lance is trying to do with his life now. Move on and move forward, as best he can.
When you do something wrong, you can’t go back and undo it. When you hurt someone, you can apologize, you can say you didn’t mean to, but you can’t undo the harm, you can’t unring the bell. Ultimately, you can only move forward—and try to make it right by learning from it and not doing it again. The same principle applies when you fall short of your own standards, and you let yourself down.
Big or small, crimes and mistakes exist only in the past. They can no longer be touched. All you can do is decide what happens next. All you can decide is how you will write the rest of the story. You can move forward, building on the lessons of your mistake; or you can stay rooted in place, trying futilely to reach back into the past to erase what has been done. This is how cover-ups happen. This is how mistakes get compounded. Lance can tell you about those too—which were probably his biggest mistakes when it was all said and done.
We don’t know what Diotimus did next, unfortunately, or how his story ended. Hopefully, he moved forward and never did anything like it again. All we can do is try to learn from his failings, and to improve ourselves accordingly.
|Nov 01, 2019|
Which Founder Will You Be?
It’s easy to whitewash history, to look back at a group of people who did an incredible thing and assume they were all on the same page when it happened. We forget the egos and the personality flaws. We forget their struggles and infighting.
The Founding Fathers of America are a great example of this. They can seem like a unified group of wise superhumans—beyond the passions or tempers that rule our lives—but, of course, they were anything but. According to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams was the kind of guy who “always governed by the feeling of the moment,” and given his fragile, insecure personality, this did not serve him well. Think of Jefferson himself, whose lust and hypocrisy not only tolerated slavery, but allowed him to justify owning a human being, Sally Jennings, he claimed to love. He was also a bit of a coward, and an ungrateful political intriguer. Hamilton was so ruled by his passions he not only cheated on his wife, but got himself killed in a duel that a wiser, more self-controlled man would have been able to avoid.
The list goes on and on. Although George Washington was by no means a perfect human being—he too owned slaves—he found a way to rise above these other men, not just on the battlefield but in everyday life. He lived by a system. By a personal code. He put duty above all else. He would have rather died than betray his sense of honor. It was through this that he managed to achieve greatness far beyond what Adams or Jefferson or Hamilton could even approach. It’s why he is probably the greatest American, if not the greatest statesman, to ever live.
That’s what Stoicism is about and what it helps us do. We are all flawed people. We have tempers. We have egos. We have selfish desires. What we need is a system, a code that helps us triumph over them. It gives us a Cato—to quote Seneca’s line and to mention Washington’s hero—to model ourselves after. Something to check our behavior against, to guide us in the moments where emotion or temptation would lead us astray.
All of the Founders were great in their own way, all of them contributed to the founding of a nation. But Washington got further, did more—he conquered the British as well as himself. He was in his own power, and would have been even had his army faltered and he had been captured. Which founder will you be? Whose example will you follow? Will you be great, or can you aspire to be more like the greatest?
|Oct 31, 2019|
Don’t Follow The Mob
It’s a fitting warning about man’s nature that in the Old Testament, God would command his followers, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” and to resist the pull of the multitude when they persecute someone on false charges, only to find thousands of years later that this would be the fate of the man who claimed to be his son
This idea that the judgements of the mob were dangerous and must be avoided is a timeless theme in the ancient world—and one that appears both in the Bible and in the writings of the Stoics. Only a few generations before Jesus, the Stoic Rutilius Rufus was brought up on and convicted of obviously false charges by corrupt political enemies. Around the same time, in one of the first signs that the norms of the Roman Republic were collapsing, a mob gathered and stoned to death a man named Saturninus. Marius, the consul who encouraged Rufus’s demise, was powerless to stop the mob justice he had ridden to power on.
By Jesus’s time, the mob was a political force in the Roman empire. It could be pandered to. Riled up. Used to do one’s dirty work. It was a feared and ominous presence. Just a few decades after the mob killed Jesus, Seneca would write that “consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is filled with admonishments to ignore the jeers and the cheers of the mob, to think for himself, to avoid the violent spectacles they demanded in the form of gladiatorial games, to do the right thing even if everyone else is insisting (or getting away with) the wrong thing.
If only this advice was not relevant today. Unfortunately it is. We have a mob which sways our culture—online and in real life. These are people who attend speeches on college campuses with the intent of disrupting and shutting them down. These are people who march with tiki torches and chant slurs and epithets. These are people who use social media to bully and intimidate. These are people who shout for violence and demand retribution. These are people who are incapable of mercy or empathy or forgiveness.
It would be nice if their numbers were few—but they are not. They are legion, and they exist on both sides of the political spectrum (indeed, they often hold contradictory views on various issues and share the same nihilism whether they are extreme left or right). In some cases, they are often the majority view and their pressure costs people their jobs, forces them into hiding, or convinces them to keep silent. They claim to be protecting our way of life...as they destroy it before our eyes.
Which is why today and every day we should heed these Stoic (and Biblical) reminders to avoid the mob, to think for ourselves and to stand up for what’s right, especially when the mob is doing evil. When you find yourself on the side of the mob, pause and reflect. Ignore their venom. Speak out.
|Oct 30, 2019|
You Must Live Below Your Means
The Roman elite were constantly living beyond their means. Leaders like Cicero lived lavishly—he owned something like nine different villas at the same time. Other Romans believed the path to political power lay in essentially bribing the public with extravagant games and public spectacles. Julius Caesar was constantly spending money he didn’t have to impress people he didn’t respect. Even the Roman empire itself was constantly overspending, leaving it to more austere emperors like Marcus Aurelius to pay down the country’s debts by selling off palace furnishings.
Seneca, for his part, wrote eloquently about the meaningless of wealth and the importance of the simple life. And yet, money is partly what attracted him to Nero’s service. In 13 years working for a man who was clearly deranged and evil, Seneca became one of Rome’s richest men. This afforded him an incredible lifestyle. He threw enormous parties. He accumulated huge land holdings and impressive estates. But his taste for the finer things meant swallowing a bitter moral pill...and eventually, this association cost him his reputation and his life.
If only Seneca and these other spendthrift Romans could have listened to the simple advice in Cato the Elder’s On Agriculture, one of the oldest works in the entire Latin language. There, Cato—the great grandfather of the Stoic Cato the Younger—talks about the importance of managing your money and your tastes.
“A farm is like a man,” he wrote, “however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.” His advice to the aspiring farmer is to build a house within their means—to put your money into your farm, into something that generates returns, not something that impresses your neighbors or assuages your ego. It was better, he said, to cultivate the selling habit, not the buying habit. Selling meant you were making, buying meant you were consuming. How does a business succeed? By things going out the door, not in the door.
It’s easy to acquire. It’s hard to say no. It’s tough to develop limits and to figure out what enough is. But like Cato said and Seneca’s fate painfully illustrates, if you can’t do that, eventually there will be nothing left and nowhere to go.
|Oct 29, 2019|
It All Rests on Pillars of Sand
Imagine, one day you’re king and the next day you’re not. Literally. That's the story of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, who was made King of Naples and Spain, only to be forced to flee in exile after the reversal of his family’s destiny. Napoleon was sent to an island prison, but Joseph had to move to New Jersey, where suddenly he was just another regular person—rich, sure, but far from royalty. The same went for Achille Murat, the son of Napoleon’s brother-in-law. Once the heir-in-waiting for the kingdom of Napoli, he ended up living in the swampland of Florida, lording only over some property he called Lipona, an anagram of the kingdom he had lost. He dreamed of leading armies in Italy, but ended up, as one legend has it, the postmaster of Tallahassee.
Banished to New Jersey and Florida. Someone in the 19th century knew how to levy punishment. All kidding aside, these stories are almost real-life versions of the lyrics to the Coldplay hit, Viva La Vida:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning, I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
And in turn, all of this is probably the most persistent theme in Stoicism, both philosophically and biographically. Zeno was a wealthy merchant from a prominent family with a fleet of ships, until a storm dashed them all to pieces. He ended up in Athens with nothing in his pockets. Cato was a towering Roman Senator, only to suddenly find himself on the wrong side of a vicious civil war. He was powerful one day, disemboweled the next. The same was true of his rival cum ally Pompey, the general who loved the lectures of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius. A lifetime of victories evaporated in a single hour at the Battle of Pharsalus. Shortly thereafter, he was decapitated by pirates as he tried to go into exile. Seneca was the man behind the throne with Nero...until Nero turned on him.
All of our fates and fortunes rest on pillars of sand. Today we are on high, tomorrow can bring us down low...and the day after, lower than we even believed possible. That’s life. It humbles us. It surprises us. It is not inclined to show mercy—or care about our precious dreams.
That’s why we must be prepared: premeditatio malorum (an anticipation of the twists and turns of fate) and amor fati (ready to love whatever that fate is) are not just principles to abide, they are tools to deploy in the forging of our inner citadel, in the smithing of an iron spine. They allow us to endure and survive anything.
The vagaries of life are why we must be careful of ego (it is the enemy, after all); careful of anything that makes us think what we have right now is actually ours, or that it says anything about us as people. Because if we allow the presence of the things we have and hold dear to define us, their untimely a
|Oct 28, 2019|
You Are Mortal. You Don’t Have To Be Stupid.
Yes, the Stoics talk a lot about death. How it’s inevitable. How life is fragile. How it can be taken from us at any moment. It’s in our power to live well, Seneca said, but not in our power to live long.
It’s easy to take from these commentaries that the Stoics were completely fatalistic about their health, and that’s a mistake—one easily disproved by the evidence. Seneca talked about death, but he also talked about the life-giving powers of taking a cold plunge. He experimented with vegetarianism. He exercised. He ate moderately not only because it was part of his philosophy, but because he knew that gluttons rarely live to see old age. Marcus Aurelius was treated by the famous doctor Galen, and one presumes that he did so because he asked Galen to improve his health, not worsen it.
The key exercise in Stoicism, according to Epictetus, was distinguishing what’s in our control and what isn’t. Our genetics are not in our control. But we are not prisoners of them. They are not an oracle. We control our diet and our exercise. We can control how our genetics express themselves and impact our live
Death can be random and cruel—as it was for the millions who died of the plague in Marcus’s time. Nobody controls that. But we do control whether we drive a motorcycle and decline to wear a helmet. You don’t control whether you get drafted and sent to fight in a war, but you do control whether you go around picking fights in bars or walk through the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of day. We control whether we make smart decisions or dumb ones, whether we take good care of ourselves or not.
We are all mortal. Life is fragile. But that doesn’t mean you kiss all the control up to God or to Fate. You decide whether you’re going to be healthy or not. You decide whether to be stupid or not. You decide the path you walk.
|Oct 25, 2019|
It’s True: You’re Exactly Where You’re Supposed To Be
Keanon Lowe grew up in a family struggling to make ends meet. His father left when he was nine. When money was tight or when things were hard, his mother would try to encourage him by saying that it was alright. “You’re just where you’re supposed to be,” she said.
This would be hard to accept over the years. It was hard to accept his college career at Oregon ended when the team lost in the playoffs to Ohio State in 2015. It was hard to accept when the NFL career he dreamed of ended by getting cut from the Arizona Cardinals after four days, with no more than a pair of gym shorts for his trouble. Then his first year as an NFL assistant ended when the coach who hired him got fired, and his second year ended the same way. Shortly thereafter, one of his best friends from his playing days died of an overdose.
This is where he was supposed to be? This is how things were supposed to go? These are the kind of twists and turns of fate the Stoics tell us we’re supposed to love? How could that possibly be right?
Well, as Greg Bishop (himself a fellow Stoic traveler) writes in his beautiful Sports Illustrated profile of Keanon, it is right. Because it is all leading somewhere, whether we know it or not. After all those losses and setbacks, Keanon ended up taking a job coaching at Parkrose High School...and working as the school security guard to make money on the side. On May 17th, Keanon was sent to Mr. Melzer’s Government class to grab a student who had been requested by a counselor. It just so happens that the very student he was looking for was working his way toward the classroom with a loaded shotgun.
In a moment, they met. Keanon was exactly where he was supposed to be. Instead of running away, he ran towards it. He fought the young man and stopped an active shooter from doing god knows what. Keanon’s mother had been right. The Stoics were right. We have no idea what life has in store for us or what it is saving us for—even as it kicks our ass and breaks our hearts. Whatever we are going through, whatever is happening to us, we must know that: we are where we are supposed to be right now. How’s that?
Because we can make it be where we are supposed to be. By the actions we take and the choices we make.
|Oct 24, 2019|
Let This Humble You
Here’s a humbling thought: Even if your life is amazing and successful, even if you mind your own business and are kind to everyone you meet, somebody, somewhere is going to be happy when you’re dead. Somebody who wants to buy your house, somebody who you pissed off in high school, an up and comer looking to enter the job market, some hater who doesn’t like your work—they’re going to smile when they hear the news that you’ve passed. At the very least, there are some worms who are going to be glad to get to work on your corpse.
It’s true for you and it’s true for everyone. It was as true for Gandhi and Mother Teresa as it is true for Anthony Bourdain and David Bowie and Kate Spade and the countless others who we say have left us too soon. Marcus Aurelius knew it would be true for himself, even though he was one of history’s few examples of a good king. As he wrote:
It doesn’t matter how good a life you’ve led. There’ll still be people standing around the bed who will welcome the sad event. Even with the intelligent and good. Won’t there be someone thinking “Finally! To be through with that old schoolteacher. Even though he never said anything, you could always feel him judging you.” And that’s for a good man. How many traits do you have that would make a lot of people glad to be rid of you? Remember that, when the time comes.
Really though, that’s something to remember now—hopefully long before your time comes. Because it helps prevent ego from creeping in. It prevents you from getting too caught up in trying to please everyone all the time. In a way, it’s a relief to accept that not everyone is rooting for us, and that no matter how successful we are, we can’t win over the whole world.
Be true to who you are, Marcus said. Be kind and caring to the people who matter to you. And don’t be too attached to life or your reputation, because, at the end of the day, we all get knocked down to the same level when we die. Whether we’re Alexander the Great or Mr. Rogers or a mule driver, we get buried in the ground and chewed up by bugs until there’s nothing left. And some people are glad to hear of it.
It’s a humbling thought.
|Oct 23, 2019|
You Must Read to Lead
Many “smart” people aren’t actually smart. They just know a lot of trivia. Sure, they can tell you all sorts of facts, they have a library of big thick books filled with enormous words, or they can give you the up-to-the-minute news about a political race. But can they tell you what any of this means? Do they do anything important with this information? Of course not.
And these types have always existed. Seneca spoke critically of literary snobs who could speculate for hours about whether The Iliad or The Odyssey was written first, or who the real author was (a debate that rages on today). He disliked hearing people chatter about which Roman general did this or that first, or which received this or that honor. “Far too many good brains,” he said, “have been afflicted by the pointless enthusiasm for useless knowledge.
Harry Truman famously said that not all all readers are leaders but all leader are readers—they have to be. And they certainly aren’t reading to impress people or for the mental gymnastics. It’s to get better! It’s to find things they can use. Not at the dinner table or on Twitter, but in their real lives.
The same must be true to us. We have to learn how to read to be better leaders, better people, better citizens. We must learn how to read for our own benefit—and so that we might have aid to offer to a friend in pain, or a soul in crisis. Seneca’s point was that only knowledge that does us good is worth knowing. Everything else is trivia.
If you’re looking to be a better reader—to build a real reading practice—the Stoics can help. We built out some of their best insights into our Daily Stoic: Read-to-Lead Reading Challenge. It’s going to walk you through more than a dozen actionable challenges that will help you elevate your game as a reader, learn how to think more critically and discover important books that will change your life. We’ve got videos and worksheets and all sorts of recommendations and strategies for you. If you’ve liked any of our other courses, you’ll love this one—it’s awesome, it’s actionable and it will help you get a better ROI out of one of the most important ways we spend our time and enrich our minds.
|Oct 22, 2019|
Just Shrug It Off
In 1961, Walker Percy published his great Stoic-inspired novel The Moviegoer. Like all classics, the book's success was by no means guaranteed. In fact, it became the subject of one of the strangest controversies in publishing history. You see, even though the novel was brilliant, its publisher, Alfred Knopf, was no fan. He even fired the editor who acquired it and had been so instrumental in shaping it into the masterpiece it became.
When it came time to nominate one of his titles for the National Book Awards that year, Knopf submitted The Château by William Maxwell, a now mostly forgotten book. It was only a bit of random luck for Percy that followed—the husband of a woman on the committee happened to have read a review of Percy’s book in the paper, read the book, loved it, gave it to his wife, who gave it to the other committee members a few days before the final decision needed to be made. Out of nowhere, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—the first novel of a doctor, not a trained writer—ended up winning the National Book Award.
Again, you’d think that Knopf would have been ecstatic. One of his writers won book of the year! But he wasn’t. Even as the book started selling like crazy. He was too jealous. He thought it reflected badly on his judgement that he missed this, that he was obviously wrong. So he began to spread the rumor that the prize had somehow been fixed that year—that the husband (someone Knopf didn’t like) had forced his wife to vote for the book just to show him up. It was an ugly mess for everyone involved.
Everyone, that is, except Walker Percy. Because, like a true Stoic, he just laughed at the whole thing. He accepted the award with gratitude, marvelling at all the good and bad fortune that had occurred beyond his control with this book. And then—as we should do today, whether we’re the recipient of a huge honor or an utterly unfair controversy—he got back to work on his next project.
|Oct 21, 2019|
You Must Learn How To STOP
Seneca wrote about our natural, involuntary physiological responses. Someone pours cold water on you, and you shiver. They jump out of nowhere to scare you, and you let out a scream. Someone drives rudely, cuts you off, prevents you from passing, and you get upset. These are natural and understandable reactions to external events. Who we are, Seneca said, is not revealed in how we react in those moments. It’s revealed in what happens next.
It’s in that space between stimulus and response, psychologist Viktor Frankl liked to say, that shows who we are. Do we speed up and follow dangerously close behind the person that pissed us off? Do we shout and scream and carry rage with us all day? Tara Swart, neuroscientist and author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain, gave us a better technique in our interview with her for DailyStoic.com:
Learn how to STOP
I used this exercise when I was working as a child psychiatrist. It’s a technique that is often used by family therapists with children who get into uncontrollable rages. I used it again, more recently with executive clients.
Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel what it’s like when you’re overwhelmed with fear/anger/shame etc. Remember something that makes you feel like this and allow it to fill your whole body. Feel the emotion on your skin, in your chest, your mouth, your muscles, and your mind. Once you feel full of it, imagine holding up a big, red STOP sign in your mind and allowing the feeling to dissipate completely, relax your muscles and let the angry feeling leave you. Practice this until you feel you can use it in real life scenarios to stay calm.
Seneca’s other line was that, “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.” That’s exactly what Tara is advising. We put in the work now. We stock the pantry before the storm comes. So when the rude or distracted driver does cut us off, we don’t respond by having a frothing-at-the-mouth shouting match with a car moving 65 mph. We STOP, and let the angry feelings leave us, rather than let them ruin our day.
|Oct 18, 2019|
What’s Bad For The Hive Is Bad For The Bee
Although the ancient world was filled with injustices and cruelty, we moderns flatter ourselves when we give ourselves (too much) credit for our enlightened notions of fairness and empathy, because the speeches and the arguments of the ancient Greeks and Romans sound strikingly familiar when quoted back to us now.
Take this line:
“I am convinced that people are much better off when their whole city is flourishing than when certain citizens prosper but the community has gone off course. When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces he goes to pieces along with it, but a struggling individual has much better hopes if his country is thriving.”
Is that Bernie Sanders giving another speech about income inequality? No, it’s Pericles in Athens in 431 BC.
Marcus Aurelius’s line that “what’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee,” could just as easily be a quip in an upcoming political debate as it could be a New York Times headline. And most impressively, it’s still true and has never stopped being true in the two thousand years since it was first uttered.
Yes, the Greeks and Romans tolerated some truly abominable ideas. Slavery. Rape. Pillaging. Pederasty. Conquest and colonialism. Things that we have vowed to never allow again. But they also nourished a strong sense of community and connection that we struggle to hold onto today. The Stoics believed we were put on this planet for each other. That we each had a role to play in the larger whole, that we must constantly meditate on our sympatheia—on our mutual interdependence.
What good is our success if it comes at the expense of others? What good are we if we can’t help others? We are all bound up in this thing called life together. If we forget that, we’re not only not as advanced or evolved as we think we are, but we are turning our backs on an ancient truth as well.
|Oct 17, 2019|
Time is a Flat Circle
It’s unlikely, given his feelings about the Christians, that Marcus Aurelius ever read any of the books in the Old Testament, but if he had read Ecclesiates he might have liked what he saw. Because like the Stoic observations that fill Meditations, over and over again, this book of the Bible comments on the timeless repetition of history.
“The thing that hath been,” we read in one part, “it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” In another: “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” In another: “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
"Whatever happens has always happened,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this." So maybe he did read Ecclesiates? Or maybe that’s actually the point? Which is that we are constantly discovering the things we forgot and thus independently coming to the same conclusions over and over again.
Marcus wanted to remind himself that his reign was not any different than the reign of Vespasian. It was filled with people doing the same things: eating, drinking, fighting, dying, worrying, and craving. And the future, even with its magnificent technological advancements, would be much the same. Forever and ever.
"Time is a flat circle,” Rustin Cohle says in the first season of True Detective. “Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again forever." And so it was that another generation found out about Nietzche's idea of "eternal recurrence," which is itself that same idea we find in Marcus Aurelius, which is the same idea in the Bible, which probably, and humblingly, goes back even further than that.
But that’s life, the same thing happening again and again, always and forever.
|Oct 16, 2019|
This is How Dumb Anger Is
Seneca wrote eloquently about how absurd the need to “get even” is. No one would think to return a bite to a dog or a kick to a mule, he writes, but when someone hurts us or pisses us off, that’s exactly what we do. We smile and laugh at this clever analogy. He’s right, we think, no one would bite a dog.
