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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.
Jan 17, 2019
Dec 13, 2018
Great daily reminder to follow a stoic way of life.
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 river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.
We can be sure that Seneca wasn’t writing this book for money or for fame. He was writing it for the same reason that Marcus was constantly looking out at nature and up to the stars—because it was humbling. Because it was a way to attain the philosophical view that is quite difficult when your nose is in other people’s business or too focused on the concerns of the day.
The idea of sympatheia—which we think is so important we actually made a medallion of it—is the idea that we are all part of a larger whole. It’s simultaneously a reminder of our greatness and our smallness, our insignificance and our essentialness. Everything about today’s culture is at odds with that understanding. Social media. Me-first self-help. Hero worship. The normalization of toxic ego.
You have to fight that. And you fight it by looking to nature, by zooming out your view so it is unable to focus on the tiny, trivial matters before you, by subsuming yourself into something larger, something greater.
The Stoics did it. Bertrand Russell would have been better if he did it more often. And so would all of us.
We think that every leader and citizen should think deeply about this idea of sympatheia. We were made for each other and to serve a common good, as Marcus put it. That’s why we made our Sympatheia challenge coin, which can serve as a practical, tangible reminder of the causes and the larger whole we are all members of. You can check it out in the May 15, 2019
The Only Measure of Success
There’s plenty written about people pushing through failure, pulling themselves out of the depths of despair, rising above against all odds. There are countless inspiring stories of the struggling artist, living in debt and obscurity for years—a lifetime even—eventually garnering the recognition and commercial success they long believed they deserved.
There’s less written about dealing with the pressures of immediate success. We rarely hear about how the artist—the musician whose debut album goes platinum or the author whose debut book is an instant bestseller—deals with the pressures, internal and external, of avoiding the dreaded “One Hit Wonder” label.
Mark Manson’s debut book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck was an international sensation which sold more than 8 million copies. His second book Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope releases today. In our interview with Mark for DailyStoic.com, we asked how he approached following up the massive success of Subtle Art:
I had to own up to the fact that...at the ripe old age of 32, it's extremely likely that, commercially speaking, my career had peaked...That is hard to swallow.
So, when I sat down to write this book, it was really rough...This is going to sound cliche, but ultimately what "saved" me and kept me sane was remembering why I write: I write to sort out the ideas and issues that trouble me and try to do it in a way that can teach and help others...So, that was the starting point. Learning to regain some hope for myself—and for me, that was zeroing in on one goal: just write a better book.
And I believe I did. Since making that commitment, it's been liberating. I don't feel anxious about this book release. It might bomb. It might sell really well. Fans might love it. They might hate it. But I truly believe it is a better book: it's smarter, deeper, more mature, better-written than Subtle Art was. So, regardless of the worldly result, I will always be proud of it. And ultimately, that's what matters.
The Stoics talk about detaching from results and outcomes. “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole,” Marcus Aurelius said. “Stick with the situation at hand.” The less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards—when doing the right thing—is what fills us with pride and self-respect, when the effort is enough, we are liberated.
Let that be your mindset today. Focus only on what’s immediately in front of you. No strain, no struggle, no worry. Just one simple movement after another with just one goal: your best effort.
|May 14, 2019|
Look For Teachable Moments
On the eve of the 2008 election, the journalist Joe Klein asked Barack Obama how he’d made his decision to respond to the brewing scandal about Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, having made controversial statements about the government and terrorist attacks. Whether you were upset by that situation or not, whether you think he properly addressed it or not, the mindset that Obama explained to Klein is worth spending a few minutes thinking about:
“My gut was telling me that this was a teachable moment and that if I tried to do the usual political damage control instead of talking to the American people like an adult—like they were adults and could understand the complexities of race, that I would not only be doing damage to the campaign but missing an important opportunity for leadership.”
From this, a beautiful and important speech about race relations—known as the “A More Perfect Union” speech—came into existence. A rather ordinary political scandal became a teachable moment.
But that kind of transformation is not solely the domain of politicians or world leaders. It is also our duty and goal as aspiring students of Stoicism—we should all be trying to take the ordinary, frustrating, complex, difficult, and surprising situations that life throws at us and turning them into something.
We should be doing this for ourselves, for our colleagues, for our children, for history. Our goal should be to never miss an important opportunity for leadership—internally or externally. We should always be getting better and stronger for what will happen. That’s what Amor Fati is about. That’s what it means to say that the obstacle is the way and then to take the first steps in that direction.
There is something to teach and something to learn with every moment. There is something to do with every moment. If you’re brave enough, strong enough, committed enough to eschew the path of least resistance—the damage control path—and engage these moments like an adult. Like a human being. Like a Stoic.
|May 13, 2019|
If It’s Right, It’s Right For You
Sometimes we get asked or tasked with doing stuff in life we’d rather not have to do. Maybe that’s working a less than glamorous job when we’re young. Maybe that’s filling a role in your family that diverges from traditional gender roles. Maybe that’s taking heat for something that wasn’t our fault, or being seen as the bad guy, even though the facts are on our side.
There is a tendency to be ashamed of these things, and then to hide them. We’re afraid of people judging us, so we hedge or cover or try to do them at night, when no one can see us.
Nonsense. If it’s the right thing to do, then it’s right to do it. Don’t hide it. Embrace it. Own it. Epictetus’s rule for his students was:
“Whenever you do something you have decided ought be done, never try to avoid being seen doing it, even if people in general may disapprove of it. If, of course, your action is wrong, just don’t do it at all, but if it’s right, why be afraid of people whose criticism is off the mark?”
If being a stay-at-home dad is the right thing for your family, then do it—and anyone who thinks overwise can go to hell. If wearing a silly hat, or “pieces of flair,” while you wait tables is what you’ve got to do to pay for college, then wear it proudly. The hat doesn’t say anything bad about you as a person. It’s a badge of honor not for the job, but for you and your commitment to your family, your goals, your future. If a leader makes a call they know is right, that has to be enough. Who cares if people criticize it afterwards? The fact that other people are mad about it is irrelevant to whether it was what you knew to be the correct choice.
“Just that you do the right thing,” Marcus Aurelius said. “The rest doesn’t matter.”
Ignore the criticism. Ignoring the judging. Don’t give a second thought to how it looks. If it’s right, it’s right for you.
|May 10, 2019|
You Decide The End of The Story
When James Stockdale was shot down in Vietnam, he was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. He spent seven years being tortured and subjected to unimaginable loneliness and terror. He had little choice over the fact that he was shot down, or that he was taken prisoner.
But what he told himself—and what helped him endure this terrible ordeal—was the sense of agency that Stoicism gave him, the sense that he could ultimately use this experience as fuel.
“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
The sheer bravery and strength Stockdale exhibited by truly embodying this notion of amor fati gives one goosebumps, even some 50 years later. It’s just unreal.
It’s a reminder that for everything outside of our control, we retain—at the core of our being—an incredible power: The power to choose what we do with what happens to us. The power to decide what role an event will play in our lives. The power to write the end of our own story.
No one can take that away from us. People can hurt us. Money can be lost. Jobs can disappear. Cars can crash into each other. Stoicism can’t change what happened. No philosophy is a time machine.
But what we can do, what the Stoic practice is meant to help us do, is to prevail over what happened, and decide what comes next.
|May 09, 2019|
The First and Most Important Victory
It’s easy to look at people who are calm and self-disciplined and assume that their disposition comes naturally to them, or that it is somehow divinely inspired. These people, they simply don’t have to struggle with the temptations or the frustrations that we mere mortals struggle with—that’s why they are able to stand before us as models of equanimity and poise.
Perhaps in some cases this is true, but usually it’s not. Take someone like George Washington for example. To the people who encountered him, he was a paragon of rationality and self-control. But those who really knew him understood that he, like all ambitious people, was subject to great passions and a roiling temper from his earliest days. Indeed, this was exactly what made Washington so impressive to those who actually worked with him. As the Governor Robert Morris wrote of Washington, it was with these passions that Washington waged "his first contest, and his first victory was over himself."
The same was true of Cato and Marcus Aurelius. They were not naturally stoic. If they had been, their example would not be nearly so meaningful. Because then they wouldn’t have been examples at all: it would just be biology or divinity or random luck. Marcus’s Meditations is not preaching...it’s a workbook intended almost solely for the writer himself. Cato was not perfect. His peers saw in him all the same flaws they saw in themselves—but they were inspired by the way he got closer to victory than they had. He pushed them to be better. (Seneca, on the other hand, was a better writer than either one...but far less victorious).
We face the same inner-contest as Washington. We have ambitions. We have passions. We have tempers. We have temptations. But what matters is how we rise above these things; how we channel them to positive ends. Whether that’s forming a new nation or leading one, being kind when it’d be easier to be mean, resisting the impulse of ego or selfishness, we can conquer ourselves and thus make the world a better place. The victory starts at home. It starts inside.
And make no mistake, it is a battle that is as difficult to win as it is to fight.
|May 08, 2019|
Who To Be Friends With?
Of the Stoics, Seneca seems like the one who had the most fun. He’s the one who it’s easiest to picture spending time with friends or mingling at a dinner party (in fact, he was known for his legendary parties with hundreds of guests). Whereas almost all of Marcus’s writing is private and solitary, and Epictetus’s comes to us in the form of lecture notes from his students, a sizeable chunk of what survives of Seneca are the letters he wrote to his dear friend Lucilius.
We don’t know too much about Lucilius, except that he was a governor of Sicily and possibly also a writer. Nor do we know much about who the guests at Seneca’s parties were. But from what we do know, we can gather than Seneca was social and had a large circle of friends and acquaintances with whom he spent a lot of time.
Which begs the question: How did he choose these friends? We can hope—and expect—that Seneca’s many friendships adhered to the rule he put down to Lucilius in one of those famous letters:
“Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve.”
It’s an impossible thing to know really—even for ourselves—how we came to know most of the people in our lives. But how they stayed in our lives? How our acquaintances evolved into friendships, that should be easier to figure out. And Seneca’s rule is a wonderful guide because what he’s describing is what friendship is about. A process of mutual improvement, benefit, and enjoyment.
We become like the people we spend the most time with...so we should choose wisely. And we should choose widely because life is too short to live lonely or narrowly—even for a Stoic
|May 07, 2019|
Don’t Sell Out
In his Discourses, Epictetus asks a probing question: “Your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?”
The answer, too often, is “for pennies on the dollar.” We trade our word for a small edge in business. We give up peace of mind for a bigger house or a nicer car. We mortgage our self-respect for fancy friends or fame. We sell our freedom for a job that makes us miserable, or a relationship full of incessant fighting.
We only have one life to live...and how many of us sell it quickly and cheaply instead of holding on tightly to this incredible asset we have been given? We value our principles and our happiness like penny stocks, like fetid swampland.
In Stoicism, there are four virtues that sit atop the ledger of human existence: Justice. Moderation. Wisdom. Courage. That is: Fairness. Discipline. Tranquility. Bravery. Compared to these things, everything else is cheap, if not worthless. No bargain is worth giving them up. And only a sucker sells them.
|May 06, 2019|
Be Sure To Love Them While You Still Can
In one of the darkest passages in all of Stoic thought, Epictetus discusses the prospect of putting your child to bed and saying goodbye to them in your mind as you do so because it may be the last time you get the chance. It’s an image that is hard to swallow. It’s morbid. It’s tempting fate. What kind of fatalistic person would do that?
In his new translation of Epictetus, A.A Long responds to this criticism and puts Epictetus’s thinking in proper context:
“His memento mori warnings concerning wife and children touch a bleak note—until we reflect on the prevalence of infant mortality and premature death in his time. Rather than insensitivity, they betoken the strongest possible recommendation to care for loved ones as long as we are permitted to have them.”
That’s well said. Epictetus wasn’t thinking morbid thoughts about his family because he didn’t care about them. He was thinking those thoughts as a way of making sure that his actions fully aligned with how much he truly did care about them.
Because the truth is that too often there is far too great a disparity between what we say we feel and how we act on those feelings. It’s only after the sudden loss of a friend that we realize we had been taking them for granted, for instance. It’s only after a natural disaster wipes out some distant attraction that we realize what our memories of it meant to us, and how we lost our chance to visit one more time. It’s only after we hurt someone—after we can see the pain we’ve caused them—that we understand how selfish we’ve been.
Well, what Epictetus was trying to do was give himself that moment of precipitous clarity. Reminding ourselves that we can lose a loved one at any moment, that inevitably one of our interactions with them will be our final interaction, is a way to make sure that our choices are aligned with how we truly feel, and that our actions reflect it.
Today could be the last day your father calls you—so make sure you answer when you see his name on the screen. Put down whatever you’re doing and pay attention to the words he speaks to you. Today could be your last morning with your wife, your child, your husband, your best friend. Do you really want it to be another one of those days where you rush them, nag them, put them off, or make some tiny issue into a fight? Of course not.
All we have for sure is this present moment. So let’s love it, and the people we are experiencing it with, while we still can.
|May 03, 2019|
Do Your Duty, Every Day, Everywhere
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was recently interviewed by the New York Times about his grueling travel schedule, which will include 22 cities this year.
This passage of the interview is worth highlighting:
Q: When you travel, do you read, write, sleep, or watch movies?
A: I do not live very differently when I travel and when I don’t, which means I do my duty. My duty is to read, to write, and to fight. These are the three things that are my duty. Traveling and not traveling, this is what I do.”
Although Lévy’s brand of philosophy is distinctly not Stoic—he’s the founder of the New Philosophers school—his answer does sound eerily similar to something Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations 2,000 years ago:
“No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, ‘No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.’”
This is all worth pointing out because of the disturbing habit we humans have of making excuses for not doing our duty or not being good. “It’s not cheating if it’s on vacation.” “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” “They hit me first.” “I’m on the road, who cares about my diet (or my sobriety)?” “I was tired. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
No. Duty is duty. Good is good. We must do it every day, everywhere.
|May 02, 2019|
You’ll Never Get To Perfect
Rosanne Cash tells a story in her memoir, Composed about a performance she did with George Harrison. Dress rehearsal had gone wonderfully but the performance didn’t go quite as well. Seeing she was disappointed by that, Harrison walked over and consoled her. “It’s never as good as the rehearsal,” he said.
As with music, so with life.
Even when we do a premeditatio malorum, even when we get everything set just right, we’re still surprised by how things go. We eliminate all the big things that can go wrong, and then it turns out that a couple little things still didn’t go right. It’s just never perfect.
That’s one lesson. The other lesson is that even as we study and rehearse this philosophy, as we plan out the people we want to be, we’re still always going to fall short. And so are other people. Marcus talked about how we can’t go around expecting the world to be Plato’s Republic. He also talked about picking ourselves up when we fall—because we will fall. Epictetus said that he never expected to meet a full sage—he just wanted to meet someone trying to get better. (Confucius, as it happens, said something very similar).
So don’t expect to be perfect today. Don’t expect things to be as good as they were in your head or how you practiced them. Be content to be as good as you can be, while still trying to get a little bit better next time. Because that’s how progress is made and improvement is banked—and it’s the only thing we can count on for sure.
|May 01, 2019|
You Can Admit You Were Wrong
A Stoic is determined, but not obstinate. A Stoic controls what they can, recognizes they cannot change that which is out of their control, but that they can change their mind. Not because it’s convenient, but because they are open to learning they were wrong or misinformed.
“If anyone can refute me," Marcus Aurelius wrote, "I'll gladly change." He wanted to be told when he had made a mistake or seen things from the wrong perspective. Because it was truth that mattered to him. Truth, he said, “never hurt anyone.” Persisting on a course or holding steadfast to a belief only because you’re afraid of losing face? That’s where the real damage comes from.
Yet we actually fear the former more than the latter! Politicians pretend to still agree with positions in public that they disparage in private...because they don’t want to be branded a flip flopper. It’s madness. Changing your mind is a good thing. Holding different beliefs today than you did ten years ago? That’s called growth, maturity, evolution. Being won over by someone else’s argument is not a sign of a weak mind...it’s proof of an open mind. The best kind to have! The only kind to have if you are at all concerned with fortifying your inner citadel against the vagaries of Fate and Fortune.
The Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once said that “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” Well put.
Don’t reject refutation today. Don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong. Gladly change. It looks good on you—on everyone.
|Apr 30, 2019|
Make Beautiful Choices
Epictetus says that “if your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” It’s simple and it’s true. You are what your choices make you, nothing more and nothing less.
Today will present you with plenty of opportunities to choose between—to choose beauty or ugliness; kindness or selfishness; mercy or vengeance; serenity or anger.
There will be little choices—what you eat, how you talk to people, whether you pick up the television remote or a book, what you think about—and there will be bigger choices too: whether you stand up for what’s right, whether you reach down to help someone who needs it, what kind of work you do, what standards you hold yourself to.
It’s often easier to make the ugly, selfish, vengeful angry choice. To choose to give into your temper or to keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. Beautiful choices—like physical fitness or perfect skin—are rarely as effortless as they seem. No, there is a regimen behind them. It takes exercise, it takes discipline, it takes sacrifice.
But when you see the results? Well, it can take your breath away.
|Apr 29, 2019|
Do This For Your Future Self
The musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and author, Derek Sivers, recently wrote an article that began, “You know those people whose lives are transformed by meditation or yoga or something like that? For me, it’s writing in my diary and journals. It’s made all the difference in the world for my learning, reflecting, and peace of mind.”
He’s kept a journaling habit for over 20 years. Every night, he takes just a couple minutes to jot down a few sentences to recap his day, how he felt, and thoughts he had. What’s so transformational about that? As Sivers explains:
“We so often make big decisions in life based on predictions of how we think we’ll feel in the future, or what we’ll want. Your past self is your best indicator of how you actually felt in similar situations. So it helps to have an accurate picture of your past.
You can’t trust distant memories, but you can trust your daily diary. It’s the best indicator to your future self (and maybe descendants) of what was really going on in your life at this time.
If you’re feeling you don’t have the time or it’s not interesting enough, remember: You’re doing this for your future self. Future you will want to look back at this time in your life, and find out what you were actually doing, day-to-day, and how you really felt back then. It will help you make better decisions.”
“I will keep constant watch over myself and—most usefully—will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil—that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”
How often do you consult your past self to make decisions? Could you do so even if you wanted to? Or have most days, most experiences, most feelings, most thoughts vanished from memory? Journaling is a memory bank with unlimited storage. It’s an archive, a reference manual, an unmatched tool for learning from today to inform tomorrow. That’s why journaling is so transformational. If you still haven’t, start journaling today. Start compiling your archive.
Do it for your future self.
|Apr 26, 2019|
Always Think Of Their Intentions
We live in a culture where people sit on the sidelines and pass a lot of strong judgements. We look at people we don’t know and decide whether they’re good or bad people. We look at complicated situations and difficult projects and cleanly label them successes or failures—despite having little understanding of what went on behind the scenes. We take an instance of behavior or a tiny interaction—the way someone talked to us at the grocery store or a decision that they made—and extrapolate out who that person is and what motivates them.
As we’ve talked about before, the result of these snap judgements is not just misery for us, but an overwhelmingly negative view of humanity and of the world. It’s no way to live. Which is why when you feel that urge to decide—as an outsider or an observer—that you know who someone is or what it means, you should stop yourself. Stop yourself and consider this prompt from Epictetus:
“Until you know their reasons, how do you know whether they have acted wrongly?”
What Epictetus is not saying is that you should sit there and try to think about why Hitler and Stalin murdered so many people. He’s not saying that right and wrong are relative and that truly awful things can be excused. He’s saying, in the vein of Socrates, that we need to take a minute and really think about what we don’t know in a situation. We need to consider that, with the exception of mental illness, (which is its own kind of reason), most people have a logic for their actions—and that logic is usually not to try to hurt you or anyone else. They are just doing the best they can.
David Foster Wallace speaks about this in his famous “This is Water” speech, after several allusions to his frustration with bad drivers:
It's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am—it is actually I who am in his way. And so on.
You don’t know that someone acted wrongly or is an asshole or that they totally screwed a situation up, because you don’t know the full story. You don’t know their reasons or their side of things. And what do the Stoics tell us to do when we don’t have all the facts about something?
They tell us to suspend judgement.
|Apr 25, 2019|
Difficulty Is Forging Us Into Who We Need To Be
Look, nobody wants to go through hard times. We’d prefer that things go according to plan, that what could go wrong doesn’t, so that we might enjoy our lives without being challenged or tested beyond our limits.
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. Which leaves us then with the question of what good there is in such difficulty and how we might—either in the moment or after the fact—come to understand what it is that we’re going through...today, tomorrow, and always.
This passage from Sonia Purnell’s wonderful biography of Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston Churchill, is worth thinking about this morning:
“Clementine was not cut out from birth for the part history handed her. Adversity, combined with sheer willpower, burnished a timorous, self-doubting bundle of nerves and emotion into a wartime consort of unparalleled composure, wisdom, and courage. The flames of many hardships in early life forged the inner core of steel she needed for her biggest test of all. By the Second World War the young child terrified of her father...had transmogrified into a woman cowed by no one.”
The Stoics believed that adversity was inevitable. They knew that Fortune was capricious and that it often subjected us to things we were not remotely prepared to handle. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because it teaches us. It strengthens us. It gives us a chance to prove ourselves. “Disaster,” Seneca wrote, “is Virtue’s opportunity.”
As he writes in On Providence:
“Familiarity with exposure to danger will give contempt for danger. So the bodies of sailors are hardy from buffeting the sea, the hands of farmers are callous, the soldier’s muscles have the strength to hurl weapons, and the legs of a runner are nimble. In each, his staunchest member is the one that he has exercised. By enduring ills the mind attains contempt for the endurance of them; you will know what this can accomplish in our own case, if you will observe how much the peoples that are destitute and, by reason of their want, more sturdy, secure by toil.”
Basically, he was describing the same phenomenon that transformed Clementine Churchill from a timid young girl into the brave woman who inspired millions of Britons and Europeans through one of the darkest ordeals in the history of the modern world. The difficulty she went through early in life forged for her a backbone upon which she and countless others came to depend.
And so the same can be true for you and whatever it is that you’re going through right now. Yes, it would probably be preferable if everything went your way and if you could count on smooth sailing for the rest of your life. But you can’t. You’re stuck with this present moment instead.
So use it. Be hardened and improved by it. Be transformed by it. The world needs more Clementines. And you can be one of them.
|Apr 24, 2019|
We All Share This Thing Together
Yesterday was the 49th year we celebrated Earth Day...in the 4.5 billionth year of the Earth’s existence. In 1970, at the height of counterculture in the United States, the protest movement, and rising dissatisfaction with the environmental abuses of the modern world, U.S. senator and governor of Wisconsin Gaylord Nelson conceived the idea of Earth Day. In a speech during that inaugural day in 1970, Nelson said:
Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.
Some people talk about protecting the environment as if it only involves clean air and clean water. The environment, Nelson urged, “involves the whole broad spectrum of man's relationship to all other living creatures, including other human beings.”
Basically: We live on earth. We come from the earth. We will become earth when we die. So we should probably treat it with some respect.
The Stoics spoke of this at length. In fact, they had a word for it: sympatheia—“a connectedness with the cosmos.” It is one of the lesser known Stoic concepts, in part because it’s so incredibly easy to focus on the self and lose sight of the whole. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:
Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.
No one is saying you have to stop driving a car or go off the grid. But it is your duty to care and to care for this place you call home. You can find the little places where you can make small differences. You can try to limit yourself and your appetites. You can be good to your fellow human beings.
We are all connected and unified and made for one another and this should never be far from our minds. We should be humane to the Earth we inhabit and to each other—yesterday, today, and every day. Let’s take care of each other.
Happy Earth Day.
|Apr 23, 2019|
When You're Having A Bad Day
Theodore Roosevelt famously said that comparison is the thief of joy. Using what other people have or what they’ve done to chart your progress, holding your life or your work up to some outside vague standard of greatness, paying attention to your perception of how good someone else has it is rarely the way to happiness. We’re on our own journey with our own unique circumstances. Therefore comparison, as the quote implies, is something mostly to be avoided.
But, can comparison ever spur joy or relieve feelings of despair? In our interview with the famous DJ, entrepreneur, and practicing Stoic Mick Batyske, we asked if he could share with the Daily Stoic community one message or piece of advice to journal on, to try in practice, or just to think about today,
Always remember that there are people who would love to have your bad days. It’s kind of cliché and sort of an Instagram meme, but it’s so true. Acknowledging this puts you in a position of gratitude and astonishment, rather than greed and disappointment.
I have more going on in my life than ever, and with that, more problems than ever. New opportunities create lots of challenges. But I would never want to go backwards. I choose to welcome it and embrace it. I suppose that’s why The Obstacle Is The Way and Stoic philosophy has been so valuable to me.
The Stoics would not have been opposed to this kind of comparison—nor would Theodore Roosevelt have been—not if it made us better or more grateful. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” Marcus Aurelius said, “that things are good and always will be.” On those bad days, sometimes that gift, that thing to be grateful for, is seeing how it could be worse—how it is in fact worse and has been worse for so many other people. Always remember, as Mick says, that someone out there would love to have your “bad” day.
|Apr 22, 2019|
The Race To Run Is Against Yourself
It can be deceiving to hear the Stoics talk about an indifference to external recognition or rewards. Marcus says that fame is meaningless. Seneca talks about how success or wealth is out of our control and therefore not to be prized. Don’t want what other people want, they say, don’t get sucked into meaningless competition.
So does this mean that the Stoic doesn’t try? That the Stoic is resigned to whatever happens to them in life, caring about nothing, uninterested in improving or growing? No, of course not. The Stoic is still incredibly ambitious—only they focus on an internal scorecard versus an external one.