Except anger actually does do stuff that dumb to us all the time—or worse! Who hasn’t thrown a television remote that wasn’t working or smacked a vending machine that took your money? Who hasn’t banged on their keyboard when it froze or kicked a child’s toy across the room after painfully stepping on it in the middle of the night? Who hasn’t shouted obscenities at their headphones when your hand gets caught in the cord and you accidentally rip them off your head while walking through an airport or getting into a car? Who hasn’t had to resist the urge to throw their smartphone in the ocean or their golf club into a lake when these objects refuse to do what you have directed them to?
If there weren’t plenty of reasons to be suspicious of anger already, the fact that it compels you to try to physically punish inanimate objects is a pretty good one. The fact that, in anger, we often break or damage our own property—essentially punishing ourselves to send a message to something that by definition cannot receive it—tells us everything we need to know about anger.
Mainly, that it’s blinding, that it’s hard to control, and that it’s shamefully stupid.
So avoid it as much as you can.
|Oct 15, 2019|
Anyone Can Strive for Virtue
“Where are all the Stoic women? Surely this is not a philosophy only for and by men.”
It is a common and reasonable criticism of this philosophy, one that Daily Stoic seeks to understand and ameliorate whenever possible.
Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Lauryn Evarts Bosstick, a wellness influencer who reaches millions of people—mostly adoring young women—through her blog, social media, and podcast. Lauryn is a vocal advocate of Stoicism, so we asked her about why the philosophy can seem so male-centric and and what might be done about it:
I WANT TO CHANGE THIS. It’s so interesting to me how it’s seen as a male dominated philosophy. It has nothing to do with gender, it has to do with just being a better person and being the best version of yourself. My brand ‘The Skinny Confidential’ is all about being the best version of you. It’s not about being someone else, it’s about taking what you have and creating your own strategic future. Anyone can benefit from stoicism because it teaches invaluable lessons like perseverance, serenity, and resilience.
The Stoics believed that philosophy transcended any individual human being or society. It’s not rooted in any one gender, but in the universal principles of life, the human experience.
Musonius Rufus—Epictetus’s teacher—was one of the pioneers of gender equality, at least in philosophy. “It is not men alone who possess eagerness and a natural inclination towards virtue,” he said, “but women also. Women are pleased no less than men by noble and just deeds, and reject the opposite of such actions. Since that is so, why is it appropriate for men to seek out and examine how they might live well, that is, to practise philosophy, but not women?”
Stoicism isn’t male or female. It’s human. It’s for anyone trying to get better. It’s for all of us—since everyone needs more perseverance, serenity and resilience. It’s even for you.
|Oct 14, 2019|
Never Stop Trying To Get Better
The Cynic philosopher Diogenes was once criticized by a passerby for not taking care of himself in his old age, for being too active when he should have been taking it easy and resting. As per usual, Diogenes had the perfect rejoinder: "What, if I were running in the stadium, ought I to slacken my pace when approaching the goal?"
His point was that we should never stop getting better, never stop the work that philosophy demands of us. Right up until the end Diogenes was questioning convention, reducing his wants, challenging power, and insisting on truth.
The Stoics agreed with his view, that old age was no excuse for coasting. In fact, we get the sense that many of the strongest passages in Meditations are written by an older Marcus Aurelius, one who is still frustrated with himself for his anxiety, for his passions, for his less than flawless record when it comes to upholding his positions. In one passage he says it more or less outright: How much longer are you going to keep doing this? You’re old and you still can’t get it right.
But he wasn’t just kicking himself to feel better. He was trying to get himself to be better. He refused to take his foot off the gas. He was going to keep going right on through the finish line, and so should we. No matter how old we are, no matter how long we’ve been at this, it’s far too early to stop now, to say “close enough.”
No, we are going to give our best effort. We’re going to give everything we have, with every day that is given to us...
|Oct 11, 2019|
Tomorrow Will Have Suffering In It
Life is full of suffering, acute and benign. We come down with the flu. We are hit with a costly expense. Someone with power over us abuses their responsibility. Someone we love lies or hurts us. People die. People commit crimes. Natural disasters strike.
All of this is commonplace and inevitable. It happens. Everyday. To us and to everyone else.
That would be bad enough, yet we choose to make this pain worse. How? By pretending we are immune from it. By assuming we will be exempted. Or that only those who have somehow deserved it will find themselves in the crosshairs of Fortune. Then we are surprised when our number comes up, and so we add to our troubles a sense of unfairness and a stumbling lack of preparedness. Our denial deprives us even of the ability to tense up before the blow lands.
“You should assume that there are many things ahead you will have to suffer,” Seneca reminds us. “Is anyone surprised at getting a chill in winter? Or getting seasick while on the sea? Or that they get bumped walking a city street? The mind is strong against things it has prepared for.”
This is premeditatio malorum. What is likely to happen? What can possibly happen? What are the tortures that life inflicts on human beings? And then, more importantly, am I ready for them? Have I strengthened my weak points? Do I have what it takes to endure this suffering?
|Oct 10, 2019|
You Must Carve Out Time For Quiet
According to the philosopher Blaise Pascal, at the root of most human activity is a desire to escape boredom and self-awareness. We go to elaborate measures, he said, to avoid even a few minutes of quiet. It was true even of the people you think had all the reasons to be happy and content.
"A king is surrounded by people,” Pascal wrote, “whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."
It’s an observation that puts Marcus Aurelius in an even more impressive light. Think about it: Marcus Aurelius was surrounded by servants and sycophants, people who wanted favors and people who feared him. He had unlimited wealth but endless responsibility. And what did he do with this? Did he throw himself endlessly into the diversion and distraction these blessings and curses offered?
No. Instead, he made sure to carve out time to sit quietly by himself with his journals. He probed his own mind on a regular basis. He thought of himself--not egotistically--but with an eye towards noticing his own failings. He questioned himself. He questioned the world around him. He refused to be distracted. He refused to give into temptation.
People in his own time probably thought he was a bit dour. They wondered why he did not enjoy all the trappings of wealth and power like his predecessors. What they missed, what’s so easy to miss today in our own blessed lives, is that the true path to happiness is not through externals. It’s found within. It’s found in the stillness. In the quiet. With yourself.
|Oct 09, 2019|
What a Terminal Diagnosis Changes
“What would you do if tomorrow you were diagnosed with terminal cancer?”
We’ve all had a hypothetical question like that thrust in front of us at one point or another. It’s supposed to make us consider how different life might be, how drastic a change we might make if we were suddenly told there was a limit to our time here and that limit was no longer over the horizon but within sight.
It’s a ridiculous thought exercise, not only because every human being already has a terminal diagnosis, but also because living with cancer does not have to ruin your life or even necessarily upend it.
Jonathan Church has brain cancer. He wrote about it in an incredibly powerful article on Quillette about how his study of Stoicism had long prepared him to cope with his mortality—be it a brain cancer diagnosis or otherwise. In a follow-up interview with Jonathan for DailyStoic.com, we wondered if there were any specific practices or daily exercises that help Jonathan continue to live a happy and productive life and not succumb to anxiety and depression:
No lessons, practices, or rituals. No magic trick. No device to be employed in a duel to the death with death itself. Just continuing to read, think, write, and put things into perspective…
I long ago acquiesced to the inevitability of death. I have been thinking about mortality for a long time, not out of morbid interest, but as an outgrowth of philosophical curiosity. That said, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that there is no preparation for the moment when the grip of death is upon you. It will be terrible. No avoiding that. But it’s beyond my control. Best to focus only on optimizing the time I have, rather than wasting it worrying about how to avoid the inevitable, or how to assuage the terror of the moment when it’s upon you. Put off depression and anxiety until that one brief instant when death is upon you, not the life you have to live between now and then.
No seismic revelation, no life-altering changes then, no grand gestures needed. Just the kind of reading and thinking and hard work on one’s self that we should all be doing, whether we’ve staggered out of a doctor’s office with terrible news or not. Marcus Aurelius said, "Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you're alive and able, be good."
That’s it. Today and every day.
It’s hard to do, but we have to try.
|Oct 08, 2019|
What Are We Fighting About, Really?
There’s a great lyric in the bridge of the new Bruce Springsteen song, Tucson Train:
We fought hard over nothin'We fought till nothin' remainedI've carried that nothin' for a long time
Doesn’t that just perfectly capture—in such a sad and telling way—many of our relationships and grudges? We turn nothing into something and then hold onto it like it’s everything until there’s nothing left. Then we wonder why we’re unhappy. We wonder why we’re lonely. We wonder where people we used to love have gone. We wonder where the good times went. The answer: We drove them away. We ground them into dust.
Marcus Aurelius struggled with this, too. He had a problem like we all do with anger and taking offense and getting into arguments and needing to prove people wrong. If he hadn’t, he would have never had to write this little reminder in Meditations.
“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”
It’s heartbreaking. It’s true. And all of us are guilty of it in our own way. What are we fighting about? Why do we so passionately need to be right? Why can’t we just let things go?
If only we could change…
|Oct 07, 2019|
Every Day is a Bonus
Here’s a way to feel good every single day, no matter what happens. A way to appreciate even a day stuck in the airport or putting out fires.
It’s an exercise from Seneca. He said that a person who wraps up each day as if it was the end of their life, who meditates on their mortality in the evening, has a super power when they wake up.
“When a man has said, ‘I have lived!’,” Seneca wrote, then “every morning he arises is a bonus.”
And you know how it feels when you’re playing with house money or when your vacation is extended. In a word? Better. You feel lighter. Nicer. You appreciate everything. You are present. All the trivial concerns and short term anxieties go away—because for a second, you realize how little they matter.
Well, that’s how you ought to live. Go to bed, having lived a full day, appreciating that you may not get the privilege of waking up tomorrow. And if you do wake up—which we hope for all of you—it will be impossible not to see every second of the next twenty four hours as a bonus.
Because they are.
|Oct 04, 2019|
What Is Luck and What Is Not
The philosopher and writer Nassim Taleb once said that, “Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel, or a private jet.” His point was that certain accomplishments are within the reasonable grasp of someone making incremental gains each day. Outsized success and outlier accomplishments require that and extreme luck or timing.
This is worth considering for all of us who grew up being told the world was a meritocracy. Of course, it isn’t. Plenty of brilliant people fail to succeed for all sorts of reasons, and plenty of not-so-brilliant people find themselves successful beyond their wildest dreams. The world is a random, even cruel, place that does not always reward merit or hard work or skill. Sometimes it does, but not always.
Still, perhaps a more usable and practical distinction to make is not between hard work and luck, but between what is up to us and what is not up to us. This is the distinction that the Stoics tried to make and to think about always. Pioneering new research in science—that’s up to us. Being recognized for that work (e.g. winning a Nobel) is not. A committee decides that. The media decides that. Becoming an expert in a field, that’s up to us. We do that by reading, by studying, by going out and experiencing things. Being hired as a professor at Harvard to teach that expertise is not (think of all the people who weren’t hired there over the years because they were female, or Jewish, or Black). Writing a prize-worthy piece of literature—up to us. That’s time in front of the keyboard. That’s up to our genius. Being named as a finalist for the Booker Prize is not.
It’s not that luck, exactly, decides these things, but it is very clearly other people that make the decision. Marcus Aurelius said that the key to life was to tie our sanity—our sense of satisfaction—to our own actions. To tie it to what other people say or do (that was his definition of ambition) was to set ourselves up to be hurt and disappointed. It’s insanity. And it misses the point.
Do the work. Be happy with that. Everything else is irrelevant.
|Oct 03, 2019|
How To Always Be Well
In one of his letters, Seneca tells us of an old Roman pleasantry that friends would exchange when greeting each other: “If you are well,” one would say after inquiring how someone was doing, “it is well and I am also well.”
It’s a nice little custom, isn’t it? If you’re good, I’m good, and everything is good. Nothing else matters.
But of course, because this is Seneca, he couldn’t just leave it there. In fact, telling us about this old expression was just a device to make a point. A better way to say it, he writes, is “‘If you are studying philosophy, it is well.’ For this is just what ‘being well’ means. Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.”
The point is that to the Stoics, the practice and study of philosophy was the only way to make sure all was well, no matter what was happening in the world. At war like Marcus Aurelius? Study philosophy in your tent at night. Unable to submit to Caesar’s tyranny like Cato? Read a little Socrates before your dramatic suicide. Shot down over Vietnam like James Stockdale? Say to yourself, as he did, “I am leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” As in…even in a POW camp, I can still practice and pursue philosophy…and be well for it!
Nobody knows what the day or the week has in store for us. As much as we take care of ourselves and eat well, so much of our health is outside of our control. But the one way we can make sure that we are always well, that we are always getting better (mentally, spiritually, if not physically) is by the books we read, the questions we ponder, and the conversations we have.
Now get studying!
|Oct 02, 2019|
This Is The Key To The Good Life
Why did Marcus Aurelius study philosophy? What were Seneca or Confucius or Buddha trying to achieve as they pored over their books or sat deeply in thought? What have archery masters and Olympic boxing instructors and generals tried to instill in their students and soldiers?
Their aim was, and always has been, stillness.
These thinkers and doers and leaders and achievers, they all needed peace and clarity. They need their charges to be centered. They needed them to be in control of themselves. Because what they were doing was really hard! Just as what you do is really hard! It’s not easy to hit a target or wage a battle or lead a country or write a play. Stillness is the way you get there—internally, mostly—because the world in which we attempt to do these things is often incredibly un-still.
Nearly all the schools and disciplines of the ancient world had their own word for stillness. The Buddhists called it upekkha. The Stoics called it apatheia. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an “evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.” The Greeks had euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians and Romans, aequanimitas. In fact, the last word Marcus Aurelius heard from his dying stepfather, Antoninus, was aequanimitas. Equanimity. Stillness.
Picking up where The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy leave off, Ryan Holiday’s new book, Stillness is the Key, endeavors to bring this ancient ideal into our modern-day lives. A collection of stories drawn from all walks of life, and all schools of thought, Ryan’s book illustrates practical ways to bring some essential stillness into your life.
It’s fascinating, both Epictetus and the Daodejing at one point use the same analogy: The mind is like muddy water. To have clarity, we must be steady and let it settle down. Only then can we see. Only then do we have transparency. Whoever you are and whatever you’re doing, you would benefit from having more of this clarity.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had to wait and see—he had to be still when everyone wanted him to rush into action—to know if his gambit with the Soviet premier would work. In the midst of a busy public life, Winston Churchill had to find hobbies—painting and bricklaying—that would allow him a chance to rest and restore his mind. The art of Marina Abramovic is defined by her presence, her ability in many cases to sit there and do nothing but be—which is one of the toughest things in the world to do.
With stillness, we have a shot at greatness. Not just greatness in performance, but also greatness in personhood. In being human. No one can be a great parent when they’re frantic. No one can be a good spouse if their mind is elsewhere. No one can be creative, in touch with themselves, if they are disassociated or detached from their own soul. The key to the good life—to greatness itself, as Seneca said—is stillness. It’s apatheia. Ataraxia. Upekkha. Euthymia.
Whatever you call it, you need it. Now more than ever before.
|Oct 01, 2019|
The Kind of Politics You Should Study
Following today’s politics is easy. You turn on the news and a bunch of pretty people tell you that your side is good and the other side is irredeemably evil. You pull up social media and you get a bunch of rage profiteers telling you what to be outraged or angry about. Everything is simple and clear cut, compromise is unnecessary, and, in the end, none of it really matters anyway because the world is going to end in 2024 in nuclear holocaust, 2050 from climate change, or any day now in the rapture.
Needless to say, that’s not very valuable or very philosophical. What is a Stoic to do? Especially when politics and participation in the polis and empire was so essential to Zeno and Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Well first, they’d urge you to turn backwards to better understand the present day. Even the early American founders knew this. As John Adams wrote to his son in 1777:
“There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this useful purpose than that of Thucydides…You will find it full of Instruction to the Orator, the Statesman, the General, as well as to the Historian and the Philosopher.”
Indeed, people in the State Department right now are reading Thucydides to better understand the rising threat of China. Countless millions—including many of the Stoics—have read it over the last 2000 years to understand the ethical dilemmas inherent in leadership, in war, in politics, and in life. Because Thucydides was so smart, so timeless, he is able to teach lessons to us even now. And because the countries and the events are so distant and impersonal to us, we can actually hear them and learn them.
And if we’re smart, we can apply them to the political situations we face today. The ones that could desperately use less partisanship and less virtue signaling and a lot more actual wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage.
|Sep 30, 2019|
Just Don’t Make Things Worse
At the beginning of The Odyssey, Zeus utters a famous lament that must, one imagines, be shared by all gods and parents and presidents alike:
This is absurd
But the Stoics also agree with Zeus’s complaint: That humans take this misfortune and compound it. We make things worse than they need to be. By complaining. By quitting. By getting upset about them. By placing blame. By trying desperately to undo what must happen, or to outsmart it by scheme or by bargain. We add folly on top of misfortune.
That’s really the plot of The Odyssey if you think about it. Odysseus is too clever for his own good, and it gets him into trouble constantly. He was almost home, but then he took a nap and his curious men—who he refused to explain himself to—opened a bag of wind that set them back. He was free of the Cyclops—who was awful, yes—but then he had to taunt him, not content to leave well enough alone. It was the costliest of all the errors he made. The whole story is Odysseus making a bad situation worse, over and over again until he is rescued by Athena.
The key to life may not be brilliance or power. What if it’s just not being stupid? What if it’s just not increasing our troubles by adding folly and hubris and greed on top of them? There’s no guarantee, but it’s worth a try…
|Sep 27, 2019|
Planting Trees In Shade We’ll Never Know
Late last year, a man named Ken Watson died at age 87, but before he did, he made sure to gift wrap fourteen presents for his two year old neighbor. He’d always told her that he’d live to be 100, and when that looked like it wasn’t going to happen, he decided he’d need to plan ahead. Which is why, after his death, his own daughter came around with a large bag of presents—enough to provide one per year until the little girl turned sixteen years old.
It’s a beautiful little story that warms the soul. But today, let’s make sure it does more than that. Let’s actually learn from it.
Today’s politics have become sadly lopsided, wherein the elderly now make up one of the largest, most intractable, and most self-interested voting blocs. Despite mounting problems on multiple fronts—from the climate to Social Security to immigration to income inequality—we’re unable to come up with common sense solutions, in part because this group is more concerned with protecting their own short-term interests rather than their grandchildren’s long-term ones. It’s shameful and it’s a betrayal of the goodness that someone like Ken Watson so touchingly illustrated.
There is an old Greek proverb that reads, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” It’s one the Stoics would have agreed with. While Marcus Aurelius and Seneca took pains to discourage chasing legacy or posthumous fame, they did believe it was the philosopher’s duty to serve the common good—to contribute to the Roman Empire in a way that would allow it to stand for future generations. That’s what this notion of sympatheia is partly about as well: we are all connected and related to each other. The idea that life is a zero-sum game, that the ticker starts at zero when you’re born and resets when you die, is ridiculous and pathetic.
While we don’t control what other intransigent people decide to do with their votes, their money, and their influence, we can at least commit to being a little bit more like Ken Watson in our own lives. How can we make sure that we’re investing in and protecting the interests of the people that come after us? How can we pay forward the bounty (and privileges) that our ancestors bequeathed to us? What trees are we planting that others will one day sit beneath?
That’s our job—as citizens and as Stoics. Yes, we have to live here in the present moment and that should be our primary concern. But that cannot come at the expense of the many moments that our children and their children and their children are entitled to experience as well.
Be good to each other. Plant trees.
|Sep 26, 2019|
Put Everything In the Calm and Mild Light
You know sometimes you hear a quote or an aphorism and you think, That’s it. That’s me. That’s my philosophy for life.
Well it turns out that is a pretty common and timeless thing. At the very least, we know it goes back to the time of George Washington. Washington’s favorite play was the play Cato, about the Roman Senator and Stoic philosopher by Joseph Addison. This play, which was written in 1712, was hugely famous in its time, and, with some irony, it might be called the “Hamilton” of the day. It was so familiar to the people in the late 18th century that it could be quoted without attribution and everyone knew exactly where the line came from. And Washington in particular liked to quote one line that must have spoken to him the way those quotes speak to us now—where you just know that nothing will capture what you think and feel about life better than that.
“Free,” he said in a letter to a friend after the Revolution about his return to private life, “from the bustle of a camp and the intrigues of court, I shall view the busy world ‘in the calm light of mild philosophy,’ and with that serenity of mind, which the Soldier in his pursuit of glory, and the Statesman of fame have not time to enjoy.” In fact, in the book The Political Philosophy of George Washington, the author Jeffry H. Morrison notes that in a single two week period in 1797, Washington quoted that same line in three different letters. And later, in Washington’s greatest but probably least known moment, when he talked down the mutinous troops who were plotting to overthrow the U.S government at Newburgh, he quoted the same line again, as he urged them away from acting on their anger and frustration.
In the calm lights of mild philosophy. That’s Stoicism. That’s using Reason to temper our impulses and our emotions. As Epictetus said, it’s about putting our impressions up to the test. It’s what Marcus Aurelius talked about when he said that our life is what our thoughts make it. That what we choose to see determines how we will feel.
We must follow this advice today and every day. It served Cato well and Washington even better. All that we see must be illuminated by the calm lights of mild philosophy. So we can see what it really is. So we don’t do anything we regret. So we can enjoy this wonderful gift of life we possess, whatever our station.
|Sep 25, 2019|
You Must Tame Your Temper
You try to turn on your television, only to find that the batteries in the remote are dead and no one bothered to replace them. Your computer freezes in the middle of finishing something important and you lose hours of work. You’re running late for your child’s soccer game because they’ve been fooling around instead of getting ready to play. You’re trying to change lanes on the freeway, but another driver is too close to your car and won’t give you room to maneuver. And the worse, they flip you off.
What’s the natural response to all of these situations? To get angry.
But, remember, to the Stoics, our “natural” instincts and emotions were something to always question. And sometimes, something to regard with outright skepticism. “The cause of anger is the sense of having been wronged,” Seneca wrote, “but one ought not trust this sense. Don’t make your move right away, even against what seems overt and plain; sometimes false things give the appearance of truth.”
Not everyone has an “anger problem” but anger is a problem for everyone. We all cause ourselves harm through it. We drive people away. We act unreasonably. We say things we regret. We shave minutes off our life–or in some cases, put ourselves in outright danger.
Anger is a problem that people have dealt with for thousands of years. Marcus Aurelius struggled with his temper, and surely his wife did too. Nuns and saints–for all their good work–also had to work at pushing anger away, at making sure they didn’t make themselves miserable. The good news is that all these wise–and very human figures–have developed some pretty brilliant strategies for dealing with their excessive anger. They discovered real insights on how to keep your problems in perspective; how to cool down in the moment, when your anger is pushing you out of control; how to tame your emotions and stay in charge of your temper.
And as usual, the Stoics have some of the smartest and most applicable insights. That’s why we created Taming Your Temper: The 10-Day Stoic Guide to Controlling Anger. 10 days of challenges, exercises, video lessons, and bonus tools based on Stoic philosophy. Materials to help you deal with your anger in a constructive manner. We will give you the tools that you need, not just to manage your anger, but to leave it in the past, so that you can focus on what’s important–living a virtuous and fulfilling life.
Learn from the wisdom of the great thinkers and leaders of history: Marcus Aurelius; Seneca; Abraham Lincoln; Mr. Rogers; and others as well. Use our unique exercises to break free from the cage that anger has built around you and see the world, and yourself, in a new light. Each day, watch a new video from Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, Stillness is the Key, and The Daily Stoic, as he explains the ideas behind the words and sheds light on our path.
Being able to control your anger is a difficult but worthwhile goal. It will take time and effort—and it won’t be free—but by changing your perspective and developing techniques to control your temper, it will ultimately be achievable—and life-changing. Take the first step on the path to a calmer and more fulfilling future. Check out Taming Your Temper: The 10-Day Stoic Guide to Controlling Anger today.
|Sep 24, 2019|
What To Learn From History
When one looks at the dark moments of history, it’s hard not to be a little afraid. Look at what people have done to each other—look at how bad things have gotten. In Seneca’s time, many horrific acts were not only common but commonly accepted. Like decimation, a common enough practice, where one in ten people were killed just to send a message. And that word lives on in the lexicon two thousand years later. Perhaps the terrifying capriciousness of a practice like this is why Seneca tried to reassure himself that there was little use in being scared.
He writes in one of his essays how that if an invader came and conquered your city, the very worst he could do is sentence you to what you’ve been sentenced to from birth—death. Yes, a Hannibal or a Hitler could throw you in chains and drag you away from your family—but the truth is that you were already being dragged away. Yes, each second that ticks by on the clock takes us one instant away from our families. But, “since the day you were born,” Seneca writes, “you are being led thither.”
Sometimes the first time our civilizations realize just how vulnerable we are is when we find out we’ve been conquered, or are at the mercy of some cruel tyrant. We realize that we are mortal and fragile and that fate can inflict horrible things on our tiny, powerless bodies.
So we should study history then for two reasons: One, to gain some humility. We are not nearly as safe or important as we think we are. In the end, each of us is only a statistic. Each of us is at the mercy of enormous events outside our control. Two, to prepare for the reality of this existence. We may face trying times, but nothing can stop us from being brave in the face of them. We can still, always, as Stockdale said, decide how to write the end of our story—and to write it well.
|Sep 23, 2019|
Study The Real Secret of Greatness
When we think of greatness, we think of success. We think of strength. We think of influence. We think of the man or woman exerting their will over the universe, or dominating on the athletic field, or dazzling us with their creative brilliance. We think of the trappings of this greatness: ornate mansions, peak physical conditioning, confidently strolling the halls of power.
Is this really greatness, though? What if the person who has it is actually miserable? If every minute they’re awake they’re driven by demons or insecurities or the need to control and beat other people? How great is greatness if it is constantly on the edge of destroying itself through overreaching or over-doing?
Seneca said that “nothing is great unless it’s also at peace.” What he meant was that stillness and greatness—true greatness, that is—are impossible to separate. It’s stillness that allows us to be great, on the court or in the public sphere or on the page. No one is able to push the bounds of accomplishment if they are distracted or disorganized. At the same time, it’s stillness that allows us to enjoy our accomplishments. What good is becoming a billionaire if all you can think about is how much more there is left to earn? If you’re just comparing yourself to richer people?
Stillness is the key to greatness and the key to happiness (and it’s the title of Ryan Holiday’s new book!). There is little hope and little point to life without it. Stillness is what Stoicism seeks to instill in us—so that we can be better at our jobs, at our responsibilities, and in our quiet moments alone.
Without stillness, we have no greatness. We have only franticness and insatiableness.
|Sep 20, 2019|
Don’t Worry About Them, Worry About Yourself
We spend a lot of time worried about what other people are going to do. Will that colleague muscle you out of the way for the promotion? Will another coffee shop or yoga studio or accountant open up on the block and steal your customers? Is so-and-so out to get you? Is the government plotting to raise your taxes or regulate your industry?
From these fears come many actions. We get them before they get us. We spend money lobbying or setting up defenses. We call up friends or mentors, ranting and raving. The irony is that all this energy and anxiety is taking our eye off the ball. It’s a distraction from our day-to-day responsibility. And, more importantly, history shows that very few empires are destroyed by external forces. They’re usually undone by the hubris and arrogance and selfishness of their own people and leaders. As Pericles famously said, “I fear our own mistakes more than the enemy’s schemes.”
It’s essential that we remember this. We should be far more concerned with our own ego and our own inadequacies than what someone else may do to us. Besides, which do we have more control over? Which can we 100% block? Someone else’s actions? Or our own? Marcus Aurelius put it definitively and adamantly, and which is why today we must chase…
“The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.”
|Sep 19, 2019|
Why Statues Matter
Nobody cared more about statues than the Greeks and the Romans. In fact, the only reason we know what many of the Stoics looked like is because they were preserved in marble by sculptors many thousands of years ago.
The Stoics knew that statues were important. Aristocreon, a nephew of Chrysippus, put up a statue of his uncle—to honor his memory and his role in the founding of Stoicism. The grandfather of Cato was once asked why there was no statue of him. His answer: I’d rather people ask why there isn’t a statue of me than why there is. The idea for the Greeks and Romans was to put up these statues so that we might look up and be inspired by the deeds and the principles of the great men (and women) who came before us.
But today, what statues do we put up? Last year, Michigan became the home of a new statue of Robocop. Most people can agree that statues of Confederate generals (see: traitors) are not appropriate to maintain with public funds. That’s as far as we’re able to go though. We’re not building new statues, that’s for sure. We can hardly agree on who we admire enough to capture in stone or bronze.
That’s really sad and really scary. Because each generation needs guidance. We need to be called to honor the greatness of our past (and in the case of some monuments, reminded of the failures and mistakes civilization has made). We need to see—in tangible form—the principles that we as a people hold dear, that we are aspiring to mirror in our own lives.
A nation—an era—is judged by the monuments it erects just as a home is judged by the art that hangs on its walls. So that’s the question for the world and for you as an individual today: What statues are you putting up? And are you living by the example they stand for?
|Sep 18, 2019|
Don’t Take Control, Take Charge
In her page-a-day book Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, the writer Anne Willson Schaef makes a distinction that the Stoics would have certainly agreed with—there is a difference, she writes, between trying to control everything in your life and taking charge of your life.
|Sep 17, 2019|
You Must Surrender
One way to read The Odyssey is that it’s a story of human perseverance. Odysseus is cunning and determined, he’s willing to do everything and anything to get back to Ithaca...and eventually, because of that, he finally does. That’s certainly the interpretation of Tennyson in his poem “Ulysses”:
|Sep 16, 2019|
Avoid Special Treatment Like The Plague
During the American Revolution—as in any war—the British quite rightly targeted the estates and the landholdings of the leadership on the American side. Because to them, these men weren’t founders—they were instigators. At one point in the war, George Washington’s estate was threatened by advancing troops. Thinking he might be able to save his boss’s property, one of Washington’s overseers rushed out to try to convince the enemy to spare them.
When Washington heard about this, he was not pleased. In fact, he wrote immediately to his staff: I’d rather my home be demolished than receive special treatment. Given our selfish and corrupt modern politics, it’s a remarkable sentiment. Here was a rich, powerful person turning down a favor, not only refusing to profit from his position but actually willingly accepting a potentially massive sacrifice because of it.
Why? Because it was the right thing to do. And as Marcus Aurelius said, that’s all that matters
The Stoics, were, as far as we know, similarly inclined as leaders. When Rome’s finances were in ruins, Marcus Aurelius sold off the treasures of the imperial palace to shore them up. He could have levied high taxes, he could have invaded another country—he could have used his power so that others suffered instead of his family, but he didn’t. Because that would have been unfair. James Stockdale and John McCain turned down special treatment as prisoners of war in Vietnam. They must have ached for even the slightest relief. They were desperate to get home. But they refused to abandon their duty—they would not undermine their country or deprive their fellow prisoners.
This is not to say that a Stoic must decline every perk in life. Or that you can’t be compensated for your work or your success. However, we must always consider whether these perks come at the expense of somebody else, or if our special treatment means neglect elsewhere. What if everyone took advantage of their position? How would the world work? How fair would that be?
We must always do the right thing...even if it comes at great cost.
|Sep 13, 2019|
The Real Terrible Thing
Epictetus could not have summed up Stoicism better than when he said: “It’s not things that upset us, but our judgement about things.” What he meant was that the world is neither positive or negative, it is simply objectively indifferent. A hurricane is a hurricane. Striking gold is simply discovering metal in the ground. It’s our opinions of those events which decide that one is horrible and the other is a blessing.
Of course, Epictetus was not saying there is no such thing as “good” or “bad,” at least as far as morality is concerned. While morality is a judgment, it’s an acceptable one when we apply it to actions that are within our control (that is, our own behavior). The trouble is that we can’t seem to keep these judgments contained to that area of influence. We make up categories and then try to organize the world into them...and are often miserable when fate doesn’t get the memo.
Death, of course, is the ultimate example. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is. Each of us is going to die. That’s a fact. It’s not really a positive or a negative fact, particularly since it carries with it the end of our ability to have an opinion about it. Yet that doesn’t seem to stop us from worrying about it, from spending a lot of time trying to decide what it means and whether we like it or not.
How miserable this makes people! How many awful and stupid things they do to prevent it, from betraying their friends to missing out on enjoying life in misguided attempts to prolong their existence. As Epictetus said, “Death...is nothing terrible, but the terrible thing is the opinion that death is terrible.”
Hopefully you can chew on this a bit today. Death is not bad. It’s simply a fact. Indeed, everything is simply a fact. We’d be happier and more present if we could accept this. If we could stop fooling ourselves into thinking our opinions change anything (except to make stuff worse, most of the time).
No judgment. No need to label or categorize. Just take life as it comes.
|Sep 12, 2019|
It’s Okay To Want, But Not To Need
This was a big argument amongst the early Stoics: What was necessary for the good life? What was actually important to the wise man? They came up with a pretty straightforward but almost impossible to obtain answer: All the wise man should care about is virtue. Everything else—money, fame, family, power, sex—was meaningless. Indifferents.
But as the Stoics went off and lived their lives, this explanation had trouble holding up. Really? Nothing matters except virtue? We have to cut every little pleasure and stroke of good luck out of our lives? There’s no material item or position in the world that is useful or helpful to those pursuing or living with wisdom? That doesn’t sound right.
It was Chrysippus who came up with a better formulation. Basically, he said that a better way to think about it was need vs want. If a person needs to be famous or needs to be rich, they are vulnerable and often unhappy. That’s obviously not wisdom. But does a wise person have to actively avoid making money? Must they live in obscurity? That seems silly. The wise man, he said, is in want of nothing, but can have and enjoy plenty. Meanwhile, the fool can make sure of nothing but desperately wants everything.
Isn’t that perfectly said? And isn’t that the perfect admonishment for us today? Make use of everything we have while we have it and gratefully accept what comes our way…but be perfectly content to live without it if it were to disappear.
|Sep 11, 2019|
A Test of Your Worth
Here’s a question to ask yourself about your work and your life: Do you create value for society or do you extract it? Are you a giver or a taker? Do you make the world better with your choices and actions and lifestyle?
When the Stoics talk about sympatheia, they are referring to this idea that we all have a role, that we’re all part of a larger whole. And, of course, the Stoics were not so naive that they didn’t understand some people’s roles were to be shameless, to be evil, to be lazy, or whatever. (Marcus alludes to an idea in Meditations that even people who are sleeping are doing a job of some kind). But just because that is some people’s role, doesn’t mean it’s a good role or that it should be yours.
It’s worth taking the time on a regular basis to stop and consider what you’re contributing to this whole crazy system we’ve been born into. Marcus said that we were made to do works for the common good. Well, are you? Are you helping people? Is what you sell actually worth people’s money (and therefore time) or are you such a good marketer that you trick them into thinking so?
Decide to create value. Decide to give more than you take. Make the world better by being in it.
|Sep 10, 2019|
Treat People As You Would Be Treated
It must be said that the Stoics were cowardly when it came to slavery. Marcus Aurelius, who believed that we were all part of a common whole, that we were all equal before life and death, who so admired a former slave like Epictetus, who writes at one point about why it would be wrong to have sex with a slave, doesn’t see a problem with owning a person. He had the power to eliminate slavery in the empire, but he just couldn’t do it.
Seneca is an even bigger hypocrite. He writes over and over again about the importance of freedom and kindness and fairness, yet how many slaves did he own? Too many to count. He writes about slavery often in his letters, and you can just feel that as wrong as he knows it is, he can’t come out and question the institution that defined Roman life. He even knows he’s being hypocritical and in Letter XLVII more or less admits it. All he can say is: “But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.”
Perhaps part of the reason that many Stoics had so much trouble with slavery is that as much power as the Romans had over their slaves, there was someone who had that much power over them. The emperor (indeed Marcus for the entirety of his reign) could throw someone in chains, could kill them, could take their possessions or steal the fruit of their labors. This often happened with capricious and devastating cruelty. Selfishly, stupidly, the lesson they took from this was: If someone can do it to me, why can’t I do it to someone else?
They should have really listened to what Seneca was saying, to that timeless and universal idea we see in countless religions and philosophies and now call the Golden Rule. How would you want to be treated by people with power over you? Now why on earth would you treat people you have power over differently than that?
|Sep 09, 2019|
We Admire The Struggle
It was not lost even on the Stoics that some parts of this philosophy come more naturally to some people than others. Some folks just seem chill by default. Some are so-called “old souls” who have wisdom and perspective, almost from birth. Others were not blessed (or cursed) with ambition or opportunities, and so there is very little challenge going on in their life anyway.
Good for them. That’s their lot in life. It’s not ours. It certainly wasn’t Seneca’s.
The rest of us have to struggle. We struggle against our impulses. We struggle to really internalize these teachings. We are struggling to manage our tempers or the envy that creeps up out of nowhere, into our souls, and then out through our hands and mouths as deeds we wish we could undo. It’d be nice if we didn’t have to struggle so much, but we do.
And yet, this struggle—and the triumphs over it, however temporary—that is what’s impressive about us. Seneca wrote that he doesn’t admire the person who has it easy, who is naturally Stoic. No, he admires the man “who has won a victory over the meanness of his own nature, and has not gently led himself, but has wrestled his way, to wisdom.” Seneca reserved his deepest appreciation for the person who’d survived the crucible of ego, who’d navigated the gauntlet of envy and pride, who’d walked through the shadow of the valley of death, but with himself as his own shepherd.
Today, we must continue to wrestle. We must continue to struggle and fight for victory. It won’t be easy—it never is—but that’s the whole point. It’s the man in the arena that we admire. It’s the one covered in dust and sweat that matters. And that’s who we are.
|Sep 06, 2019|
If You Need A Friend…
In her beautiful book about the Los Angeles Public Library fire, Susan Orlean captures the magic of what libraries can offer. She describes walking through the empty library in Downtown LA, not a soul in sight, and feeling connected to all the different voices represented on the millions of pages that surround her.
“A library is a good place to soften solitude,” she writes, “a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.”
Books, in this way, are wonderful friends. They are always there. They speak wisdom, but offer their advice quietly. They have an unlimited capacity for listening. They offer so much and ask for essentially nothing in return.
We can say the same about philosophy, which, of course, mostly comes to us in the form of books. As Seneca said, philosophy offers counsel. It does not yell. It levels no personal attacks. No, it calls for you to be better. It is there whenever and wherever you need it. It softens our solitude. It is a true friend.
Books, especially those about philosophy, are that friend who should always be within arm’s reach, who we should turn to constantly. Today, when we have some downtime. Next week when we run into some trouble. In the morning when we are lonely or struggling to start the day. Pick up a book. Read a passage. Listen to the person who truly believed that if they spoke—if they wrote—someone would listen and that it would make a difference.
They weren’t wrong.
|Sep 05, 2019|
Fulfilling Your Destiny Will Not Be Easy
It’s pretty incredible to think that Hadrian was able to see the potential in Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian somehow, even though Marcus was just a boy, could tell that this kid had something. That he might be able to withstand the stress and temptation and pressures of the empire. What did he see? How did he know?
It’s a mystery. We know that at some point he nicknamed him Verissimus, a pun on his new name M. Aelius Aurelius Verus, meaning truest. But Marcus was a teenager then and there are plenty of “true” teenagers…that doesn’t mean they’ll all be good heads of state. In fact, what’s so impressive about the man that Marcus became is that he was selected so young and he stillturned out to be good. Imagine if you had been told that you would one day be king, imagine if the current king selected you as his favorite—what would that do to your head? (Just look at Marcus’s own son Commodus for a hint)
The point is: A great destiny—which all of us have in our own way, since we are all capable of great things—is no trifling matter. It can be corrupting and distracting. It can be a burden. To fulfill it is not a simple matter of sitting back and waiting for it to happen. No, it must be worked for. It must be earned. We must fight against all the temptations and the entitlements. We must make good on what the world sees in us.
Ultimately, that is what we can learn from Marcus Aurelius and what we should be most inspired by. Hadrian predicted that Marcus could become something special, but Marcus went out and proved him right. Hadrian put Marcus under nearly inhuman pressure and stress by choosing him, but Marcus is the one who decided that he would thrive in spite of it, that he would rise to the challenge and emerge stronger and better for it. Marcus went out and seized his destiny, and earned his crown.
So must we.
|Sep 04, 2019|
The Most Powerful (and Underrated) Force in The World
Marcus Aurelius, on nearly a dozen occasions in Meditations, speaks of reaching or achieving “stillness.” Most beautifully, he writes of trying to be “like the rock that the waves keep crashing over,” the one that “stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” We shouldn’t be surprised to hear him use this word—which sounds Buddhist as much as it sounds Stoic—because it meant a great deal to him. The last word from Antoninus, Marcus’s beloved stepfather, as he passed power to him was simply: Aequanimitas. Equanimity.
Intuitively, instinctively, we know what that means. Stillness. Equanimity. Ataraxia. We also know how rare those feelings are. How often are we still? How often are we able to reach that place of clarity and steadiness inside ourselves? Not often enough, considering the incredible feats of focus and creativity and determination we are capable of when in possession of it.
Do you want more of it? Would you like to be cooler under pressure? Would you like to be like the rock in Marcus’s analogy, the one that can calm great oceans and endure the strongest currents and biggest waves? How much better would you be with more focus, more self-discipline, a happier soul?
The good news is that this what Ryan Holiday’s new book is all about. It’s called Stillness is the Key. And the even better news is that you can preorder it right now. Barnes and Noble even has a limited run of signed copies for sale. At Daily Stoic we’re also offering some cool preorder bonuses for anyone that buys one, five or one hundred copies—in any format, anywhere in the world (details here, please follow the instructions!!).
We live in crazy times. Stillness has been the secret weapon of the Stoics and the Buddhists, the Christians and the followers of Confucius, for thousands of years—for a reason. Because it can help us thrive in a world that’s spinning faster than ever.
Stillness is the key to the good life, whatever that looks like for you. It’s the key to career success, to happiness, to enduring adversity, to appreciating the wonders of existence. You know you want more of it. You know how special it is. We have all felt its power.
So let’s go find it together.
|Sep 03, 2019|
What is Required of You
Marcus Aurelius was an incredibly lucky man. He was born a Roman and he was born a man in a time where to be anything other than a man or a Roman citizen was a position of extreme powerlessness. He was also born to a wealthy family who provided him the best tutors, tutors who loved him and taught him the philosophy that changed his life. He was then adopted into Antoninus’s family (at the request of Hadrian) to set in motion his ascension to the throne, a gift of enormous power, wealth, and responsibility.
It says in the Bible that to whom much is given, much is required. Marcus took this idea quite seriously. Not only was he not one of those dilettante emperors, he also saw the gifts he had been given as an obligation to do good, to be of service—that it wasn’t about him, but about what he was called to do. So when Rome’s finances were shaky, he sold off imperial treasures to pay down the empire’s debts. When estates were left to him, he could have easily accepted them and increased his family’s wealth while in office, like so many politicians before and since have done. Instead, he found the deceased’s distant relatives and gifted it to them (when his own father died, Marcus passed his rightful inheritance to his sister). We can see in Meditations just how difficult and stressful all this responsibility was on Marcus...yet there was no complaining, no ethical lapses, no regrettable mistakes.
Much was given to him at birth and in life, and he rose to the occasion. He did what was required of him and more.
So today, think about your own good fortune and the gifts you have received—by nature of where you’ve been born (and when), because of who your family is or the success you’ve had. There is no such thing as a free lunch. There are always strings. In this case, you are now obligated. Much is required of you. You are required to be good. To give back. To help others, to sprinkle some of your stardust on other people.
|Sep 02, 2019|
Heaven Beside You…Hell Within
It’s late summer now and you might be thinking it’s time to squeeze in a last minute vacation. Or maybe you’ve been looking forward to a long-planned one to some distant location. This is just what I need, you’re thinking. I can’t wait to get out there on the beach…or the mountains…or those beautiful ruins.