A similar sentiment was well-expressed by the entrepreneur Sam Altman, who has helped thousands of startups over the years with his work at Y Combinator, when he was interviewed by Tyler Cowen for the Conversations with Tyler podcast:
“I think one thing that is a really important thing to strive for is being internally driven, being driven to compete with yourself, not with other people. If you compete with other people, you end up in this mimetic trap, and you sort of play this tournament, and if you win, you lose. But if you’re competing with yourself, and all you’re trying to do is — for the own self-satisfaction and for also the impact you have on the world and the duty you feel to do that — be the best possible version you can, there is no limit to how far that can drive someone to perform. And I think that is something you see — even though it looks like athletes are competing with each other — when you talk to a really great, absolute top-of-the-field athlete, it’s their own time they’re going against.”
Competition, Altman’s friend and mentor Peter Thiel has said, is for losers. When you try to beat other people, you set yourself up to fail. But going against yourself—trying to improve yourself—that’s a competition you have control over. It’s one you can win.
A Stoic triumphs over themselves, over their own limitations, and in this—even if the margin is small—is the most important victory of all.
|Apr 19, 2019|
Look For The Good
Laura Ingalls Wilder had a hard scrabble existence. From the Kansas prairies to the backwoods of Florida, she and her family eked out a life from some of the most unforgiving environments on the planet. That’s what being a pioneer was really like. It wasn’t glamorous, it was hard.
Yet, what comes through in her work is the joy and happiness and beauty she managed to see despite all that hardship. “There is good in everything,” she later wrote, “if only we look for it.”
That’s what many of the best Stoic exercises are about—looking for the good. Or at least realizing that we have some choice in seeing things one way or the other. As Epictetus said, ultimately it’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgment and opinions about things that do. So, conversely, we choose not only to not be upset, but to be happy, to be grateful, to see life as an adventure that we can make the most of.
The task before you today is to look for that good, in anything and everything that you do. Because it’s there. If Laura Ingalls Wilder could find it in a one room cabin, amidst tragedy and terror and pain and pestilence, then you can find it at the office, in traffic and in the confines of modern life.
We all can.
|Apr 18, 2019|
Don’t Worry About Being Respected
In a conversation on “You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes” about Martin Luther King Jr., the screenwriter and director Adam McKay talked about the distinction between two words (and concepts) that we commonly conflate:
Have you noticed the difference between dignity and respect is a big one? People that fly off the handle and get angry too much always talk about, ‘I’m not being respected.’ But respect is something you can’t control, right? Dignity is inside you, dignity is yours.
This is a brilliantly made point, and it aligns perfectly with Stoicism. Remember, to the Stoics the two big categories that everything had to be sorted into were the things that were up to us and the things that are not up to us.
Although it is nice to be respected, that really isn’t something that is up to us. But acting with dignity? Maintaining our own standards—our self-respect? That’s ours. Always. Even when we are under duress, facing adversity, or someone is attempting to humiliate us—dignity remains firmly in our control, provided we don’t give it up.
This is what made Cato such a towering figure to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and generations of Stoics. He didn’t care what other people thought about him, what they said to him, what they did to him. Sometimes public opinion lined up with his moral compass, sometimes it didn’t, but he never let that sway him from following what really mattered. Even when they showered him with curses or tried to kill him, he stuck fast. As McKay would go on to say in the interview, while we “can’t really control what they’re doing...we can control how we react.” It’s hard to describe Stoicism better than that phrase.
Because that’s what dignity is about. That’s why it’s much more important than “respect.”
|Apr 17, 2019|
No Room For “Them”
“They” hold up very poorly in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Marcus holds up very poorly when “they” come up. Who is “they?” They are the people the Romans referred to as barbarians—the people who lived outside the bounds of the empire. It’s when Marcus speaks (and acts) derogatorily about them—the Christians or the slaves or even the opposite sex—that we are reminded just how long ago he lived.
In Marcus’s time, the world was a strict hierarchy, almost a system of castes, and Marcus never really questioned this. In fact, his own identity was strongly tied up in the notion that he was above these lesser beings, these savages, these slaves, these women.
Thankfully, society has made incredible progress since then. We’ve granted religious freedom, equal rights, and civil rights...for the most part. But still, tribalism tempts us. Especially lately. We are suspicious of and think less of people who are not like us, who live differently than us, who come from somewhere different than us.
In Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal, he talks about how the massive technological and sociological changes we are going through on this planet encourage those toxic impulses. We feel threatened, we feel insecure, so we retreat into (or descend into) tribalism. We want to blame other people for our problems, we want to create enemies, we want to focus on what they are doing wrong, and not the urgent (and resolvable) issues in our own lives. And of course, what this blame-shifting tribalism keeps us blind to is how much we all have in common, how 99% of us are just doing the best we can, and how in the end, most everyone wants the same things.
To the Stoics, the idea of sympatheia was a bulwark against this temptation to make someone an other. We all come from the same place, Marcus writes (even if he didn’t always live up to it), we are all part of the same larger project. Forget tribes, he says, we are one big hive—we are citizens of the world as much as we are citizens of Rome or America. Do good for your fellow man, he said, or put up with him. There’s no room, or time, for hating or scapegoating.
The idea of “they” or “them”—that’s driven by fear. Not reason. It’s not rational, it’s emotional and it’s destructive. Each of us needs to work on rising above it. For the sake of ourselves, our countries, and our world.
|Apr 16, 2019|
How To Bounce Back
When you begin to type “Marcus Lattimore” into Google, the first suggestion is “injury”. On October 27th, 2012, on live television, running back at University of South Carolina Marcus Lattimore suffered a horrific on field knee injury that he would never fully recover from. Lattimore was one of those once in a lifetime talents, but in one play, the football career Lattimore had built his entire identity around all but disappeared
Seneca often said that the growth of anything great is a long process, but its undoing can be rapid, even instant. For Lattimore, it was instant. Such a devastating injury could have sent him down a spiral of rage, anger, sadness, and grief. It could have been the last we heard of Marcus Lattimore. But it wasn’t. Instead, he went back to school to earn the degree he promised his mom he'd get. He started a foundation to help athletes who have trouble paying for treatment and rehabilitation for major injuries. And most recently, he returned to his alma mater as the director of player development, mentoring student-athletes for life after football. Lattimore hasn’t spiraled. He’s thrived. And his impact now quieter but far more powerful than it would have been in the NFL.
In our interview with Marcus for DailyStoic.com, Marcus said he wouldn’t change what he went through:
The more I detached from the situation and gained a higher perspective, the more I realized how much I had grown up and started looking at the positives. Without my knee exploding on television I would've never fully grasped the positive impact I had on people which influenced starting a non-profit. I would have never known who was really there for me. If you want to know your true friends go through adversity. I would have never started reading and I wouldn't have the self-awareness I have today which I consider my most prized possession.
In every situation, that which seems to be the end of our path can actually be showing us the start of it. Think back today in your own life, we all have those tough setbacks that turned out to be a great breakthrough. The worst things can become some of the best things. Like Lattimore, it may just take some detachment and perspective to see this, it may be painful and it may come slowly, but it can be worth it.
|Apr 15, 2019|
Here’s A Reason To Be Good
The funny thing about egotistical people is that—despite any power or wealth they might have—they are really easy to manipulate. All you have to do is tell them what they want to hear; make everything seem like it was their idea; play to their vanity and their delusions. The same goes for liars—who are usually quite easy to lie to. There’s even an old saying: You can’t con an honest man. Liars and cheats are always looking for shortcuts and tricks, no matter how implausible or unbelievable they are. And the paranoid? As Seneca wrote, empty fears create real things to be afraid of. The paranoid leader often, unintentionally, encourages the enemies that end up taking them down.
All of which is to say that ego and deceit and paranoia are objectively bad strategies. They make you miserable...and they actually imperil the success that people think they help enable. We must steer clear of them like a ship must avoid a rocky shore. If we don’t, we will be dragged in by the current and torn to pieces on the rocks.
Look at Seneca’s experiences with Nero. Here was a man driven insane by his own ego and dishonesty and paranoia. He was emperor...but not for long. Centuries later, his name stands as a permanent indictment of how power corrupts (certainly he was an example, for someone like Marcus, of how not to be). Look at Donald Trump today. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with his policies or not—it’s hard to argue that these personality traits have served him well. He’s surrounded by a “team of vipers” who are constantly undermining him and stabbing each other in the back. His fears (and cries) of a “witch hunt” have only caused more investigations. His ego allowed him to be manipulated by partisans with extreme agendas that have little appeal to the vast majority of voters. How long it will go on, we cannot say, but it’s clear every second it continues is less and less fun for him.
And so it will be for you, too, if you indulge in these dangerous traits. We must sweep ego away. We must cultivate a habit of honesty and fairness in our speech and our habits. We must cooperate with others rather than protect our interests with paranoid possessiveness.
In short, we must be good people. It’s the best strategy. It’s the only way to live and lead.
|Apr 12, 2019|
Freedom To or Freedom From?
At the core of legal theory is this idea that there are essentially two forms of liberty—positive and negative. Positive liberty is the freedom to do something, such as the freedom of speech or the freedom of worship. Negative liberty is freedom from something, which is a little more complicated. For instance, in the United States, the Third Amendment to the Constitution stipulates that the government cannot quarter troops in the home of any private individual. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. As FDR famously pointed out, freedom from want and fear are just as important as speech and worship.
The complicated part of all this, of course, is where somebody else’s freedom to do something intersects with somebody else’s desire to be free from it.
You get to speak your mind...but that may offend or hurt someone else. You should be able to do whatever you want on your own property...but walking around naked blaring music makes it hard for your neighbors to do the same. You should be able to make your own medical decisions for your family...but the decision not to vaccinate affects everyone they meet.
The specifics of these issues are the proper realm of politicians and lawyers and not really what we talk about here. Where it does intersect with Stoicism is in that tricky and timeless question from Epictetus: What is up to us and what is not up to us?
In a world of snowflakes and outrage porn, it’s easy to get pulled off track and to focus on stopping other people from saying hurtful or offensive things rather than to measure what we say and manage how we respond. We want to get up in other people’s business, when really, at the end of the day, all we control is our own.
Which is ridiculous because there is so much to focus on in our own lives. What kind of person are we going to be? What are we going to do with our freedoms? Are our decisions negatively impacting other people? Are we really as free as we like to think we are?
And here’s the counterintuitive thing about all of this: Marcus Aurelius talked over and over again about the best way to influence and inspire other people. It was not with force, but by example. If you want to be free from the tyranny of other people’s opinions and bad behavior, feel free to set a better example.
|Apr 11, 2019|
All That Matters Is How We Respond
It was the great Athenian leader, Pericles, who said that there was nothing wrong with poverty. It could be caused by so many things—a business failure, the sudden loss of a family’s breadwinner, theft, even just plain old back luck. Like the Stoics, he knew that Fortune could swoop in, and, in the blink of an eye, undo years of hard work and careful planning.
But Pericles would not have said, as religious leaders and populist demagogues have tried to argue for thousands of years, that there was anything special or holy about poverty. While it wasn’t necessarily someone’s fault they were poor, and so they shouldn’t be judged for it, Pericles said, there was “real shame...in not taking steps to escape it.”
This too matches with the Stoic attitude, both about poverty and any fate Fortune might throw at us. Stuff is going to happen. We are going to experience setbacks. Some of us are going to experience major setbacks--in terms of where we are born, what our parents were like, how other people see members of our race or gender--and none of that is fair or says anything about who we are as people. How could it? We didn’t have anything to do with it happening.
But how we respond to those situations--be it poverty or disability or a bad upbringing--hell, that we respond at all, well, that says everything about who we are. Are there big systemic problems too? That will require coordination and political action? Absolutely. But in the meantime, we can start taking our individual steps right now, right this morning, big or small.
|Apr 09, 2019|
Do You Want To Be Less Angry?
Few people have studied the life and writings of Seneca as deeply as James Romm has. Romm is the author of a great biography of Seneca, Dying Every Day, a translation of Seneca’s various thoughts on death, How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, and his newest work, How To Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management, presenting one of Seneca’s most timely essays, On Anger.
Each of us should take a minute to think back, even in just the past week, to the times we’ve been angry or short-tempered and think, "Has this ever served me well?" The answer very very rarely yes. Anger, as Seneca says, always makes things worse: “No plague has cost the human race more dear.” But it’s a hard emotion to combat. It’s natural, often almost instinctual.
In our interview with Romm, we wanted some real practical tips about managing our anger, so we asked what he thought was Seneca’s best piece of advice:
My own favorite is summed up in the quote: "Do you want to be less angry? Be less aware." Anger often starts from noticing too many subtleties of the way others interact with us. In many cases, we'd do better not to notice the slights and microaggressions that can drive us nuts if we let them. One can will oneself to ignore such things—a practice many long-married couples will instantly recognize!
Today, when you feel that anger start to boil up—someone cuts you off in traffic, your computer glitches when you just can’t afford it to, the waitress messes up your order despite very careful instructions—stop, step back, and ask yourself, what if I didn’t pay any attention to that? What if I hadn’t noticed? Would I still be bothered? Would I need to be this angry? It brings to mind what Marcus said, “You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.”
Because you don’t have to be aware of it.
|Apr 08, 2019|
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Each of has been blessed by Fortune. We’re alive right now, instead of 50 or 500 years ago. We were born free, and not into slavery. We’re reading this email on a computer in our office or on our cellphones, because we’re not laying in a hospital in a permanent vegetative state.
Some of us are even luckier than all that. You might currently have the career you’ve dreamed of. Or you’re married to a wonderful spouse. Or you’re a world-famous expert or a billionaire. Great.
“No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him.”
The opposite of good luck is bad luck. What has been given randomly, can be taken away randomly. Indeed, it happens all the time. Look at Seneca: Born healthy. Born rich. Born talented. He achieved so much...and then his pupil turned out to be deranged and he lost all of it, including his life.
What goes up, must come down. If not today, then tomorrow or the day after.
The point of telling you that is not to prompt anxiety or worry. It’s just a reminder. Take nothing for granted. Don’t waste a moment feeling like you don’t have enough or comparing yourself to other people. Avoid the temptation to conflate your self-worth with your net-worth or your identity with your place in society. Because all of this is temporary. All of this is dependent on Fortune.
And Fortune is as fickle and as cruel as she is generous.
P.S. Get all our Daily Stoic medallions in one bundle and save $57! The full collection includes our popular Memento Mori medallion, Amor Fati medallion, Summum Bonum medallion, and 4 others. Learn more here.
|Apr 05, 2019|
Do Better Where You Can
When we look at the lives of a great man like Marcus Aurelius or a great woman like the Catholic activist Dorothy Day, it’s easy to be intimidated. They seemed to always know what to do and seemed to always do it regardless of the stakes. It’s easy to be discouraged when you hold their examples up as inspiration—it seems impossible to live up to their standards (and easy to forget, of course, that they didn’t always live up to their own standards).
The same is true for Stoicism as a whole. The philosophy is so aspirational, so idealistic that, given the flaws we each carry, the idea of even coming close to approaching the life of a sage feels ridiculous. But what if that was the wrong way to think about it?
What if instead of trying to be some unassailable force of moral good in the world, each of us just tried to be a little bit better whenever we saw an opportunity? What kind of cumulative difference would that end up making?
An example: Anyone who has bought one of the coins in our Daily Stoic Store over the last couple years might remember that they came wrapped in a thin plastic sleeve. A few months ago it occurred to us that this was producing a lot of unnecessary plastic in the world for not a lot of benefit—so we asked the mint to stop shipping them that way. Was this some transformational improvement to the world? Was it some shockingly selfless sacrifice? Of course not. But it was an improvement in our operations that reduced our ecological impact a tiny bit. We got better where we could.
Everyone has opportunities to do this. Opportunities to put their phone down and really listen to someone who needs to be heard. Opportunities to contribute some spare change to a worthy cause. Opportunities to let their employees go home early from work. Opportunities to pass on an unnecessary cross country flight or to pick up some trash or to hold the door open for someone.
These are little actions. They won’t make you a sage or a saint. But they will make a littleimprovement to the world and to yourself. And if we all did them—and if we all did them more often—they would add up to real transformation.
P.S. For more ways to keep Stoic principles in mind as you navigate your day, check out the Daily Stoic Store. It features our popular Summum Bonum medallion, Amor Fati pendant, Marcus Aurelius print, and more!
|Apr 04, 2019|
You Are Here On The Mountaintop
The point of memento mori is not to make you sad. It’s not to make you anxious about how few days you may have left. On the contrary, it’s supposed to free you. It’s supposed to inspire you. It’s supposed to give you that empowered, grateful, selfless, bonus-round attitude best captured by Martin Luther King Jr., who said these words on April 3rd, 1968, just hours before he would suddenly and fatally meet an assassin's bullet in Memphis outside his room at the Lorraine Motel:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
Obviously a strong faith in a higher power was part of what allowed King to feel so secure in his purpose and confident about an afterlife. But that’s not the only way to get there. A person who is simply grateful for every day they have experienced, who is measured and disciplined in their actions—never cutting corners or wasting time—and who has done their best with what they’ve been given, has been to their own kind of mountaintop. Dr. King’s selfless, tireless servant leadership was also what allowed him to be confident and content, deservedly so, even if there was no reward in heaven for it.
“When a man has said, ‘I have lived!’,” Seneca wrote, then “every morning he arises is a bonus.” The same goes for the one who has striven to make the world a better place, who has worked to win the Civil War raging within themselves (the war, as Dr. King said, between good and evil), and the person who has helped their fellow human beings.
It is an unmistakable tragedy that Martin Luther King was taken from us early (he’d be 90 years old this year, as would Anne Frank coincidentally). But it would have been even more of tragedy had he not lived every minute of the four decades he was given. Just as it would be a tragedy if you were to waste any more of your years.
Get working. Make your way to the mountaintop while you still have the time and the energy.
|Apr 03, 2019|
It's Just The Glasses
In his wonderful new book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, historian, and Stoic Donald Robertson charts the fascinating development of Marcus as a person over the course of his life. He artfully weaves in his insight as a working psychotherapist into how we can draw from both the life and writings of Marcus to improve our own lives.
In our interview with Robertson, he talked about some of the two-thousand-year-old Stoic concepts that inspired many psychological strategies practiced in the modern world. The central psychological strategy the Stoics employed, Robertson said, was what is now called cognitive distancing—summed up by what Epictetus famously said, “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about things.”
In practice, therapists ask clients to imagine that they’re wearing colored spectacles,
If you believe the world is actually rose-tinted or dark and gloomy because of the lenses before your eyes that’s like fusing your beliefs with reality. Realizing that the world isn’t really that color – it’s just the glasses ‒ is like cognitive distancing. It’s the difference between telling yourself “Life sucks!” and “I’m just assuming that ‘life sucks.’”
The Stoics knew this over two thousand years ago, though...It took therapists decades to really wrap their heads around this idea....Marcus likes to refer to cognitive distancing as the “separation” of our judgements from external events. The goal of Stoicism is to suspend certain value judgments responsible for unhealthy passions in this way.
Give this a try today. When you inevitably get frustrated with someone or something today, remember that you have the power to change the lens in which you are looking through. Anytime someone hurts our feelings or something makes us upset, we are complicit in the offense. We choose our reaction. We choose what glasses we see things through. We don’t have to let it frustrate or upset us. It’s just the glasses.
P.S. Check out our full interview with Donald Robertson and check out his new book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor—it's a wonderful introduction to one of history’s greatest figures and a clear guide for those facing adversity, seeking tranquility and pursuing excellence.
|Apr 02, 2019|
All Things Can Be Used for a Purpose
One of the benefits of being an artist is that everything that happens to you—no matter how traumatic or frustrating—has at least one hidden benefit: It can be used in your art. A painful parting can become a powerful breakup anthem. Melancholy mixes in with your oil paints and transforms an ordinary image into something deeply moving. A mistake creates an insight that leads to an innovation, to a new angle on an old idea, to a brilliant passage in a book.
The writer Jorge Luis Borges spoke to that last benefit well:
A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.
Everything is material. We can use it all. And again, not just artists. Issues we had with our parents become lessons that we teach our children. An injury that lays us up in bed becomes a reason to reflect on where our life is going. A problem at work inspires us to invent a new product and strike out on our own. These obstacles become opportunities.
The line from Marcus Aurelius about this was that a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it. That’s how we want to be. We want to be the artist that turns pain and frustration and even humiliation into beauty. We want to be the entrepreneur that turns a sticking point into a money maker. We want to be the person who takes their own experiences and turns them into wisdom that can be learned from and passed on to others.
Use it all. Find purpose in all of it. Find opportunity in everything. Be the painter of your own picture, the sculptor of your own life.
That’s your task for today and always.
|Apr 01, 2019|
Friendship Makes Life Worth Living
By now you may have read the viral story about the unexpected friendship between Charles Barkley and the late Lin Wang, a cat litter scientist from Iowa. It’s a pretty moving example of the power of connection, how one of the greatest basketball players of all time met and befriended a stranger in a hotel bar, and how despite their two very different lives, they became sources of great comfort and companionship to each other (and support too—as Wang attended the funeral of Barkley’s mother and Barkley later gave the eulogy at Wang’s funeral).
The Stoics don’t talk enough about friendship, and that’s a shame, because friendship makes life worth living.
Marcus speaks a lot about being kind to your fellow man—including all the jerks out there—but we don’t hear much about the pleasures of spending time in the company of people we love. He talks about avoiding false friendship but says less about the benefits of true friendship. From Seneca, we have many letters he wrote to a friend and we can see clearly how therapeutic and deep their relationship was. He writes occasionally on friendship in those letters and in essays, saying at one point that, “no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.”
It was Cicero, though, who wrote most eloquently on friendship, producing in 44 BC a fictional dialog between Gaius Laelius and his sons-in-law, where Laelius speaks movingly of his multi-decade friendship with the late Scipio Africanus (recently re-published by Princeton University Press as How To Be A Friend). Cicero, a lifelong student of the Stoics, knew the power of friendship, and we are lucky that his many letters to Atticus survive to us. Both are worth reading.
Although Stoicism is a philosophy that stresses independence and strength, moral rectitude and inner-life, it’s essential that we don’t mistake this as a justification for isolation or loneliness. We are not islands, we are social animals. We need community, we need friends. We get something out of giving, and we are made better for caring and being cared for. That’s what this idea of sympatheia is really about—the warm, snug feeling of knowing you’re a part of a larger whole.
Indeed, that’s been one of the most rewarding parts of creating Daily Stoic Life (which you can join here)—we’ve gotten to see Stoics meet and befriend people they didn’t even know lived near them. We’ve also gotten to see people reach out when they were in need or had problems and found support and acceptance.
Friendship makes life worth living. It is key to a good life. Neglect it at your peril.
|Mar 29, 2019|
Do Not Be Afraid
Life is pretty great, usually. Until you start thinking about what’s on the other side. That’s when things get less certain; when the fear of death kicks in. Nobody wants to die, after all. That much is understandable. But life is what it is, and with life comes death.
To acknowledge death, however, is not to fear it. The latter is much worse, because in fearing death we tend to avoid things that involve a risk of dying, which are often the things most worth living for. We are hesitant to step into a conflict to aid someone in need (I wouldn’t want to get hurt!). We are reluctant to go places that are dangerous yet beautiful. We even avoid gambling with our careers in favor of staying in dead end jobs (I wouldn’t want to fail and then starve to death!). We skew towards safety, not toward satisfaction.
Theodore Roosevelt’s observation was that “only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.” He would have agreed with the Stoics that courage deserved a place at the top of the list of virtues. To Roosevelt, life was an adventure and death was simply a part of the ride. “Never yet,” he said “was worthy adventure worthily carried through by the man who put his personal safety first.”
It is impossible to be a good Stoic without courage. It is impossible to seize opportunity or the present moment if you are ruled by fear. It is impossible to live a good life if you are ruled by a fear of death.
Obviously no one is telling you to be reckless today or to deliberately seek out potential harm. But it’s important to remember that if you always put your personal safety first, you leave so much living on the table. To say nothing of the good you can do for the world and for other people if you are willing to be brave and to stand up when the situation calls for it.
|Mar 28, 2019|
Know It Inside And Out
Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy in the United States and an unsung hero in the history of the world, was once asked by a Congressman if he was prepared for the upcoming hearing in which Hyman needed to speak about a number of complex, important issues. "Yes," Rickover replied, "I shaved and put on a clean shirt."
Rickover didn’t need to prepare because he was prepared. He wasn’t some figurehead who had to be briefed before answering questions. He knew his science and his department inside out. Because he lived and breathed his work—famously interviewing something like 14,000 college grads himself for various positions over the years. He also personally tested every nuclear submarine during its initial sea trial after construction.
His joke about preparing by getting dressed calls to mind an analogy by Marcus Aurelius, who said that a true philosopher is a fighter not a fencer. A fencer has to put on armor and pick up a weapon. A fighter just has to close their fist.
That should be our model too. We shouldn’t be cramming the night before a test, or frantically looking for advice once a crisis has arrived. We need to be prepared. We need to be so on top of our work—and the knowledge required—that everything we need is right there, already in our hands and in our heads. If you’re rushing, you’re already too late. If you’re looking for your weapons, you’re already beaten.
You gotta know your stuff inside and out. You have to live it and breathe it. You gotta be ready.
|Mar 27, 2019|
Take The Time To Be Grateful
AJ Jacobs is known for his unique style of immersion journalism. He’s lived, literally, according to the Bible. He’s went out and met every obscure relative he could find in his family tree. In his new book, Thanks A Thousand, he went on a quest to personally thank every person who had a hand in making his morning cup of coffee—the farmers, the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where the coffee is stored, the man who designed the lid, the baristas, and on and on.
This last journey was the least physically trying but the most transformative. In our interview with AJ for DailyStoic.com, he explained just how wonderful this forced exercise in gratitude has been:
One big change was related to the Stoic idea of the self-interested case for virtue. The idea that acting badly makes you feel badly. That whoever does wrong, wrongs himself. But when you act virtuously, you get a little burst of happiness.
So during this project, I’d wake up in a grumpy mood, but I’d force myself to call or visit or email folks to thank them for their role in my coffee. Admittedly, some were baffled. They’d say, “Is this a pyramid scheme?” But the majority were really pleased to hear from me.
I remember I called the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where my coffee is stored. And I said, “I know this sounds strange, but I want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee.” And she said, “That does sound strange. But thank YOU. You made my day.”