We think we can escape from our job. From our problems. From our depression. From our low-grade dissatisfaction with our ordinary lives. But what do we find when we arrive to the exotic location? After we check in to the hotel or the Airbnb? We find, after the rush wears off, that we don’t feel any different. We brought ourselves with us…the true source of our unhappiness.
Seneca was an avid traveler who saw how often his fellow tourists were in denial, how they foolishly thought a change of scenery could exempt them from the real inner-work they needed to do. He liked to quote Epicurus who said that “every man flees himself.” We can imagine Seneca enjoying the lyric from a song by Alice in Chains: heaven beside you…hell within.
That’s why vacations often disappoint. Because as beautiful as they are, as much as we design them for relaxation, they are incapable of overriding our anxiety and our dysfunction. If our soul is tense, no amount of massages will relax it. If our mind is chaos, no amount of time in the water will order it. If our life is a mess, eventually we’ll have to return to it–and all the tours and long dinners will evaporate it in a minute.
If you want to be happy, if you want to relax, look inward. Do the work. Not only will you be happier at home, but you’ll enjoy your time on the road more too.
|Aug 30, 2019|
Where is The Courage?
These are times of increasing political extremism. They are also times of corruption and rising inequality. Enormous, alarming trends are sweeping through culture, government, and the economy. In some sense this is new, but in other ways it’s a story as old as civilized society.
So the question is not why or what or who or even how—it’s where. Where is the courage? Where are the people standing up to stop all this? Where are the heroes, big and small? The city council member who refuses to rubber stamp the pocket-lining policies of her fellow council members. The parent who turns in their own child for his alarming obsession with guns. The celebrity who uses their platform to speak truth, rather than pile onto whatever the mob has decided is right.
To the Stoics, courage was the greatest of the virtues. Being brave enough to take a stand, to risk one’s own neck. To throw yourself in front of the car to save someone else. Or, as Mario Savio put it on the Berkeley campus in the 1960s during the Free Speech movement, “to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus…to make it stop.”
Courage was also independence. Refusing to cow to the majority, and instead to hold oneself to a higher standard. That standard was justice, another essential virtue. That meant insisting on what was right. Attacking corruption, intolerance for unfairness. Protecting the downtrodden or the weak.
Are there still heroes out there? Yes. We see it in Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who died protecting her rabbi from a gunman. We see it in James Melville, the ambassador who resigned on principle after Trump’s comments about NATO. We see it when people admit they were wrong. When academics challenge political correctness and orthodoxy. We see it when a classmate stands up to a bully. We see it when a fireman rushes into a building, or when a police officer runs towards the shooting. When the ordinary person says, “Hey, don’t say things like that. Don’t treat other people that way. It’s not right.”
But we don’t see it enough. In part because we don’t do it enough ourselves.
|Aug 29, 2019|
It’s Easy To be Sad
In his new book, Comedy Sex God (as well as on his wonderful podcast and on his HBO show) the comedian Pete Holmes talks about the aftermath of the dissolution of his marriage. After his wife cheated on him and their subsequent divorce, he was hit with a long developing crisis of faith in the religion he had grown up with.
He describes this period as many nights on the road. Lots of work. Lots of drinking. Lots of crying. Lots of Counting Crows songs on repeat. And while that all seems very tough, the interesting part about it, he says, looking back, is how easy it was. How comfortably he slipped into this depression and came to feel at home in it. He almost looks back at the period fondly now, as if remembering a long morning under the warm covers.
This is something the Stoics were quite aware of as well, and why they urged us to be wary of our passions. It’s not that they felt that emotions were bad, it’s that they knew how easy it was to slip into them and be consumed by them. When we lose someone we love, grief is natural. It can also be tempting to simply take residence inside that grief as a way of protecting ourselves from ever getting hurt again. When we run into difficulty, it’s natural to be sad about it. And we can quite easily adopt this sadness as our new world view, when the braver thing is actually to make ourselves vulnerable again in the pursuit of something to be hopeful and happy about.
One of the key virtues of Stoicism is moderation. Not too little. Not too much. Just the right amount. It’s easy to overindulge your emotions, as Pete Holmes did for so long on the road as a comic. It’s easy to block them off entirely, as Stoicism has been wrongly criticized for advocating for centuries.
The truth is, neither absence nor abundance is the right path. Because neither is a path toward anything at all. And what is life but a path whose twists and turns are ours to carve with our own two feet.
|Aug 28, 2019|
Forgiveness Isn’t Easy, But It’s Essential
The great C.S Lewis observed that we all find forgiveness to be a lovely idea...right up until we have someone to forgive. It’s true. Forgiveness is one of those virtues that’s easy to talk about, but incredibly hard to practice. Particularly when we are hurt, or when we have been seriously wronged. Yet, isn’t that sort of the point? Forgiveness wouldn’t be that impressive, it wouldn’t be that meaningful, if it came naturally. If it could be so easily tossed off.
Think of Laura Tibbetts, whose daughter was killed by an undocumented immigrant in 2018. After the body was discovered, all sorts of letters poured in. People tried to stoke her passions to make her angry. This is why we need to build a wall, they said. Those people are animals. We need to protect ourselves.
And what did she do?
She opened her home to a young boy whose parents were also undocumented immigrants and had worked in the very same fields as the man who had murdered her daughter. That’s not just a lovely example of forgiveness, it’s a profoundly virtuous and impressive thing to do. There must be so much pain in Laura’s heart, so much anger. Yet she has risen above it. She has found a way to see through the rage and the hurt to find something common in their shared humanity. Something she could support and care for, rather than dismiss or rail against.
The Stoics believed that these sorts of gestures were the essence of greatness. They believed these were the moments we train for. It’s easy to say that forgiveness is important. It’s easy to talk about sympatheia, or how we are all part of a larger whole, alongside our fellow humans. But it is so hard to do. Because life challenges us. Life throws tragedy at us. Instead of calling us to be better, to live up to a higher standard, the media and our fellow citizens often try to drag us down into the mud, encouraging our basest instincts.
We have to keep reaching for that higher standard, though. We have to push through the pain and the anger. We have to pull ourselves out of the mud. We have to forgive. We have to try to be good...and in the process, be great.
|Aug 27, 2019|
Don’t Forget To Go Home
The busier we get, the more we work, even the more that we learn and read, the further we tend to drift from our center. We get in a rhythm. We’re making money, being creative, we’re stimulated and busy. It seems like everything is going well. But if we’re not careful, those other things grow and grow until they take over completely; and what once felt like a rhythm now feels like a rut.
It’s true for us now just as it was true for Marcus Aurelius. He had an awful lot to keep him busy, to distract him, to push him further and further, which in turn afforded him less and less time for that which really mattered to him: philosophy. We get a good sense of how he thought about his priorities with this analogy in Book 6 of Meditations:
“If you had a stepmother and a real mother, you would pay your respects to your step mother, yes...but it’s your real mother you’d go home to.
The court...and philosophy: Keep returning to it, to rest in its embrace. It’s all that makes the court—and you—endurable.”
His point was that you should return to that which nourishes you. Sure, you have to earn a living and contribute to society (or deal with the court or the demands of office, in Marcus’s case). You may have hobbies and other obligations too. That’s perfectly fine. Just remember that those are your step-parents. Important, but they don’t change who made you.
Philosophy is the essential, centering pursuit. It challenges us. It requires work and reflection and self-criticism. It requires that we hold ourselves to certain standards and that we hold ourselves to account when we fail to. It’s the real work, not the busy work. Philosophy is what birthed you, raised you, and continues to re-make you as life goes on. Don’t let some momentum in your other pursuits fool you into thinking you no longer need it. It’s home. Make sure you’re paying the proper respects. Make sure you’re going back often, so that today’s rhythm does not become tomorrow’s rut.
|Aug 26, 2019|
It’s About What You Do (And Don’t Do)
“If it is not right, do not do it,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “if it is not true, do not say it.” But it’s worth pointing out that as a philosophy, Stoicism demands more of us than just this negative. As Marcus would also point out, “Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.”
So, first, do not lie. But, second, sitting by and allowing a lie to stand? These can both be injustices. No Stoic would argue that fraud is permissible. But what if you witness fraud? What if you suspect a fraud is occurring at your work or in your industry or in government? Nassim Taleb bridges these two quotes from Marcus perfectly: “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”
Be the person that stands up. Be the person that lends a hand. Be the person that actively does good, that is courageous and generous. It’s not enough to simply not do wrong. We are called to do more than that, we are held to a higher standard. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is the line. It’s true. Don’t turn a blind eye. Don’t make it someone else’s problem.
Do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
|Aug 23, 2019|
Look With Both Eyes
One way to look at an iconic or important landmark like the White House is with reverence. This is the seat of a global power. This is where Kennedy stared down the Cuban Missile Crisis. It represents freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Another way would be with a slightly more cynical eye: This is a house built by slaves. It’s actually not even that old—most of it was torn down and rebuilt during the Truman Administration. Look at all the idiots who have lived there, this house allowed the Civil War to happen, it perpetuated Vietnam, it’s where sleazebags preyed on interns.
Which of these two attitudes is correct? The Stoics would argue that they both are and that both perspectives—at different times—are key to doing the right thing. A person working in government service at the White House can use the positive legacy of the institution as a form of inspiration, as a call to a higher standard of behavior. This is a special place. I must do it justice. This kind of reverence can draw the best out of a person, even in difficult or tempting situations. But at the same time, a person who is too reverent, or who has projected too much of their own idealism onto a place or an organization can find themselves bending the truth to protect it. Or doing unethical things to maintain their job inside it. I’m not going to jail because the guy holding this office for four years is asking me to lie for him. The President isn’t a king—he’s a public servant like every other person in the government. We can use cynicism productively. It, to use Marcus Aurelius’s phrase, helps strip things of the legend that encrusts them and gives us an objective view.
A person who understands the legacy of the White House from both perspectives is less likely to do something wrong, more likely to be courageous than a person who has just one view. And the same applies for so many different things. How do you see marriage? How do you see money? How do you understand the history of your country or your race or your industry? Being written about in the New York Times or winning a Nobel Prize?
You want to see the higher essence of things...and their lower nature. You want to see the ideal...and the reality. Be blinded by neither. Deceived by neither.
|Aug 22, 2019|
But What If We’re Wrong?
In several of Seneca’s letters he speaks about the power of bloodletting as a medical practice. In one, he actually remarks—with some superiority—how earlier generations had not yet discovered bloodletting and suffered for it. Marcus Aurelius hints at some other medical practices. He speaks of the treatment for ophthalmia—inflammation of the eye—and how doctors treated it with a bit of egg yolk. We also know that his doctor Galen gave Marcus opium for various pains and illnesses in old age.
Needless to say, none of these treatments are accepted or prescribed anymore. It’s interesting that the Stoics, who were so good at extrapolating out from the past, didn’t take a lesson from this—that so much of what we are certain about today will be disproven in the future. That the so-called ‘wisdom’ of the present is often embarrassingly wrong and nothing illustrates this better than medicine. Imagine: We used to take really sick people, cut open their veins and pour their blood out as a form of healing. Do you think it finally occurred to Seneca as he was forced to commit suicide using basically that exact methodology just how absurd the practice was?
The point is (and it’s a point well made in Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong?) that we should always be questioning the status quo—and majority opinion. Not because it’s always wrong, but because it sometimes is. We should be intellectually humble because science and time have a way of humbling us. So too do history and ethics. Seneca thought he was superior to his fellow Romans because he treated his slaves kindly...a distinction we no longer give much credit for.
Take it as fact that much of what we think we know will be proven wrong. Much of what we think makes us vastly more informed than the generation of our parents will not hold up well by the time our children are our age. Question everything. Don’t be too attached to anything.
It’s all changing. And we are so, so wrong.
|Aug 21, 2019|
What Kind of Ambition To Have
There are different kinds of ambition. There was, on one end of the spectrum, the ambition of someone like Abraham Lincoln. This was the ambition that taught him to read, that braved the wild Mississippi River, that learned the law, that worked his way up from poverty into the presidency, and, eventually, kept America from permanently tearing itself apart. Then there is Seneca’s ambition. He too was driven and talented and yearned for a chance to change the world. But it’s also clear that he wasn’t always principled, that he was perhaps a bit too in love with power, and possibly with money. Lincoln’s ambition ended slavery. Seneca’s enabled Nero.
In the contrast between the two—and between pure and self-interested ambition everywhere—we find the truth of the observation in the novel What Makes Sammy Run?—
“What a tremendous burning and blinding light ambition can be where there is something behind it, and what a puny flickering sparkler when there isn’t.”
This is clearly good ambition. The world needs more of that. It needs people who want to improve the world and themselves. Who, above all, are committed to virtue—to justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage. More directly we need you to be one of those people, to have that kind of ambition and to set about your life doing whatever it is you are called to do.
|Aug 20, 2019|
Be Aware, But Not Troubled
There is a balance to Stoicism between awareness and anxiety. The Stoics want you to be prepared for an uncertain—and oftentimes dangerous—future, but somehow not worry about it at the same time. They want you to consider all the possibilities...and not be stressed that many of those possibilities will not be good. How exactly is that supposed to work?
The answer lies simply in the idea of presence. As Seneca writes:
“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives.”
It may well rain tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you have to get wet in advance. You can enjoy the sunshine today, while still bringing in your furniture just in case. It’s important not to take the phrase premeditatio malorum (a premeditation of evils) too singularly. When Seneca says that all the terms of the human lot should be before our eyes, and then lists only the bad things, he’s accidentally doing that. Because of course good stuff can happen too. Bad stuff can not happen also.
The point is that the future is out of our control. It is uncertain, and also vast. We have to be aware of that, yes, but we don’t need to suffer, particularly not in advance. Because we have plenty of time to prepare, and plenty of wide open present before us still as well.
|Aug 19, 2019|
This Is The Secret To Wealth
What is wealth? It’s having plenty, right? The variables in the equation are pretty simple. What you have, what you’ve got coming in, and what’s going out. If those are in proper proportion to each other, you’re covered. Except what we tend to miss in this equation is another set of hidden variables that most often take the shape of our relative needs and wants.
Most people accumulate their wealth by earning as much as they can. That’s why they work so hard. Why they take so many risks. Why they invest. But the reason they do this is not to be covered—it’s because they have told themselves that what they need is more, more, more, and that what they have already is not enough.
Seneca, himself a very rich man, did that. The astounding financial benefits of working for Nero had to be partly what attracted him to the tyrant’s service. If only he could have listened to his own advice (which he borrowed from Epicurus): “If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.”
The Stoics would say that for a virtuous person, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be wealthy. It can provide comfort, security and, quite possibly, a platform to do good for the world. They would just urge you to take a minute to think about what your definition of wealth is—and whether you might already have everything you’ve always wanted.
There’s more than one way to solve this tricky wealth equation, and in your case it may just be that subtraction is easier than multiplication. That changing your understanding of what it means to be rich might be more important, and easier, than changing the number of digits to the left of the decimal point in your bank balance.
|Aug 16, 2019|
Be Obsessed With Living
There is a morbid theme running through the music of Johnny Cash. His deep, haunting voice is rarely far from a lyric about death or murder or loss or grief. He has songs about soldiers killed in Vietnam, songs about dying cowboys on the streets of Laredo, about tragic rifle accidents, songs about salvation and damnation, songs about tragedy and war. Famously, he performed almost his entire career dressed in black—like he was on his way to a funeral.
So it’s not a stretch to think he might have been a bit preoccupied with the idea of mortality. In an interview with Neil Strauss, Cash explained that this was the wrong way to see it:
"I am not obsessed with death. I'm obsessed with living. The battle against the dark one and the clinging to the right one is what my life is about. In '88, when I had bypass surgery, I was as close to death as you could get. The doctors were saying they were losing me. I was going, and there was that wonderful light that I was going into. It was awesome, indescribable — beauty and peace, love and joy — and then all of a sudden, there I was again, all in pain and awake. I was so disappointed. But when I realized a day or so later what point I had been to, I started thanking God for life and thinking only of life.”
There’s a similar tendency to think that the Stoics were obsessed with death, particularly Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. (Seneca talked about death so much that there is a recently published collection of his writings on the topic actually titled How To Die). But if they were given a similar chance to comment, like Johnny Cash did, about their fixation with death, we might expect a similar response.
They weren’t obsessed with dying but with living. They wanted to get the most out of every minute of this uncertain existence we have all been given. It happens that meditating on our mortality is a powerful way to do that. Memento Mori is an exercise that makes sure we are awake, grateful, and at peace. It prepares us for the inevitability of what is to come, while allowing us to seize every second between now and then.
That might seem counterintuitive, but it actually makes perfect sense. If you know death is inevitable, and that there is nothing you can do about it, and you have no idea when it will come, well then what’s the alternative? Or as Andy Dufresne says to his friend Red, in The Shawshank Redemption, when they’re talking about what they’d do if they ever got out: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice: get busy living or get busy dying.”
Which is why we should start this morning with gratitude and urgency, with appreciation and awareness. How much time any of us have left is not up to us—but what we do with that time? That’s our call. That’s our song to sing.
|Aug 15, 2019|
If You Were Tried, Would You Be Convicted?
One of the undeniable realities of the history of religion is persecution. The Christians have been persecuted. So have the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Mormons, even the Buddhists and Confucians. In some cases, these religions persecuted each other. In other cases, it was tyrannical governments that tried to stamp out all faiths with equal zeal.
Although less common, philosophy and philosophers have been persecuted too (and persecuted others, as Marcus and other emperors did with early Christians). Epictetus, for instance, was banned from Rome as part of a blanket ban on philosophers by Emperor Domitian in 93 AD. Later, as the Christians took over Rome, philosophers were subjected to persecution and sometimes mob justice.
The point is: Although it is less common today, ‘believing’ in something can cost you everything. We are not—and have not been—as tolerant as we like to think we have been and having faith in something in this world can be a revolutionary act. Which calls to mind an interesting question posed by a Christian theologian. He asked, as a kind of test to people who liked to call themselves Christians but ignore the actual tenets of the religion: If you were arrested and tried for being a Christian, would you be convicted? Or do your actions speak louder than any profession of belief?
That’s a question for all of us today, whatever we believe, and most of all for this philosophy we are studying. Could you actually be convicted of being a Stoic? Does your behavior match what you claim to be? It was obvious that Epictetus was a philosopher, even if he’d denied it. Same with Marcus, same with Seneca. But you? Are you guilty of truly practicing philosophy? Or just the minor crime of association?
|Aug 14, 2019|
What Will You Do Next?
The Stoics believed that stressful and dangerous situations unfold like this:
Something happens—we wake up to reports that the stock market has taken a dive, we get screamed at by our boss, the doctor raises an eyebrow and recommends we go in for further testing…
And this provokes a reaction—not a good one either. A scared one. Or an angry one. Something emotional. Or we go the opposite way and we just shut down, paralyzed by the events.
The Stoics called these involuntary and immediate impressions that we form in response to bad news or stress phantasiai. Contrary to what you might think, the Stoics were quite sympathetic to these reactions. They understand them as natural, and largely out of our control. You throw something surprising at someone...and they’re going to be surprised. That’s how it works. That’s why it’s called ‘surprise.’
Stoicism is not a philosophy meant to show you how to stop that. Instead, what Stoicism is about is what to do next. What to do after the involuntary first impression has been given its moment. As Donald Robertson writes in his wonderful book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, “The Stoic tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond.”
It’s perfectly reasonable to tremble in the face of danger, he says, and it was likely that Cato and Marcus Aurelius were scared on the eve of battle or before an important speech. But we don’t hold that against them, because what mattered is what they did next.
They led the charge. They gave the speech. They did the right thing anyway. They transcended their phantasiai.
And so must you.
|Aug 13, 2019|
You Don't Need Credit
Perhaps you remember reading The Odyssey in high school or college (or possibly you picked up Emily Wilson’s fabulous new translation). Even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with the cyclops scene. Odysseus and his men find themselves trapped in a cave with Polyphemus, the deranged, man-eating, sheep herding, one-eyed beast. Odysseus hatches an ingenious escape plan: they wait for the cyclops to fall asleep and then stab him in the eye with a sharpened log. Enraged and blinded, Polyphemus staggers to remove the stone he had rolled in front of the entrance of the cave, which frees Odysseus and his men.
It’s brilliant and, best of all, Odysseus, never having given the cyclops his real name, is off scot-free. But then, just out of reach of the bleeding, angry, shouting cyclops, he turns back and taunts:
Your eye was mutilated and made blind,
Say that Odysseus, the city-saker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
Destroyed your sight.”
Odysseus just couldn’t help himself. He wanted the credit. And he stupidly forgot that Polyphemus’ father was Poseidon, and that the lord of the sea was unlikely to act kindly towards someone who had blinded his son. This moment of hubris cost Odysseus something like ten years of his life, as Poseidon threw up countless obstacles, one after the other, between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, back home in Ithaca. It’s a lesson that many people have heeded (and plenty of others have painfully forgotten) ever since.
Marcus Aurelius, for his part, talked often about the worthlessness of credit. So you did a good thing, he says, why do you need to be thanked for it? It felt good to do, it helped someone else, why do you need the third thing of credit or recognition or gratitude? The same goes for a clever plan or successful business deal. Do you really need people to know you pulled it off?
The answer is that you don’t. In fact, it’s usually better not to get credit (because the ‘right thing’ is not always appreciated, because other people might get jealous, because it puffs up your ego). Think about that today, and remember it always. You don’t need credit. That’s not what should motivate you.
Do the right thing because it’s right. Pursue excellence because that’s what you do. Leave the recognition and the rewards alone.
|Aug 12, 2019|
We All Must Go Into The Wilderness
Seneca was exiled once in AD 41 and then again from Nero’s service at the end of his career. Epictetus was exiled in Nicopolis, Greece by the Emperor Domitian. Publius Rutilius Rufus, the Roman tax official who was convicted on false charges, was exiled to Asia. Stoicism and exile seems to go hand in hand.
Winston Churchill, who himself spent about 10 years in political exile after WWI, once wrote that:
“Every prophet has to come from civilization, but every prophet has to go into the wilderness. He must have a strong impression of a complex society and all that it has to give, and then he must serve periods of isolation and meditation. This is the process by which psychic dynamite is made.”
The period of difficulty and loneliness and loss that Seneca and Epictetus went through—this was not simply some bad period in their life. No, it was a formative, soul-strengthening, priority-clarifying experience that made them who they were. Publius Rutilius Rufus not only wasn’t bitter about the slanderous accusations and the trumped up political attack he was a victim of, he chose Asia as his exile—where he could go back to be with the citizens who actually appreciated his honesty and hard work. It was an awful experience, to be sure, but he accepted it with cheerful Stoicism.
Psychic dynamite is not just handed to us. We aren’t born resilient or with confidence. We have to earn it. We have to make it. And that is only possible in difficult circumstances, it can only be found in the wilderness, where we are alone, where we are forced to adapt and adjust to circumstances outside our control.
It won’t be fun, but it is essential.
|Aug 09, 2019|
Be A Generalist
If you look at any of the great Stoics, you’ll notice that philosophy was just one of their many diverse interests. Seneca was a philosopher and a playwright and a political advisor. Marcus Aurelius was dabbling in philosophy...as he had the most important job on the planet. Cato was a senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar. Cleanthes was a boxer and a water-carrier. And Zeno, the founding teacher of the philosophy, began his career as a successful merchant voyager.
The stereotype of the philosopher is one who spends all day and night with their dense textbooks and their denser thoughts. When the truth is that the great philosophers we hold up as having made these brilliant insights into human nature and the human experience were reading and studying philosophy in addition to many other endeavors and activities. They, David Epstein would say, had “range,” they were “generalists.” In his new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein put to bed the myth that going all in on a particular field is the key to lasting success. As he told us in our interview for DailyStoic.com:
We miss out on wisdom if we’re too narrow...Specialists become so narrow that they actually start developing worse judgment about the world as they accumulate knowledge...Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer is your ability to take knowledge and skills and apply them to a problem or situation you have not seen before. And your ability to do that is predicted by the variety of situations you’ve faced...As you get more variety, you’re forced to form these broader conceptual models (in the classroom setting called “making connections” knowledge), which you can then wield flexibly in new situations.
One can imagine Zeno translating things he learned on the open sea as a merchant into lessons for his students at the Stoa. Maybe Cleanthes discovered something about himself during his manual labors. It's unquestionable that Marcus Aurelius's real world responsibilities provided insights for his philosophical studies and vice versa. As for Seneca, his philosophy influenced his politics and his bloody and dark plays are undoubtedly influenced by what he experienced walking the halls of power.
The more things we open ourselves up to, the more we experience, the better philosophers we’ll be, the better leaders, employees, individuals we’ll be. Today, put an emphasis on variety, on opening yourself up to the opportunity of being a little outside your comfort zone. Read philosophy. Read subjects outside your field. Pursue those curiosities you’ve been postponing. Say yes to the experience you’re reluctant to make time for.
You’ll be better for it.
P.S. Check out our full interview with David Epstein and if you haven’t already, check out his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
|Aug 08, 2019|
How Not To Be Angry
One gets the sense that Seneca, like many smart and active people, was often frustrated by other people. It is inevitable that someone like him—someone creating art, actively participating in government, managing properties, etc—would have regularly found his interest and his will thwarted. Perhaps a neighbor opposed some changes he was making to his land. Or an intriguing enemy at the palace sought to undermine him with the emperor. Maybe his brother jostled for an inheritance. Maybe he bumped into a rude person in the street.
These are timeless and common occurrences. And, quite naturally, they are prone to make us angry—especially if we impute the least charitable motivations on the other party. My neighbor is trying to screw me over. So and so wants my job. My brother is up to his old tricks. This guy is a selfish jerk.
When we think this way, we get angry. It’s hard not to. Which is why Seneca—from experience—said that we have to resist. Instead, we should try to go through life like a lawyer...or rather like a public defender. We must, he said, “plead the case of the absent defendant despite our own interests.” That is, really take the time to think about what is motivating other people. Take the time to act as if we are trying to help them escape punishment from the judge and jury that is the emotional and vindictive part of our mind (Oh, he really just wants what’s best for everyone. My brother doesn’t know better. This guy didn’t mean to bump into me—he’s just having a hard day). Don’t just fight to see the worst, fight to see their side.
When we do this, when we give people the benefit of the doubt—the presumption of innocence instead of the presumption of guilt and ill-motives—everything relaxes. We can forgive. We can find common ground. We can focus on what is actually important...our own behavior.
|Aug 07, 2019|
What Do You Gain By Worrying?
When did Jesus deliver his famous Sermon on the Mount? We don’t know. But we know that Seneca and Jesus were born at roughly the same time and were part of the same massive empire. As far distant as the Mount of Beatitudes was from Rome, the men were thinking and speaking about very similar things.
Certainly Seneca, who wrote so much about the futility of anxiety and fear and the inevitability of death, would have agreed with that famous line from the sermon:
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? So if you cannot do such a small thing, why do you worry about the rest?”
Jesus believed that what happened to human beings was more or less up to God. Seneca that it was more or less up to fate. Both agreed—and even used the same word—the logos. The Way. To worry, to think that biting your nails accomplished anything? This was to doubt the logos. This was to break faith, and to abandon the considerable power that God (or the Gods) had already given us: to focus on what was in our control, to take advantage of the free will and the life we do have in this very moment.
This is a two-thousand-year-old, cross-cultural, philosophical, and religious insight. And yet what are most of us wasting our time with today?
|Aug 05, 2019|
Winning The Ultimate Victory
There is a tradition in Stoicism that few notice, but is possibly one of the most inspiring and chilling parts of the entire philosophy. There’s no real polite way to describe it other than “badass last words.”
Seneca tells the story of Julius Canus, a philosopher who was sentenced to death by Caligula. As he awaited his death sentence, he casually played a game with a fellow prisoner. When the executioner came down to take him from his cell, Canus simply got up and said, “You will testify that I was one piece ahead” and then went off to his death. As he waited to die, he saw his weeping friends. “Why are you sorrowful?” he said. “You ask if souls are immortal: I shall soon know.” Seneca, for his part, received a similar sentence. As his friends and family wept around him, he joked, “Who here is surprised at Nero’s cruelty?”
There are many other such lines in the history of Stoicism. Theodorus was threatened not only with death but a particularly undignified one. “‘You have the right to please yourself,’ Seneca relates of Theodorus’ last words, “‘and the power to take half a pint of my blood; for as far as burial is concerned, what a simpleton you are, if you think it matters to me whether I rot above or below ground!’” Even in the American Revolution, lines like “I regret I have but one life to give for my country,” were directly inspired by the Stoics—in fact, they were cribbed from the play Cato, which was extremely popular at the time.
In his essay on heroism, Emerson would comment, “that which takes my fancy most in the heroic class, is the good-humor and hilarity they exhibit.” He quotes this passage from a famous 17th century play:
Jul: Why, slaves, 'tis in our power to hang ye.
Master: Very likely,
'Tis in our powers, then, to be hanged, and scorn ye.
Another badass line for sure.
The ultimate victory then is not just to be unafraid of being challenged or beaten. It’s to transcend the situation—to so keep our wits about us in the moment that we can even joke about it. To find humor in even the darkest and worst of situations.
And when humor doesn’t suffice for the situation, we can instead stand calmly yet defiant in the face of Fate.
|Aug 02, 2019|
Try The Opposite Remedy
In his essay Of Clemency, Seneca tells a story of a time Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, had his temper severely tested. Augustus receives intelligence that a man named Lucius Cinna was conspiring against him. Augustus summoned a council of close friends to consult on his plan to have Cinna executed. When the group agreed unanimously against Augustus’s retaliation scheme, he blew a fuse, racked equally with anger and fear.
His ranting and screaming met only silence from the group he gathered, broken only by more ranting and screaming. Finally, Augustus’s wife intervened:
“Will you take a woman’s advice? Do what doctors do when the usual prescriptions have no effect: try the opposite remedies. Strictness has gotten you nowhere...Now try and see how far clemency gets you: forgive Lucius Cinna. He’s been caught and now can do you no harm, though he can do your reputation some good.”
Augustus thanked his wife, called the meeting adjourned, and summoned Cinna to make amends. Cinna became Augustus’s “most grateful and loyal adherent,” Seneca reports. “And no one ever again formed any plot against him.”
Even if you never find yourself the ruler of an empire or the target of a murder plot, this advice applies to so many circumstances. “What assistance can we find in the fight against habit?” Epictetus asked. Then answered, “Try the opposite!” Viktor Frankl liked to cure neurotic patients with a method called “paradoxical intention.” For insomnia, for instance, instead of standard therapies, his cure for the patient was to focus on not falling asleep.
Whether the enemy is a conspirator, a bad habit, or trouble falling asleep, sometimes the best course of action, the best remedy, is to do the last thing they (or it) would ever expect you to do. Break the pattern. Try the opposite.
|Aug 01, 2019|
Be Careful About Who You Want To Impress
When you listen to people talk about choices they regret, whether it was working for the guy who put on Fyre Fest or joining a gang or a cult, it’s remarkable how much it comes down to wanting to impress someone. Not their friends, not other people, but one person—usually the leader. That’s the theme in Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress, for example. Over and over again, he reveals how badly he wanted the approval of Donald Trump. He wanted to be at the center of it. He wanted to be indispensable. He was willing to do just about anything to achieve it. And now he’s in jail.
Seneca’s story is similar. He started off as Nero’s tutor, but as Nero became emperor and grew more and more powerful, it’s hard not to see how the dynamic shifted. Seneca remained in service to this deranged ruler, doing his bidding, helping him with things he knew were wrong. Why? He likely told himself that he needed Nero to like and trust him so that he would be able to temper his worst impulses and steer him toward goodness. That was part of it. But also, he must have enjoyed the power and influence. He liked knowing that he was needed by the most powerful man in the world.
It was a costly bargain, one that destroyed Seneca’s reputation and, in the end, took his life. If only he could have remembered his own advice, it would have helped him snap out of it—“The favor of ignoble men can be won only by ignoble means,” Seneca had written. Yet that’s precisely where his job took him.
We should learn from all of these examples. There is no way to work for bad people without becoming at least a little bit like them. There is no way to not be discombobulated by the reality distortion fields of these types, and this, as James Comey recently explained, is the first step in the slippery slope of corruption. We must be very careful about who we work for, who we associate with, and who we try to impress.
Because it puts into motion a process that once begun is impossible to stop...and rarely ends well.
|Jul 31, 2019|
We’re Lucky Not To Get What We Want
There’s an old joke: When the Gods wish to punish us, they give us everything we’ve ever wanted. Look at most people who win the lottery. Look at most famous people. Look at most world leaders. To borrow an expression from one particularly unhappy world leader, what do they look like? They look like they’re tired of winning. Because winning isn’t actually as fun as it seemed like it would be...and most of what we want to win turns out to not really be worth it.
This was Marcus Aurelius’ point. When we look at history and other people, it’s hard not to see “how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” But what if you don’t realize that yourself? Or rather, what if you don’t realize that the presidency or a billion dollars isn’t that meaningful until after you’ve given up everything for it? After you’ve traded your marriage or your principles or your youth to get it?
"Now you're free of illusions," says a character in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. "How does it feel to be free of one's illusions?" The protagonist can only answer, "Painful and empty." In this way, we are almost lucky not to get everything we want, to not be allowed our trivial passionate yearnings. Because we are allowed to continue in ignorance. We don’t have to do the hard work on ourselves, and really look in the mirror.
Of course, this is what a philosopher does all the time. Instead of hiding behind luck’s protection, or instead of continuing to lie to themselves that more, more, more will make them happy, they actually probe themselves. They question their desires. They look into the future and ask, “What would happen if all my dreams did come true? Why would I suddenly be happy then? Why can’t I be happy now instead?”
|Jul 30, 2019|
What To Take From All This
Very few people, if they’re being honest, would want their kids to grow up to be like Donald Trump. And that includes the folks who had perfectly good reasons for voting for him and hope he will be a successful Republican president. Donald Trump is rich, sure, but he’s also vain. He’s mean. He’s paranoid and says cruel things for the fun of it. He wears being uninformed like a badge of honor (I brief myself, he once said), and he cheats on his wi(ves) and lies. A lot. And if the reports on his taxes are even half true, he’s actually not a particularly great businessman, having lost so much money year after year that were it not for the largesse of his father and the extreme negligence of the IRS and the media, he would probably be living under a bridge or in a jail cell.
That he is president--a job that looms large in so many people’s daily lives--concerns many parents. What should I tell my kid about this? What do I teach them about what they’re seeing on the news? (Again, let’s focus on the fact that this is a problem shared by all parents, even the ones who have decided his personal vices are worth trading for important policy gains).
The Stoics have a lot to say about this, because they too lived under imperfect politicians as well as amidst corruption and excess. Seneca saw his share of Donald Trumps (and worked as best he could with them.) Epictetus was exiled from Rome by a paranoid and petty emperor. Marcus Aurelius himself battled with the corrosive effects of power on his own person. The Stoics also looked regularly at history to study these types. They didn’t simply bury their head in the sand, they weren’t naive. They knew that aggression and ego and insatiableness was a combination often found in kings.
Their writings reflect all of this—warnings against avarice, instruction to avoid capriciousness and greed, reminders of how easily we can fall into the same patterns ourselves.
“Robbers, perverts, killers and tyrants,” Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself, “gather for your inspection their so-called pleasures!” He wanted to learn from Nero, and even from Hadrian whom he had both admiration and disgust for, and to never follow in their footsteps. One suspects he spent a lot of time instructing his children about this as well. He wanted them to know that being a Donald Trump is no fun, even if it does make you rich or famous or feared. That as a story, it might seem impressive for a while, but inevitably the end is never pretty.
Marcus’s own son Commodus didn’t heed this lesson and became proof of its universal truth. But at least he was warned. And so too should every young person thinking about what kind of person they want to end up being.
|Jul 29, 2019|
Spare Time Is Not Enough Pt II
The great Athenian statesman Pericles once explained to his people that being a great naval power was not some hobby. It was the key to their survival. “Seamanship is an art,” he said, “just like anything else, and you cannot merely practice it ‘on the side’ whenever you feel like it. To the contrary, it leaves you no room for side pursuits.”
The Stoics believed philosophy was the same. That self-improvement and the pursuit of wisdom was not this extra thing we did with our spare time when we were finished working or putting our kids down to bed. No, it was the main thing. Everything else was the hobby.
That was Seneca’s line (which we talked about in March):
“Devote yourself wholly to philosophy. You are worthy of her; she is worthy of you; greet one another with a loving embrace. Say farewell to all other interests with courage and frankness. Do not study philosophy merely during your spare time.”
And what was true in March was true in the first century AD when he wrote it, and it’s an important reminder again here today.
If someone with a great track record had a great investment opportunity for you, you’d clear your schedule and seriously research it. If you got the call you’ve been waiting for, the one that would let you pursue your dream career, you’d do anything to say yes. You’d quite everything else. But wisdom seems less urgent. Less important. Something you can get around to later, if you so choose.
No. If the end goal is happiness, strength in adversity, perspective, virtue—the kinds of traits you see in the people you truly admire—then philosophy has to be the priority, not the side hustle. It has to be the main thing. Everything else can come after, if there is even room.
|Jul 26, 2019|
Good or Evil...The Choice Is Yours
The Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck thought the tug between good and evil was a necessary contradiction of human nature. There is no better demonstration of his world view than East of Eden. As Steinbeck wrote to a friend, “I finished my book a week ago...I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is ‘the book.’”
It is from the character Lee, the Chinese immigrant housekeeper, that Steinbeck delivers the novel’s main theme: timshel—“thou mayest”—the Hebrew belief in our power to choose between good and bad. Lee offers sage-like advice throughout the novel, including this beautiful monologue on what it means to be human:
“We’re a violent people, Cal...Maybe it’s true, that we are all descendants of the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers, and brawlers. But also the brave, and independent, and generous....We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed—selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful—we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic—and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? That’s what we are, Cal — all of us. You aren’t very different.”
Epictetus said that our “most efficacious gift,” what distinguishes humans from other animals, the essence of human nature, is the faculty of choice. Each person has the choice to be good or bad, to love or hate, to be strong or weak, brave or cowardly. Marcus Aurelius’s writings are, in a sense, his wrestling with making the right choices. They are his attempt to answer the incredibly difficult question he had been confronted with as a result of circumstances he didn’t choose: You have been made emperor, what kind of emperor will you be? What kind of person will you be?
“I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil,” Marcus wrote, “and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own.” We have good and evil, beauty and ugliness, in each of us. The question today is which are you going to choose to lean toward? What are you going to choose to cultivate? The choice is yours.
And the answer is everything.
|Jul 25, 2019|
There’s No Excuse For Being Surprised
Fabius was one of Ancient Rome’s great generals, though he was not the bold, reckless type that usually gets all the attention in history books. No, he was the cautious type. He was strategic and reserved. He preferred to let enemies defeat themselves more than anything else. He was far less exciting than his most famous counterparts, but without him, Rome almost certainly would have been defeated by Hannibal in the 200s BCE.
In the book Of Anger, Seneca draws on Fabius to teach a lesson from war that every citizen and leader and business person should be familiar with:
“Fabius used to say that the basest excuse for a commanding officer is ‘I didn’t think it would happen,’ but I say it’s the basest for anyone. Thinking everything might happen; anticipate everything.”
When the Stoics talk about the exercise of premeditatio malorum, that’s what they’re trying to train into you. To make sure you’re not surprised by the twists and turns of life, or by the moves of the enemy. Because there is no excuse.
But what about black swans? you say. True black swans are rare. They have never happened before. That is what makes them black swans. Most of what we are unprepared for are not those kind of freak occurrences. Look at Fabius’s quote closely: To say “I didn’t think it would happen,” means you’re already aware of the possibility and have dismissed it. When that happens, it’s not bad luck—it’s ego come home to roost.
We must keep our eyes open. We must consider all the potential consequences, even the unlikely or the unusual or the unintended ones. We must be ready. Fortune behaves as she pleases. So do our opponents.
Don’t be surprised. There’s no excuse...except that you haven’t been doing your work.
|Jul 24, 2019|
Haven’t You Done That Before?
It is certainly true that people can do some awful things to each other. We hear of a trusted representative who is stealing from their clients. We hear of a man who has been leading a second life, even starting a second family. We hear of a woman who commits an unspeakable crime.
These gross violations of morality and law do exist. They are things we would never do, we’d never even consider doing them. However, the truth is that most of the wrongs committed day to day are done by ordinary people in ordinary ways. Even most of the wrongs done to us are not done with any particular malice, but instead stem from ignorance or fatigue or simple selfishness. Moreover, most of them are mistakes we have made ourselves in the distant or not so distant past. As Seneca writes:
“A good look at ourselves will make us more temperate if we ask…‘Haven’t we ourselves also done something like that? Haven’t we gone astray in the same way? Does condemning these things really benefit us?’”
We’ve all messed up. We will all continue to mess up. Does it really benefit us—is it really fair—to go around condemning people for mistakes we’ve made ourselves? For going astray as we have gone astray?
No. It doesn’t.
|Jul 23, 2019|
What Do You Look Like Angry?
Getting angry is not a good look. We know this because we see how ugly other people look when they get mad. How childish they seem. How pathetic their gesticulations look, how badly they seem to need our attention. We see how much it undermines their point too—we see their anger and think, “They are acting this way because it’s the only way they hope to win the argument.” We might even worry about someone’s health when we see their anger, fearing that they might have a heart attack.
Seneca, referencing a thought from the philosopher Sextius, writes, “it has often been useful to angry people to look in a mirror. The great transformation in themselves has disturbed them; they have no longer recognized themselves, yet how little of their true deformity was displayed in the image reflected in the mirror.”
Yet, like so many things we are critical of, it’s rare that we apply this gaze back at ourselves. Notice Seneca doesn’t describe how his anger looks in the mirror. In fact, almost nowhere in his essay, Of Anger, does he discuss his own temper and the problems it has caused him.
Your job today is to look in the mirror. To think about how unflattering anger is on you, how much it transforms and deforms you when you allow it to take hold. Anger is not a good look on other people, which makes it very unlikely that it is a good look on you. So don’t waste any more time thinking about their bad fashion choices. Fix your own.
|Jul 22, 2019|
You’re Not That Important
A few weeks ago, a horse at The Preakness threw its jockey right out of the gate and kept running. Like really kept running. It ran the whole race twice! For a few seconds there during its first go-round, it was a real contender in the race. It’s actually not that uncommon for horses to complete a race without their rider, and sometimes even nearly win—a fact that must humble all jockeys.
Life is full of examples like this. Monkeys randomly picking stocks will often outperform the market. Index funds beat world class hedge fund managers almost more than average. Warren Buffett made and won a decade-long bet to this effect: putting his money on a boring, low-cost stock index fund outperforming a collection of hedge funds.
The lesson of these little oddities is in their lack of oddness. Marcus Aurelius took pains to remind himself just how common he was, just how many emperors came before him and would come after. Surely he must have noted to himself that if Hadrian hadn’t chosen him, somebody else would have filled in. If he had worked less hard or retreated from Rome, like his predecessor Tiberius, life would have carried on without him and history would have been only imperceptibly different.
The same goes for us. Yes, it’s wonderful that you’re here. Yes, you’re very talented and good at what you do. But also...you’re just not that important. Even the very best of us are just tiny dots on the graph, and we’re all replaceable. Like those jockeys, we’re all riding on the backs of horses that are doing most of the work. We all have the wind of progress pushing us forward, we’re all just one of many people capable of helping things along.