And that, in turn, made my day. By forcing myself to act in a grateful way, I became less grouchy. Ideally, gratitude should be a two-way street. It should give both parties a little dopamine boost.
The word Epictetus uses for gratitude—eucharistos—means “seeing” what is actually occurring in each moment. He said, “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.” Part of what made AJ’s journey so meaningful to him and to everyone else involved is that they were really seeing each other for the first time. He was really looking—and when he saw, he said thanks.
It’s a good model for us to try in our lives. Take some time today to stop, take a step back, and get a complete view—like that there are over a thousand people involved in making your morning cup of coffee possible. There’s a lot we take for granted. In every moment, there are limitless opportunities to say thanks. Take them!
P.S. Check out our full interview with A.J. Jacobs and check out his new book Thanks A Thousand—it's a great reminder of the amazing interconnectedness of our world and teaches us how gratitude can make our lives happier, kinder, and more impactful.
|Mar 26, 2019|
We Are All Tested In Different Ways
It was said that Socrates saw his difficult marriage as a sort of challenge that life threw at him—that the fact that his wife’s personality and interests were often at odds with his own was something he could be made better by for being patient with. Certainly, Marcus Aurelius was tested by his difficult son, and likely spent many sleepless nights worrying about what would become of this boy who just couldn’t quite get it together.
So, too, are each of us tested by the difficult relationships that life throws our way. For some of us, that’s an absent father, for others, it’s a sister with a drug problem. We have co-workers who are drama queens, bosses who are assholes, and neighbors who are meddlesome. Each of these situations is a trial, one that challenges us and forces us to apply the lessons that we’ve learned in our reading and through our studies.
Can you learn how to love someone who has trouble loving back? Can you learn how to forgive someone for their flaws? Can you develop the self-control necessary to not lose your temper when they provoke you? Can you put up appropriate boundaries? Can you say “No” when it’s appropriate and say, “Yes” when someone really needs you, even when it would be easier to focus on your own needs?
Relationships test us, but they also teach us. They bring with them both obstacles and opportunities. What matters, then, is how we respond and who we become in the process. No one ever said that family or friendships would be easy—they just said the trouble would be worth it in the end.
|Mar 25, 2019|
It Smells Like...Life
The German poet Friedrich Schiller supposedly liked to write with a drawer filled with rotting apples tucked into his desk. The smell was overpowering, but he couldn’t write without it. Apparently, it got the words flowing.
How could that possibly be the case? Maybe it was just a weird quirk or a fetish. Maybe it was a weird part of his writing routine (more on those here). Or maybe, the proximity to decay was an inspiring metaphor, a sort of aromatic memento mori.
The stench of decay. Rotting meat in a bag.
Look at it clearly. If you can.
Life is that stench, he was saying. We are the rotten meat in a skin bag. From the second we’re born, time starts ticking towards our expiration date. A lot of people want to turn away from that. They want to pretend it’s not real. We’ve gotten very good over the millennia at coming up with ways to help us pretend and to turn away. It’s why so many people are unproductive—they think they can afford to be, because they’re in denial of their mortality and the fact that life is rot, rot, rotting away as they sit there dicking around.
Maybe that’s what the awful smell of fermenting apples did for Schiller. We’ll never really know, but it’s a powerful reminder for us this morning, nonetheless.
Memento mori. Tempus fugit.
Grab it while it’s here.
|Mar 22, 2019|
Are You Tired Trying To Fill That Void?
All of us are trying to find something. Trying to find meaning, love, contentment. Because we feel like something is missing. That’s why we keep ourselves so busy, why we kill ourselves with work, why we can’t be still.
This drive is what allows us to accomplish things. So it’s not all bad. The problem is that when we do accomplish things, we often don’t feel that much better. We look back at the road we just traveled, we look down at the mountain we just scaled, and we think to ourselves: this is it? We never seem to fill the void.
“You've wandered all over and finally realized that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, or fame, or self-indulgence. Nowhere.”
Isn’t that exactly right?
What we have to realize is that more is not the answer to our problems: more sex, more money, more power and renown. These will never satisfy the place inside us that never feels full. Nor will magical thinking, or plant medicines in the jungles of Peru.
No, you don’t fill the void by fleeing from it or by compensating with externals. According to the Stoics, we satisfy it simply by living our life as nature demands. By being good, by being true to ourselves, by focusing, by not wasting a second wishing anything was otherwise or caring what other people think of us.
|Mar 21, 2019|
Do Your Best
Gretchen Rubin is one of the most thought-provoking and influential experts on habits and happiness. She has written several New York Times best sellers, which have sold millions of copies, including The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. She also hosts the award-winning podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. In short, Gretchen Rubin has thought a lot about what it means to live a happy life.
Her new book Outer Order, Inner Calm is a playbook that helps readers discover ways to make more room for happiness in their lives. This is something the Stoics were often writing about—finding stillness and tranquility, ridding of nonessentials that clutter our lives, learning to stay calm and sane amid life’s chaos and craziness.
In our interview with Gretchen, we asked how she maintains that inner calm with something so hectic and uncertain like a book launch,
I think about actions, not outcomes. That way, I stay focused on the things I can control (more or less). So I don’t think about “making the book a success,” but “writing the best book I possibly can.”
That’s a good rule for all of us—doing the right things, right now. Putting our best efforts into the tasks in front of us today. Taking care of the inputs and detaching from the outcomes. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture, or the opinions of others.
“The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do,” Marcus said. “Only what you do.” Today and always, find clarity and tranquility in the simplicity of focusing on doing the best you possibly can in everything you do.
|Mar 20, 2019|
Beware the Voice in Your Head
Seneca tells the story of the philosopher Crates, who was walking in Athens when he saw a young man talking to no one around. “What are you doing?” Crates asked. “I am talking to myself,” the man replied. “Be careful,” Crates told him, “for you are communing with a bad man!”
Whether this young man was in fact a bad kid or not, Seneca doesn’t say. One suspects Crates was joking—unless it was his practice to go around insulting complete strangers. Or it may have been that Crates was referring less to the quality of that stranger’s soul and was instead making a more general point about the dialogues we are all prone to having with ourselves—conversations that are hardly productive or healthy.
The writer Anne Lamott spoke of a radio station, KFKD (K-Fucked) which plays in far too many our heads:
Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one had no talent or insight, and on and on and on.
Maybe that’s what Crates was warning the young man about. Yes, part of Stoicism is getting in touch with our inner nature and listening to the truth inside of us. But another part of it is learning what to ignore—the voice of anxiety and worry, the voice of ego and hubris, the voice of fear, the voices of self-loathing and unending ambition. We have to beware of the many tones to that voice in our head, we have to beware of communing with that bad influence.
It’s just as dangerous as talking to a bad person...even if that person is us.
|Mar 19, 2019|
What It Really Means To Be A Slave
Epictetus was born a slave. Quite literally, his name means, in Greek, acquired. Ultimately, he came to be the property of a man named Epaphroditus, who kept Epictetus chained up long enough that he became disabled by it and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
His body and his time and his labor were controlled by someone else. That’s what slavery is. But what’s remarkable is that even in this state, Epictetus retained freedom in one important sense, and it would be this that his teachings would later revolve around: People could do whatever they wanted to his body, but his mind always remained his to control. No one had the power to make him bitter, to make him lose his desire for life, to take away his power to choose to think a certain way. (You may recall the Hurricane Carter story in The Obstacle is the Way, along similar lines)
Compare that to say, Seneca, who was perfectly free to live and do whatever he wished from the day he was born yet was driven by his own ambition willingly into the arms of Nero...an embrace that only death was able to sever. Or more dramatically, look at the rich and powerful Romans mocked by Seneca and Marcus and Epictetus alike who were free on paper but in truth were wrapped around the finger of a mistress or wine or a desire for fame. Or more ordinarily, the regular people who are enslaved to their anxieties, insecurities, or false impressions.
It was this, AA Long writes, that is really the core of Epictetus’s understanding of Stoicism: “You can be externally free and internally a slave...conversely you could be externally obstructed or even in literal bondage but internally free from frustration and disharmony.”
It’s really a remarkable insight and one we must think of always. Yes, every person is entitled to physical freedom. No one, thankfully, is legally enslaved basically anywhere in the civilized world anymore. And yet plenty of us are not truly free, not nearly as free as Epictetus was when he was still in chains.
And that is a real crime against humanity.
|Mar 18, 2019|
The Most Important Thing: Realizing That We Are All One
Let’s take a second to meditate on this observation from John Cage, the experimental musician and student of Zen philosophy:
“That one sees that the human race is one person (all of its members parts of the same body, brothers—not in competition any more than hand is in competition with eye) enables him to see that originality is necessary, for there is no need for eye to do what hand so well does.”
It is a particularly beautiful and necessary insight for two reasons. The first half reminds us of something the Stoics believed very deeply as well—that we were made for our fellow humans and are part of the same collective being. “What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee,” Marcus wrote to himself. He wrote like this constantly. “The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm.” “All things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.” “Revere the gods and look after each other.” In fact, we made our Sympatheia medallion precisely because this theme was so important to Marcus. We wanted our own physical reminder of it.
But it’s the latter part of Cage’s observation that is so timely, as it disputes and refutes a lot of present day’s knee jerk resistance to community and altruism. No, caring about other people doesn’t hold you back. No, the warm fuzzy feeling is not the only benefit. See, when you start to respect your fellow humans and see that each one has intrinsic value and purpose on this planet, it helps you understand those very things about yourself. When you encourage someone else to be their best self—to be hand or eye or arm or strong legs—you are encouraging yourself to be your own best self (and to understand your own unique role).
We are all one...and yet we are each also singular and special. These concepts are not at all in tension with each other, in fact, they only make sense together. A body is made up of many parts, and each part makes a contribution that matters (some parts more than others, at different times than others). We need to remember today to take care of our other members, in addition to taking care of ourselves. The body can never reach its full potential if we don’t.
P.S. We think that every leader and citizen should think deeply about this idea of sympatheia. We were made for each other and to serve a common good, as Marcus put it. That’s why we made our Sympatheia challenge coin, which can serve as a practical, tangible reminder of the causes and the larger whole we are all members of. You can check it out in the Daily Stoic store.
|Mar 15, 2019|
Zoom Out...And Laugh
The way to make all your problems, even the really vexing and painful ones, seem less severe? It comes from Seneca. All you have to do, he says, is:
“Draw further back and laugh.”
When you zoom out far enough, almost everything becomes absurd. Think about it: We are monkeys living on a space rock. We are a split second of the infinity of existence. If humanity survives long enough, people will laugh at us the way we laugh at Neanderthals. People used to have serious arguments about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin or whether the world was flat. They not only thought kings were a good idea, they thought they had divine right! What do you think they’re going to think about the arguments we have today? Or even our cutting edge science?
Even WWI is funny with enough distance. One archduke was assassinated and the entire world went to war over it. For basically no reason. And then, even after millions of people died, everyone was so stupid that they immediately forgot the lessons of the war and had to fight it again a generation later!
The troubles you’re having at work will be ridiculous to you three jobs from now. Think about all the things you cared about when you were a teenager and how silly they seem to you today—now consider that this exact evolution will happen to you at middle age, and again in old age if you are lucky enough to live that long. Think about something that’s really frustrating you about your neighbor or your parents. Now imagine telling a person in Syria or North Korea about it. Your neighbor doesn’t mow his front lawn or trim his bushes? Your dad forgot about your daughter’s dance recital? They would think you were joking! You’re seriously telling me that’s what’s on your mind? That’s what bothers you? You’re hilarious!
Draw back and laugh. It’s freeing. It’s a relief.
|Mar 14, 2019|
Why You Should Read Biographies
“I don’t have time to read a book that long,” you might say when someone recommends one of those epic volumes from the Ron Chernows and Robert Caros and Stacy Schiffs of the world. And Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Saints? Or Plutarch? Who has time to read that dusty old collection about the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans?
The answer is that you do. Or rather, that you should make time to study the greats of history.
In Book Four of Meditations, Marcus writes::
“And then you might see what the life of a good man is like—someone content with what nature assigns him, and satisfied with being just and kind himself.”
What’s the “if” that came before the “then” he is referring to? We can only guess. That is the entirety of his writing on this point. But not unlike a Jeopardy answer with multiple possible questions, this one fits:
What is it to study history and biographies?
Marcus and Seneca and Epictetus were all intimately familiar with the lives of the greats (and not-so-greats) that came before them. And in this study they had come to know, as Marcus said, what a good life looked like. They learned from the experiences and the follies of the earlier generations—they saw across the pages of many books why contentment and justice and kindness were so important (and the perils of the opposite traits).
So make a commitment today—this month, this year—to start reading more biographies. It’s an important step in the path to wisdom.
P.S. If you want to try any of a lot of books for free, you might like Scribd, which is essentially Netflix for books. Click here to sign up for a one month free trial of unlimited audiobooks and ebooks plus free subscription to magazines like Bloomberg Business Week, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Fortune and the New York Times. Sign up today.
|Mar 13, 2019|
What Does It Feel Like To Lose All Your Money?
Last year, the writer Chuck Palahniuk received the kind of news that all of us dread. Someone he trusted—the book agent who had represented him for years—had been slowly but steadily robbing him blind. All the millions he’d earned from the royalties of his bestselling books were gone. All the financial security he thought he’d built up was an illusion—undone by the cruel deception and greed of someone close to him.
In July, Palahniuk was asked what it felt like to lose all his money. He stared down at the ground. He was quiet. Then he answered:
“It’s kind of nice. Writing was initially my way of saving money, because if you’re writing, you’re not spending. So it throws me back into writing. There are larger issues in life – the embezzlement is dwarfed by my father-in-law’s death. And there’s the awareness that I’m the person who got me to this place, and I’m still that person, so I can still turn it all back around, and come up with something really strong and vibrant and interesting.”
First off, kudos is due to Palaniuk, because that’s a far more enlightened view than most of us would take of such a betrayal. It could not have been natural or easy to get to that point. The other stages of grief would come before such acceptance: anger, denial, bargaining. But it’s impressive that he got there.
It’s also very Stoic. Seneca spoke often of the reversals that life has in store for us—no matter how successful or secure we might believe that we are. “No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune,” he wrote, “that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him.” Which is why we have to make sure that our identity and our happiness is not tied up in physical or financial things—because these things are not in our control. Seneca’s advice was that we ought to “possess nothing that can be snatched from us to the great profit of a plotting foe.”
Chuck Palahniuk’s money was stolen. That kind of theft is always a possibility since money is never really “ours” to begin with. It’s just a number in our bank account. It’s something on loan to us until we spend it or until it’s rendered worthless by some government institution we don’t control. But our confidence—that sense that we’re the person who earned it in the first place, the person who has worked hard and sacrificed and created—that’s 100% ours. No one can take that from us. Fortune can take our jobs, unfairly tarnish our good name, or burn down our house.
Can it change who we are? Our sense of ourselves? Only if we let it.
|Mar 12, 2019|
Always, Ever The Same
In his wonderful book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, the Pulitzer Prize winning scholar Stephen Greenblatt spends a lot of time analyzing a pivotal moment early in the life of Saint Augustine, when he was at a Roman bath with his father. One of the observations Greenblatt makes is about the steamy, quiet, relaxing atmosphere of the baths, with its alternating hot and cold, the scrubbing and soaking and resting and massaging. The kind of baths that Saint Augustine visited in the 4th century, Greenblatt writes, “was everywhere the same and has continued virtually unchanged to the present.”
The bath he visited when he was simply Augustine of Hippo was essentially identical to the baths Marcus Aurelius experienced, that Seneca wrote about, that Cato was famously shoved at (and forgave his accidental assailant), that you might visit on a vacation to Istanbul, or really, not all that different from the locker room at one of those private athletic clubs in most major cities. You can actually still visit some of Rome’s ancient thermal baths.
Isn’t that interesting? For all the things that have changed and for all the technological advancements that happened between Cato’s time and St. Augustine’s time (about 400 years) and between St. Augustine’s time and ours (almost 1600 years), this experience fundamentally hasn’t really changed. We’re still just human beings who occasionally need to get scrubbed down or sweat out the dirt and stress of life.
Over and over again, Marcus reminded himself about how similar his life was to the past and how little the future would deviate from the same patterns and cycles. That most of the “change” we see happening around us is window dressing or a distraction. He made this point to remind himself to focus on the timelessness of human nature and to humble himself in comparison to the distant past and the endless future.
We can do the same, today, by stopping and thinking about that old 19th century French epigram about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can take care to notice how different words we still use today evolve from ancient usage, or how eerily similar certain practices or experiences remain after all this time. We can pick up a classic book and think about how generations before us held that same text in their hands and what they thought about it.
It will humble us. It will give us perspective.
|Mar 11, 2019|
Take What’s Good, Ignore The Rest
One of Seneca’s most powerful strategies comes from his time as a Senator. Speaking again of a thought from Epicurus, with which he only partly agrees, Seneca explains that he is so readily able to draw from the teachings of a rival school for his writing because of a trick he learned in the Roman senate. Whenever a fellow senator introduced a motion with which he was not in full agreement, he would ask the Senator to break the motion up into two parts, thus allowing other Senators to vote for the part they approved of and ignore or vote against the other part.
It was this strategy that Seneca applied to Epicurus and, indeed, that all good politicians use to do their job—it’s called finding common ground. It’s focusing on where there is agreement rather than on where there is conflict.
We could all use a little bit more of this in our lives. Philosophically, it’s fascinating how much Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Stoicism all have in common. We could spend a whole lifetime studying and learning from where these schools overlap...but that’s harder to do than holing up inside the school we were raised in and then locking the gates and slapping a label on anyone left on the outside. They are the other.
We do this instinctively with our politics. Democrat or Republican. Liberal or Conservative. Globalist or Nationalist. We continually define ourselves in opposition to the other. And yet, with the exception of a small minority at the fringes of both ends of the spectrum, pretty much everyone agrees on the very big ideas about what makes a good life or what a good country looks like. Every parent wants the best for their child, just as every nation wants the best for its people. These are basic truths so deeply ingrained that we’ve begun to take them for granted and instead we have chosen to focus our attention only on what makes us different.
Life would be better if we could rely on Seneca’s wisdom more often. We need to look for common ground and use it. We need to see the good in other people and in other ideas and ignore the rest, whenever possible. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a great line about how in marriage, it helps to be a little deaf. So too in the world of ideas and in living next to your fellow humans, does it pay to be able to turn a deaf ear or a blind eye every once in awhile.
Most things are not in perpetual conflict with each other. And even when they are, there is still plenty of common ground. Let’s commit to focusing a bit more on that, on breaking things up into their constituent parts—like Seneca with so many pieces of a complicated motion—and accepting those parts wherever we can.
|Mar 08, 2019|
Now Is Now
There is a beautiful passage on the last page of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, The Little House in the Big Woods. She writes of an evening in the cabin with her family, her father playing the fiddle, her mom knitting in a rocking chair.
“She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
It’s a passage that has resonated with millions of people over the last 86 years, including the writer Gretchen Rubin who ends her book Happier At Home with a meditation on how it has inspired her for most of her life.
But what does it mean? It means the same thing that the Stoics have always talked about. That you have to live in the very now, even when it is ordinary and quiet, because the now is very special. It is the only thing that is true. What has passed is past, and our memories of it gradually degrade and betray us. What has yet to pass is future, and as we should know by now is never guaranteed. Now is all that is real.
"Give yourself a gift," Marcus Aurelius wrote, "the present moment."
Yet too many of us reject that gift. We continue to think of long ago. We dream of or fear a distant future. We are distracted or preoccupied and miss what is happening around us. It’s the quiet evenings at home with family that we should be present for. It’s the ordinary present that we should cherish.
Because it’s all we have.
|Mar 07, 2019|
Find A Good Outlet For Your Passions
Although today we consider “passion” to be a good thing—as in find your passion—to the Stoics, the passions were something to be wary of. Desire, rivalry, excitement, infatuation, anger. These were powerful forces that, if left unchecked, were likely to hurt the person who had turned themselves over to them (and likely to hurt innocent bystanders too).
The warning against manufacturing or feeding these emotional drives is a good one and ought to be heeded. But what is a person to do when they find themselves unexpectedly angry or hurt or excited? Should they just stuff this emotion down? Should they pretend it doesn’t exist? The Stoics talk a lot less about this.
One suspects they might agree with the solution proposed by the beloved children’s television host, Mr. Rogers:
“But do you know what I do when I’m angry? I like to swim, and so I swim extra hard when I’m angry...There are many things that you can do when you’re angry that don’t hurt you or anybody else.”
What he’s talking about is the need for an outlet for dangerous passions—so we can get them out of our system as soon as possible, with as little harm as possible. One suspects that’s why Marcus Aurelius was such an avid journaler—he was pouring those passions out onto the page. His temper, his fears, his frustrations. All of it came out in a practice he knew well. But one can just as easily do this on the basketball court or the swimming pool. Or into a microphone or on the keys of a piano.
A politician fueled by anger is going to get themselves in trouble. A politician who lifts weights when they are angry is going to make better policy decisions. A hurt spouse who gets up and takes a walk and then comes back to the argument later is going to be more rational, kinder, and less likely to say something they regret.
Passions are inevitable and unavoidable. Life creates them. Life incites them. Still, we can’t give ourselves over to them, simply because they are natural, or we will hurt ourselves and other people in the process. Nor can we try to stuff them down and white knuckle it. Like a long-quiet faultline or a sleeping volcano, on the surface there may be serenity, where beautiful things can grow and life can be lived, but under the surface the tension and the pressure has been building all along, and eventually, inevitably, it is going to find a way to vent. Stuffing down your emotions and passions only makes it more likely that they’ll explode in spectacular, life-altering, earth-scorching fashion.
We have to find helpful, harmless outlets for our emotions if we want to be able to manage them and avoid seismic, cataclysmic disruptions to our lives.
|Mar 06, 2019|
Is Ego A Virtue?
In 2017, Good Morning Britain anchor Susanna Reid presented her co-anchor (actually she calls him her TV husband), Piers Morgan, a gift. It was a copy of the book Ego is the Enemy. She thought he could use the book because Piers was “irritating, annoying, divisive, over-opinionated,” and “ready to start a fight in an empty room.” She meant it both as a compliment and as good natured (and true) feedback because anyone who has ever watched Piers Morgan on TV knows he has a big ego.
Piers replied that he had no disagreement with her assessment but that he did resent the idea that ego was anything but a virtue. “Ego is your friend,” he said. “If you don’t believe in yourself folks, nobody else will.”
Is he right? Is Ego a virtue? It almost feels petty, by way of an answer, to point out all the times Piers’s ego has gotten him in trouble. One notable time is, when interviewing an activist protesting Donald Trump’s forced separation of immigrants, he repeatedly tried to speak over her, and asked why she would protest against this when Obama had also deported immigrants. Instead of allowing her to explain he, egotistically, assumed he had her all figured out (indeed he called Obama her “hero”). It set the activist up for the perfect comeback: “I’m a communist, you idiot.”
Believing you’re right is not the same as having your facts straight. As many of us embarrassingly learn.
The mistake Piers (and a lot of people make) is that they conflate confidence and ego. Confidence is something you earn, by putting in the work, doing the research, by taking risks, and being effective when it counts. Remember Seneca’s line about how a person who has never gone through adversity is to be pitied, because they have no idea what they are capable of? What he was basically saying is that on the other side of difficulty is a gift—confidence. Simply believing that you’re capable of things you’ve never actually done or experienced, simply believing that you’re special and important without any evidence? Folks, that’s not your friend. That’s delusion!
So let’s put this misconception to bed. Ego is the enemy. Confidence is the key. Evidence is better than belief, facts better than dreams. When you figure that out, you’ll be better at whatever you do in life, and probably piss fewer people off!
|Mar 05, 2019|
It’s Good That Things Have Been Hard
Maybe you’ve had a hard time of it recently. That business project is three months over projections. Your book isn’t really selling. The comments in your performance review were brutal.
Life can be like that. It kicks us around. The stuff we expected to be simple turns out to be tough. The people we thought were friends let us down. A couple storms or unexpected weather patterns just add a whole bunch of difficulty on top of whatever we’ve been doing.
How could that possibly be seen as a good thing? You have to squint a bit to see it, but there is one way: if you see what’s been happening as practice, as training.
Seneca wrote that only the prize fighter who has been bloodied and bruised—in training and in previous matches—can go into the ring confident of his chances of winning. The one who has never been touched before, never had a hard fight? That’s a fighter who is scared. And if they aren’t, they should be. Because they have no actual idea how they’re going to hold up.
His point was that the boxer who has “seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist...who has been downed in body but not in spirit…”—they know what they can take. They know what the darkness before the proverbial dawn feels like. Only they have a true and accurate sense of rhythms of a fight and what winning is going to require them to do. That sense comes from getting knocked around. That sense is only possible because of the hard times—the hard knocks—they’ve experienced before.
So yeah, things might not be great right now. Obviously it’d be nice if they were better. But if they were, you’d also be weaker for it. Less informed. Less in touch with yourself and the fight you’re in.
So squint and see that. Because it’s an important perspective.
|Mar 04, 2019|
It’s Time: The Daily Stoic 10-Day Spring Forward Challenge
Spring is here! While most of us unthinkingly set our clocks forward (or have devices that do it for us), how many of us take any steps to spring our lives forward? March is when we start to think of spring cleaning, but how many of us get our whole houses in order? Not just our physical spaces, but our minds, our routines, our assumptions?
Think of how you spent the last week. Were those seven days as efficient or productive as they could be? Or did you waste time? Were things more complicated than necessary? Did you fall back on bad habits? Were you, like so many people, still stuck in the doldrums of winter?
The 10-Day Spring Forward Challenge is set up to push you to examine those parts of your life, to examine your choices, to examine your relationships and move you closer to living your best life.
It was Marcus Aurelius who said “This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow.”
It’s up to you whether you’re going to let those . New Year’s resolutions dissolve into missed opportunities , whether you’re going to keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. OR, you could give yourself 10 days of improvement and a runway for true, sustainable change. Challenge yourself to spring forward to be the person you know you can be.