Let this humble you a little. Let it help you take things a little less seriously. Don’t let it stop you from trying, of course, but allow it to erase your ego when you start to think you’ve got this thing beat.
|Jul 19, 2019|
This Is Universal
Traveling—that itch to get away, to hit the road, to see the world—feels like a distinctly modern craze. Yet it was common in Ancient Rome for people to escape the heat and the frenzy of the bustling city to get away for some time in the countryside. It is likely that those excursions influenced Marcus Aurelius’s belief in sympatheia—the belief in mutual interdependence among everything in the universe, that we are all one.
Marcus Aurelius liked to say that he wasn’t a citizen of Rome, but of the world. Matt Kepnes, or better known as “Nomadic Matt,” quite literally is a citizen of the world. Matt spent a decade living out of a backpack, traveling the world. He captures the journey and everything it taught him in Ten Years A Nomad, which released this week. In our interview with Matt for DailyStoic.com, we were curious to find out if—given all the different cultures he’s lived in and the people he’s met—it’s been his experience that we really aren’t all that different from each other. Matt said:
People really are the same everywhere. Interacting with people, watching them commute, pick up laundry, go grocery shopping, and do all the other everyday things you did back home—you really internalize the idea that, fundamentally, we all just want the same things: to be happy, to be safe and secure, to have friends and family who love us. The how of what we do is different but the why of what we do is universal.
This is true not only right now, but it’s true for the past and the future. Humans are humans are humans—for good and for bad. How much better a place would the world be if we could all remember this? If the Stoic concept of sympatheia was never far from our minds (it’s why we created a reminder of it to carry in your pocket)? Certainly we'd get along better, collaborate better, and be more understanding of each other. If you’ve done any bit of traveling, Matt’s answer likely reminds you of your own experiences of being far from home but finding comfort in realizing that the people are just like you. Doing their best. Just wanting to feel happy, safe and secure, loved—and around the people who put them there the most. That is universal.
|Jul 18, 2019|
Are You Self-Aware?
Evan Thomas, in his incisive and humanizing biography of Richard Nixon, asks a penetrating question: How many great men of history were truly self-aware? Nixon surely wasn’t. Bill Clinton, caught red-handed—or rather, blue-dressed—philandering in the White House, surely wasn’t either. All one has to do is watch the video from his grand jury testimony, where he sought to litigate the definition of the word “is,” for evidence of that fact.
Few presidents have been self-aware. In a way, the job selects against it: The kind of person who thinks they deserve to be the most powerful person in the country—or in the world—isn’t usually the one who stops and thinks critically about themselves.
Marcus Aurelius had a little bit of an advantage. He didn’t exactly choose to be emperor. It was thrust upon him. He knew he was a regular person—not a god—and this allowed him to escape what he called imperialization, being changed by the office. And still, Marcus, like all of us, struggled with self-awareness. Surely his trusted advisors talked privately amongst themselves about his flaws, and had to try to work around his ego, or convince him not to react emotionally or personally to things, in order to do what was best for the empire.
The battle for self-awareness is an endless one. The ability to step back and see yourself from a distance, to analyze your own flaws and weaknesses, to understand your own motivations? This is not only not easy, it’s basically not natural. We were given—cursed with—all sorts of biases and blind spots that work against self-knowledge on a daily basis.
Yet we must continue to aim for self-awareness, at knowing ourselves as fully as possible. Nixon’s lack of self-awareness might have helped him become president, but it also cut his second term painfully short. Marcus undermined his own legacy with his persecution of the Christians and his helplessness when it came to choosing a successor. And so will we destroy ourselves and undermine our own legacy if we are not always working to understand ourselves better, to question our biases, and to look at ourselves...objectively.
|Jul 17, 2019|
Nothing Wrong With Nice Stuff
Seneca was a very rich man. He had nice stuff. Critics at the time, and ever since, have found this to be indisputable proof of his hypocrisy. How can a Stoic have expensive ivory tables? Isn’t it unphilosophical to have multiple houses? Or servants?
Stoicism is not, as Seneca said, a form of self-flagellation. It’s about responsibility and sobriety. It’s possible to be sober and rich, just as it’s possible to be middle class and reckless. You only live once. Money is earned to be spent. Just make sure you’re spending it smartly and philosophically. And living, as best you can, plainly.
|Jul 16, 2019|
These Things Have No Power Over You
So much has happened in the past. We’ve messed up. We’ve been hurt. We’ve missed opportunities and we’ve embarrassed ourselves.
So much can happen in the future, as well. Not only can all those same mistakes happen again, but we also have to contend with the uncertainty of the weather, the economy, family obligations, and politics—all of which loom in front.
It’s amazing that anyone can get anything done with all that occupying their mind. Indeed, that’s sort of the point the Stoics were trying to make. They knew that a person busy kicking themselves over what has happened in the past, or biting their nails over what might happen in the future, is a person who is not busy with life. It’s a person who is not able to be philosophical, productive, or present.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself—and by extension, to us:
“Remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.”
We have to limit our focus. And the key is to focus on what is immediately in front of you. Don’t be paralyzed by the past or intimidated by the future. Don’t be distracted by them either. Even the troubles on your plate can be minimized if you break them into smaller pieces—don’t worry about the big, busy “day” you have to get through, just get through the morning. Just get through the first item on your to-do list.
And if your mind wanders, if you start to get distracted, say to yourself, “C’mon. I’m better than this. I’m just going to focus on what’s in front of me. That’s plenty.” That’s what Marcus meant by heaping shame, after all.
So get out there and get after it!
|Jul 15, 2019|
Does Greatness Require Ego?
While we all hold up humility as an admirable trait, we’re not always sure it can get us to the goals we aspire to. We look at a Kanye West or a Donald Trump or a Steve Jobs and think: sure that person’s an egomaniac, but ego was clearly critical to their success. Success often comes with this temptation—to mythologize, to excuse, to gloss over the consequences and the difficulties.
Rivers Cuomo achieved exactly what he always wanted. The frontman for Weezer was the bonafide rockstar he dreamed of being—sold out crowds, mansions in Beverly Hills, assistants catering to his every wish, groupies, parties, fame. You might have said he had it all. Except while Cuomo “had it all,” his band members didn’t talk to him and he hated the music he was making. Producer Rick Rubin called Weezer one of the most dysfunctional groups he’s ever worked with.
Cuomo was steeped in, as he put it, a “life of ego and vice.” But it got him to where he wanted to go. Unlike most disillusioned egomaniacs, when Cuomo came out on the other side he was vocal about dispelling the myth that success necessitates ego:
“I needed to stop being that person...It took awhile for me to realise this—an ego is the biggest menace to a songwriter. It can destroy you. It takes away your ability to step outside of yourself, which I feel is important if you want to make music that means something to people.”
The Stoics said that hubris—ego by its other name—was the ultimate enemy. That “it can ruin your life,” Marcus would say, because “it ruins your character.” Again, even if it might make you successful in the meantime. To the Stoics, humility and self-awareness are not only stronger, but better and more virtuous. That’s why ego must be conquered. For our art, for our happiness, for the sake of the world.
We must remember that you become great by stripping yourself of pretenses and ego. You can have a stadium full of fans, but if your band members hate you, how great, how successful are you? And how long is it likely to last? How can you make anything that matters to other people if the only thing that matters to you is yourself? When you step outside yourself, when you put things bigger and more important than yourself first, when you see ego for the menace it is--for the enemy that it is—you will be great and do great.
|Jul 12, 2019|
We Must Increase What We Have Been Given
In the Book of Matthew, we are told of the parable of the talents. Three servants are left sums of money (talents) by their master. The first, who the master believed was most able, doubled his five talents into ten. The second was given two and used it to earn two more. The third was more cautious and less ambitious, and simply buried his in the ground. When the master came back, he was able to return the money, but he had not managed to produce anything from it.
As you might expect, the master was quite pleased with the labors of his first two servants and rewarded them accordingly. But with the conservative and cautious one, he was quite upset. Why hadn’t he invested the money? Even the return from a banker would have been better than burying it. So he punished the servant and uttered, in the process, two of the most famous sentences in the Bible:
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The lesson that scholars and priests have taken ever since: That we are obligated to make use of the gifts we have been given by God, or by nature--whichever you prefer. It’s almost fitting that “talent” was the name for an amount of money because that’s what the parable is about: about using our talents in this life.
Now here’s where this ties into Stoicism. Although we don’t know when the parable dates to, or whether it was even real, St. Matthew and Seneca were born around the same time and died roughly ten years apart. Jesus and Seneca were said to be born in the same year, and died in very similar circumstances. Of the three, Seneca was given the greatest gifts and talents. His father was quite wealthy. He was born with a brilliant mind. By all accounts, he worked very hard to make the most of these gifts, and multiplied them many times over.
In short, he lived up not just to the lesson in the parable of talents, but to his own advice, as well. As he wrote in Letter XIV:
“We should play the part of the careful householder; we should increase what we have inherited.”
Yes, we should.
|Jul 11, 2019|
Assume Everyone Is Lying
You’ve probably caught yourself doing it. Life has been rough or depressing, but your social media feed looks awesome. Someone asks how much money you make or how sales on your project were, and you round up quite a bit. Or maybe you’re similarly generous when you talk about your sexual conquests, or commensurately stingy with your weight.
Obviously this sort of deceit is not a good thing and we should all try to stop doing it. But what’s interesting is how, when we compare ourselves to other people, we rarely stop to consider that they are probably lying too. You think those Instagram influencers actually live like their photos look? You think it’s not in their financial interest to make their career seem more lucrative and stable than it actually is? And yet, there we are, feeling envious or insecure. You think it’s good business for your competitors to talk about how much trouble they’re having lately? You think that athletes and CEOs are actually working that grinding schedule they talk so much about? That it’s not just basic mythmaking or a way of psyching out the competition? You think that artist or actor in the middle of a whirlwind press junket is going to admit that they’re not happy? Or shoot down the wildly inflated rumors of how much they got paid? Of course not!
Marcus Aurelius talked about how even though we are all selfish people, we seem to care about other people’s opinions more than our own. We know that we are prone to exaggeration and posturing, but we seem to have a blindspot for the fact that everyone else is doing this too. It’s like the Missile Gap that John F. Kennedy campaigned on. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that the Soviets were lying, that their system was falling apart and they weren’t ahead of the US, but were laughably behind!
We’d all do better and be happier if we realized that this kind of deceit is incredibly common. Everyone is lying—about what they make, about how confident they feel, about how hard they work, about how well things are going. Stop comparing yourself to these lies. Stop thinking about them at all.
Focus on your own truth.
|Jul 10, 2019|
Pity The Ego
The Stoics were not unacquainted with awful people. They saw tyrants. They saw cheats. They saw toxic egomaniacs and insatiable ambitions. And what was their reaction to most of these people?
Aside from a general wariness and a desire not to be corrupted by them, mostly the Stoics pitied these types. Certainly this is how Marcus Aurelius wrote about someone like Alexander the Great. He almost seemed sad for him. Like, dude, how did you think this was going to end? Did you think conquering the world was going to make you happy? Did you actually think that fame and glory would fill that hole in your soul?
There is a wonderful encapsulation of this attitude in the 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (who, if his later novels are any indication, was familiar with Marcus’s writing). In Sammy, the screenwriter Kit questions the anger and animus directed at Sammy Glick, a hopelessly ambitious producer who constantly hurts and betrays everyone he works with in the pursuit of his goals. Speaking of how they might react to someone with polio, she says:
“We’re sorry for him because a germ he didn’t have anything to do with got inside him and twisted him out of shape. Maybe we ought to feel the same way about guys with twisted egos.”
Which is a remarkably wise and philosophical attitude. Egomaniacs don’t make it easy for us to pity them. Neither do tyrants or cheats. Especially when their success comes at our expense. But the truth is, they can’t help themselves.
And it’s not any fun to be them. Not at all.
P.S. Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday is $.99 on Amazon right now for a very limited time. If you want to check it out, or give it as a gift, it’ll never be cheaper than that.
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|Jul 09, 2019|
Just A Few Seconds Of Courage
In 2006, Benjamin Mee bought a zoo. Literally a zoo. It was broken down and in desperate need of a caring owner. Mee and his family were struggling too. Things hadn’t been going well for them either. But in one scene—immortalized by Matt Damon in the movie version of the story—Mee explains to his son that our lives are defined by the moments when we put ourselves out there. When we take a risk that, if we had thought about too much or been too deliberate about, we’d never have been capable of taking.
“You know,” he said, “sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
This idea of breaking courage down—the most important of the virtues to the Stoics—into little pieces is a very good one. A person isn’t brave, generally. We can only be brave, specifically. In the moment. This is as true for you or me or Benjamin Mee’s son as it is for the hardest, most decorated soldiers who have ever served in the military.
The two highest honors in the U.S. military are the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. The criteria for being worthy of either of these medals is virtually identical, but what distinguishes the former from the latter is this phrase in the description: “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” And if you read the citations for many Medal of Honor recipients, particularly in more recent conflicts, they are choked with heroism and selflessness like those for Distinguished Service Cross recipients, but the moment in the action that changes everything, that rises to the level of gallantry and intrepidity, is almost always just a moment. It’s not the fighting off of 12 insurgents for 5 hours— it’s the sprinting across an open plain for 20 seconds, exposed to enemy gunfire on three sides, to come to the aid of a fallen comrade, while you fight.
Just literally twenty seconds of insane, embarrassing bravery. That’s what courage is.
Marcus Aurelius wrote that we shouldn’t be intimidated by life as a whole. We should just look at what’s immediately in front of us. Assemble yourself step by step, he said, no one can stop you from that. That’s the brilliance of this twenty seconds of insane courage too. Even your own fears and your own weaknesses take longer than that to kick in.
Think about that today as you consider whether to get up and approach that attractive person across the room. As you’re mulling over that big decision. As you’re questioning whether you should speak up or just go along with something you disagree with. Don’t get intimidated by all of it as a whole. Just take that single step. Give yourself a few seconds of courage.
Something great will come of it. Promise.
|Jul 08, 2019|
Are You Ready To Be Challenged?
It’s very easy to get comfortable. To build up your life exactly how you want it to be. Minimize inconveniences and hand off the stuff you don’t like to do. To find what you enjoy, where you enjoy it, and never leave.
A velvet rut, is what it’s called. It’s nice, but the comfort tricks you into thinking that you’re not stuck.
The Stoics knew that this was a kind of death. That as soon as we stop growing, we start dying. Or at least, we become more vulnerable to the swings of Fate and Fortune. Seneca talked over and over again about the importance of adversity, of not only embracing the struggle life throws at us but actively seeking out that difficulty, so you can be stronger and better and more prepared. A person who has never been challenged, he said, who always gets their way, is a tragic figure. They have no idea what they are capable of. They are not even close to fulfilling their potential.
So that leaves you with something to think about today: Are you challenging yourself? Do the choices you make push you or do they help you atrophy? Are you in a velvet rut?
Be honest. And then challenge yourself to do better.
|Jul 05, 2019|
Freedom Isn't Free
The fact that America exists is the ultimate argument that Stoicism is not apathy and that philosophy is not mere theory. Because without Stoicism, it’s possible there would have been no revolution, no Constitution, no Bill of Rights and no Fourth of July.
Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of Seneca on his nightstand. George Washington staged a reproduction of a play about Cato at Valley Forge in the winter of ‘77/’78 to inspire the troops (having first read the Stoics as a teenager). Patrick Henry cribbed lines from that same play which we now credit to him: “Give me Liberty or give me death!” John Adams, Ben Franklin—almost all the founders were well-versed in the works of the Stoics. It’s partly what gave them the courage to found a new nation against such incredible odds, and it’s partly what set up the principles that formed that nation and changed the world.
At the core of the American experiment was liberty. At the core of Stoicism we have not only a love of freedom, but the counterbalancing virtues to that freedom: Justice. Duty. Self-Control. Honor. Selflessness. These are the traits that were required not only in those dark days of revolution, as bloody footprints from starving soldiers marked the snows in New Jersey and New York, but also the traits needed equally now in moments of prosperity and plenty, division and distraction.
So today, while you’re grilling and relaxing with friends, remember that the comfort you enjoy now grew out of a philosophy that was made to embrace discomfort and to do the right thing, whatever the costs. Remember that the American victory over the British came first because a group of American Stoics first found victory over themselves. Because for all their Stoic resignation, these men and women also deeply believed in their own agency and their own power.
Seneca said, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” The Founding Fathers built a country on that very foundation. They employed the Stoic virtues like a hammer and chisel, like saw and nail, to master their passions, divisions, tempers, interests and strive to be something better—something more—than they were remotely capable of being in the years of their colonial youth.
That wasn’t easy. It wasn’t free. But they embraced the challenge and challenge us, today, to do the same.
|Jul 04, 2019|
Unlike so many of the other philosophical schools, the Stoics were doers. The Epicureans might have been content to play in their gardens and the Cynics might have believed that most of the obligations of society were a scam, but the Stoics were responsible and public-minded. Marcus Aurelius lead the empire. Seneca was a writer and a political advisor and he ran the many estates his family owned.
These were busy people. But they also understood the importance of work-life balance, and were early practitioners of what the author Greg McKeown calls essentialism. They worked hard, but they knew it was impossible and self-defeating to try to do it all. As Seneca wrote:
“We will benefit from that helpful precept of Democritus, showing us that tranquility lies in not undertaking tasks, either in public or private, that are either numerous or greater than our resources.”
Each of us needs to take the time to set our priorities straight and to understand our limits. What’s the most important thing in our lives? What’s the next most important thing? What are we going to say no to so we can focus on those things? What are we going to say no to (or yes to) in order to protect our personal happiness and peace?
The key isn’t to always do more, more, more, but sometimes to do less so that we can do more of what we care most about.
P.S. “If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential,” Marcus said. We set up the Daily Stoic Freedom Challenge to help you do just that—21 actionable challenges to help you do less and do it better. Learn more and sign up here!
|Jul 03, 2019|
Who The True Stoics Were
If you were to run down the list of the great Stoics of history, who would come to mind?
What do all those people have in common? They were all men. In fact, you really have to look—and stretch—to come up with even one or two “accepted” female Stoics. Does this mean that Stoicism is just for men? Or that it’s been entirely composed of men for the last twenty five hundred years? Do you think Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and the male Stoics had a monopoly on suffering? On courage? On mastering emotions? On being disappointed? Of having to make due with an imperfect world? No. Not at all. It’s an omission that needs to be addressed.
When the biographer Robert Caro was researching what life in Texas was like in the late 19th and early 20th century, he and his wife were appalled by what they found. Just how primitive and tough things were. Most of all, how much backbreaking work was expected of women—doing loads of laundry by hand, carrying endless amounts of water, cooking so much food in such incredible heat, fear of Native Americans, the terrible loneliness and isolation. After speaking to one woman, his wife, Ena, finally said, “I don’t ever want to see another John Wayne movie again.” She was just disgusted at how much of the picture had been left out by historians and writers. Robert Caro would write later about how much this experience opened his eyes: “You hear a lot about gunfights in Westerns; you don’t hear so much about hauling the water after a perineal tear.”
Women have had to deal with trials like these as much as, if not more than, the famous Stoics we read and talk about so much here. Certainly, they had to put up with being underappreciated, misunderstood, taken for granted, and being deprived of many critical rights. They did all that on top of having to give birth…and know that they might well die going into it.
The fact that they did this, along with countless other sacrifices and daily obligations, and did so bravely and patiently for so long is proof that they are true Stoics. And not only do they deserve our respect for it—but they have a thing or two to teach everyone else about what focusing only on what you can control really looks like.
|Jul 02, 2019|
Real Power Can’t Be Taken Away
Twice, Seneca was exiled. Twice, he basically lost everything. Money. Access. Influence. It all went away, like *that.*
How did he handle it? The first time, not so well. We can read the thou-dost-protest-too-much letter he wrote to his mother...and we can see what he was willing to do in order to be recalled. By Stoic standards, it wasn’t pretty.
The second time, he did a little better—as long as he could be free from Nero, the exile was worth the loss. And when he was approached by Nero’s executioner, he responded, finally, with courage and strength. Only then were the man and his philosophy aligned.
“It is a vast kingdom to be able to cope without a kingdom,” Seneca wrote in his play, Thyestes. This was no mere word play. This was hard-won wisdom. Seneca really did know of what he spoke. He really did learn how to break free of the hold that material things and status had over him. And in it, he found both great power and, eventually, immortality.
Another fellow traveler in Stoicism was the slave-turned-philosopher Publilius Syrus. “If you are to have a great kingdom,” he said, “rule over yourself!” That’s what we should think about today. Real power can’t be taken away—not by the economy or by an election or by anything else. A populist surfs on the moods of the crowd, but a philosopher—a person worthy of our respect—rests on principles.
They can hate you, they can send you away, they can mock you or even kill you, but no one can take away those principles. No one can stop you from ruling over yourself. It’s the best and the biggest and the strongest kingdom there is.
|Jul 01, 2019|
You Have To Take Care of Yourself
King George IV was a notorious glutton. His breakfast supposedly consisted of two pigeons, three steaks, a near full bottle of wine, and a glass of brandy. In time, he grew so fat he could no longer sleep laying down, or the weight of his own chest might asphyxiate him. The gout in his hands made it difficult to sign documents — he eventually had his attendants make a stamp of his signature to use instead. Still, he managed to father several illegitimate children while generally neglecting the business of being a king.
King George was the type of person who apparently believed that he was exempt from the rules of health and humankind. That his body could and would endure unlimited abuse without consequence. Indeed, his last words, when years of bad habits and lethargy finally caught up with him at 3:30am in 1860, were:
“Good God, what is this?”
Then he realized what it was.
“My boy,” he said as he grasped the hand of a page, “this is death.”
It was almost as if he was surprised to find out that he was mortal...and that treating his body like a garbage can for four decades had only hastened his fate.