The 10-Day Spring Forward Challenge is a set of ten all-new actionable challenges — presented at a pace of one per day — built around the best, most timeless wisdom in Stoic philosophy. Ten challenges designed to help you bring a sense of clarity and purpose to your life.
Each day you will be presented with a challenge that will help you:
These won’t be pie-in-the-sky, theoretical discussions but clear, immediate exercises and methods you can start right now. We’ll tell you exactly what to do, how to do it, and why it works — and we’ll give you strategies for maintaining this way of living for not just the next year, but for your whole life.
What is gaining back a few hours per day worth? What would you give for the key to unshackle you from the habits holding you back? How great would it feel to belong to a dedicated community — part of a tribe — of people just like you, struggling, growing, and making that satisfying progress towards the kind of person they know they can be? Toward the person who knows, lives, loves and appreciates the good life.
Sign up for the 10-Day Spring Forward Challenge now and see what you’re capable of doing and who you are capable of becoming.
Here is what you’ll get if you sign up:
In addition, for all of you who are deep divers and intellectual thread-pullers, each day’s challenge will include a compendium of further reading that will equip you with the foundational wisdom upon
|Mar 01, 2019|
Read Like A Spy
As we’ve written about before, one of the most surprising parts of Seneca’s writing is how that avowed Stoic quotes Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism. Even Seneca knew this was strange as each time he did so in his famous Letters, he felt obliged to preface or explain why he was so familiar with the teachings of a rival school.
His best answer appears in Letter II, On Discursiveness in Reading, and it works as a prompt for all of us in our own reading habits. The reason he was so familiar with Epicurus, Seneca wrote, was not because he was deserting the writings of the Stoics, but because he was reading like a spy in the enemy’s camp. That is, he was deliberately reading and immersing himself into the thinking and the strategies of those he disagreed with. To see if there was anything he could learn and, of course, to bolster his own defenses.
It’s very easy, especially in today’s social media and algorithmic world, to become caught in a feedback loop of your own viewpoints. You read an article about one topic, and suddenly, all you see are more and more pieces about that same topic. You watch a video from a partisan on one side of the spectrum and now that’s all you see. The idea that there are other cogent, good-faith arguments on the other side—well that becomes more and more remote. Even falling down the rabbit hole of Stoicism can have a similar effect. There is so much to read, so much interesting stuff, that the idea of putting it aside to research Buddhism or Christianity or even reading great novels seems crazy.
But it isn’t. You have to take the time to study and look at things that are different than what comes easy or comfortably. You have to be open to hearing things you disagree with too. Remember Epictetus’s line that you can’t learn what you think you already know. That’s why it’s important to read and study like a spy.
Go into the enemy’s camp. Open your eyes and mind to what they’re doing. Use what you learn.
|Feb 28, 2019|
How To Get Better (and Live a Great Life)
Eleanor Roosevelt had a great rule. We must do the thing we cannot do, she said. And if you look at her life, she more or less followed this rule. She conquered her shyness and became a leading public figure. She overcame sexism and preconceptions about the role of a First Lady—a job she never wanted—to turn it into a powerful pulpit for good. She forgave her husband’s betrayals and affairs, even though they absolutely crushed her. Even in childhood she overcame obstacles and proved resilient — both her parents and one brother died while she was young, and yet she persisted onward.
Each time she was faced with limitations, internally or externally, she managed to transcend them. She pushed past her fears, her reservations, and the doubts of others. This was what made her great.
What the Stoics wanted us to know is that we are capable of far more than we know. We can do far more than anyone else thinks. We have great strength and power within us, if only we choose to seize it. If only we ignore that “can’t/don’t/won’t/shouldn’t” voice in our heads. Whether you’re looking at the life of Marcus Aurelius—which was marked with countless betrayals and setbacks—or the tortuous ordeal of James Stockdale—which was a nearly inhuman trial—you see men (and women) doing things that no one thought they could do. Things that, at the outset, even they probably didn’t think they could do.
And yet they forgave—both those who doubted them and those who assailed them. They saw the best in people. They insisted on principle. They survived. They didn’t break.
And we are heirs to that tradition. We have the ability to live by Eleanor Roosevelt’s dictum.
Do the thing you cannot do. Starting today.
|Feb 27, 2019|
The Three Hardest Things To Do In Life
According to the great Jesuit Monk, Anthony De Mello, there are three intellectual feats that we struggle with on a regular basis, that are harder than just about any physical activity on the planet. Just three. They are, he said, in this order:
-Returning love for hate.
-Including the excluded.
-Admitting you are wrong.
This is not a modern affliction. De Mello, while certainly observing the world he was trying serve, was also tapping into an ancient idea with which the Stoics would have wholly agreed:
- “If you must be affected by other people’s misfortunes, show them pity instead of contempt. Drop this readiness to hate.” — Epictetus
- “No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular.” — Seneca
"If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance." — Marcus Aurelius
If you were weak and looking to get stronger physically, you’d go to the gym. You’d hire a trainer. You’d watch videos to learn new exercises. You’d work at it. That’s how muscles are built.
If you were ignorant and looking to get smarter or sharper mentally, you’d read books. You’d hire a tutor. You’d play brain games and solve puzzles. You’d work at it. That’s how knowledge is accumulated and intellect is built.
Today, think about how you might strengthen your soul. Search for ways to be kinder, more inclusive, and more open-minded. Build your spirit, like you would sculpt your body or fill your mind. You can be the light that you, yourself, sometimes need.
There are fewer of those than any other type, which makes it way more important.
|Feb 26, 2019|
What Not To Do With Your Freedom
Last fall, there was a New York Times profile on what’s called the FIRE movement. FIRE stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early. The proponents of this movement have adopted some important Stoic principles. They believe that life is unpredictable and that working for years at a job you hate for decades to retire at 65 is a dangerous risk (what if you don’t make it to 65?). They believe that many people are on a hedonic treadmill, working long hours to pay for things they don’t want at prices they can’t afford. By living below your means, investing wisely, by learning practical skills (like changing your own oil or biking instead of driving) and radically changing your lifestyle priorities, they’ve found that it’s possible to retire as early as age 30.
That’s awesome. And should be looked at seriously by everyone who has unquestionably assumed the mantra of our consumerist, materialist society.
But still, it brings up this question: if you were suddenly able to retire much younger than expected, what should you do with your time? The point of life isn’t endless toil and labor, but one still needs purpose and meaning. One should still do something with both their freedom and this gift we call existence.
In the article, one of the FIRE “success” stories is laid out in detail:
“Speaking by phone, Mr. Long [said]...that morning, he’d woken up on his own, ‘not when an alarm clock told me that I had a responsibility.’ He’d read the news online for 30 minutes, went on a seven-mile run, took a nap, and ‘watched the ceiling fan spin around for a little bit.’
He had been watching the movies from They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? a website that ranks what it calls the 1,000 greatest films. He’d watched 600 or so. He had work to do.”
It calls to mind one of the most withering lines from Marcus Aurelius, who wrote, “You’re afraid of death because you won’t be able to do this anymore?” Or Seneca, who joked that many criminals who pleaded to be spared from execution were basically dead already.
Financial independence is meaningless if you spend it ticking off movies from a list. Retirement is an empty goal if it means retirement from purpose. What good is a day all your own...if you spend it staring at the rotating ceiling fan? You’re basically staring at a visual metaphor for the life you said you were trying to escape from by retiring early. Around and around and around. Going fast but going nowhere. At least at a job you’re of service to your fellow colleagues. At least there is a chance you might be contributing to the common good—if only through taxes.
Success is not sitting around on your ass. Success is not checking out from reality. Success is freeing yourself from pointless obligations and petty concerns so you can really focus on what matters, so you do more and you can be better.
Life is short. Live it. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your freedom.
|Feb 25, 2019|
How A Stoic Thinks About Sex
If you’re born into certain religious faiths, you tend to be raised with strong views on sex that come from on high. You’re not supposed to have sex before marriage or do this or that because God wouldn’t like it. (How that entitles you to regulate what other people do is less clear, but we’ll leave that to another discussion). And if God doesn’t like it, well that’s trouble. It is a rigid and restrictive worldview, to be sure, but it also offers a great degree of simplicity and clarity. Do this, don’t do that.
For those who are not religious, however, it is a little less clear what to think about all things sexual. Should you do whatever you want—following every urge and impulse your body has? Should you chase pleasure? Or should you avoid it? What do you teach your children, whose innocence you want to protect, without being controlling or repressive?
These are the type of questions the Stoics were always wrestling with, as they tried to find a rational path through the world. A path that was both in accordance with our nature—as they liked to say—and also not ruled by our passions.
As it happens, one of the most direct comments we have on sex from Epictetus is both modern and commonsensical:
“As for sex, abstain as far as possible before marriage, and if you do go in for it, do nothing that is socially unacceptable. But don’t interfere with other people on account of their sex lives or criticize them, and don’t broadcast your own abstinence.”
Basically, try to be responsible and mind your own business. Not a bad way to live.
There’s no reason to be a pleasure-hating moralist (that is its own passion, anyway). There’s not much to admire in the stories we hear from Greece and Rome about slaves and prostitution and pederasty either. Worse still are the hypocrites who say one thing and do another.
Epictetus’s formula is almost a perfect Aristotelian Mean: Don’t abstain and don’t overdo. Leave other people to their own choices. Keep your own choices private. And don’t think you’re better than anyone else—because you’re not.
|Feb 22, 2019|
Do Less, Better
Here’s the simple recipe for improvement and for happiness. It 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,” he said, “do less.”
And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”
Follow this advice today and everyday. 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.
Of course it isn’t. We know deep down there’s no point.
But if we could do less inessential stuff, we’d be able to better do what is essential. We’d also get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.
|Feb 21, 2019|
Speak The Truth, Let Them Howl
No matter what your profession is, there are things you can say that will cost you. Speaking up against somebody’s pet project can get an officer passed over for promotion. Voicing a certain political viewpoint can cost you fans or endorsements. Challenging the status quo can bring a hail of critics and haters.
And in those situations, what should we do? The answer to the Stoic is pretty simple: Speak the truth. Yes, howls may follow. Recriminations can as well. And? And what?
Nassim Taleb’s rule of thumb is worth remembering always: If you see fraud and do not say ‘fraud,’ you are a fraud. But that’s worth broadening a bit:
If you know the truth and decline to speak the truth, you are not living truthfully.
There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. Seneca speaks of a man whose son was executed by the emperor and then forced to dine with the tyrant after. The emperor was goading the obviously pained father to acknowledge who was the source of that pain (he wanted to see the pain he had caused, he wanted to feel his dominance over him) and yet the man never broke—because he had another son. OK, that’s a good excuse. But these other petty self-protections? Nope.
If you know the truth, speak it. If you believe in a truth, live it. Even if it costs you. Even if it’s a pain in the ass. Because to do otherwise is to lie. To do otherwise is to be a coward. To do otherwise is to allow darkness to put out the light.
The truth matters. Prove it. Be the light.
|Feb 20, 2019|
The One Thing To Be A Slave To
Slavery is one of the most common metaphors in Seneca’s writing. He talks about people who are slaves to sex and slaves to work. He talks about people who are slaves to their anxiety. He even mentions-—without much self-awareness for such a generally compassionate person—about his fellow slave owners who are slaves to their slaves.
So it might seem strange that there was something he said we should be a slave to. As always, this counter-intuitive observation came from one of his favorite thinkers to hate, Epicurus, who said:
“If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of philosophy.”
What does Seneca mean to say by quoting that line? It’s not that we should slave away reading endless amounts of books on philosophy. It’s not that we should work ourselves to the bone writing or researching or getting advanced degrees. Seneca talked quite negatively about people who did all of that.
He meant that we had to obey philosophy. That is, the words from these wise Stoics weren’t things to just nod our heads to and then move on. Philosophy isn’t something that we are supposed to take the bits and pieces we like from and then generally behave how we like.
The Stoic virtues of Justice, Temperance, Courage and Wisdom are not just buzzwords. They should be our masters. We have to follow them. We have to let them dictate our every move and decision. We have to accept that they own us and that when we attempt to go in another direction, we are fugitives. That’s what Seneca meant.
There are many things a human being can be a slave to these days. Drugs. Social media. Personal ambition. Money. Whatever. There’s no freedom in any of that. But in obeying timeless principles, the ones with proven superiority and authority? That’s worth surrendering to.
Even if that goes against every freedom-loving bone in our bodies.
|Feb 19, 2019|
This Is What Progress Looks Like
How do you know you’re making progress in this philosophy? It’s a question that every person has struggled with at some point in their practice, including Seneca. When he was writing his famous letters, he meditated on this theme. What does getting better look like? How do you know any of this is working?
Quoting one of his favorite philosophers, Hecato, Seneca comes up with a pretty good metric:
“What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.”
What a wonderful way of putting it. Not, “I am richer.” Not, “I am more famous.” Not even, “I sleep more soundly” or “I am handling a crisis well.” Sure those things are nice, and possibly even important. But to the Stoics, the point of this work was something simpler and more earnest: to be comfortable in your own skin; to be enough; to be a good friend to yourself.
A person who is a friend to themselves, Seneca wrote, is an aid to all mankind. They are kind. They are calm. They have empathy—for themselves and for others. They aren’t desperate. They can quietly spend time alone. They don’t need to pull others down to lift themselves up. They can stand on shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton famously said in 1675, instead of stepping on their necks to secure advantage.
Use that as your rubric. Is the voice in your head getting nicer? Are you more still? Are you practicing good self-care? That’s what progress looks like. That’s what you deserve as a human being—and as a friend.
|Feb 18, 2019|
This Is How To Go Out
Epicurus’s final letter begins with a rather remarkable sentence: “On this happy day, which is the last day of my life, I write the following words to you.” While the letter briefly touches on the painful symptoms of the disease that would soon kill him, Epicurus doesn’t dwell on that. Instead, he speaks of the joy in his heart—not caused by his impending death, obviously, but by the memories he has accumulated of the friend he is writing to. Then, before concluding the letter and his life, Epicurus gives final instructions on how to care for one of his young pupils that has shown promise.
What a way to go out! What strength, courage, and poise emanating from a man whose life was supposedly all about pleasure!
Remember, the point of philosophy is to prepare us for exactly this moment (To philosophize is to learn how to die). That’s why we do this reading, that’s why we carry these memento mori medallions, that’s why we think about this scary subject in advance.
So that when it happens—today or in a hundred years—we are able to capture just a fraction of the dignity and selflessness that Epicurus was able to marshall, even as his body quit on him. So that we can live with joy in our hearts to their final beats and call our last day a happy one, and mean it. So that we can continue to take care of the people we’ve found ourselves responsible for, even in death.
That’s what it means to be a philosopher. Now go live it, all the way to the end.
|Feb 15, 2019|
It Can Happen To You
A few weeks ago, we ran an email about Austin Murphy, the former Sports Illustrated writer whose thirty year career (which included interviewing presidents and champions) somehow ended in a gig delivering packages for Amazon.
There is always a variety of reactions to these kinds of stories. Some people feel a wave of pity for the person on the short end of it. Others politicize it—Look how terrible these big tech companies are, this is why we need more [insert policy]. Others react by trying to poke holes in the story or to blame the subject—He says that he had to get the job in order to qualify for refinancing his house, sounds like he was living outside his means. Or, what kind of stupid journalist doesn’t see the disruption his industry was facing?!?
All of these reactions are wrong in their own ways. Austin Murphy doesn’t need your internet pity. Nor should he be a pawn in your politics. And what good is blaming him for his circumstances? Does that make you feel better about yourself?
No, the Stoic response is to see these events as a reminder of how fickle Fortune can be. Seneca talks about how when we see something bad happen to a neighbor, sometimes we cry and then sometimes we privately smile that they got what they deserved, but what we really should be thinking about is how easily the same thing could happen to us.
You think that your job or your industry are so secure that nothing can ever disrupt them? In the early 20th century, it took less than a generation for the automobile to wipe out numerous horse-related industries. More recently, check the alarming suicide rate of big city taxi drivers.
You think you’ve saved so much money that you’ll never have to work some job that’s beneath you? There are some former lottery winners and Enron stockholders that might disagree.
You think life can’t knock you on your ass? It can. It will.
Besides, the real lesson of Austin Murphy’s story is not what happened to him. It’s how he responded. He got a job. He worked. He found something he liked about it. And then he turned the experience into the best piece of writing he’s done in a long time.
|Feb 14, 2019|
Escape This Indelible Stain
In Meditations, Marcus speaks passionately about escaping the “indelible stain” of power, of being changed by the purple cloak that the emperor traditionally wore. It is a timeless warning for anyone in a position of authority or acclaim: Be careful lest you be changed by your newfound bounty.
But let’s talk about a different indelible stain that is spoiling and ruining many people today: radicalization rather than imperialization. In the the early 2000s, after the heinous attacks of September 11th, the radicalization of young men (and women) by their exposure to extremist Islamic views, became a major topic of discussion at Senate subcommittee hearings and on cable news roundtables. It’s both sad and ironic that for all this focus, the same officials and pundits missed the rising threat of homegrown right wing radicals—young men (also women, but mostly men) who were being turned into extremists by their exposure to misleading and inflammatory materials online. Indeed, these numbers have been rising to the point that “of 263 incidents of domestic terrorism between 2010 and the end of 2017, a third — 92 — were committed by right-wing attackers,” according to the Washington Post.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is about taking the longview and seeing the big picture, so the purpose of this email is not to make you anxious about the danger of terrorism at home. Thankfully, America and Europe are still very safe places. Nor is the purpose of this email designed to advocate a particular political viewpoint or solution to this problem. No, the message today is the same theme inherent in all of Stoicism: To look internally, to look at your own habits, and to see where you stand.
If ordinary people living on the same block as you can be radicalized by falling down internet rabbit holes, if the toxic media (and social media) culture we’re in can nurture and feed unfathomably dark and awful views, then what do you think it’s doing to you? Do you think you yourself might be getting radicalized by your own filter bubble? Are you doing a good enough job holding up every impression and opinion to be tested? Or are you, too, in a less dangerous way, being swept up in the passions of the crowd, however fringe or alt or mainstream that crowd may be?
Radicalization is the scourge of our time. Ordinary people who share enormous amounts in common are being turned against each other. People who are polite and friendly and would help a stranger change a tire on a rainy night on the side of the road are being turned into weapons in a war that helps no one but advertisers and trolls and power-hungry populists.
Stoicism is a philosophy that holds up reason and virtue above all things. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor who believed in compromise and forgiveness and mercy. Epictetus was a victim of terrible injustices (first as a slave and later as a banished philosopher). Seneca too was exiled and stripped of much of what he held dear at various points in his life. Yet none of these men gave into bitterness or anger. All resisted the indelible stain of radicalization and instead worked to be kind, to compromise, and to ignore the mentality of the mob.
Each of us needs to do the same...and reach out to anyone we see being pulled in the opposite direction. Or worse, down a rabbit hole of<
|Feb 13, 2019|
An Important Reminder To Do The Right Thing
Summum Bonum is an expression from Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator. In Latin, it means “the highest good.”
And what is the highest good? What is it that we are supposed to be aiming for in this life?
To the Stoics, the answer is virtue. If we act virtuously, they believed, everything else important could follow: Happiness, success, meaning, reputation, honor, love. The Stoics didn’t claim this path was easy, or that it would always be recognized or appreciated by those closest to us, only that it was essential. And that the alternative—taking the easy route or the shortcut even if unethical or immoral—was considered only by cowards and fools.
As Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations,
“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn't matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying...or busy with other assignments.”
To the ancients, if we let virtue lead the way, every step we take will be safe. In Greek mythology, Arete was the goddess of virtue. The model for us to follow—the embodiment of this idea of doing and living right.
This idea is the inspiration for our newest Stoic-inspired medallion. The Summum Bonum medallion.
The front of the coin features an iconic rendition of Arete in Ephesus:
The back shows Marcus’s simple reminder:
“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.”
The phrase is ringed, as if by sentries protecting this essential truth, by Marcus’s reminders that virtue is the answer in all circumstances.
Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or Busy.
|Feb 12, 2019|
What Will You Do Now?
In the winter of 1824, things were not looking good for Simon Bolivar. He was at one of the lowest points of his decade-plus long revolution of South America. Many of the countries he had freed from Spanish rule were in chaos or at risk of being re-conquered. His own health had begun to fail from so many hours in the saddle on campaign. He was haggard and gaunt--skeletal, really.
Would he give up? Would he die? Would all this turn out to be for naught? With this in mind, a man asked Bolivar, as it appeared that he neared rock bottom, “What will you do now?”
The great liberator didn’t pause, he didn’t hesitate. All his charisma returned in an instant and he answered simply and definitively, “Triumph!”
It’s one of those scenes from history that sends chills down our spine. It’s Napoleon shouting, “There will be no Alps!” It’s the Spartans retorting to the Persians who claimed the arrows of their overwhelmingly superior forces would blot out the sun, “Then we shall fight in the shade.” It’s Churchill, “We shall go on to the end...we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be...we shall never surrender.”
It’s incredible bravery, fortitude, and strength. But here’s the thing: Those lines came from people just like you. Bolivar was a spoiled rich kid for most of his life. Napoleon started in the army as an artilleryman. No one, including Churchill’s parents, thought he’d amount to much. But these men did it--they put countless people on their backs and dragged their cause to victory.
Just like you can do. Remember Marcus’s line: If it’s humanly possible, know that you can do it. And think about Bolivar in that moment and how Stoic it was. He was focused not on the past, not on how bad things were, but on what he would do next. Because that’s all that matters. Because that’s all he controlled. And then he got to work.
|Feb 11, 2019|
YOU Are Not The Problem
Epictetus’s most powerful line is about how it’s not things that upset us, but what we think about things that does all the damage. What he really meant is that our sense of what an obstacle or a disadvantage or a trial is—our subjective understanding—is more powerful than the objective reality.
For instance, if you tell yourself that you were failed by your teachers and that’s why you’re not as smart as other people, for the rest of your life you’re going to have trouble learning and understanding things. It may be true that your teachers were less than adequate, but this story you’ve chosen to tell yourself is the true failure (and you can see how a person who tells themselves a different story about the same facts—’I attended underperforming schools but my hunger for learning allowed me to rise above it’ or ‘My street smarts make up for what I lack in education’—will do much better in life).
As Epictetus said:
“Sickness is an impediment to the body but not to the will unless the will wants to be impeded. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to will. If you tell yourself this every time, you will find the impediment is to something else but not to yourself.”
And let’s not forget, he was saying this as a person whose leg was crippled (from his time as a slave no less)! He refused to see a physical impairment as something that changed who he was as a person. He refused to tell himself that depressingly myopic narrative, that he was somehow inherently broken or deprived as a result of this injury. Instead, you can see in his teachings that, over and over again, he chose to tell himself a bigger, better story: That he had learned how powerful he really was, that no person could stop or harm him, even if they tried.
That’s the narrative we want for ourselves. Yes, we have problems, but we are not the problem. We have flaws but we are not flawed. We might do something dumb but that doesn’t mean we are dumb. We decide what things mean. We decide what is actually an obstacle and what isn’t.
We have the power.
|Feb 08, 2019|
How Do You Fill The Void?
Seneca wrote constantly about time. One of his most compelling observations was about how people are protective of their money, their property, their possessions, yet careless with the one thing they can’t get back. “It’s not that we have a short time to live,” he said, “but that we waste a lot of it.
Can you imagine what he would say about the fact that today people average more than 5 hours a day on mobile devices? That’s 52 days a year—one-seventh of our lives—murdered!
Cal Newport’s excellent new book Digital Minimalism, which just released this week, is an attempt to change that--to focus on limited time on the things that matter (deep work, family, being present, even the study of philosophy). In our interview with Cal for DailyStoic.com, he explained the two reasons why this is increasingly easier said than done. The first is that there are really smart computer scientists specifically engineering these devices and social media platforms to foster compulsive use. The second:
“It fills a void. Life is hard. This hardness is especially manifested during those periods of downtime when you're alone with your thoughts. People avoid these confrontations through constant, low quality digital distraction much in the way that people of another era might have dealt with these difficulties with heavy drinking. But this is just a band-aid over a deeper wound.”
How should we fill the void?
“As the ancients taught us, the sustainable response is to instead dedicate your free time toward things that matter. Take on as much responsibility as you can bear, seek out quality for the sake of quality (as Aristotle recommends in The Ethics), serve your community, connect with real people in real life and sacrifice for them.
All of this can seem daunting as compared to clicking "watch next" on your Netflix stream, but once engaged in these deeper pursuits, it's hard to go back to the shallow.”
What if instead of reaching for our phones for even a dozen of the more than 2,600 times per day (!!) the average user engages with their mobile device, we reached for a journal and a pen? Or a book? Or what if we reached for nothing at all and just stared at the ceiling lost in thought? There are few problems you couldn’t solve if those 5 hours per day were spent thinking instead of scrolling. Put some distance between you and your devices today. Fill the void with things that add value to your life.
|Feb 07, 2019|
Avoid Owing (and Being Owned)
Seneca was a very rich man. He accumulated that fortune largely due to his service to Nero’s corrupt and broken regime, and then he put that money to work in Rome’s British colonies. In fact, he made so many enormous loans to colonists in Britain, that when the debt was called in around 60 AD, it set off a rebellion in which tens of thousands of people ultimately died.
A few short years later, Seneca would learn just how painful it can be on the other side of an unpayable debt. Realizing, alarmingly late, just how deranged Nero was, Seneca tried to walk away from politics. Nero wouldn’t let him. Seneca tried to turn over to Nero everything Nero had ever given him. Even this was not enough--because Seneca, in working for such a man, had, in a sense, pledged him his life. In 65 AD, Nero, paranoid and cleaning house of potential enemies, called in the chit, and Seneca was forced to commit suicide.
The lesson: Be wary of debt. Because it is not simply a financial matter. It can be a spiritual matter as well. For to owe can mean to be owned. It can mean that you’ve given up the little bit of control you have in the world and handed it over to a capricious or an insensitive person--or just somebody who values their money more than they value you.
It was Marcus, after Seneca’s bloody cautionary tale, who exhibited a better relationship to debt. When he took over the Empire, its finances were a mess. So what did he do? He started selling off palace furnishings. In his view, it was better to live an austere life than one in debt to other people--people who would then try to influence his policy or limit his options.
Today in the modern world, debt is a little easier to manage and the markets are a bit more complex. No one is saying you can’t have a mortgage on your house, only that if you have more than one of them...you probably have too much house. No one is saying that you can’t use a credit card, only that if you’re carrying a balance with a minimum payment larger than your most expensive utility bill...you probably need to examine your spending habits. No one is saying you can’t borrow to invest or grow a business, only that you need to be rational and smart about it.
Avoid owing and being owned, before someone calls in a chit you cannot pay.
|Feb 06, 2019|
When You Should Give Up
No one would ever call Winston Churchill a quitter. His whole reputation is built on his instinct to fight. He was the lone objector when appeasement toward Hitler reigned as policy in the 1930s. He was the one strong enough to inspire the British people to hold out against the Nazi bombardment and a potential invasion until America entered the war. His personal motto was KBO...Keep Buggering On.
You may have even heard the first part of his famous speech which he gave to the boys at the Harrow School, which he had attended as a child, “Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty.”
But did you know there was a second part to it? That Churchill wasn’t saying to hold out forever in every circumstance? This is the full quote:
“Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty. Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
So there you have the famous never-quitter explaining the conditions under which you should quit or give in: when you are honor bound or when it makes no sense to continue.
An example: When Churchill lost the confidence of his government in November 1915, he resigned his position and enlisted in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. His old path ceased to be even remotely viable, so he found another way to serve with honor. And while Hitler might have thought that Churchill was insane for not negotiating a peace with Germany, Churchill actually did see a way through, and knew there was a good chance his country could endure. In one case, it was good sense to give in, in the other, it wasn’t.
The Stoics were all about this balance. Yes, they were big proponents of perseverance and persistence. No, they didn’t run away just because things got hard. But they weren’t masochists either. They didn’t believe in hurling themselves against a wall that would never give way.
Marcus used a vivid analogy for people who continue to be the same person, despite the obvious signs it wasn’t working—he said they were like "animal fighters at the games—torn half to pieces, covered in blood and gore, and still pleading to be held over till tomorrow...to be bitten and clawed again."
Today we talk about this colloquially as the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
That’s no way to live. It’s good to be tough, but hardly noble to be stupid. Sticking to something is commendable, but not if that inflexibility comes at the expense of other, viable solutions or if it becomes its own vice. Remember that today. Never, ever, ever, ever give in...except when it makes sense. Let honor be your guide, not bullheadedness nor cowardice.
|Feb 05, 2019|
All This In A Nutshell
Near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, the speechwriter James C. Humes was asked to help the president write a short address. After submitting a draft, Humes was called to Eisenhower’s office to discuss. As soon as he stepped into the room, he could tell that Eisenhower had a problem with what he’d written.
“What’s the QED* of this speech?” Eisenhower said to him with only a little patience.
Humes was confused. “QED,” he said, “what’s that?”
“Quod Erat Demonstrandum,” Eisenhower barked. “Don’t you remember your geometry? What’s the bottom line? In one sentence!”
Eisenhower was a brilliant man, but a simple and a straightforward one after years in the Army. He didn’t have time to beat around the bush and so he didn’t put up with rambling or equivocation. He wanted his speeches to have a point and he wanted everyone who worked for him to know the message.
This is a good lesson for anyone and everyone when it comes to communication. (You may remember our earlier email: If It’s Not Simple, It’s Bullshit). Don’t dress things up more than they need to be. Don’t hedge. Don’t distract. Be blunt. Tell the truth. Speak plainly.
But what if we had to apply Eisenhower’s test to Stoicism itself? What’s the QED of this philosophy we’re studying? Well, that’s good for everyone to think about today. Can you describe Stoicism in a sentence?* Could you actually offer a good definition if somebody asked you about it? Spend some time thinking about that.
Even better, don’t just ponder what Stoicism is about, what are you about? What defines you? What do you stand for? What’s your bottom line? In one sentence!
*Here’s our QED for Stoicism: A Stoic believes they don’t control the world around them, only how they respond--and that they must always respond with courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.
|Feb 04, 2019|
Out of Many, One
The motto of the United States—seen imprinted on its currency and its buildings—is e pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”
It happens that this is also more or less the aim of Stoicism too, to take the many parts of a person and turn them into a unified, coherent soul. Each of us is made up of competing desires and impulses and needs, yet all of this is part of who we are. More importantly, with work and study, philosophy is designed to integrate and order all of this into its proper place within us.
On a larger level, Stoicism—as a kind of civic religion in Rome—was designed to take the many and turn them into one thing, a Roman. Seneca was from Cordoba. Epictetus was fromHierapolis. Marcus was from Rome proper. These are diverse and far flung places, each had their own spin and their own style, yet they became part of a larger whole of Stoicism and the Roman empire. It was their notions of duty and responsibility and their sense of right and wrong that made this happen, that aligned interests and beliefs and lifestyles.
If you step back even further you can see how we, ourselves, are melded in and absorbed into this larger tradition and process. Time and distance and technology collapse temporal and geographic and cultural boundaries so that we may become one. Part of the same whole that the ancient Stoics were a part of..
This is sympatheia—on the individual and the marco level.
Unfortunately, we are losing that unifying thrust these days. As the documentarian Ken Burns has joked, there is too much pluribus and not enough unum. There’s too much focus on our individual selves and our differences and not what we hold in common or what joins us together.
This is a tragedy. It causes needless strife and conflict. Which is why today, as you walk the streets or the halls of your office, think about this process—the way we can become part of something larger than ourselves, what we share in common and what we can do for each other. Unity is better than division. Many is better than one only when the many become one.
But it starts...with you.
We think that every leader and citizen should think deeply about this idea of sympatheia. We were made for each other and to serve a common good, as Marcus put it. That’s why we made our Sympatheia challenge coin, which can serve as a practical, tangible reminder of the causes and the larger whole we are all members of. You can check it out in the Daily Stoic store
|Feb 01, 2019|
Success or Failure—Neither Reflect On You
Just a few weeks ago, the writer Austin Murphy wrote an insightful, revealing article for The Atlantic that personalized the changing nature of the economic and technological landscape in the 21st century western world. Murphy is one of the most successful sportswriters of his generation. He worked for Sports Illustrated for 33 years. He penned some 140 cover stories. He’d published 6 books. He’d interviewed 5 presidents. And yet—and this is the subject of the piece—now he finds himself delivering packages for Amazon for a living.
A job is a job, of course, but the man whose job used to involve trips to France with an expense account to cover the Tour de France now had a job where he struggled to find places to use the bathroom during the day.
The most interesting part of the piece is that it’s not a criticism of Amazon or a pity party for the author. In fact, it’s quite philosophical. Particularly this passage:
“Lurching west in stop-and-go traffic on I-80 that morning, bound for Berkeley and a day of delivering in the rain, I had a low moment, dwelling on how far I’d come down in the world. Then I snapped out of it. I haven’t come down in the world. What’s come down in the world is the business model that sustained Time Inc. for decades. I’m pretty much the same writer, the same guy. I haven’t gone anywhere. My feet are the same.”
There is a beautiful meditation from Marcus Aurelius along the same lines. "A rock thrown in the air,” he says, “it loses nothing by coming down, gained nothing by going up." This is easy to say, and easy to forget, but it’s an essential bit of perspective that both wards off ego when things are going well and protects us against depression when we experience setbacks.
We have to remember that external events, possessions, status markers, achievements don’t change us. An impressive job doesn’t make us an impressive person, just as a bad review doesn’t mean we’re without talent. Having a lot of money doesn’t make us special and not having money doesn’t make us worthless. Up, down, middling along—we are not changed by our status.
Only our actions and our choices reflect on who we are. Only what we are doing right now in the present moment matters—not the past, not the extrapolated future. And actually not even that—it’s how we are doing what we are doing that matters. Our feet are the same, wherever we are, regardless of the lofty heights we’ve climbed or darkened depths we’ve fallen to.
Don’t forget that. Because in it is strength and freedom.
|Jan 31, 2019|
When Something Breaks
If a close friend had their home broken into, you’d comfort them and tell them that it was only stuff that had been stolen. If your child broke their favorite toy, you’d tell them that these things happen and try to get them to play with something else. If a waiter spilled on your friend, you’d calm them down by saying it was an accident. Basically, when stuff happens to other people, we’re able to see it clearly with some perspective and some detachment.
But when our stuff breaks or is lost, it’s always so much different. It’s suddenly a tragedy, or worse, a deliberate misdeed that has been wrongly inflicted upon us. I lost so much. But I really loved that toy. You ruined my favorite shirt. You meant to do that. We take it personally, because it is personal--it happened to us.
And then we’re miserable.
That’s why the Stoics try to practice detachment. Not in the sense that they don’t love other people or that they avoid relationships or possessions, but in the sense that when something happens to one of those things, they try to see it with some perspective. Epictetus points out how when someone we know loses a loved one, we can say, “that’s just life.” But when we lose a loved one, it’s suddenly, “Poor me!” And yet it is fundamentally the same event. We’ve just decided to indulge the more severe judgment--the one that doesn’t bring back the person we grieved, and only makes us feel terrible.
Epictetus’s advice when we get upset is to remember how we feel when we hear it has happened to someone else. We care, sure, but not so much that it deeply distresses us. We’re empathetic but unbroken. We’re calm, we’re collected, we understand.
And then, we move on.
|Jan 30, 2019|
Closing Your Eyes Is Not An Excuse
In Richard III, Shakespeare has a scene where Brackenbury is handed orders from Richard by two men who clearly plan to murder the King’s brother. His response echos down through the ages as an example of willful and cowardly ignorance. As he replies after reading the orders:
I am in this commanded to deliver
The noble duke of Clarence to your hands.
I will not reason what is meant hereby
Because I will be guiltless from the meaning.
This idea that we can close our eyes to the implications of something and therefore remain unstained by it is common. Shakespeare knew this. It’s the story of Seneca tutoring Nero in the arts of persuasion and strategy and then pretending that he did not know that he was putting a loaded weapon in the hands of a madman. It was the many leaders before the Second World War who read Hitler’s works but refused to take them seriously—to tell themselves they didn’t know what he would do when he had power. It’s the bosses (and investors) at Uber and Facebook who knew their respective companies had installed a win-at-all costs mentality and then pretended to be shocked when the winning came at a very high cost. It’s the story of the boards of directors and the executives at Hollywood studios and other businesses that turned a blind eye to sexual harassers or sent vulnerable women to be alone with someone they knew had abused their power in the pa
Oprah has a great line: When people tell you who they are, you should believe them. But we often decline to do this, less out of stupidity than out of greed and fear (and occasionally, laziness). It’s easier not to probe. It’s easier not to get involved. If we let the truth sink in, then we have to get involved, and acting against the malicious is scary. So we deliberately don’t see the truth. If we step in, we might lose an income stream (as the folks at Uber would have if they had reigned in their ‘rockstar’ execs) or make an enemy (as Seneca would have in Nero had he stood up to him) or lose our lives (as any in the German leadership may have to Hitler as he rose to power).
We don’t want to be bothered. We are afraid. So we lie to ourselves. Or we look the other way.
We think this makes us guiltless, but it doesn’t. It stains us more so. It haunts us too, particularly as the years pass and we look back at our own cowardice and failures.
A Stoic stands up. A Stoic steps in. A Stoic doesn’t close their eyes. A Stoic calls a fraud a fraud when they see them. Even if it costs them. Even if it hurts.
|Jan 29, 2019|
The One (or Two) Words To Live By
Confucius was once asked by a student if there was a single word to to live by, a word that would always provide guidance and truth. He thought about it for a minute and replied with the word chu, which translates roughly into “forbearance.”
This is interesting because Epictetus was once asked which words would help a person live a life of peace and goodness. The two words, he said, were ἀνέχου (bear) and ἀπέχου (forbear). (Another translation puts it at: Persist and Resist).
Again, it’s remarkable how two wise men living in the ancient world some 5,000 miles apart from each other, raised in different cultures and very different circumstances, speaking very different languages, in very different philosophies, could come to express the same concept.
But that’s why we must take it to heart. There is universality in their simple formula (though it’s not an easy one): We resist giving in, resist temptation, resist despair, and resist degradation. We persist in our efforts, we persist in trying to be a good example for others, we persist in our training, we persist despite the obstacles thrown at us.
The definition of forbearance perfectly captures both those ideas: Patient self-control.
That’s our aim. Forever and always.
|Jan 28, 2019|
How To Make Better Decisions in Life
Believe it or not, there’s a pretty magical way to start making better decisions. It’s a secret that will also make you feel better, look better, and live better. You’ll live longer, think more clearly, and do less that you regret.
What is it?
Stop drinking. Or, at least, drink less.
Heraclitus’s line was that “a dry soul is wisest and best.” He’s right. Have you ever done anything you’re really proud of while drinking? Is anyone their best selves while drunk? Of course not. The best you can hope to say after a hard night of partying is that you didn’t make a fool of yourself.
Now, the Stoics are mixed when it comes to drinking. Cato was said to like to relax with drinking. Seneca clearly liked a good dinner party, but at the same time he wrote critically of people who obsessed over wine or bragged about how well they could hold their liquor. Marcus and Epictetus probably drank the least of the Stoics, though they did not say too much about the subject.
So while we can’t say that the Stoics were hardline teetotalers, their insistence on clear thinking, on self-control, and overall sobriety, makes it clear that they would have looked suspiciously at alcohol. As should we.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life or a nice glass of wine, but we should look honestly at our own habits. We never want to be dependent or a slave to any substance, no matter how good it makes us feel in the moment. And we should be wary of anything that impairs our judgment and decision making.
So if you want to be the better version of yourself, there’s a real straightforward change to make: Drink less. Or better, don’t drink at all.
|Jan 25, 2019|
Don't Limit Yourself
Epicurus’s dictum was that “One sage is no wiser than another.” Clearly, Seneca agreed with this idea because he loved quoting Epicurus, even though he belonged to a rival school. His famous line was that he’d quote even a bad author if the line was good.
This is a good example that does not go far enough. We should actively pursue and engage with anyone who can be a source of wisdom to us, regardless of the school of thought from which that wisdom arose. That does not mean you have to become best friends, or abandon your philosophical first principles, just that you should listen. And not just listen, but hear. Because if there is wisdom out there to be had, we’d be wise to avail ourselves of it—and ignorant (or worse, stupid) not to.
So don’t let your studies stop with Stoicism. Make sure you read widely. Pick up Epicurus and Confucius. Look at the best teachings of the Christians and the Buddhists, and the Islamists and the polytheists. There is good stuff in all these schools.
The ancients were voracious consumers of knowledge and information, but they had nothing compared to the access and tools we take for granted today. They would have loved to be able to carry around thousands of digital books in their pocket, or have access to a website that let them get every book ever written delivered to their door in minutes. Can you imagine what they would have thought about a digital subscription service like Scribd that gives you basically every book ever published for less than $10 a month?
What would they think of a world where, for free on YouTube, you can watch the lectures of the wisest people ever captured on film? You can bet they would have watched everything they could of Viktor Frankl, Alan Watts, the Dalai Lama, Ayn Rand, Richard Feynman, David Foster Wallace, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Camille Paglia, Maya Angelou, Stephen Hawking—the list is endless, just as their options would be.
Don’t limit yourself. There are many wise sages out there—all with different takes on the same essential truths. You can benefit from learning and listening to all of them, even if only your disagreements with some of their teachings serve to clarify what you do believe.
There’s a wide world of knowledge out there. Quote it and consume it all.
|Jan 24, 2019|
If You Were Tested, Would You Pass?
Perhaps you remember the 90s hit by the band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get.” You know, the ‘neeeeevvvvvvveeeerrrrrr had to knock on wood’ song? If you haven’t listened to it in a while, you should, because it holds up surprisingly well.
Anyway, there are a couple of lines at the beginning of the third verse that go like this:
I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass
It’s as if Dicky Barrett, the Bosstones’ lead singer and songwriter, was writing straight from the lessons of the Stoics, because it aligns perfectly with one of Seneca’s most beautiful observations. "I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune,” he writes of everyone who has lived a soft or sheltered life. “You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you."
Not even you.
That’s the question the song is about. That’s the angst it is trying to express. Yes, it’s great to live in a time of peace. Yes, it’s good to be well-off or successful in your career. Yes, it’s wonderful if everything always goes your way. But with this good fortune also comes a nagging doubt, an insecurity and a dissatisfaction. Because deep down, you know it can’t continue like this forever. You know that everything good comes to an end. And what then? How will you handle it? Can you handle it?
The lessons from this are two-fold. One, if you are going through something tough, well...keep going. And appreciate what you are learning, both about the world and about yourself. It’s a test, keep doing your best and you’ll pass. Two, if you haven’t experienced that kind of deep adversity, know that you are depriving yourself of something essential and meaningful. So start putting yourself out there. Take more risks. Get your hands dirty. Find something that you can struggle with.
Rise to the challenge. Put the doubts to rest. You’ll be better for it.
|Jan 23, 2019|
We Are What We Think About
Ok, so it’s worth saying bluntly to any of the nice people out there who might believe in it: The Law of Attraction is complete horseshit. If you need proof, here’s a funny example: In 2015, the author of The Secret had to reduce the price of her home in Santa Barbara some $4.7M—more than 20%—after it had languished on the market without selling. Of course, if she had been following the advice in her book she would have just thought good thoughts about it selling for list price (or better, written herself a check for the amount in advance) and the universe would have taken care of the rest.
We all know that’s not how things work. There’s no science that says your thoughts can will reality into behaving how you like or that thinking negative thoughts will invite negative outcomes—in fact, literally all of science contradicts this. Anyone that tells people differently is conning them.
That is not to say that our thoughts aren’t extremely powerful and that they don’t shape our lives. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”
Unlike a con woman like Rhonda Byrnes, Marcus and the Stoics would never say that your thoughts attract the reality you want (or don’t want), but they would say that our thoughts determine the character of the reality we live in. If you see the awfulness in everything, your life will feel awful—even if you are surrounded by wealth and success. If you have a growth mindset, you won’t be easily discouraged when you fail. If you find something to be grateful for in every situation, you will feel blessed and happy where others feel aggrieved or deprived. That’s the idea.
No, it won’t magically give you more. It won’t magically sell your house or make you famous. But it will help you appreciate your life and help you endure adversity that others can’t handle.
The best part is that it’s not a secret either. It’s just common sense.
So let’s practice it.
|Jan 22, 2019|
What Other People Get Away With Is Not An Excuse
Let us stipulate first that Serena Williams is an extremely talented tennis player and an honest and ethical person. Let us also stipulate that she has been unfairly treated by chair and line umpires, not just when she was an up-and-comer, but also, and inexplicably, now that she is one of the greatest players in the game. And yet, even stipulating all this—as well as recognition of the fact that the passion which drives athletes is a potent force that amateurs and spectators can never fully appreciate—her controversial behavior at the U.S. Open earlier provides an interesting lesson to chew on.
There’s no need to repeat what’s been extensively reported elsewhere, so we can just summarize: Serena Williams was having a tough match in the U.S. Open finals with Naomi Osaka. She disputed a coaching call with the chair umpire (believing that she was not being illegally coached from the stands and that a warning should have been issued first if she had been). Upset over this call, which implied she was a cheater, Serena ended up smashing her racket in frustration over another call a few games later. Not tolerating the jabs at her character, she continued to jaw at the referee, accusing him of stealing a point from her and demanding an apology. She lost her composure...and also ended up losing the match.
Again, while none of this is particularly Stoic, it is completely understandable. What was less understandable, from a Stoic perspective, was the argument made by supporters and Serena herself explaining the events that had just transpired on the court. Their point was that male tennis players regularly get away with similar behavior (some data on this here) so therefore an injustice had been committed in Serena not being able to release her frustrations as well. Some even considered her a hero in this drama for asserting herself with the chair umpire, and then with the WTA during the press conference, like the bad boys of tennis used to.
But to ask whether Serena’s gender affected her treatment is, from a Stoic perspective, to ask the wrong question. As Martina Navratilova wrote in a New York Times op-ed,
It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.
Important cultural and political issues of fairness obviously matter at the larger level, particularly for activists and lawmakers. However, at the individual level, the question we always must ask of ourselves is never “is there a double standard?” but “what standard will I hold myself to?” For the same reason, as we make choices, the idea of whether something is illegal is also a poor metric. A Stoic should care only whether something is right.
It might be possible, for instance, to get away with paying little to no taxes, but is it honest and fair to shirk contributing your share? It’s fairly well established that men historically have been able to get away with all sorts of bad behavior (though again the stats in tennis don’t seem to show that), but does that mea
|Jan 21, 2019|
We Must Live By This Rule
Zigong once asked Confucius: “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” His reply: “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word?”
Thus we have, by yet another source, another formulation of the Golden Rule. Matthew 7:12, for instance, has its version: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.” And Luke 6:31: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”
The Stoics would obviously agree with this concept, though they would take it a little bit further. In fact, what we see in Marcus Aurelius over and over again is the idea that we must treat other people better than they treat us. Because they didn’t mean to do wrong, because they aren’t as informed as we are, because they have their own problems. And that we treat people well not because we ourselves would like to be treated well, but because to do anything less is a betrayal of our own values and standards.
The Golden Rule is simple and all-encompassing. It should govern how we talk to people, how we run our businesses, how we raise our children, how we react in difficult situations. It’s also an impossible standard. We’re never going to fully get there. We’re human. Empathy is sometimes beyond us in the moment. Which is why we need to constantly review and reflect on our own behavior (journaling is great for this), so that we can learn from it and improve on it.
If we can follow the Golden Rule and reflect honestly on our transgressions of it, we will get a little bit better at following it as we grow.
|Jan 18, 2019|
When Are You Going To Be Free?
Most of us tell ourselves that we’re putting up with ill-treatment or keeping our mouths shut about our beliefs because we’re working on something big. We tell ourselves that we’re slogging away in this industry or that industry not because we’re big supporters of it, but because we need to, to get where we are going. We’re accumulating money or resources or playing politics to build up our base so that one day, some day, we can finally stand up and be who we really are.
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself in Meditations that he could be good today...even though his first impulse is to put it off until tomorrow. That’s what we all do. In the future, we say, then we’ll be blunt and honest and principled.
The problem is that this never seems to actually happen. DHH, who we interviewed for Daily Stoic a while back, joked about all the people in Silicon Valley who justify their 100 hour work weeks for dubious startups in order to get “Fuck You Money.” But for all the wealth in San Francisco...there seems to be very few people ever getting around to saying those words, or living that life.
Shakespeare has a better line in Julius Caesar. His relations with the Senate are falling apart and it would be easier to lie to smooth things over, but he catches himself before he does:
Have I in conquest stretched mine arm so far
To be afraid to tell graybeards the truth?
This is an important reminder for each of us. We’ve worked this hard. We’ve accomplished this much. We’ve carved out these skills and built these relationships. For what? To keep putting off the day where we stand up for ourselves? To keep going along to get along forever?
No. Now is the time. Now is the time to be good. To live as if we had the “Fuck You Money” or conquered enough of the world to tell the truth. Because there is no magic turning point. There is only the moment that we decide to be the person who lives those words.
|Jan 17, 2019|
How To Respond To Crazy People
One suspects Marcus Aurelius was referring to a particularly frustrating person, some opponent who just would not, or could not, get the message, when he wrote:
“You can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face and they’ll just go on doing it.”
There’s an American expression along those same lines: “Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty and the pig enjoys it.”
Both these pieces of advice are worth remembering for the inevitable moments that we find ourselves in conflict or at cross purposes with one of those nutty, obnoxious, stubborn jerks that make up a certain percentage of the population. Although it’s tempting to fight and argue with them, it rarely ends well, because you can’t beat someone with nothing to lose, and it’s impossible to reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.
It takes great skill to identify irrationality and emotional reactions in other people. It takes a lot of confidence to avoid battling with someone acting out of ego. It requires patience to endure their onslaughts and put up with them in your midst.
But if you can, you’ll preserve your happiness and live a much less stressful life. It’s not your job to change other people—and even it were, crazy doesn’t want to be changed. Learn how to walk away. Learn how to de-escalate. Learn how to let other people be themselves and you just do you. It’s a much easier life, you can count on that.
|Jan 16, 2019|
Don’t Be Distracted By Darkness
There’s no question that depressing things happen in this world. They always have and always will. People lie, cheat, steal. Envy, avarice, selfishness—it’s all out there. And it’s hard to miss.
It’s easy to despair about this. What do we do? Must it be this way? What’s the point of being good when everyone else is so bad?
This is the wrong way to think about it. It’s not up to us to change this unchangeable part of the human species, but instead to think about how to adapt to it, how to integrate it into our understanding of the world and not let it make us miserable. That’s a big part of why the Stoics talk about ignoring what other people do—their lying, cheating and stealing—and focusing on what we do. On making sure that we hold ourselves to a higher standard and put our energy towards evaluating ourselves according to those standards rather than projecting it onto others.
Marcus’s best advice on this is worth remembering today: instead of talking about other people’s selfishness and stupidity, our job is “to run straight for the finish line, unswerving.”
To not be distracted by the darkness of others, to head towards the light. To be good without hesitation, even when other people are not. That’s our job.
Today and for our whole lives.
|Jan 15, 2019|
The Civil War Inside Each One Of Us
Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of using the American Civil War as a metaphor, not just to explain the divisive political landscape, but the divide within each person. Just as there was a North and South in America (Anti-slavery and Pro-Slavery), there was a divide between good and bad within each of us. There was the part pulled towards higher principles and the part that was willing to compromise with baser instincts.