While the Stoics practiced the art of memento mori—and knew that death was something that could randomly visit anyone, at any time—they still took pains to maintain their health. Marcus Aurelius’s doctor was Galen, one of the most famous physicians of antiquity, and presumably Marcus didn’t keep him around to shorten his life. No, he wanted to survive and be as healthy and strong as possible while he was alive. Seneca, for his part, flirted with vegetarianism, and his letters are filled with mentions of various cures he was seeking for his health. The sports metaphors in Epictetus and Marcus’s work also hint at the idea of active, strenuous lives.
Health is wealth. Taking care of yourself is important. What good can you do in this world if you feel like shit all the time? Or if you lack the physical and moral strength—or in George’s case, even the basic mobility—to be of good to anyone?
We are on this planet for a short amount of time. But if we practice bad habits, if we let our urges run wild, we will surely shorten that time. That’s not Stoic, that’s stupid.
|Jun 28, 2019|
Justice Doesn't Have To Be Angry
When we hear about an athlete who was doubted and kicked around, or an entrepreneur who ends up buying the previously dominant company that once spurned them, we assume anger must have been the fuel that powered their comeback. When we hear about someone who spent years working in secret to right some long forgotten wrong, we think, “Oh that person must have been really angry.”
Think about the case of Peter Thiel, who spent ten years conspiring to take down the powerful gossip outlet, Gawker Media, after they outed him as gay. The knee jerk take from most critics, then and now, is that he should have let it go—that it’s not healthy to be that mad about anything.
But what if anger wasn’t the only fuel out there?
In his powerful essay, On Anger, Seneca pushes back on this idea that getting even requires getting mad:
“‘Does a good man not get angry? Even if he watches his father get killed or his mother raped?’ He won’t get angry, but he’ll avenge them or he’ll protect them. Why are you afraid that duty alone, without anger’s help, will be too little motivation for him?…The good man will carry out his duties without fear or turmoil; he’ll act in a manner worthy of a good man, such that he’ll avoid doing nothing unworthy of a man. My father is being killed; I’ll defend him. He has been killed; I’ll avenge him—but because it’s right, not because I’m grieved…”
This is essentially the argument in Conspiracy: A True Story of Power, Sex, and a Billionaire’s Secret Plot to Destroy a Media Empire (out today in paperback), which draws not only on Peter Thiel’s conspiracy but many historical and Stoic-driven conspiracies, like the plot to kill Julius Caesar and the failed Piso-conspiracy which ultimately cost Seneca his life.
Indeed, there is a rich history of Stoics plotting to overthrow tyrants and other evil-doers. Did they do this out of anger? Or was it, at least in their eyes, the pursuit of one of their most revered virtues? Justice.
Seneca said that we must pursue what is right—which might occasionally involve punishment or vengeance—calmly and rationally. That it was ok to plot and scheme for the right aims, provided it was done “judiciously and with foresight, not driven and raging.”
This is a controversial argument, of course, and not everyone will agree. But it’s worth thinking about and it’s worth understanding. Because life isn’t all sunshine and kittens. It’s not Plato’s Republic, as Marcus Aurelius reminds us. People do bad things. Organizations do evil. We will be doubted or held back. And that will require a response—from us—if it’s going to be overcome.
What is not controversial is that anger is not how to respond. But rather, with creativity, cunning, determination, courage and strategy. So study the greats, learn their lessons, good and bad.
P.S. Ryan Holiday’s book Conspiracy: A True Story of Power, Sex, and a Billionaire’s Secret Plot to Destroy A Media Empire is out in paperback today. The New York Times called it “one helluva pageturner” so if you’re looking for something to read this summer, give it a look.
|Jun 27, 2019|
What Do You Live By?
William Alexander Percy, the uncle of the great writer Walker Percy, and one of the last Southern Stoics, was a famous host. His mansion in Greenville, Mississippi welcomed many guests, including Robert Wright, Langston Hughes, and William Faulkner. He traveled widely, too, visiting Greece, Samoa, and Paris, and spent time in Belgium fighting in WWI. Will Percy loved to playfully and honestly interrogate the people he met with deep but shapeless questions that forced their recipients to really think. Questions like “What do you love?” or “What do you live by?”
This was Will’s way of searching—to understand other people, to understand the world around him and, one can assume, to understand himself. These questions made a very deep impression on his young nephew, Walker, particularly when Will adopted him and his younger brothers after their mother’s death. Indeed, in Walker’s famous novel The Moviegoer, he has the wisest character of the book—based on Will—ask:
What do you love?
What do you live by?
What do you think is the purpose of life?
In a way, answers to these three questions are the essential quest of Stoicism too. It’s what Zeno began asking when he washed up in Athens after his shipwreck. It’s what Epictetus was prodding his students to think about and trying to answer with his responses. It’s what Marcus Aurelius was journaling about over and over again from every angle.
And it’s what we should be thinking about and asking today. To other people sure, but mostly to ourselves. Because no one is going to magically explain these things to us. They can only show us the world, and help us see it. The rest we have to figure out on our own.
|Jun 26, 2019|
Never Attribute To Malice…
People do a lot of things that feel mean. That frustrate us. That cause problems for us. That make the world a worse place. They vote for bad politicians. They say offensive things. They make messes. They screw stuff up.
Naturally, our first instinct is to get upset about this. To want to confront the perpetrators about it. To hold them fully accountable for the consequences of their behavior. But it’s worth stepping back and asking yourself first, are they really fully accountable?
Consider, for instance, Hanlon’s Razor--the idea that one should “never attribute to malice what can easily be attributed to stupidity.” Meaning that most of the bad things people do are not done out of evil...but simple incompetence. Not everyone is as well-educated as you, not everyone was raised to be responsible like you were, not everyone is as talented as you, and it is in this gap that you can find the explanations to most errors, most bad driving, most of the litter you see on the street, and most of the wrongs you feel have been done to you.
Remember, this is what Marcus was trying to say in the famous opening passage of Meditations. Yes, we will bump into obnoxious, self-centered, and rude people today. But it’s not because they’re bad or worth less than we are. It’s because they don’t yet know any better. Because they have been left behind and deprived. And if we can remember this, we won’t be so angered by it and it won’t ruin our day.
It’s going to take all our patience and preparation to hold onto this, but it will be worth it.
|Jun 25, 2019|
Break Out and Break Free
We live in the freest time in the freest places in the history of the world. Yet many of us feel far from free. We are slaves to vices and devices, to our schedules and our poor self-talk. We’re reactive. We look at the world through the lens of other people’s vision for success, often in things we have no interest in. We are chained down in a prison of our own making and it’s high time for us to break out, to break free.
But how? The answer comes from Marcus Aurelius and the fact that it came from such a busy man with so many obligations and responsibilities should not be forgotten:
If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you‘ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’
This, Marcus said, was the simple recipe for improvement, for happiness, for freedom. Simple, but of course, not easy. Which is why we’ve set up an awesome, transformative 21-day challenge to help you do less and do it better. The Daily Stoic Freedom Challenge will help you earn freedom from:
We’re going to break down your days and rebuild them for freedom. To maximize your impact and bring you closer to living your best life.
“The challenge is the best investment I’ve made for myself so far this year.”
- Eric Hokanson. Past participant.
Participants will get:
✓ 21 Custom Challenges Delivered Daily (Over 25,000 words of all new original content)
✓ 21 Custom Video Messages From Bestselling Author Ryan Holiday
✓ Printable 21-Day Calendar With custom daily illustrations to track progress
✓ Group Slack Channel For Accountability and Community
✓ Day 21 Wrap-Up Live Webinar With Bestselling Author Ryan Holiday
So much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. We do it out of habit. We do it out of guilt. We do it out of laziness or we do it out of greedy ambition. And then we wonder why our performance suffers. We wonder why our heart isn’t really in it.
If you could do less inessential stuff, you’d be able to better do what is essential. The Daily Stoic Freedom Challenge will help you rip off the chains of obligation to things that are inessential and bring a sense of tranquility and purpose to your life. You’ll get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.
|Jun 24, 2019|
It’s About The Paring Down
Really what the Stoics were trying to do is pare down what they had to worry about. That’s why Epictetus said our first job was just to determine what was in our control and what isn’t—because that eliminates an enormous chunk of concern from our concern. Suddenly, we don’t need to think as much about the past or the future. We don’t have to care what people think about us. We don’t need to compare ourselves to anything and anyone.
When Rousseau said that man is born free but lives in chains, he knew that most of those chains are self-imposed. But if we can study this philosophy, if we can hold our impressions up to the light and look at them—Does this matter? Is this up to me? Will getting angry or scared make this any better?—we can break free from those shackles.
The payoff of this paring down of concerns is freedom. As Epictetus says, the fruit of the philosopher’s work is peace, courage, and above all, liberty. That’s why we’re doing this. So that we can reap the rewards inherent in wisdom.
Wisdom—even a tiny bit—is perspective and priorities. And with that is freedom.
|Jun 21, 2019|
Practice These Virtues
Virtue is one of those words that contains multitudes. If you think about it, being virtuous is not doing one thing all the time, or even lots of things all at once. It’s doing all the right things—the important things—in those moments when they matter most. Which is every moment. Day by day, It’s about taking the right actions and holding yourself to the highest standard.
Needless to say, that’s really hard.
Marcus Aurelius tried to do it all, all the time, but he also knew he was a flawed person. He knew he got overwhelmed (he joked to himself that no one could ever accuse him of being quick-witted). He knew that it was easy to fall short. So he had a little piece of advice for himself about how to stay on the right path.
That advice was: Practice the virtues you can show. The public stuff. The stuff that was visible and obvious, that could be illustrated by actions instead of explanation. Virtues like:
This is a good rule for us today. Yes, we want to be virtuous. We want to do it all. But why don’t we just start with doing the right things right now—with what we can show?
|Jun 20, 2019|
You Must Think It
In both cases, the news they are faced with—the conclusion they are being asked to accept—is simply too much. The Shakespearean scholar, Richard Greenblatt, calls this phrase a kind of motto for those who can’t wrap their mind around perfidy. He’s not being condescending, for it’s a very common experience. Our naivete, our willingness to assume the best about others, leaves us open to betrayal and disillusionment.
Which is why the Stoics spend so much time on this very topic. Marcus, for his part, opens Meditations with some musing on the reality of the types of people he’s going to meet in the days to come. But later in Meditations, he speaks about the kind of behavior you see in the boxing ring—gauging, headbutting, and low blows. We see this all the time in the sports world, as a matter of fact. NFL linemen who grease up their jersey so they can’t be grabbed. In NASCAR, they love to say “rubbin’ is racin’.” And then there’s the old saying, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”
You have to anticipate this kind of behavior, Marcus says, you can’t take it personally. He talks about the inevitability of bumping up against shameless people and how to handle it. He spends time putting himself inside the minds of tyrants, robbers, and perverts—again, because these types exist and we must not be surprised or abused by them.
When Seneca was sentenced to death by Nero, his family and friends began wailing in shock and horror. But Seneca was calm. “Who knew not Nero’s cruelty,” he told them. We can’t be surprised by this. Indeed, it was a brave and rational response—the only shame is that Seneca couldn’t have seen this coming earlier. If he had, perhaps he could have stopped the tyrant before he hurt so many people.
The point being: This is not a philosophy for the weak or the cowardly. Stoicism is about facing the truth, about thinking about the unthinkable. Not just as it’s happening, but long before. Premeditatio malorum, which we’ve talked a lot about here (and make in coin form as a constant reminder) is the embodiment of that. Keep all the possibilities before you, including—especially—the bad ones. Keep your eyes open. Beware.
Think it. Because you might be able to prevent it. And if you can’t, at least you’ll be able to handle the reality of its existence and then respond to it accordingly.
|Jun 19, 2019|
Do You Want To Be Less Angry?
The best way to make sure you are always offended and upset is to be on the lookout for things to be offended by and upset about. The sharper your ears and eyes, the larger your dragnet for information, the more likely you are to find something that pisses you off.
And yet this is what most of us do: We have Google Alerts for our names or our businesses. We check our @mentions on Twitter. We ask our friends, “Oh really, what does so-and-so say about me when I’m not around?” We’re like water-diviners with our ability to read tone and body language, able to sense even the slightest sign that we should dig into something. Of course we’re going to be angry! How could we not be?
“It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything. Many injuries ought to pass over us; if you ignore them, you get no more injury from them. You want to be less angry? Ask fewer questions.”
He would have liked the piece of marriage advice that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always held close: "In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf." Because true in marriage, true in life: If you want to have less conflict, ask for it less. Forgive more. Stop trying to listen for things you don’t want to hear.
|Jun 18, 2019|
Tell The Truth, Even If They Hate You For It
There is a certain archetype that is as old as literature and history themselves. One of the first times we see it in the West is with Cassandra in the Greek tragedies. She has the power to see into the future (she prophesied the fall of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon) but no one listens to her. Then we have Demosthenes, whose warnings against the rise of Phillip (Alexander the Great’s father) are so incessant that everyone hates him for it. Later on in Rome, Cato the Elder—Cato’s grandfather—was such a frequent (and ultimately prescient) critic and hawk when it came to Carthage, that he would play the same role. In fact, he would end every speech he gave, no matter the topic, no matter the occasion, with Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”).
His grandson, Cato—the towering Stoic—would develop a similar reputation as a kind of obstinate truth-teller, even when it was inconvenient, even when it disturbed the peace, even when it made enemies, even when he was exhausted or knew he would be ignored.
In all these cases, people just wanted them to let.it.go. Why do you have to be so annoying? Why can’t you be more strategic? Don’t you see you’re just pissing people off?
All of which was legitimate criticism. Perhaps with a bit more tact and better awareness, these important messages could have been heard earlier or more receptively. Cato the Elder and Cato and Demosthenes seemed to almost be trying to alienate people with the way they spoke and hammered their message.
But it’s important to understand the distinction between how you say something and how often you say it. Tone is one thing (to always be considered), timing is something else. “Waiting for the right moment.” “Trying to figure out the best way to say it.” “Not wanting to turn people off.” Those are timing issues that, more often than not, we lean on as excuses for avoiding one of the hardest things to do in the world: speaking an unpopular truth. Warning people about a reality they’d rather not deal with.
Cicero, a contemporary of Cato (and an admirer of his grandfather), would quote this line of poetry:
“Indulgence gets us friends
But truth gets us hatred.”
If we tell ourselves that our main job is to be a good messenger, we risk compromising our message. We end up leaving out important or unpleasant parts of the message, rounding off its sharp edges in the pursuit of fitting in instead of standing out so our message may be heard. We can end up going along to get along...even if the conclusions that come out of that are wrong.
But if our job is to tell the truth—no matter what, no matter who it upsets or how unpopular it makes us—and we are committed to doing this as long as we have an ounce of blood in our bodies? Then no pesky considerations or compromises can stop us. And, hopefully, we can wake people up—as Winston Churchill did about Nazism—before it’s too late.
|Jun 17, 2019|
It’s OK To Struggle
Nietzsche’s classic line was “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it true? Don’t people who were born with advantages do better in life? Isn’t it better not to suffer setbacks? Why would someone want to experience disadvantages or difficulties?
Those questions were answered in a recent paper published by Cornell University. Researchers looked at RO1 grant application for the National Institutes of Health, focusing on individuals who just missed receiving funding (“near-misses”) and individuals who just succeeded in getting funded (“near-winners”). Comparing the two groups over the ten years following first submission, results found that near-misses produced work that garnered substantially higher impacts than their near-win counterparts. Researchers concluded,
“For those who persevere, early failure should not be taken as a negative signal—but rather the opposite, in line with Shinya Yamanaka’s advice to young scientists, after winning the Nobel prize for the discovery of iPS cells, ‘I can see any failure as a chance.’”
In any endeavor—creative, business, or grant proposals—we rarely achieve the result we hope for on our first go. Many great artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists have all admitted some version of Einstein’s, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” We must adopt and keep that mindset. We cannot let one obstacle, one “near-miss” turn us off the path. Keep at it. Persist. Resistance is futile.
|Jun 14, 2019|
It Doesn’t Matter What You Do, It Matters How You Do It
The occupations of the three most well-known Stoics could not be more different. Seneca was a playwright, a wealthy landowner, and a political advisor. Epictetus was a former slave who became a philosophy teacher. Marcus Aurelius would have loved to be a philosopher but instead found himself wearing the purple cloak of the emperor.
These jobs have very little in common. The lifestyles they support are vastly different as well—so are the opportunities, the temptations, the frustrations and the stresses that they produce.
But none of that matters. What matters is how you do your job and how you respond to the situations it creates for you. Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself that it was possible to live a good life anywhere—including in the complicated and intoxicating halls of power. He mostly proved that true. (Sadly, Seneca fell short in those same hallways).
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a janitor or a junior senator. It doesn’t matter whether you’re negotiating a multi-million dollar deal or negotiating traffic on the way to your unpaid internship. What matters is what you do with this time. What matters is how you manage it.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, it’s possible to live a good life and to be a good Stoic. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
|Jun 13, 2019|
Never Abandon Your Ideals
Anne Frank would have celebrated her 90th birthday today. Although her life was cut tragically short, so much of her preternatural wisdom survives to us thanks to her famous, existentially essential diary. In it, we are reminded of the humanity of every individual (and the horrible cost to societies who lose sight of this), and we are inspired—even shamed—by the cheerful perseverance of a child amidst circumstances far worse than any of us could ever know.
Page after page, despite the unimaginable terror Anne and her family lived with, we find profound meditations on meaning, happiness, and life. There’s perhaps no better an encapsulation of her spirit and resolve than this passage from one of her final entries:
“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart...I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.”
To the ancient Stoics, no matter the circumstance, no matter how dire or desperate, how straightforward or scary, we must always fall back on one thing: virtue. As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.” This was, to him, a recipe for peace and strength in those difficult circumstances.
In the darkest of hours, the most trying of times, each of us are tempted to abandon our ideals, our virtues. But if we can have courage, like Anne Frank, to remain steadfast and let virtue guide us, we can always find comfort in knowing that every step we take will be the right one.
|Jun 12, 2019|
Why It’s Important To Be Healthy
It wouldn’t seem like eating well would be an important part of the philosopher’s job, but indeed it is. Antoninus Pius, the adopted stepfather of Marcus Aurelius and one of the quietly great Roman Emperors, kept a simple diet so he could work from dawn to dusk with as few bathroom interruptions as possible—so he could be at the service of the people for longer.
In one of his letters, Seneca wrote that the better one eats, the less one needs to exercise, which then frees up valuable time for reading and thinking. Our keen edge, he said, is too often dulled by heavy eating and then wasted further as we drain our life-force in exercise trying to work it off.
In the moment, it’s easy to enjoy whatever treat is in front of you—or to grab that extra helping because it’s there. But what we are bad at calculating is what kind of person we’re going to feel like after. It’s like with drinking: it might make you friendlier at first, and then a real monster a few hours later. And the next day? Well then you won’t be good for anything.
An Athenian statesman once attended a dinner party put on by Plato. When he met his host again, he is reported to have said “Plato, your dinners are enjoyable not only when one is eating them, but on the morning after as well.” Moderation, discipline, knowing your body—these things are important because they help your mind. They help you as a person, and as a philosopher.
This doesn’t mean you must be an ascetic; that you should eat the same thing every day, that it should be stripped of the flavors you enjoy, that you can never indulge, that food can’t both be fuel and fun.
But to eat well, is to live well. To eat right, is to live rightly. And that is the goal.
|Jun 11, 2019|
How To Think About Obstacles
We can think of hardship many ways: As failure. As unfairness. As the end of the conversation. Clearly, this was not meant to be, we can say. They don’t want me to succeed, so what’s the point of trying?
Or, we can choose—we can train ourselves—to see it a better way: As grist for the mill. As a chance to learn about endurance, patience, resilience, struggle. As an opportunity to prove our mettle. As a way of learning about people or situations or actions or things.
Marcus Aurelius believed in the latter approach. As he wrote:
“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.”
It’s not about accepting hardship then, or resigning ourselves to it. Rather, it’s a matter of agreeing to work with it. To decide to make the most of it. To see hardship as an opportunity, not an obstacle. In this way, we can turn what happens to us into fuel.
We can be made better and brighter by everything that happens.
P.S. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday is $1.99 on Amazon right now for a very limited time! If you want to check it out, or give it as a gift, it’ll never be cheaper than that.
You can also check out our brand new The Obstacle Is The Way pendant, as well as The Obstacle is the Way medallion which is inspired by the same insights from Marcus Aurelius and is awesome for carrying with you everywhere you go.
|Jun 10, 2019|
When You Need Help...
Maybe you’re having a difficult time in your relationship. Or work has worn you down. Maybe things have gone exceedingly well in your business and now you’re dealing with opportunities you never thought possible. Or you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life. Or trying to figure out how to help your kid—who has struggled for a long time now—to figure out what to do with their life.
These are tough situations. Just a sample of what the days can throw at us...on top of all the things the world likes to throw at us, from economic instability to brutal wars, to snarling traffic and bafflingly incompetent governance.
Solving all these problems is probably impossible. Which is why most of us would likely settle for their proper management or at least some amount of pain reduction. The good news is that this stop gap remedy is readily at hand. It’s just a book or a letter or a lecture away. As Seneca writes:
“Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel.”
For thousands of years, the wisest minds have been offering counsel and wisdom to those who seek it out, those who go forth to look for it. Will you be one of those people? Or will you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them? Will you endure the same trials just hoping one day they will magically change? Will you stick to your own guidance? Or will you let those wise minds help you out?
Your problems—our problems—are not new. They are not different. They are the same things humans have always struggled with, just dressed up in modern language and contemporary garb. They fall neatly in the same category that problems have always fallen into (what’s in our control and what isn’t), which means they present the same opportunities that every problem offers (to become better for it...or worse for it), and require the same virtues that all problems require (justice, temperance, wisdom, courage). 2
Fortunately, a guide for this gauntlet exists and has for thousands of years: Philosophy. It offers counsel. It offers you help. But only if you avail yourself of it. If you make use of it...and actually listen.
|Jun 07, 2019|
What The Simple Life Is
Seneca wasn’t fond of philosophers you could recognize. Not by their fame, but by their uniform. In his time, just as it is in ours, there was a type of person who, in reading about the Diogenes types or the tough Stoic types, thought that philosophy required that they give up their worldly possessions or start dressing like a bum.