Certainly, in his own life, King was pulled this way. He was a man of enormous principle and selflessness, but he also had a number of affairs. This was a violation not only of his marriage, but the Christian teachings he preached at the pulpit. He knew better...but found himself doing it anyway. This tension must have been incredibly painful and shameful for him. So when King said that “there is something of a civil war going on within all our lives,” he wasn’t just speaking theoretically. He knew it firsthand.
The point of looking at examples like this isn’t to dismiss someone as a hypocrite—we’ve had quite enough of that zero-sum thinking in recent years and, quite frankly, there’s nothing Stoic about it. Nor are we trying to rationalize or excuse bad behavior. The point is to remember, just like with the US Civil War, that there is no such thing as a perfect person or a perfect cause. For all time, even the best of us have struggled with temptations and personal failings. This is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, after all.
Man has always been pulled apart by competing desires. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Cato—all the Stoics struggled with it too. They knew the right thing to do—they simply couldn’t always get there. We all fall terribly short of our own standards at times—even low standards. All we can do is get back up when that happens and try better next time. We can’t undo the past, we can’t go back in time, but we can try harder to be better right now—today—and in the future.
Just as we are pulled lower, towards our baser selves, we are also capable of pulling ourselves higher, towards our better selves. The North won the US Civil War. And we can win the one raging inside us too. We just have to realize which side we want to fight for. That self-evaluation starts today.
|Jan 14, 2019|
This Is What Karma Looks Like
There is a simple proposition at the heart of classical Christianity: if you are a good person and do good works on Earth, when you die you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven and know the full bounty of God’s unending love. But if you are a bad person on Earth, and you sin without repenting, when you die you’ll end up in Hell for all eternity.
In many Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, that duality is baked into the singular notion of Karma: good intentions and good deeds will be repaid in the next life with great kindness; bad intent and bad deeds (or sin) will be repaid in the next life with great severity.
The Stoics take a different approach. They don’t say that cheating or lying or murdering should be avoided out of fear of future punishments at the hands of God. Instead, they make a much more immediate and self-interested case. Seneca especially, who saw Caligula and Nero and other infamous Roman rulers up close, takes pains to point out these people are not winning. Nor are they getting off scot-free for their crimes. Actually, they’re paying for it every single day.
Seneca would have liked the passage at the conclusion of the novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg, which renders this verdict on the empty, broken life of an immoral Hollywood studio boss:
I had been waiting for justice suddenly to rise up and smite him in all its vengeance, secretly hoping to be around when Sammy got what was coming to him; only I had expected something conclusive and fatal and now I realized that what was coming to him was not a sudden pay-off but a process, a disease he had caught in the epidemic that swept over his birthplace like a plague; a cancer that was slowly eating him away, the symptoms developing and intensifying: success, loneliness, fear. Fear of all the bright young men, the newer, fresher Sammy Glicks that would spring up to harass him, to threaten him and finally overtake him.
The Stoics would say don’t sin or your life will be hell. Not your next life, not your afterlife, but this life right now. Today.
|Jan 11, 2019|
The Great Equalizer
The author Michael Malice has a running gag: whenever a celebrity dies he posts a meme that says RIP but is a photo of a similar looking but a very different (and very alive) celebrity. It’s partly a commentary on how easily fake news spreads but it’s also an ironic dismissal of all that person has accomplished. It says: You’re dead now and we’re already forgetting your legacy. It says: You’re dead and we think it’s pretty funny.
Sure, there is a trollishness to that and it’s probably definition of the expression “Too Soon” but there is also truth and Stoicism in it. Marcus Aurelius liked to remind himself that Alexander the Great and the man’s mule driver are buried in the same ground. Shakespeare was equally impious.
To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why
may not imagination trace the noble dust of
Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?
The point is that death is not only inevitable but it is a great and merciless equalizer. It doesn’t matter how much money you pile up, how many territories you conquer, how many people know (or tremble at) your name—in the end you will die. Not only that, but some people will laugh! They will think your death is hilarious or even deserved.
That should humble you. It should serve as a Memento Mori for you. It should motivate you to live while you still can and not take any of it too seriously. Because it isn’t that serious. In fact, it’s kind of funny.
|Jan 10, 2019|
If It’s Not Simple, It’s Bullshit
There’s not much in Stoicism that’s particularly groundbreaking: Focus on what you can control. Be a good person. Manage your emotions.
A lot of the famous Stoic quotes are pretty basic too:
Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgement about things.”
Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Seneca: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”
The elementary school-level simplicity isn’t a bug. It’s a feature:
There’s a great line in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:
"Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn't explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan."
A lot of complicated stuff isn’t actually complicated...it’s made to seem that way so no one will notice that it’s actually bullshit. A lot of philosophy is badly written...because if it wasn’t, people would actually understand what the “philosopher” was saying and laugh them out of a job.
What the Stoic writings are about is not impressing anyone, nor making the reader feel like a genius for getting all the way through. No, they are designed to be short and to the point. No puffery. No throat-clearing. Using the absolute minimum number of words to make the most straightforward point.
We might call this counter-signaling, or better, a show of confidence. When you’ve got the goods, you don’t need to dress it up or make a hard sell. Just lay it out and let people take it or leave it.
So it should go for us, in all aspects of our lives. No obfuscation. No dog and pony show. No sound and fury. Just do the work, be the best version of yourself you can be, and people can take it or leave it.
|Jan 09, 2019|
Find A Point!
Peter Barton’s beautiful memoir, Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived, takes readers along a man’s search for meaning when he’s forced to confront mortality. Struggling for a reason to persist amid a terminal diagnosis, his wife, Laura, orders Peter to "Find a point!"
"So where was I supposed to find something to feel good about, some realm where I could still feel strong and hopeful? The answer now seems obvious, but for me it was the hardest place to accept: that realm was my mind. My frame of mind was something I could still control. Doing so would be a sort of victory I was not accustomed to valuing—a total inward, private victory—but a legitimate accomplishment nevertheless. I resolved to control my own discomforts, to rise above them if I possibly could. In doing so, I came to understand the deep truth that, while my pain may be unavoidable, suffering is largely optional…Pain can make you thoroughly miserable, or pain can just be pain. The trick, I've realized, is to confine it to the body and not let it infect the mind.”
Not only is this separation between pain and suffering a very Stoic idea, but this idea of “Finding a point” is an exercise we all need to practice. It’s part and parcel of amor fati.
When someone we love has been hurt, we need to find a point (for instance, that this will bring us closer together and remind us to not take time for granted). When a project we are working on fails, we need to find a point (to examine our choices and the systems by which we operate or simply realize that not everything we are going to do will be successful). When we are stuck in traffic, we need to find a point (that this is a chance to listen to a podcast or make a phone call). When we feel exhausted and burned out, find a point (your body is telling you something, or remember why or who you are making this sacrifice for).
Do these points magically undo what we are feeling in those moments? Of course not. Nothing can. But they do make sure the feeling is not permanent, nor completely in vain and without value. This is the crucial distinction between pain and suffering.
Suffering is needless. Pain can instruct.
|Jan 08, 2019|
The Habit You Must Start This Year
Why does Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations speak to us so? The answer, ironically, is that because the author had zero intention of doing so—in fact, he probably would have been mortified to know how well the book has been received...because it meant the exposure of his private thoughts and fears and struggles
As Ernest Renan observed, Marcus was writing for an audience of one. “Never,” Renan said, “has one written more simply for himself, for the sole end of emptying his heart, with no other witness than God.” That’s what journaling is about. Getting the thoughts out of our head, the anguish out of our hearts, and onto the page. It’s a way of clarifying and alleviating, excising and exercising.
For centuries—nay, millennia—people have been pouring themselves into private journals. Some did it at night. Some did it in the morning. Some did it in sporadic bursts or on rare occasion. But in literally countless cases, journaling has been a source of relief and self-guidance.
Which is why you should strongly consider picking up the habit this year. Do it on your phone. Do it on scrap paper. Do it in a free notebook you were given in the swagbag at a conference. Or—if we may so humbly recommend it—check out The Daily Stoic Journal, which provides daily prompts and over 20,000 words of Stoic wisdom. Just as Marcus developed this daily habit, so can you. As Musonius Rufus, teacher to Epictetus, said: habit always beats theory for it’s where “one brings together sound teaching with sound conduct.”
Whatever method you go with, just go with it. Give yourself quiet time where you can write simply for yourself, with no witness over your shoulder or hovering in the clouds above. Empty out your heart. Clear the racing thoughts of your mind. Leave a record of what you’re learning and what you’ve done. Practice becoming a better human.
It will be the best decision you make this year.
|Jan 07, 2019|
The One Thing You Must Avoid
Imagine this. You’ve worked for years on this novel—one that is indisputably the best thing you’ve ever done. You manage to get a publisher to buy it. You start to get rave reviews. You sell out your first printing. Then suddenly, all the momentum evaporates. You talk to the clerk at a bookstore and he tells you the publisher has just stopped resupplying them. Within months, what should have been a beloved bestseller, slips into obscurity.
Why? Well, according to your editor it’s because they’ve been sued by Hitler over the rights to Mein Kampf...and a US Federal Court sided with the Nazis. And that is basically the end of your career as an author—at least it was for John Fante.
You can read the full story, which Ryan wrote in an original piece for Medium, but one would expect this would make a person pretty bitter and angry right?
“I think the one thing that a writer must avoid is bitterness,” John Fante told the writer Ben Pleasants in an interview in 1979. “I think it’s the one fault that can destroy him. It can shrivel him up… I’ve fought it all my life.” His son, many years later, would reflect on how his father dealt with this incredibly unlucky and ill-timed setback.
I’m not naive enough to think good work always wins out in the end. There are plenty of painters who died in Auschwitz. I don’t necessarily think there is justice in the world, it’s that he had the strength of character not to let it break him.
No one would say John Fante was Stoic. He was often egotistical and vain and could hardly be called self-disciplined. But John Fante did respond to that those strokes of misfortune in his life with a poise that Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus couldn’t have helped but admired. It’s a good lesson for the rest of us: We can work really really hard on something. We can do everything right and more. And we can still get royally screwed. But we have to resist the temptation to see things that way, we can’t nurse a sense of aggrievement or bitterness. Because it will shrivel us up. That is what will break us.
Besides, as you’ll see in the Fante story, his bad luck was, many decades later, compensated for with almost unimaginably good luck. Which is just how life goes.
|Jan 04, 2019|
Do The Little Thing, It’s All The Matters
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza, as the Prague Spring happens and the Soviets begin a military occupation, takes the time to rescue a crow that was hurt on the side of the road. Yet when dissidents come and ask Tomas, her husband, to sign a political petition, he refuses. Which prompts a rather interesting sentence in the book
“It is much more important to dig a half-buried crow out of the ground than to send petitions to a president.”
A lot of people would reflexively disagree with that. Certainly the actions of most people do—even though there is the saying that “all politics are local,” we tend to think big picture before we think little picture. Seneca was the same way. Look at how he expressed his priorities in the essay, On Leisure:
“The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbors, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.
It’s ironic, Seneca’s impact on trying to help as many of his fellow men as possible was what drove him into politics and eventually to Nero’s court, where he probably hurt more than he helped. It was only after that failure that he retreated back to his writing and to small town life. But what if he’d switched the order? What if he’d focused on the suffering crow instead of petitioning the emperor? Might the world have been a better place?
These are unanswerable questions, but they raise a provocative point that goes to the core of Stoic thought: We should get our own house in order first, before we try to tackle other people’s problems. We should deal with what’s in front of us, with how we can help those in our neighborhood and our town, before we try to change the world.
Because if tragedy ever befalls your family—cancer, unemployment, a debilitating accident, an untimely death—the world will not be there to take your kids to school so you can make the doctor’s appointment. The world is not who will leave the casseroles on your doorstep or start the GoFundMe page. It will be your neighbors, your town. And you should do the same.
Doing those small things won’t change the whole world, but they will change somebody’s world, and that’s all that matters.
|Jan 03, 2019|
It’s Not How Long You Live, It’s How You Live
In late December, Richard Overton passed away at the ripe old age of 112 and 230 days. When he was born, Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States, and the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in America, was only a few decades old (for contrast, Richard was nearly 60 when the Civil Rights Act passed). That’s a long time to be alive. That’s a lot of history to live through.
But the Stoics would say that simply existing for many years is not all that impressive. What mattered was what you did with that time. What mattered was how you lived.
Seneca liked to point out how many people live to be old but have little to show for it. Richard had plenty, even if he never became rich or powerful. At the personal level, he triumphed over segregation and racism—and was never made bitter by the hatred and bigotry that far too many of his fellow Texans (and Americans) had for him for far too much of his life. He served honorably in one of history’s few just wars. He was a hard worker, and he built his own home (there’s a big pecan tree in his front yard that’s still going strong after 70 years). He liked to sit on his porch and talk with his neighbors. He never had children, but he was close with a big family who he loved and they loved him in return. He stuck around long enough to meet presidents and athletes and billionaires. He enjoyed many cigars, bowls of ice cream, and glasses of whiskey. He was beloved by his community, his city, and, eventually, his country.
In short, it was a life of many years but also of many experiences. He was clearly gifted at birth with a strong body, but he had an even stronger soul. Because it’s much harder to live to 112 and still be a happy, friendly, funny person than it is to simply hold on grimly to existence.
No one would say that Richard was taken from us too soon—because, clearly, he was given plenty of time on this planet (in fact, nearly three and a half times the life expectancy for a black man born in the early 20th century). But the important thing is what he did with that time.
And we can say, unequivocally, that this man lived.
R.I.P. And if you want some lessons and wisdom from Richard, you might like this piece.
|Jan 02, 2019|
Keep These Thoughts At Hand, Everyday
The Stoics were all about routine and concentration. Epictetus said that philosophy was something that should be kept at hand every day and night. Indeed, his book Enchiridion, actually means “small thing in hand,” or handbook. Seneca, for his part, talked about deep diving into the right books—rather than chasing every new or exciting thing published. “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 more than 300,000 copies in the English language, and it’s currently slated for publication in 14 languages. The book has spent more weeks on the bestseller list than any other book about Stoicism ever. In celebration of that, the ebook is $1.99 in the US for the next week if you haven’t picked one up ye
Of course, that success is a reflection of the power of Stoic teachings above all. 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 once the slave of Epaphroditus who served Nero when Seneca did (one suspects they didn’t like him, or couldn’t be associated with his service to Nero). 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. However, reading excerpts by themes with a focus on the concerns of everyday life brings these works both into focus and to life. Once this happens, going through the entirety of Seneca (a major undertaking), Epictetus, and Marcus can be richly rewarding for anyone.
Stoicism is designed to be a practice and a routine. It’s not a philosophy you read once and magically understand at the soul-level. No, 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 thing up for you to review—to have at hand—and to fully digest. Not in passing. Not just once. But every single day over the course of a year, and preferably year in and year out. And if Epictetus is right, 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 2019 and we hope you’ll give The Daily Stoic a chance, in print or with this discounted ebook. Or make your own greatest hits and your own study plan of the Stoics that you keep and carry with you wherever you go this year.
Because if 2019 is anything like 2018, you’re going to
|Jan 01, 2019|
What We Do In Life Does Not Echo In Eternity
In the movie Gladiator, Maximus, the protege of Marcus Aurelius, says famously, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.” It’s a powerful, inspiring line, (also tattooed on Lebron James’s arm) one the average viewer might assume that Marcus Aurelius agreed with.
Funnily enough, in his actual writings, Marcus Aurelius could not have come out more strongly against this idea. He says at one point, in Meditations, that “People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations to Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal." But even if they weren’t, he asks:
“What good would it do you?...You're out of step—neglecting the gifts of nature to hang on someone's words in the future."
Indeed, not only do people deprive themselves of the wonder of the present in order to hopefully be remembered in the future, far too many people—especially leaders—do themselves and those they serve a disservice by “performing for history.” Instead of focusing on what they can do right now, what little progress or improvements they can make, they get caught up in the idea of a grand, sweeping legacy. Or they play things safe, not wanting to take risks that could turn out badly...at the expense of possible opportunities they’ll never even know they missed.
We should want to do the right thing, today, because it’s the right thing. We should pursue excellence because excellence is intrinsically valuable, not because we want to be admired after we’re dead and gone. Forget echoing in eternity—just speak loudly enough to be heard right now.
Or better yet, let your actions do the talking.
|Dec 31, 2018|
Don’t Wait. Get Started. Now.
This is that weird time of year where we start to think about how we want the following year to go. We call them “resolutions” and they are the promises we make to ourselves about what we’re going to do in the next twelve months. The habits we’re going to quit, the skills we’re going to learn, the standards we’re going to hold ourselves to.
On the one hand, it’s a wonderful and inspiring bit of reflection that the whole world basically comes together to do this at the same time. It’s excellent that everyone has finally decided to get in shape, to stop smoking, to try to give back more, to commit to being a better friend or relative, to read a certain number of books. But it’s strange that everyone puts it off for so long—we treat our self improvement like it’s a school project we hope might just complete itself, praying that maybe our parents or teacher will handle it for us.
Well, they won’t.
Epictetus asked why it is that we wait to demand the best for and of ourselves. It’s pretty crazy. But no matter, because here we are today, staring down the barrel of 2019 and while it would have been better to get started earlier, the second best time to improve is right now. We can put that missed opportunity behind us and repeat this passage from Epictetus,
"From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event."
Can you do that? Can you start right now? No more putting stuff off. No more, “I’ll start on Monday.” No more “in the future, I’ll do better and expect better.” No. Demand the best for yourself now.
It’s what a grown up does.
Thousands of people joined us for the challenge we did in October and found it life-changing. Here are a few testimonials:
“The challenge was awesome. One of the things that really blew me away was just the interaction with the group. The overwhelming support in the Slack channel was amazing, and I feel like it was a ‘quake’ towards sympatheia.” — Daniel Hebb
"I loved the fact that the daily challenges engage not only your mind, but your body and spirit. I’d highly recommend the Challenge to others who are interested in deepening their understanding of Stoic writings, but most importantly how stoic principles can be meaningfully applied to our daily lives." — Mark Clayton
“The 30 Day Stoic Challenge really helped push me deeper into actual practice of Stoic principles, aside from just doing daily readings and some journaling. I still have the 30 day challenge hanging on my fridge. It serves as a daily reminder of simple, relevant tasks that can be performed to keep this alive in my life.” — Shawn Sarazin
“The 30 Day Stoic Challenge kicked off an avalanche of change in my life. A wall of resistance crumbled during the Challenge. Over and over and over again I've heard that I can control the quality of my days, and my life is in my hands, and every other buzz phrase that's floating around out there. I've also done some other challenges and taken classes, but the 30 Day Stoic Challenge let me experience what those words meant. This was a unique experience and has probably saved me a ton of money that would have gone to a shrink.” — Mary Madsen
If that sounds like someth
|Dec 28, 2018|
Everything Is Breaking Down
Nearly two thousand years before Rudolph Clausius and Lord Kelvin first expressed the second law of thermodynamics (although there is debate on whether or not the French physicist Sadi Carnot discovered it earlier), Marcus Aurelius was musing on it. “Bear in mind,” he wrote, “that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. Or that everything was born to die.”
That is to say: We are all subject to entropy.
Science has since confirmed it into immutable law. We cannot eliminate disorder from the system, no matter how much we try. Everything we build, including ourselves, is constantly breaking down.
What does this mean for us? First, it should bake in humility. We are building sand castles. Even our real castles eventually fall into the sea or crumble into dust. Second, it demands presence. This moment is all we have. So enjoy it. Drink it in. Appreciate it.
But also be prepared to let it all go. Because it’s going, whether we like it or not. That’s the law.
|Dec 27, 2018|
Why You Need To Understand Power
The actor Josh Peck recently had Robert Greene on his podcast to discuss the book, The Laws of Human Nature. It’s a fascinating interview, but one of the most revealing parts is when Josh asks Robert about how Robert squares his interest in Stoicism with the rather ruthless and Machiavellian messages of his books.
As Robert explains, we need to understand how the world works, especially if we intend to stick to a path of virtue.
“Marcus Aurelius had a quote, I can't say it exactly, but he says, when a boxer gets in the ring with another boxer and he gets punched, he doesn't complain and go, ‘god dammit, you hit me. I don't deserve to be hit.’ He accepts that. That's the game of life. Well, we should see that in life in general: when people hit us, that's just who they are. People are who they are. We shouldn't judge them. We should just accept them like we accept a rock or a stone or that boxer. That's what people are like, that's what we’re going to get. And the Stoic attitude of accepting the world as it is and working with how things are permeates the 48 Laws Of Power.
It’s very much like Marcus Aurelius—advocating that you feel a level of detachment. In fact, I believe I use that quote from him. So it's not far off from Stoicism. But the latest book is more in that Stoic spirit than the 48 Laws. It's more about accepting that this is nature. The Stoics have a word, logos. This is the way that the universe is, this is what permeates the laws that govern all behavior. And so I'm very much in that spirit of kind of looking at people with some distance, but all my books are approaching life with a little bit of detachment because I feel like that's what will make you happier and also more successful in general.”
What Robert is really saying is that although each of us should commit to being good and honest and fair, it’s naive to assume that everyone else has made a similar promise to themselves.
In fact, we know from the opening of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that most people are greedy and selfish and rude and short-sighted. It’s essential that we understand these forces and the effects they have on the world. Not only to prepare for them and defend ourselves against them, but to remember that when we have important work to do or changes we are trying to bring about in the world, these same forces will be there as a kind of headwind.
We can’t take this personally. We can’t let it upset or discourage us. We’ll need to know how to slip past this resistance, how to use its momentum against itself, how to turn that negative energy around and convince those small-minded people to side with us, against their immediate impulses. That’s what a true amoral study of history helps us do.
Virtue may be the highest good to the Stoics, but not everyone else agrees. In fact, the people that don’t outnumber the people who do. And if we don’t understand how power and persuasion work, they will win. Today and forever.
|Dec 26, 2018|
Today Is A Very Special Day
On December 25th, people all over the world celebrate Christmas, a holiday which marks the birth of Jesus Christ, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. This was a man who lived two thousand years ago, taught timeless lessons about kindness, mercy, forgiveness, on doing one’s duty, on the dangers of money and the redemptive power of poverty and adversity.
It’s pretty remarkable to think that in that same year as Jesus, another philosopher was born, one who taught more or less the same lessons, one who for at least a century was far more famous and influential than Jesus was. That man’s name was Seneca.
No one can confirm for certain the exact birth date for either, but it is indisputable that Seneca and Jesus walked the earth at the same time and lived roughly parallel lives. Indeed, they are both written about by Tacitus, and Seneca’s brother even appears briefly in the Bible! Again, it’s incredible.
Ultimately, the two men met very similar ends, killed by the long reach of Nero’s tyranny. Both have lived on far beyond their deaths—Jesus it was claimed, rose from the dead after three days, and Seneca, through his writings, feels as alive to us as he would have to many Romans.
What’s lovely too is that there is much to be learned from the teachings of both, whether you’re a believer or an atheist.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness." Seneca
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Jesus
“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” Seneca
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Jesus
“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.” Seneca
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Jesus
“If my wealth should melt away it would deprive me of nothing but itself, but if yours were to depart you would be stunned and feel you were deprived of what makes you yourself. With me, wealth has a certain place; in your case it has the highest place. In short, I own my wealth, your wealth owns you.” Seneca
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal...No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus
Seneca was simply a man, a rather flawed one in fact. Jesus—depending on your beliefs—was much more than a man. In a way, this makes Seneca much more interesting and relatable because he was just like us. Seneca was no prophet. He was a person trying to do the best he could. He struggled like us. Jesus was supposedly a carpenter, but Seneca really did have to work for a living. Jesus couldn’t have liked being crucified, but he knew that God was looking out for him. Seneca, like us, had to wrestle with the uncertainty of mortality.
On this day right here, on Christmas Day, we should take a minute to simply marvel at this near-miracle—that two wise men were alive at the same time, and through their suffering and teachings, a great legacy has been passed down to us. While we don’t know what Jesus would have said about Seneca’s teachings, we know what Seneca would have told the Stoics about Jesus’s, because he said
|Dec 25, 2018|
You Make Your Own Good Fortune
We can all remember times when it felt like everything was going our way. We were getting the breaks we wanted and opportunities came easy. It was the opposite of Murphy’s Law: What could go right, did.
Perhaps we remember a time when we were younger, when it felt like more people were willing to help and teach us. But as time passes, this passes with it. Lucky breaks seem less common. We become like the man that Marcus Aurelius mimics by saying, “I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me.”
This is absolutely the wrong way to look at it.
Because, as Marcus continues, “true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions and good actions.”
Let us face today with that attitude in mind. Good fortune is not getting lucky. It’s not the ball bouncing your way. It’s not other people doing stuff for you. Because all of those things are out of your control. They are not up to you.
True good fortune is you doing stuff for other people. It’s you being a good person, regardless of whether you get cut a break for it. It’s you starting each day with a commitment to be your best, whatever happens.
|Dec 24, 2018|
Life Comes At You Fast Pt II
Just two and a half years ago, General Michael Flynn stood on the stage at the Republican National Convention and led some 20,000 people (and a good many more at home) in an impromptu chant of “Lock Her Up! Lock Her Up!” about his enemy Hillary Clinton. A few months later, he was swept into the White House with the Trump Administration, finding himself now the National Security Advisor to the most powerful man in the world. It was an incredible second act for a man who had been unceremoniously fired by the previous president and whose sanity many had questioned when he had first signed on with the campaign.
But then, just 24 days into his new job. Flynn was fired once more, in this case for lying to the Vice President about conversations he’d had with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. Soon enough there was a special prosecutor breathing down his neck with criminal charges for lying to the FBI. On December 18th, a grand total of 29 months since his appearance on that stage in Cleveland, Michael Flynn found himself standing before Judge Emmet Sullivan, who had the power to decide whether it was he who would be locked up, and possibly branded as a traitor.
Again, life comes at you fast.
The purpose of today’s email is not to gloat at the fall of Michael Flynn, a man who in a previous lifetime served his country honorably, but to ring the reminder that all tragedies are supposed to ring: That our fates are always uncertain and that hubris only makes them more precarious.
It was ambition of the kind that Flynn had--the desire to get ahead, or to get even, at all costs--that the Stoics warned against time and time again. Indeed, Seneca’s own life was a cautionary tale that Flynn might have done well to study as he greedily gobbled up consulting and speaking fees from foreign entities, and whose painful dance with power might have served as a deterrent to a man considering entering another controversial administration.
When we take shortcuts, when we fall in with the wrong crowd, when we act in ways we know run contrary to the principles we believe in...we are chipping away at our own security and our own peace of mind. When we attack the flaws in other people and ignore our own (or, use that as a strategy to obscure our own), we are writing the end of our own tragedy.
Life comes at us fast. It is unmerciful and often poetic in the justice that it metes out. Be careful. Be ready. And, more than anything, don’t be your own worst enemy.
|Dec 21, 2018|
How To Be The MVP
Yet again, Nick Foles has been called up to start at quarterback for the Eagles. After spending another heartbreaking season on the bench behind first round draft pick and star of the future, Carson Wentz—this time despite having won the Superbowl MVP (and the championship) for the Eagles the previous year—Nick Foles is back due to a surprise, late season injury. How did he respond to this opportunity? The same way he responded to losing the starting job when Wentz returned from injury earlier in the season—with poise and self-control. As Michele Tafoya, NBC’s sideline reporter and also a practicing Stoic, explained on Sunday Night Football,
“Last night, Foles told us he had not unexpected to play again with Philadelphia and wanted to finish his time with the Eagles simply being a good teammate and helping out the team in any way he could. But on Friday when he learned for certain that he'd be the starter tonight, he immediately thought about last year and all the emotions that came with it. He said he had to, ‘Fight the human side of it all’ and remind himself, “this is a different team and a very different situation” and after an open, honest conversation with his wife, he re-centered and decided to play with the mentality of not looking at the clock or scoreboard and simply hone in on what he’s supposed to do.”
There is a story about Cato being given an army command during the Roman Civil War and then having it stripped from him days later by some backstabbing enemies. It’s the same narrative as Foles, only in reverse, yet they both took the news the same way: By focusing on what they could control, on what was up to them. They didn’t let either the benching or the promotion affect them personally—they just did the best they could with both opportunities. They focused on contributing as much as they could—on being a good teammate—in both circumstances.
That’s what an MVP does.
|Dec 19, 2018|
14 Day Stoic Challenge: New Year, New You
We all know someone who constantly puts stuff off. Who loves to plan improvements for their health, their finances, their work, their friendships, their relationships. Plan after plan after plan. There is seemingly no end to them.
We know these people because we are these people.
Every one of us wants to improve, wants to be better, have better habits, live better, think better. But we can’t seem to actually do it. Time passes, the plans don’t come to pass, and then, as The Talking Heads famously sung, there we are same as it ever was.
Our problem is that what we really want isn’t improvement, it’s reinvention. It’s wholesale change. That’s why this coming moment, January 1st, is so powerfully important. It’s 2019. It’s a new year. And it’s an opportunity for a new you...if you want it.
To that end, the great Stoic, Epictetus, has the perfect question for us: "How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?"
What is it going to take for you to get impatient with yourself? To get started living the life you want in the mind and body you deserve. Not preparing to live it. Not planning how that life could or should look. Actually living it. Right now. This year.
Stop waiting for ‘next year,’ take control now.
We created the 14-Day Stoic Challenge to do just that — to help you create a better life, and a new you in 2019.
The 14-Day Stoic Challenge is a set of 14 actionable challenges, presented one per day, built around the best, most timeless wisdom in Stoic philosophy. 14 challenges designed to set up potentially life-changing habits for 2019 to make it your best year yet.
In this challenge, each day you’ll be inspired to create a habit that will help you:
✓ Stop Procrastinating
These won’t be pie-in-the-sky, theoretical discussions but clear, immediate exercises and methods you can begin right now to spark the reinvention you’ve been looking for but have not had the language to express.
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 thinking or acting 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.
What are the risks or the downsides of NOT taking c
|Dec 18, 2018|
Here Are Signs You’re Making Progress
Ok, you’ve been doing your reading and your journaling. You’re trying to be conscious of your thoughts and your actions. In short, you’re putting in the work.
The question is, how do you know if it’s working? The journey to becoming a “sage” is one that takes a lifetime. No one hands you a certificate. Wisdom accumulates and builds on itself until one day, well, there you are. If that feels a little too inexact, we empathize, but such is life.
Still, there has to be something we can look for to see whether we are making progress. Whether we are getting better as opposed to simply feeling better (or more dangerously, feeling self-satisfied?)
According to Epictetus, these are signs that someone is making progress:
-saying nothing about themselves to indicate being someone or knowing something
-when frustrated or impeded, they blame themselves
-if complimented, they laugh
-if criticized, they ignore
-relaxed in motivation
-banishing harmful desire
-they watch themselves as though they were an enemy plotting an attack
If you’re really doing the work, you will see yourself improve in these areas. Not all the time and certainly not in all of them all at once. But you will blame others less, ignore criticism more readily (and ignore leveling it at others). You will be humbler and desire less. You will take responsibility. You will examine yourself.
The question for you today is: Are you making any?
|Dec 17, 2018|
You Do You. Whether They Like it Or Not.
Think of all the people throughout history who were wrongly condemned and criticized by the mob. From the Civil Rights Activists to Galileo to ordinary people whose lifestyles were hypocritically condemned as perverted or a violation of God’s law. Think of Jesus himself, condemned and nailed to a cross for no good reason.
In a sense, this is a rather dark reality to accept. But it is a fact. Society has always stupidly attacked what it doesn’t understand and what it fears. So what should we do about that as individuals? Live according to the crowd, even if we know that’s wrong?
Of course not, at least according to Marcus Aurelius. No, we must live as we were meant to live. We must live in truth. Let them kill us if they don’t understand it, he said. Imagine that.
Indeed, many Christians were persecuted by Marcus’s regime, and ultimately by his sign off. Just as Epictetus himself had been exiled from Rome for his philosophy. Just as how Stoicism would later be suppressed by the Christians. Just as great minds and regular people have been attacked and criticized by ignorant, obnoxious other people.
But we can’t let any of that stop us. We have to do what we have to do. We have to be who we are. We have to follow the truth as we see it. Because if we don’t, what good is this life we’ve been given anyway?
|Dec 14, 2018|
You Don’t Get To Be Apolitical
There is a common complaint drifting through the culture these days: Why did you have to bring politics into things? Can’t she or he just sing/dance/dribble/write/paint? I was a fan until you said ___________.
First off, how fragile are your views that you can’t handle someone articulating different ones? Second, how fragile is your support that you only like people who agree with you? And third, what makes you think you get to tell other people what they can and can’t say or think?
None of those stances are Stoic. In fact, they are the opposite of Stoicism.
The fundamental distinction between the Stoics and other schools of their time (like the Epicureans) was that the Stoics believed a philosopher was obligated to participate in politics. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Cato—each of them spent the balance of their adult lives, and had their most profound impact, in politics.
To be apolitical is to be unphilosophical. Of course, each person should be thoughtful, inclusive, and civil in all their discussions, particularly ones about government and social issues. We should not needlessly seek out argument or contention. We should be ready to change our minds (in fact, that’s why we should talk politics). But the idea that we should take whole topics off the table so as not to offend? C’mon now.
Our job as citizens is to participate in the polis. To cast our votes. To contribute to the common good. To take stands when we feel they matter. This will occasionally bother snowflakes on either end of the political spectrum, but that’s to be expected. What it cannot be is accepted, as the way we will engage with ideas, with each other, with the world.
|Dec 13, 2018|
Don’t Let Your Virtues Become This Vice
So we’ve begun to get serious about our training, both physical and philosophical. Before, we never read, and now we do. Before, we were lazy and slothful, and now we’re regularly going to the gym. Before, we would eat everything we felt like eating—too much of it usually—and now we’ve got a diet and we’re sticking to it.
This is great. We’ve conquered that vice.
Now there is a new danger. That this virtue becomes a new vice—the vice of pride, of superiority, of obnoxious self-satisfaction. You know the type...because, well, they won’t let you not know how great they’re doing, how they can’t believe they used to eat that, what a rush it was to finish that marathon, or just how transformative all these mind-blowing books have been. Ugh.
Apparently, these folks existed two thousand years ago, too. As Epictetus warned his students:
“When you have accustomed your body to a frugal regime, don’t put on airs about it, and if you only drink water, don’t broadcast the fact all the time. And if you ever want to go in for endurance training, do it for yourself and not for the world to see.”
This is good, timeless advice. Progress is wonderful. Self-improvement is a worthy endeavor. But that’s sort of the point. It should be done for its own sake—not for the congratulations or the recognition. Are you really running that marathon for the medal?
Don’t let your progress become pride. Otherwise you have just traded one set of vices for a new one. And the worse part is that because of your new healthy lifestyle, the rest of us risk having to endure it for your many remaining years.
|Dec 12, 2018|
Be Good To Each Other
“Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn.”
It is a verse from the poet Robert Burns. It was a favorite of Ulysses S. Grant as well as Winston Churchill, two men who witnessed the absolute worst of what people can do to each other. The line itself may have been borrowed from a similar observation by a 17th century German philosopher, who remarked that “more inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature’s causes.” It also echoes some of the darker observations from Marcus Aurelius, who wrote most of his Meditations while at the front with the Roman army, where he regularly saw decapitated and desiccated bodies.
Our ability and tendency to forget that we are all brothers and sisters is partly what allows this inhumanity to happen. Marcus said he was a citizen of the world...yet he saw huge swaths of the population of that world as barbarians simply because they were different than him. He saw the Christians, with their very different beliefs, as something dangerous and unnatural. In a way, he forgot his own teachings, even as he was writing them down on a nightly basis as reminders and cautions to himself.
“The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm,” he wrote.
In another spot, “Human beings have been made for the sake of one another. Teach them or endure them.”
And another still, “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”
The Stoic concept of sympatheia, that we are all connected and unified and made for one another, should never be far from our minds (in fact, you can carry a reminder of it in your pocket if you like). 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.
Be good to each other today!
|Dec 11, 2018|
We Aren’t Rational, We Become Rational
Most of us don’t think of ourselves as irrational. We don’t think we’re reactive creatures. We presume that we’re in control of our emotions, not the other way around. Other people are irrational of course, but what we feel is what reality is.
Robert Greene’s latest book The Laws Of Human Nature begins from the premise that humans, by the way we’re wired, are irrational beings. The part of our brain that processes reason, cognition, and thought is separate from the part that processes emotion. He says that while we think we’re naturally rational, we’re not. We become rational. It’s an effort.
As Robert said in his interview with us about the book,
We descended from chimpanzees. It’s the fact that we tend to react to what’s immediately in front of our face, like a cow or a dog or anything. We bark and that’s who we are. And we tend to always want things to be easier to take the path of least resistance. We all have that lower part of our nature and it’s a lot stronger, but at the same time, there’s a higher self that we’re straining to become. And maybe I’m being optimistic, but I’m saying that everybody has that desire to reach the higher self.
There is a strong element of Stoicism in this. Although Marcus and Epictetus and Seneca spoke of living in accordance with nature, they knew how unnaturally this came to most people. They knew how much work it was to get to that higher self, to transcend our baser instincts and emotions. Epictetus said we must put every impression to the test, to say to it, “hold on a moment, let me see who you are and what you represent.” To stop and put it to the test takes an effort. Socrates, who the Stoics considered as the rational ideal, said one must always begin from the premise of ignorance because what you presume to know is often quite wrong.
To presume you know is acting from emotion, not reason. To presume that what you feel like doing in the moment is obviously the right thing, is taking the easy way out, it’s taking the path of least resistance, it’s leaping over the space between stimulus and response.
The key then is to work towards that higher self, to become rational. Through journaling. Through discussion. Through challenges and courses and other exercises. Through reading books like Robert’s and other books on psychology and philosophy that help you understand what’s really going on inside your brain. Through taking the time to put every impression and impulse to the test—to not let that monkey part of the self be in control.
It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
|Dec 10, 2018|
This Is How They Treat You After You’re Gone
Da Vinci painted his brilliant fresco, The Last Supper, and how did they respond? They nagged at him for taking too long. Then, after he finished, they cut a giant hole in the bottom for a door. Marcus slaved away on his private Meditations, a work of incredible vulnerability and emotional exposure, that he almost certainly would not have wanted anyone to see. And what did we do? We not only published it, but we had the nerve to move the writing around in an indecipherable order. Seneca and Epictetus? They were the unconsenting victims of fake dialogs--with St Paul and Hadrian, respectively--that sought to capitalize on their names to make political or religious points.
That’s just what we do to genius. We disrespect it. We manipulate it. We mistreat it. And that’s the preferential treatment that genius gets. The vast majority of ordinary people from ancient times? We promptly forgot about them after they died...except the occasions where we dug them up and displayed their bones for educational purposes...and profit.
The point is: The dead don’t get no respect. Which is why anyone overly concerned with their legacy is wasting their time. Same goes for anyone who values posthumous fame. It ain’t coming. In fact, the opposite is probably more likely.
Focus on the here and now. Focus on living well, on doing good, and not giving two cares for what happens later. Because you’ll be gone...and soon enough, so will everyone else.
|Dec 07, 2018|
What Would You Do?
News reports re-surfaced earlier this month that the teenaged son of Jeff Flake, the Republican Senator, had made a number of homophobic and racist comments on his Twitter account. When confronted with the remarks, the senator immediately and directly apologized.
As so often is the case these days, to the social media mob—increasingly partisan and tribal—this was not enough. The news cycle kicked in too, with talking heads on both sides of the aisle rushing to either out-minimize or out-condemn each other. Professional and amateur, the discussion was an endless barrage of criticism, mockery, and, of course, speculation about how the response “could have been handled better.” (Isn’t that interesting—how much time we spend talking about how leaders and celebrities should do a better job spinning...us?)
Needless to say, this is not how a Stoic responds to others’ failures and mistakes. A Stoic doesn’t care about that. When a Stoic sees that someone’s son has messed up, they think: If my son messed up and it reflected on me publicly, would I know what to do? What would the appropriate response to that challenge be? What is the right—the virtuous—thing to do? A Stoic doesn’t see trouble in someone else’s home as a chance for judgment or gossip but as a reminder of where they might one day fall short of their own duties as a father, mother, aunt, uncle, brother, or sister. When a Stoic sees a teenager being stupid or ignorant, they don’t waste time with outrage and indignation. They look at their own behavior in their younger years and consider their own ignorance (along with the pain it might have caused others), and then redouble their efforts to be a good example for the people around them.
We live in times when abhorrent views are creeping back into the public view when scandal and corruption are all too commonplace. But again, the Stoic does not get distracted by this. A Stoic learns from it. A Stoic doesn’t take glee in the misfortune or the failings of others. They know they have plenty of issues in their own home to deal with. Which is why they use instances like this as a reminder of where their focus must return--on themselves, on their own families, on their own inevitable screw-ups.
Because there is plenty there to keep us busy...and to keep us humble...and hopefully, in dealing with them, to teach us a little more empathy.
|Dec 06, 2018|
The Powerful Are Not Free
It’s funny that we spend so much time being jealous of people whose lives we do not even begin to understand. People look at the famous and the powerful and wish they could have what they have. As if those bounties did not come at very high costs!
Ernest Renan, writing about Marcus, observed that the “sovereign...is the least free of men.” Look at a telling moment in Obama’s presidency—he showed up for work one day in a brown suit...and everyone freaked out. One cannot imagine the same reaction to Professor Barack Obama wearing that same suit to teach his law students. Look even at President Trump today, where one can grant that he has a number of abhorrent beliefs (and has done abhorrent things) and still see that part of his persona is to be over the top and to joke and to not mean everything he says literally. For most of his life, this was all pretty well understood by the public and by the press. But now that he is president? Not so much. Everything is made to seem deadly serious and there is not even room for a typo without much scrutiny. This was a freedom Trump lost when he took office.
Renan said that Marcus did not have the right to his own opinions, even his own tastes as emperor. As a father, he probably would have been able to ship his son off to serve in the army or kick him out of his house. As an emperor, his son’s life was not fully in their possession. He was essentially legally obligated to groom his heir for the throne, despite the fact that as a man he must have known this was not right.
Thankfully, few of us will find ourselves in any of these “imperial” problems. But they should give us some gratitude and appreciation for our own stations in life. Do you really want to be a billionaire who is constantly on guard against being kidnapped (or your children being kidnapped)? Do you want to be a celebrity who has to deal with photographers following you everywhere you go? Do you want to be the athlete who has so spend countless, mind-numbing hours in the pool every single day, who cannot let up after countless gold medals and millions of dollars?
In truth, no you wouldn’t. We are lucky to be as free as we are. To be normal, “regular” people. We must cherish our rights to our opinions and our privacies and our safe spaces to screw up and be human. And if we can, stop chasing the “good fortune” that will take all that away.
|Dec 05, 2018|
It’s All In How You See It
Seneca said that the growth of anything is a long process, but its undoing can be rapid, even instant. Jordan Harbinger built his career for 11 years. With over 4 million monthly downloads, he had one of the most successful podcasts in the world. But then an amicable split with his business partners went sideways—and Jordan lost what he spent 11 years of his life building, in an instant.
In our interview with Jordan for DailyStoic.com, he shared the many lessons learned from suddenly having to start over. One, he said, relied on this quote from The Obstacle Is The Way, “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective,” which Jordan explained:
I took this to mean that I am the one who gets to decide...Is this something that ends my career or is it the beginning? Is this the worst thing that has happened in my life? If so, does that even matter? How big of a setback is this? I realized I have the power to decide what this event means in my life, because events themselves are neutral and dependent upon my perception to take on meaning of any kind.
|Dec 03, 2018|
These Are Life Choices You Control
If you haven’t heard of George Raveling, you should. This a guy that Michael Jordan addresses as “coach” even though Raveling never coached the Bulls or the Tar Heels. He’s also been retired from coaching for more than two decades.
In fact, most people who know him call him Coach Rav, not because he’s got a great sense of the game, but because his wisdom about life. On Coach’s website, there’s a tab titled Life Lessons. It’s full of wonderful lessons. But it’s one post in particular that the aspiring Stoic should consider, because it deals with what Epictetus said is our chief task in life--discerning what’s inside our control and what isn’t and then, having made the distinction, focus all our energy on making the right choices in regards to what’s ours to decide.
Rav’s post is titled 23 Life Choices That Are In Your Control.
Here are all 23 of them:
1. Be YOU, not them.
2. Do more, expect less.
3. Be positive, not negative.
4. Be the solution, not the problem.
5. Be a starter, not a stopper.
6. Question more, believe less.
7. Be a somebody, never a nobody.
8. Love more, hate less.
9. Give more, take less.
10. See more, look less.
11. Save more, spend less.
12. Listen more, talk less.
13. Walk more, sit less.
14. Read more, watch less.
15. Build more, destroy less.
16. Praise more, criticize less.
17. Clean more, dirty less.
18. Live more, do not just exist.
19. Be the answer, not the question.
20. Be a lover, not a hater.
21. Be a painkiller, not a pain giver.
22. Think more, react less.
23. Be more uncommon, less common.
And now that we have been given 23 choices that are up to us, let’s start making them.
|Nov 30, 2018|
It’s Always Been This Way, Always Will Be
We like to think that we’re so advanced. That things have changed so radically since the ancient days of tyrants and barbarism. But have they?
Here’s a photo of Jamal Khashoggi's son, whose father was brutally executed mere days before, being forced to shake the hand of the alleged mastermind of his father’s murder: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There's a television camera in the background, and each man probably has an iPhone in his pocket, but it's a scene reminiscent of story told by Seneca straight of the reign of Emperor Caligula; one in which Caligula kills a man's son and forces the man to have dinner with him).
Marcus Aurelius is often criticized for some of his depressing observations about the brutality of human nature and its excesses. He seems to take almost a perverse pleasure in pointing out how evil and pathetic man has been. He reminds himself that in the age of Vespasian (a forgotten emperor) people were killing and lying and stealing just as readily as they were smiling, raising children, and writing books. The age of Trajan, which came a half century later, was the same. “Survey the record of other eras,” Marcus points out, “and see how many others gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the elements that formed them.”
Today, thousands of years later, things are inarguably better...and yet they are still in many ways inarguably the same. Injustices happen. Tyrants exist. Bad luck befalls us, evil lurks in the shadows. We are tested. We are challenged. We wish it could be otherwise, but that’s just not the way it is or will ever be.
So what do we do with this knowledge? First, we return to first principles, to humility. We are not all that different or superior to the ancestors we so casually judge. Man’s nature is deeply ingrained and, despite our best efforts, very difficult to change.
Second, we prepare ourselves for the very worst. The security and progress that surrounds us is an illusion. A couple days without food or water, or a couple years of rising unemployment, and you’ll see how uncivilized civil society can get. To think that we are past any of this merely because times are currently prosperous is profoundly misguided.
And finally, we cultivate dignity, self-respect, and endurance as the most important traits in our lives. Whether we are called to shake hands with a killer or live through the reign of a divisive, petty, and unqualified leader, all we can do is struggle onwards, doing the best we can, with what is in our power to control.
|Nov 29, 2018|
Power and Success Can Make You Better
Lord Acton’s line is so famous and so undeniably true that most people don’t even know that it’s a quote from a real person: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Yet this is what makes their reigns so remarkable. As Ernest Renan observed, it’s nearly unbelievable that “two models of irreproachable virtue are to be found in its ranks and that the most beautiful lessons of patience and disinterestedness could proceed from a condition which we may suppose was unreservedly exposed to all the seductions of pleasure and vanity.”
Just think about what the emperors before them had done: Nero killed his mother and step brothers. It is said that Claudius appointed his horse, Incitatus, a senator. Augustus (Octavian at the time) executed 300 senators. Even after Marcus, look at Commodus. His own son spent most of his time slaughtering animals in the Coliseum because he enjoyed wanton killing more than serving the state. And who could tell him to do otherwise?
Both Marcus and Antoninus had unlimited power too. Unlimited wealth. Unlimited sycophants. But they ignored it. They didn’t give into it. They did their jobs instead. They stayed true to their values. They were virtuous.
This all must have been extraordinarily difficult, and in resisting it, proved Lord Acton at least partially wrong: it is not that power absolutely corrupts, it is that power reveals the character of those who are susceptible to corruption, who are corrupt in their bones.
Renan believed that “the throne sometimes is an aid to virtue, and Marcus Aurelius certainly would not have been what he was if it had not been that he exercised supreme power.” By that he means that as a regular citizen, Marcus still would have been virtuous. That was his character. But it would have been much less impressive wouldn’t it? The temptations and opportunities of power make his goodness shine brighter and more of an example to each of us.
Today, we should remain wary of power and fame, for they are hard to resist. But if we find ourselves in the spotlight or in a position of leadership, let us see that as both a gift and a challenge. Can we be good despite it? Can we strive to be an example for others to follow? Can power be an aid to our virtue? Let it reveal our character, and let us rise to the occasion.
|Nov 28, 2018|
Making A Difference IS Up To You
Look, there’s no way around it: Part of Stoicism is accepting that a lot of what happens in the world is outside our control. Some people have taken this to mean that the Stoics were resigned to their fate—that they were willing to tolerate the status quo and despair of the idea of improving the world or society.
Of course this is rather silly when one considers that Marcus Aurelius and Cato and Senecawere all active in political life. Or that a millennium and a half later, the Stoics would directly inspire George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to take action in the founding of a new nation.
In accepting what is outside of their control, a true Stoic makes a deal with themselves, and to all those with whom they are connected, to redouble their efforts to influence those things they can change.
Earlier this year, Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes and, as it happens, a longtime student of the Stoics (particularly Marcus Aurelius), got a call from his wife after yet another tragic mass shooting. As he described it to us in our interview:
My wife called me very emotional and was afraid of taking our son to school. She kept reciting all the recent shootings on the phone, and before we got off, she said, someone must do something about it (she was not suggesting me per se). I got off, and a higher power put a thought in my mind and it was simply: if not me, then who? If not now, then when?
Blake came to feel that given his success as an entrepreneur, his track record as a leader, and his platform as the owner of a large, well-known company, perhaps it was in his control to do something about the problem of gun violence in America.
Was he delusional to think he could solve the problem all by himself? No. Did he think it would be easy or simple or happen all at once? No. But he did think he had at least some power to make a difference, and so he got to work.
First, he and TOMS committed $5 million to groups on the ground fighting to reduce gun violence (which happens to be the single largest corporate donation ever for that cause). But he did not stop at simply giving money. He also built a tool that made it possible for every single American to go to TOMS.com and fill out a quick form that sends a free physical postcard to their congressional representative asking for just one thing: universal background checks for anyone buying a gun (something that 90% of Americans support). And then Blake went on an active, exhausting media tour to spread awareness of this tool, launching it on The Tonight Show and many other outlets. In less than five days, more than half a million citizens participated. Tens of tho
|Nov 27, 2018|
What Is Sympatheia? (And Why It’s So Damn Important)
In Book Six of Meditations, Marcus gives himself (and us) a command to keep an important idea in mind. “Meditate often,” he writes, “on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” He is speaking of the Stoic concept of Sympatheia, the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.
Why should we think about this? What will it do?
Well according to Marcus, understanding how we are all connected and dependent on each other will prompt us to be good and do good for each other. He almost sounds like a broken record considering how much he repeats it:
“Revere the gods and look after each other.” (6.30)
“The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm.” (9.1)
“Human beings have been made for the sake of one another. Teach them or endure them.” (8.59)
“You've been made by nature for the purpose of working with others.” (8.12)
This idea of Sympatheia is such an important one because it is so easy to forget. It’s just simpler to think about and care about the people immediately around you. It’s tempting to get consumed by your own problems. It’s natural to assume you have more in common and the same interests as the people who look like you or live like you do. But that is an insidious lie—one responsible for monstrous inhumanity and needless pain.