Today, these types try to signal their virtue by driving a beat up old car or by showing you how little they own. See, they say, I am practicing detachment. See, I don’t want like you want. But these appearances can be deceiving.
As Seneca reminds us, “We should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life.” The simple life is not a matter of externals, it’s about what’s going on inside. Someone can be a billionaire, flying on a private jet, totally at peace, and indifferent to money, just as someone else, much less well-off, might be grinding their teeth in envy and resentment. You can swear off materialism, but if you trade it for public recognition of your superiority and purity, is that really an improvement? Or if you live frugally but obsess over every dollar, miserly extracting as much savings from every situation and interaction, what kind of peace is that?
The simple life is defined by its simplicity. By its gratitude. By the ability to enjoy whatever is front of you, whether that’s millions of dollars or a nice chicken sandwich. It’s not a lack of money that we should we be pursuing, but a lack of angst, a lack of need, a lack of resentment, and a lack of insecurity.
That’s the simple truth of what wealth is.
|Jun 06, 2019|
The Earth Is Big And Has Room For Everyone
There is a line in the Odyssey (most recently translated by Seneca’s wonderful biographer, Emily Wilson). Odysseus, still early on in his journey home, is speaking with King Alcinous, and telling him of his deeds in the Trojan war. Alcinous remarks that:
“The earth sustains all different kinds of people.
Many are cheats and thieves, who fashion lies
out of thin air."
Clearly, Alcinous has been deceived before and knows how to look out for such people. He had a good read on Odysseus and could tell, despite the man’s reputation for cunning and cleverness, he was fundamentally a good and honest person. What’s interesting though is just how similar Alcinous’s remark is to one made by another king, Marcus Aurelius, hundreds of years later.
“When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible?
No. Then don’t ask the impossible.
There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole world class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.”
The world is big and filled with all types of people. Some are honest, some are not. Some are good, some are shameless. Might it be better if all were the former and none were the latter? Of course. But that’s not the case. Nor will it ever be.
So instead we must learn how to distinguish between the two, so that we may fill our lives with one and insulate it from the other. We must not go around expecting everyone to be perfect or reliable. We must accept that some people—for whatever reason—are destined to fill that undesirable quota of awfulness that the natural order seems to demand.
Don’t take it personally. Don’t be surprised. Don’t ask for the impossible. And then, of course, continue to hold yourself to your own high standards, because that’s the class you belong to.
P.S. Check out our brand new The Obstacle Is The Way pendant. Our hope is that when you encounter life’s obstacles, you’ll feel the pendant around your neck and remember that each obstacle offers a chance to thrive not just in spite of whatever is in front of you, but because of it!
|Jun 05, 2019|
Good Stuff Comes Out Of Bad Circumstances
If Marcus Aurelius had his choice, he probably never would have been emperor. If he could have chosen how his reign would go, he probably wouldn’t have spent it at war, far from home, either. But that was how life went. Those were the cards he was dealt.
What’s remarkable, though, is what he did with those cards, particularly in regards to the last part. Ernest Renan observed that Marcus’s Meditations—one of the most valuable and beautiful books ever created—came about because Marcus was “deprived of the ordinary society of learned men and philosophers” while deep in hostile territory.
Marcus wrote in Meditations that “what stands in the way becomes the way.” Really, the quiet scribbling he did in his tent was incredible proof of that idea. If things had gone differently, if he’d been able to enjoy a reign of peace and comfort at home, he may never have written a word. It was only because he was stuck at the front, because he was lonely and desperately needed mental stimulation, that he ended up recording this stunning and unprecedented examination of his own conscience. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have needed to.
This is something that we need to remember when we are stuck somewhere or reckoning with an unpleasant loss of control. First off, that’s life. It doesn’t always go how we want it to go. Second, we have no idea what good might come of this. Even our own recent past can show that sometimes the worst experiences and circumstances can turn out to have been for the best. And third—and most importantly—each one of us possesses the power to actively transform what is in the way into the way.
Marcus did it. We can do it, too.
The front features a great mountain. The back shows Marcus’s enduring words: “The impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way.”
Our hope is that when you encounter these obstacles you’ll feel the pendant around your neck and remember that each obstacle offers a chance to thrive not just i
|Jun 04, 2019|
An Easy Source of Encouragement
Why did Marcus Aurelius write his Meditations? It wasn’t for an audience. It wasn’t simply to practice his Greek or his rhetorical abilities—he was already good at all those things. The book lacks an author’s note and he never seemed to have told anyone about his intentions, so we can’t know for sure.
But there are two clues that, when put together, provide an answer as good as any. Have you noticed how much of Meditations is about other people? The opening, “Debts and Lessons,” makes up nearly ten percent of the book. Almost every other page has at least one quote or one story or one mention of a story about somebody else.
So when we come across this passage in Book 6, it all suddenly makes sense:
“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.”
Marcus was writing to encourage himself! He was thinking of the qualities of the people around him. He was showering himself in their virtues so that he might be improved by the association. And as far as we can tell, it worked. Because he was a good man, despite facing incredible temptations and pressures.
Today, we should follow this example anew. Maybe Jun 03, 2019
Stop Wasting Time on Trivialities
In his twenty-third letter to Lucilius, Seneca opens with some meta snark that is relatable to anyone who has ever been trapped in a banal conversation at a boring cocktail party. “You were probably thinking I was going to open this letter with idle chit chat about the weather,” Seneca begins, “but I’m not, because who has the time?”
Certainly not Seneca, who spends the rest of the letter talking about the joy that comes from the study of philosophy and the earnest pursuit of the art of living. Important ideas. None of these trivialities—the weather, ‘what have you been up to lately?,’ ‘how’s your mother?,’ ‘reading anything good?’—that he says are the refuge of people who are “at a loss for topics of conversation.”
Topics like philosophy, life, love, death, virtue, fate and fortune. Real stuff.
Life is short. You see and speak to your friends rarely enough as it is. New connections, as they happen these days, are rarer still. Let us not fritter that time and opportunity away on banalities. Let us push through the nerves of newness, through the superficialities of introduction or reacquaintance, to greater understanding and deeper connection.
The weather. Your mom and dad. Traffic. These are trivialities of conversation designed to create quick, easy connection. To show us that we have something in common despite being strangers or not having seen each other in some time. But we are already connected. We already know these things before we say a word to each other. We are sharing the same space, so we have experienced the same weather. We are humans, so we all have mothers and fathers. We each got to this cocktail party from somewhere else, so we know what it took to get here.
These little factoids are what put the trivia in trivialities. They are information, they are not knowledge or insight or wisdom. They are not fake, per se, but they are fruitless. They lack the abundance of the kind of real conversations Seneca had with Lucilius and countless others in his life.
So get real. Speak the truth. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Share. You’ll be glad you did.
|May 31, 2019|
The Best Technology Ever Invented
There have been all sorts of wonderful technological innovations since Marcus Aurelius’s time, particularly in the domain of writing. We got the printing press. We got typewriters. We got ballpoint pens and erasers and whiteout. We got computers and smartphones. We have emails and tweets and audio memos.
Journaling for Marcus wouldn’t have been easy. He needed ink and some sort of pen-like implement, and he had to write on fragile parchment. The supplies weren’t cheap. He needed to do everything by hand. We might think we are superior for all our fancy tools and real-time digital backups and copy and paste. But are we?
In a recent interview, Walter Isaacson pointed out just how well paper has held up over the centuries:
“Paper’s not a bad technology. It is really a good technology for the storage and retrieval of information. After 500 years, we still can turn the pages of Leonardo’s notebooks. From the 1990s, Steve Jobs had some memos on a NeXT Computer in his house. Even with his tech [abilities], we couldn’t retrieve that, because the NeXT operating system no longer can retrieve the documents that well. So every now and then, one of the lessons I learned is take notes on paper in a notebook. They’ll be around 50 years for ...your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They’ll be around maybe 500 years.”
It is remarkable that the simple letters that Seneca penned by hand to a friend survive to us today and remain best read in print. It’s incredible to think that Marcus Aurelius’s journals, which also endure, were themselves influenced by the notes one of his teachers took while sitting and listening to the lectures of Epictetus. There are fragments in his journal and in the journals and commonplace books of writers that preserve lines from Epictetus that would have otherwise vanished to history.
The power of putting things down on paper should not be underestimated, particularly today. Sure, it can be a pain to carry books around with you. Every once in a while a pen breaks in your pocket or your bag and makes a mess. Yes, handwritten words are harder to search. They take up more space in your house than they would in the cloud.
But there is something special and timeless and perennial about the art of writing by hand. It’s a more involved process—and that’s the point. It’s good that it takes more time and energy, because you’ll remember it more. It’s good that it’s physical and takes up space—this way you’ll pass it in the hallway when you walk by. It’s good that it’s harder to search...who knows what you’ll find when you flip through the pages, one by one. So what if it’s more delicate? Maybe you’ll treat it with the respect it deserves this way.
Take Isaacson’s advice. Get a notebook. Start writing!
PS: Check out The Daily Stoic Journal. It’s an easy place to start and is built around the Stoic journaling methods of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
|May 30, 2019|
It’s OK To Cry
We know that Marcus Aurelius cried when he was told that his favorite tutor passed away. We know that he cried that day in court, when he was overseeing a case and the attorney mentioned the countless souls who perished in the plague that had ravaged Rome.
We can imagine Marcus cried many other times. This was a man who was betrayed by one of his most trusted generals. This was a man who lost his wife of 35 years. This was a man who lost eightchildren, including all but one of his sons. Marcus didn’t weep because he was weak. He didn’t weep because he was un-Stoic. He cried because he was human. Because these very painful experiences made him sad.
Antoninus, Marcus’s stepfather, seemed to be a bit more in touch with his emotions than his young stepson. He seemed to understand how hard Marcus worked to master his temper and his ambitions and his temptations and that this occasionally made him feel bottled up. So when his stepson’s tutor died and he watched the boy sob uncontrollably, he wouldn’t allow anyone to try to calm him down or remind him of the need for a prince to maintain his composure. “Neither philosophy nor empire,” Antoninus said, “takes away natural feeling.”
The same goes for you. No matter how much philosophy you’ve read. No matter how much older you’ve gotten or how important your position or how many eyes are on you. It’s OK to cry. You’re only human. It’s okay to act like one.
|May 29, 2019|
What Do You Have To Draw On?
For most of us, things are pretty good right now. The economy is booming. Our jobs or our personal lives are going well. Most of the doomsday predictions from critics and watchdogs have turned out to be overwrought or even wrong...so far. The world is mostly at peace—technically.
The question—and the main thing that Stoicism is designed to help cultivate inside each of us—is: What will you draw upon if any of that suddenly changes? It’s easy to be strong and self-contained when there is very little threatening us. It’s easy to have momentum with the wind at our back. But when everything is hard? When all is falling apart around us?
This year alone, the French have been rioting in the streets. The North Koreans have fired off short-range ballistic missiles. Israel and Hamas have exchanged rocket and mortar fire multiple times. The US is moving a carrier group into the Gulf in a showdown with Iran. Measles is breaking out across Los Angeles. And despite all that, everything is and should be okay.
And yet if it isn’t...
It was at one of the darkest points of the Revolution that Thomas Paine wrote his pamphlet, The American Crisis. “These are times that try men’s souls,” he said. A lot had gone wrong. Mistakes had been made. People were scared and upset. But this might be a good thing, he wrote, because there are some capacities inherent in us that cannot be unlocked by trifles. It was only in difficult times that we might find—and unlock—within us a “cabinet of fortitude.”
The Stoic version of this idea was the Inner Citadel—a fortress of fortitude—that could be drawn on for strength in difficult times...if it had been properly stocked and built in good times. That’s what the study of philosophy was about to them, that’s why we do this reading and follow these exercises. To prepare for an uncertain future and to never be so naive as to expect things to always be booming and pleasant.
It’s good that life is pretty good right now. Enjoy it. But be ready. Be sure that you have something to draw on in case of an emergency. Because the worst that could happen is not that the economy could turn or that your personal life could be upended or that war breaks out. It would be for that to happen and for you to turn inside to your cabinet of fortitude or your inner citadel and find it empty.
|May 28, 2019|
Things Don’t Make The Man
It’s very easy to associate our possessions and our positions with our identity. There’s even an expression to that effect: The clothes make the man. When we have a powerful job, we feel powerful. When the market is hot, we feel like we have a knack for investing. When we are number one in our space, in our industry, in sales, we’re very into checking and monitoring the rankings. When people are saying nice things about us, we revel in it, because of course it’s all true and deserved.
If everything stays well, it’s hard to see what the downside of this approach is (excepting the ego that can often creep in). It’s only when the screw turns that we realize how dangerous this has all been. Because when you associate your identity with externals when things are good, it’s impossible not to associate your identity when suddenly the same externals are showing you to be a loser or a fool or the object of other people’s contempt.
The Stoics would urge you to remember that things don’t make the man. Not now, not ever. Epictetus reminds us that just because someone has more money than you doesn’t make them superior. No, only their bank balance is superior. If someone is an eloquent speaker, that doesn’t make them better than you either. It just means they have better diction. “You yourself,” he says, “are neither property nor diction.”
Nope. You’re you. And you’re not measured or made by externals, or anything that is outside your control. What matter is who you are on the inside. What matters is what you do with the choices and situations that are inside your control. What matters is how you ride out the highs and the lows, and ideally are changed by neither of them.
|May 27, 2019|
It’s Not As Unfortunate As It Seems
Things we didn’t want to happen happen to all of us. A business deal falls through. A grade comes back that we didn’t expect. A person we care about leaves us. Our instinct is to call these events unfortunate.
Which makes sense. It’s fortunate when you get what you want, it’s unfortunate when, for whatever reason, you don’t. Right?
Marcus Aurelius proposed a different way of looking at things. Instead of telling ourselves that we’re unfortunate because our expectations were disappointed, we should do the opposite:
“No it's fortunate that this has happened and I've remained unharmed by it -- not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it.”
To a Stoic, we’re only harmed when our character is affected. We’re only harmed when we let go of what we believe in or when we drop our own standards. It might not be desirable to lose money or a friend, to fail at something or to be criticized, but how does that make us unfortunate? We haven’t been deprived of our ability to respond. Our character remains intact.
There’s no rule that says you have to freak out about this or shattered by it or that you have to start getting anxious about the future. No, you’re still in control. You’re still you.
That’s very fortunate.
|May 24, 2019|
The Road To Ladies and Gentlemen Again
Two years ago, the world lost a great scholar and Stoic philosopher, Peter Lawler. Peter, a longtime writer for National Review and political science professor at Berry College, was the kind of person interested in those seemingly archaic notions of honor and virtue and duty (you can read the interview Peter did with us just a few weeks before his untimely death). He also, according to his friends, was the kind of person who lived those ideals.
We live in a time of vulgarity and corruption and oversharing and selfishness. Some embrace these traits openly, others pay lip service to virtue while leading wicked private lives, others contribute to the decline and fall of goodness by trying to tear down everything that isn’t perfect or pure.
It would be wonderful if you could take a moment today—whether you’re a man or a woman—to meditate on this thought from Peter’s final essay, which was published on the eve of his death:
“Now’s the time to praise manliness, but only in the context of showing the road from anger, meaninglessness, and despair to a world once again full of ladies and gentlemen—people who know who they are and what they’re supposed to do as beings born to know, love, and die, and designed for more than merely biological existence.”
That’s the best way that we can honor Peter’s life—through goodness and fulfilling our potential. Thank you, Peter.
|May 23, 2019|
You’ll Be Happier If You’re Realistic
We tell ourselves that if we just get paid more or get promoted, we’ll stop being so miserable at work. Or we dream for months in advance about some vacation to paradise, only to find, once we arrive, that the hotel was not quite as glamorous as the photographs on the website implied. Maybe we do get that promotion or that raise and it does alleviate some old problems—then suddenly there are new ones like jealous co-workers or additional responsibility.
Our rosy expectations set us up to be disappointed. Our expectation that the modern world will not have any problems is why the so called “first world problems” are so vexing. Isn’t everything supposed to be awesome considering all that we’ve accomplished? People tend to think only about how amazing things are going to be...only to find that reality is more complicated. It is this gap—between what we told ourselves things were going to be like and how they actually are—that is the source of so much unhappiness and misery in people’s lives. It’s the reason that so many of us walk around frustrated rather than grateful and relieved.
Naturally, a problem like that is something the Stoics zeroed in on resolving. Because the source of it isn’t the outside world, it’s our thoughts about the world that are the issue.
“Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like,” was Epictetus’s advice. “If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse—the people who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. In this way you will be more prepared to start the activity, by telling yourself at the outset, ‘I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.’ Make this your practice in every activity.”
Basically, premeditatio malorum.
Think about how things really might be in advance. Don’t tell yourself how you want them to be. Don’t lie to yourself as a form of motivation. Be honest. Be clear. Be realistic.
If they end up being better than you expect (as things often can be), then wonderful. Enjoy the treat you’ve set up for yourself. If they end up being anything else? Well, you’re prepared now, aren’t you?
Better to be pleasantly surprised than unpleasantly surprised. Better to be realistic than delusional.
That’s the idea.
|May 22, 2019|
Eat And Be Merry
A few years ago a study by Brad Bushman at Ohio State University found a link between low blood sugar and arguments between spouses. It pretty much confirms the experiences of anyone who has ever been in a relationship and found themselves fighting right around lunch or dinner time for no good reason. The colloquial term for this? Being hangry. And it can ruin relationships, friendships, and generally make you a jerk.
The funny thing is that even the Stoics knew this and warned against it. As Seneca wrote:
“Hunger and thirst must be avoided...they grate on and inflame the mind. It’s an old saying that quarrels are sought by the weary’ just as much, too, by the hungry and the thirsty, and by every man who yearns for anything.”
So conquering your temper and being kind and respectful and fair is not simply a matter of your mind. How you treat your body affects how your mind operates (another study shows that judges are more merciful after lunch). We know this regardless of what the studies show. When we feel good, it’s easier to be good. When we are rested, it’s easier to be patient. Your tone will be softer when your stomach isn’t growling, and you’ll make better decisions when your energy levels are better.
This means that we have to take good care of ourselves. We have to eat right. We have to keep to a smart schedule. We have to know our physical limits. All of which, of course, requires the use of our mind now...so that our body isn’t at odds with it later.
|May 21, 2019|
Make It Happen. Whatever It Takes.
On this day in 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her solo exploits are well known. Less so is that Earhart had already made the same flight less than five years prior. Unable to make a living as a female pilot, Earhart was working a job as a social worker. Then one day the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a pretty offensive offer: She could be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she wouldn’t actually fly the plane and she wouldn’t get paid anything.
Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Because that’s what people who defy the odds do. That’s how people who become great at things—whether it’s flying or blowing through gender stereotypes—do. They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. They swallow their pride. They do whatever it takes. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work. And they can prove the people who doubted them wrong, as Earhart certainly did.
“A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low,” Epictetus said. “But in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish."
On the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.
Prove the doubters wrong.
|May 20, 2019|
Don’t Let Yourself Be Rushed
Robert Caro is getting old and people are getting worried. He’s now 83 and each day that passes makes it increasingly unlikely that he’ll ever finish his epic (and must-read) series on Lyndon Johnson. He’s only made it up the the beginning of the Vietnam War...and there is so much material left to tackle.
It’s understandable that fans and publishers are subtly trying to nudge him to hurry and finish. With so little time left, they want him to get as much onto the page as possible. You might think that reminding him of his mortality is a feature of the Stoic practice—an important memento mori, but, in fact, it’s missing the point. As Caro recently told a reporter for the New York Times:
“People want to make me think about that, but it is a mistake to think about it, because it would make me rush. It’s probably the understatement of all time, but I have not rushed these books. They’ve taken the amount of time that’s necessary to show what I wanted to show. What would be the point of the books if I didn’t do them properly? I’m trying very hard to keep the standard of this book up to whatever standard I had in the other ones.”
This is exactly right. When Marcus Aurelius spoke of his own impending and inevitable death, it wasn’t to remind himself to squeeze in as much crap as possible--it wasn’t about picking up the pace. It was to remind himself of what was important, of the standard to which he needed to hold himself. He said, “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.” That is: Do it right. Not do it as quickly as possible so you can say it’s complete.
Yes, it’s true, we will die. It could be tomorrow, or it could be fifty years from now. Which is why this very moment is so important. And why we can’t let anyone rush us through it.
|May 17, 2019|
Find The Space
Think about the last time that someone made you upset. What did they say? What did they do? Now think back: How did you react? What did you say? What did you feel?
Now think about the situation another way: If, when that provocation came, you had given yourself space to pause, could you have controlled your reaction? Could you have stayed sober and calm in the face of their hysterics and yelling? Could you have kept your head about you?
Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Viktor Frankl talked about how between stimulus and response, we have space, and in that space, we determine not just our response, but who we are.
What we’re doing here is trying to train ourselves to do that. All this reading, this writing, this stepping back and reflecting on our patterns of behavior--it’s for a purpose. It’s to improve that default response. So that while others give themselves over to their emotions, we can keep any destructive emotions in check. As they freak out, we can calm down. That’s the whole point of Stoicism: to restore the power over your mind to the only person who ought to have it—you.
|May 16, 2019|
How To Overcome Selfishness
Bertrand Russell was no fan of the Stoics. He thought they were cold, hated riches and passion. He thought Seneca and Marcus were hypocrites. But then again he himself was a rather big hypocrite—having had his share of affairs and embarrassing scandals.
Nevertheless, there is a passage from Russell that captures an important Stoic theme: the reduction of our own ego so that we might see where we fit in the larger whole of humanity:
Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the riv