When other people suffer, we suffer. When the world suffers, we suffer. (What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee, Marcus said). To the Stoics, we are all part of the same larger organism. We are all unified and share the same substance. We breathe the same air. We share the same hopes and dreams. We are all descended from the same long chain of evolution—and this is true no matter what race you are, no matter where you come from, or what you believe.
At Daily Stoic, we think this idea is so important that we spent the last several months developing a way to turn it into a physical reminder. Which is why today we are announcing our newest creation: the Sympatheia Medallion.
The front shows the famous 1972 “Blue Marble” earth, which instantly changed man’s perspective on himself.
|Nov 26, 2018|
Do Not Avoid This Thought
In his new book, The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene concludes his final chapter with this meditation on mortality:
“Many of us spend our lives avoiding the thought of death. Instead the inevitability of death should be continually on our minds. Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals. Training ourselves to confront and accept this reality makes it easier to manage the inevitable setbacks, separations, and crises in life. It gives us a sense of proportion, of what really matters in this brief existence of ours. Most people continually look for ways to separate themselves from others and feel superior. Instead we must see the mortality in everyone, how it equalizes and connects us all. By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.”
In short, memento mori.
Every aspect of the human experience, every moment in human evolution, Robert reminds us, has been shaped by death. Without death, we would not be here (there would be no room!). Without death, we’d have nothing to eat. We’d have nothing to live for.
All of the greatest moments in human history occur in the shadow of death: glory on the battlefield; enduring artistic achievement; parental sacrifice. Moreover, these moments were produced by people for whom death was far less removed from daily existence than it is today. Plagues, infant mortality, lack of sanitation or antibiotics, they all meant that death was ever present in the lives of men and women, ordinary or otherwise.
Death is central to who we are as a species and who we are as people. To deny it is not only to live in ignorance, but to deny oneself the benefits that Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus spoke of so often:You could leave life right now, let that determine what you do and say and think.
Is there better advice than this? If so, it has yet to be written. Keep it close.
|Nov 23, 2018|
What Marcus Learned From Antoninus
Where did Marcus learn to be Marcus? Ernest Renan writes that Marcus was very much a product of his training and his tutors. But more than his teachers and even his own parents, “Marcus had a single master whom he revered above them all, and that was Antoninus.”
All his adult life, Marcus strived to be a disciple of his adopted step-father. While he lived, Marcus saw him, Renan said, as “the most beautiful model of a perfect life.”
What were the things that Marcus learned from Antoninus? In Marcus’s own words in Meditations, he learned the importance of:
-Constancy to friends.
He also learned how to keep an open mind and listen to anyone who could contribute, how not to play favorites, how to take responsibility and blame, and how to put other people at ease. He learned how to yield the floor to experts and use their advice, how to respect tradition, how to keep a good schedule, how to be moderate with the empire’s treasury, and never get worked up. Antoninus taught Marcus how to know when to push something or someone and when to back off. He taught him to be indifferent to superficial honors and to treat people as they deserved to be treated.
It’s quite a list, isn’t it? Better still that the lessons were embodied in Antoninus’s actions rather than written on some tablet or scroll. There is no better way to learn than from a role model. There is no better way to judge our progress than in constant company with the person we would most like to be one day.
It’s easy to say, but each of us needs to cultivate people like that in our lives. We need to comport ourselves as their disciples, striving to do as they do and to never fall short of their standards if we can help it. And of course, we need to hold them up for view and record, as Marcus did, what they have taught us so that we may never forget.
|Nov 22, 2018|
Don’t Get Upset By What You Disagree With
The response to the Daily Stoic emails can be a fascinating peek into human psychology. One email, because it makes a fairly objective point about Donald Trump’s temperament, produces a record number of unsubscribes. Another, because it mentions Winston Churchill without condemning British imperialism, gets all sorts of angry comments on Facebook. We are alternatively criticized for being too liberal and too conservative, often on successive days and sometimes for the very same email.
It’s not just remarkable the way that some well-intended Stoic practitioners get really upset when their views or political opinions are challenged, but it offers an unsparing look at the dimensions of the filter bubble in which we live and don’t even notice. We take for granted how often our beliefs are confirmed or implicitly validated by the information we consume and the company we keep. Yet, the second the walls of that bubble are breached by something or someone that appears to disagree with our worldview, we act like victims of some profound personal violation. We rear up like a bull that’s had a big red flag waved tauntingly in front of us. We just have to charge it.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about practicing with his non-dominant hand so that he can get better (and be more balanced). We should do the same with viewpoints we disagree with. Instead of being upset when someone makes a point we don’t like today, try to really listen. Don’t think about all the ways they are wrong, take a moment to think about where they think you are wrong. Assume good faith on behalf of the person on the other side of the issue in question and engage. And if they are not arguing in good faith? Even better--use that as an opportunity to be patient with them. See if you can hold your temper and just let them do what they do, without it ruining your day.
This is not only how we get stronger and better as people, but it’s also how civil society is supposed to work. Debate and disagreement are good. Diversity of opinion is good. If you let it bother you, you will never be at peace and, paradoxically, actual peace will be less achievable as well.
|Nov 21, 2018|
Write And Think Clearly
In his short new edition of How To Be Free, A.A Long observes the relative ease he had translating Epictetus from ancient Greek into English. This is because, he says, Epictetus’s “conversational manner and short sentences suit our modern idiom.” According to Long, Epictetus avoids complex sentence structure and needless verbosity. Better still, he tended to use simple, direct metaphors and diction for which there are accessible everyday equivalents.
This is high praise to both Epictetus and his dutiful scribe/student Arrian. If we were to flash forward two thousand years, it’s unlikely that many of today’s working philosophers would pass this test. They’re inscrutable and unreadable today—imagine how they’d read across the vast gulf of time.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus, on the other hand, knew that clear writing was a reflection of clear thinking. Marcus was writing in Greek, to himself, and still managed to produce beautiful, inspiring words that endure to this day. Seneca was such a brilliant epigramist that his one-liners and epigrams were taught to Latin students for centuries. Epictetus was usually speaking extemporaneously to students, yet his words roll off the page. Each of them has had enormous impact and changed millions of lives (in addition to their own) as a result.
Richard Feynman’s line was that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. That’s a good rule. It’s worth thinking about today for our own writing, thinking, and speaking. Don’t let yourself get away with sloppy, half-baked thinking. Avoid exaggeration and insist on clarity in your conversations. Don’t make lazy assumptions. Annunciate. Care about your word choice—but don’t be pretentious. Be direct. Be simple. Take your time. Don’t rush if you don’t have to. Insist on getting things right. Learn how to tell a good story. Hold even your journaling to this higher standard.
Because it matters. To yourself. And to the world.
|Nov 20, 2018|
The Best Way To Fight Evil
Tolstoy believed his most essential work was not his novels but his daily read, A Calendar of Wisdom. Like in The Daily Stoic, each day in that book is a meditation on a theme of ancient wisdom which provides insights for self-improvement. In a June entry (published in the early 20th century, but clearly both timeless and very timely), Tolstoy speaks about how to fight evil and improve society.
It doesn’t start with ambitious plans to remake the order of things or with the passing of laws to ban this behavior or that one. On the contrary. “There can be only one way to fight the general evil of life,” he writes. “It is in the moral, religious, and spiritual perfection of your own life.”
The Stoics would have agreed with this, that a more virtuous society begins at home—at our home. If you want the world to be better, improve yourself, for this is entirely in your circle of control. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius: Don’t talk about what a good person should be like. Be that person. Again, because this is in your control. But also because it is the most compelling argument and the best way to prod others to change. How can you possibly have the gravitas necessary to convince others to be better when you clearly haven’t convinced yourself? How can you fight evil or sin or bad habits in the world when you’re losing the battle at home?
Of course, this is not an excuse to not be politically or charitably active, but it should inform your priorities. Get your life in order. Do the work you need to do. Because it will make the biggest difference and it will give you the platform—the moral high ground—necessary to make a difference for the world.
|Nov 19, 2018|
The Dance We Each Will Dance
It would be hard to find a deeper, darker yet more philosophically interesting short film than the “Silly Symphony” that Walt Disney produced in 1929. And while many Disney franchises were built around classic stories and fables, one might have trouble naming one more directly based on an ancient art form than “The Skeleton Dance.”
|Nov 16, 2018|
The Perils of ‘Comfort Inflation’
It’s so easy to take progress and luxury for granted. Warren Buffet has talked about how somebody today--with the comforts of heating and air conditioning--has what a 15th century king could have only dreamed of: being cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Yet how many of us have sat in the seasonally appropriate climate of our home and felt bad that we didn’t live somewhere bigger or nicer?
The coach section of most airplanes now has technology--electrical outlets, headrest televisions with hundreds of movie options--that first class didn’t have just a few years ago. The planes are faster and cheaper to buy tickets on too (and they are no longer filled with toxic Don Draper-era cigarette smoke) Still, we complain that they don’t serve meals anymore or that we didn’t get a free upgrade or that the seat in the emergency exit row doesn’t recline.
This is why the Stoics spent so much effort trying to limit their attachments to various comforts. They worked at being self-contained—at not needing the newest or fanciest or most expensive new luxury—because they understood that it was not only ungrateful, it was a quest that only ever ended in disappointment.
|Nov 15, 2018|
The Most Important Ritual You Can Practice This Year
Why did Marcus Aurelius spend those precious hours in his tent, writing by the lamplight, even on the nights and mornings he strained under the burdens of his war-time duties? It wasn’t for our benefit. No, he never expected Meditations would see an audience. He was writing for himself, to himself, as a way to practice the principles of the philosophy we are still following today. He was journaling as a means of self-improvement as much as he was of self-expression.
As Tim Ferriss has said of his daily journaling habit, “I don’t journal to ‘be productive.’ I don’t do it to find great ideas, or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me...I’m trying to figure things out...I’m just caging my monkey mind on paper so I can get on with my fucking day.”
It’s been exactly one year since we released The Daily Stoic Journal--our attempt to create a modern, accessible (and beautiful) medium through which to practice Stoicism. Epictetus said that everyday we should keep our philosophical aphorisms and exercises at hand, that we should “write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”
That was the idea behind The Daily Stoic Journal. One Stoic prompt for each day, to be journaled about--meditated on--in the morning and in the evening. It’s been wonderful to hear from the thousands upon thousands of people who have done precisely that for the last 365 days. And to hear everything they’ve gotten out of the process. Because a journal is a place to clarify your thoughts, find some peace and quiet, calm the negative energy swirling around in your head, and cope with stresses and struggles. It’s your loyal companion. It’s your sounding board. It’s your guide.
And now at the one year mark, it’s time to start the process over again. Or start for the first time, if you’ve been keeping yourself on the sidelines.
To kick off the one year anniversary, we are giving away 50 free copies to anyone who enters this drawing. We’re also offering personalized and autographed copies of The Daily Stoic Journal, from BookPeople.com.
Be A User, Not A Loser
Dr. D.T. Suzuki, a 20th century Japanese author who was largely responsible for popularizing Buddhism, Zen, and Shin in the West, was once approached at the end of a dinner party. “How is it, Dr. Suzuki,” the woman asked, “we spend the entire evening asking you questions and nothing is decided.” He looked at her and replied, “That’s why I love philosophy: no one wins.”
While the Stoics, notably Cato the Elder, had a visceral disdain for sophistry and debate for debate’s sake, they would have agreed with this premise. Stoicism was not a parlor game, nor was it religious dogma with its absolutism and black and white rules.
Stoicism is ultimately a philosophy for life and life is complicated. It is also a philosophy that embraces the individual, and every individual life is different. That’s why the writings of Seneca don’t fit puzzle perfect with the writings of Marcus Aurelius, which themselves are not perfectly aligned with the teachings of Epictetus, despite the latter’s influence over the former. There is no “winner” or “best” among these equals, there is simply a wide breadth of overlapping wisdom designed for a multitude of situations.
Our job is to avail ourselves of this information and put it to use where we can, however it makes sense for the situations in which we find ourselves. What we don’t have time for are pedantic debates about whether so-and-so was a true Stoic or in-fighting about whether this person or that person is continuing the Stoic legacy properly. There are no winners in philosophy, though there certainly are losers. The best person to be, of course, is a user of the philosophical knowledge we have available to us.
|Nov 13, 2018|
You Become Like Your Friends
“Nature gave us friendship,” Cicero wrote, “as an aid to virtue, not as a companion to vice.”
Do the people you spend your time with make you better by association or worse? Do you make the people around you better as well? The question for you today, then, is whether you and your friends pass that test.
|Nov 12, 2018|
Get Yourself Under Control
It was Heraclitus--a favorite of Marcus Aurelius--who said that “to be self-controlled is the greatest of excellence.” Isn’t that the truth? It’s why we admire athletes and Navy SEALS and the Civil Rights Activists of the 1950s and 1960s.
To see someone being provoked with horrific language and threatened with bodily violence--only to ignore it. To see someone under incredible pressure and perform despite it. To see someone override their fears and physical limitations in service of their country. This, we know, is self-control par excellence.
The reason we study this philosophy, follow its precepts and practice its exercises, is to develop our own ability to control ourselves. To control our desires, our emotions, our bodies, and our minds. So that under pressure, under threat, under siege, we can be our best selves. We are working to get ourselves under control so that we can be excellent--we can be virtuous--and because we know that self-control is its own form of excellence.
It’s a hard thing to do, and that’s why we admire it.
|Nov 09, 2018|
We Have So Much In Common
In a very short period around 2003, the musician Rosanne Cash lost her sister, her step mother, her father , and her mother. It was a series of blows that rocked her, even as stoic and strong as she was. She would write later in her wonderful memoir, Composed, that rather than harden her--though these losses were quite hard on her--they helped her forge a deeper understanding and connection to other people.
As she wrote,
“You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy and that if he doesn’t, he will. You recognize how much is hidden behind the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrow and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevator first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.”
The reason we do this Memento Mori work is not just to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of life and to protect us from the shock of loss and pain. We do it also to connect with something that makes us fundamentally human. We do it to help us cherish and understand the people around us. There is a stoic camaraderie that exists in the cancer ward, for this very reason. But why should that be limited only to hospitals? Why should goodness and compassion be limited to the Make a Wish Foundation and other such charities?
“Loss,” Rosanne Cash wrote, “is the great unifier, the terrible club to which we all eventually belong.” The truth is, we are already in that club. We were inducted at birth. We are all facing terminal diagnoses. We are all losing loved ones and family members. Everyone is going through something, just like we are--and always will be. We should let that connect us, we should allow that to bring us together.
And let’s do it now, today, before it’s too late.
|Nov 08, 2018|
Your Hunger For Money Is Starving You
William MacAskill is a fascinating guy. He is the youngest Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He’s one of the founders of the Effective Altruism movement. He’s written a great book called Doing Good Better - Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference and given a popular TED talk. Will also happens to donate every dollar he earns over $30,000 each year to charities of careful choosing. That was a commitment Will made to himself in 2009. He estimates that will be a lifetime sum well into the millions of dollars.
In our interview with him for DailyStoic.com, we asked Will whether there are philosophical benefits to living so cheaply, in addition to the fact that it means he can use those savings to help other people. After all, the Stoics talk a great deal about being indifferent to wealth and the finer things in life for entirely selfish reasons--as in it makes your life better. Will’s response is great.
I’m sympathetic to that Stoic idea. "Mo money mo problems" has some truth to it: the more things you possess, the more things there are to worry about, or feel sad about if they're damaged or lost. And they take attention away from the things that really are important to making your life go well — your relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners, finding work that you can excel in, staying fit and healthy. This isn't just my anecdotal experience either: there's a ton of evidence from the psychological literature that, above around $30,000 per year, additional income doesn't do much to increase happiness.
Will certainly would agree with what Marcus Aurelius wrote, “The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.” It’s not about getting more. It’s about getting enough and then helping others get there too. That’s our job, that’s the job of being a human being.
Check out our full interview with Will, check out his book Doing Good Better - Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, and watch his TED talk. And see what changes you might be able to make in your life to help other people.
|Nov 07, 2018|
Each Of Us Has A Duty
In one sense, it’s hard to argue with the statistics that any individual’s vote makes a difference. One person out of so many? When more than 50% of the population doesn’t even bother? In a country of gerrymandering and voter suppression? In the other, it’s stunning to think that the 2016 US Presidential Election, which saw some 135 million votes, was decided by roughly 77,000 ballots across three states. Michigan was swung by just 10,000 voters.
But to this argument, the Stoic would scoff. Whether your vote counts or not is not the reason that one should engage in the democratic process. First off, the Stoics are explicit that the philosopher is obligated to contribute to the polis, and to participate in politics (this is an essential difference between the Epicureans and the Stoics). But more important, the idea that one should only do something if their preferred outcome is guaranteed violates just about everything we talk about here.
“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible—and no one can keep you from this.”
Which is to say: The act of casting a ballot is in your control. Who gets elected is not. The latter is not an excuse from the duty of the former. Think about how dangerous the logic of non-voting would be if extrapolated out. Almost no difference is made by the individual who decides to do the right thing, to do an act of kindness, to insist on the truth when a falsehood is easier, to be a good parent, to care about the quality of their work. Is that a reason to be a liar, a cheat, an asshole, a bad parent, or a poor craftsman? Of course not. And imagine what the world would look like if everyone insisted it was?
A better world is built action by action, vote by vote, even if the vast majority of those votes and actions are thwarted.
Being good, like voting, is in our control. Whether it has a noticeable or significant impact on the world is not. But we do it anyway because it’s our duty. The same is true for voting—today, in the next election, in every election. Make your tiny contribution to the common good. Because it will make a difference, if not to the whole, it will to you.
|Nov 06, 2018|
Let Us Argue With Reality No More
So much of what we do as a society could be described as arguing with reality. Turn on cable news and you’ll find talking heads screaming at their upset viewers about how whatever has happened as part of the story of the day is “Just not normal!” Look inside most businesses, especially legacy businesses, and you’ll see otherwise smart and capable individuals putting everything they have into not reading the writing on the wall, into denying the obvious change and transformation happening in the world around them. It’s almost as if their jobs are dependent on them not concluding what is obviously true, and insisting otherwise.
We all spend countless hours of our finite lives talking about whether things are fair, whose fault they are, whether they should be as they are. As if that changes what they are. As if reality and truth are up for debate.
This lyric from Foster the People is worth remembering always:
Well an absolute measure won't change with opinion
No matter how hard you try
It's an immovable thing
Our opinions can’t alter the inalterable. Don’t waste time trying to move the immovable. That’s the essence of Stoicism isn’t it? Of course, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus believed we still had a lot of agency in our lives, that there was still plenty of room for us to maneuver and achieve and affect change. They just accepted there were some things we could not change.
That’s right. There are things outside our control. Today we’re going to accept them without argument. We’re not going to spend one minute fighting or arguing or adding opinions on top of them.
|Nov 05, 2018|
Don’t Borrow Suffering
Here’s a line from Seneca: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Meaning, we spend so much time worried about how bad things are going to be, that we actually torture ourselves more than the thing we’re worried about ever could (that is, if it happens at all).
This is an interesting tension in Stoicism. After all, isn’t Seneca the guy who also said:
We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events... Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.
Isn’t that a contradiction? No, not exactly. Notice that Seneca does not say that we should suffer unnecessarily in advance. He says we should rehearse and prepare--he does not say that we should torture ourselves with worry or fear.
That’s what most people miss about premeditatio malorum (which you can get in medallion form from DailyStoic.com). It’s about being realistic. It’s not about borrowing worry or pain in advance. It’s not supposed to make you paranoid or pessimistic. It’s supposed to make you prepared.
Bad stuff can happen. Bad stuff can happen to us. We need to be aware of that. We shouldn’t be surprised by it. But we also shouldn’t work ourselves into a state and confuse that worry with prevention or preparation. A Stoic is aware of the possibilities of life and, at the same time, has their head down and focuses on what’s in front of them and what’s inside the circle of their control.
Is that complicated and a bit of a balance? Sure. But welcome to life. You can handle it.
|Nov 02, 2018|
Let It Go, You’re Plenty Guilty Yourself
Like you’ve never cut in line, on purpose or on accident.
Like you’ve never done something selfish or spoken with an attitude.
Like you’ve never been jealous or petty or mean.
Of course you have. You’ve done all these things. We all have.
Yet when other people do them, it’s somehow different. It’s a transgression. A violation. That’s why we stew. We plot. We shower them with insults. Because when they do it, it’s intentional, it’s a sign of bad character, it must be stopped.
The Stoics teach us, when we butt up against someone else’s awfulness, to always remember when we ourselves have behaved like that. Marcus writes patiently about considering the motivations of the person responsible, of trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, of considering the crazy possibility that they aren’t irredeemable assholes. Who knows, they may even think they’re doing the right thing!
So whatever it is that’s pissing you off today, let it go. We are all plenty guilty of our own sins and stupidity. Which is why we need to forgive and forget other people’s. We need to give them the same clemency and patience we grant to ourselves (which is to say, basically, an unlimited amount). This is the essence of the Golden Rule. It’s easy to treat others the way you would like to be treated when everything is looking up. It’s when the chips are down that the Golden Rule is hardest to employ, which of course is when it is most important of all.
|Nov 01, 2018|
Don't Be A Snowflake
A few years ago, conservative commentators in America began using a term for young college students--mostly liberal--who insisted on #noplatforming speakers they disagreed with: Snowflakes. It was said with both a sneer and well-meaning wisdom because the world just isn’t going to work if you think you can block out or censure everything you find objectionable.
But here’s the problem. It’s totally hypocritical. Because on all sides of the political debate we have this snowflake tendency. Conservatives freak out now when people question or criticize the president (indeed, the president himself loves to dish it out, but complains constantly about having to take it). You’d be amazed at the number of Donald Trump supporters--the same ones who accuse liberals of Trump Derangement Syndrome--who send in angry notes to DailyStoic.com that illustrate not just their inability to deal with views they disagree with, but also exhibit what ought to be called Clinton Derangement Syndrome.
Why point this out?
Because the whole aim of Stoicism is to reduce the amount of offense we take from things that are outside our control. Remember, Epictetus says we are complicit when we allow someone to make us angry, when their words produce a disproportionate reaction from us. Intellectually, a philosopher has to be someone who can calmly entertain, consider, and engage with views and ideas different from their own. The notion that you would love listening to a band and then turn them off because they “brought politics into it” is positively infantile, whatever those politics are. Or that you’d turn away from a friend or a parent because they are on their own intellectual or social journey. (Or unsubscribe from a free email you otherwise liked!)
Snowflakes, whether they are on the left or the right, are miserable because they need the world to be a certain way--their way. They are constantly at risk of being upset and disturbed because someone else--someone with views different than their own--has the power to say or do or think for themselves. A Stoic, on the other hand, is open-minded and content to let others live and think as they wish. Not only that, but they relish the opportunity to have their own views challenged, because they know they grow stronger for it.
Don’t be a snowflake. Be a Stoic.
|Oct 31, 2018|
Is Anxiety Playing Tricks On You?
You’ll likely know Charlamagne Tha God as the host of the nationally revered radio show The Breakfast Club where provocative celebrity interviews help drive the daily national conversation about issues related to hip-hop, race, society, and politics. Lesser known, the unique and compelling media personality is a Stoic. When Daily Stoic saw Charlamagne sharing pages from The Daily Stoic book across social media, we had to know more.
We interviewed Charlamagne to talk about Stoicism and his new book Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks On Me. His advice about anxiety? You might think it the words of Seneca if we didn’t tell you beforehand,
“What I would tell people who struggle with fear and anxiety is that it's natural, just always try to be aware of the source of it. That's why I believe in rational anxiety and irrational anxiety. Rational is when you know why you're afraid and anxious. Irrational is when these thoughts just flood your mind and you don't know where they are coming from, so you're just scared and having a panic attack for no reason.”
Compare that to what Seneca wrote in On Groundless Fears,
“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes...some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
Next time you’re feeling anxious, let that be a cue. Let that be a command to stop and analyze. Where is this coming from? Am I bringing this on myself? The cure to anxiety is often simply in dissecting the source. It’s natural for anxiety to creep in. Just don’t let it stick around for no good reason. Nip it. Don’t help it grow.
|Oct 30, 2018|
The Present Is Pleasurable Enough
On one of his more arduous hunts, after days of patiently tracking (and weeks of planning before that), crawling through the dirt and enduring difficult conditions, Theodore Roosevelt finally got the bull caribou he had been chasing. It was a big animal, felled by several shots in a chaotic confrontation.
“It was one of those moments,” he later wrote, “that repay the hunter for days of toil and hardship; that is if he needs repayment, and does not find life in the wilderness pleasure enough in itself.”
What he was saying is something we all know but constantly lose sight of in life: Yes, the rewards are nice, but the process of earning them is plenty wonderful too. A hunter who only enjoys bagging their quarry is likely to be a disappointed hunter, nine times out of ten. More importantly, they are a blind and deaf hunter who needlessly misses out on the majesty of life outdoors.
Too many of us are like this in all aspects of our lives. We are so focused on an end-result, on achieving the success or fame or wealth we crave that we don’t even notice the little pleasures of the experience and the people around us. The Stoics speak constantly of returning to the present moment for a reason. They practiced their power of observation for a reason too--so they wouldn’t miss out, so they would truly see and feel and take in just how lucky they were to be alive. By practicing the dichotomy of control, they also knew that the journey is up to us, while the outcome is not. As a hunter, Roosevelt understood this innately: Getting the kill--that’s luck. Listening to the birds sing, breathing in the forest air, enjoying the time away from the city--that’s up to you.
Find pleasure enough in what’s present today. Don’t get distracted by the outcome you crave (or fear). Don’t demand repayment for the struggle--because the struggle is where the true rewards live. The weight is supposed to be heavy--that’s where strength comes from. Your lungs are suppose to burn--that’s where speed and energy come from. Cherish these things while you can, while it’s still in your control.
|Oct 29, 2018|
We Are So Soon Forgotten
A few miles outside Rome, along the still-smooth stone-paved Appian Way, is a tall brick tomb that is rumored to belong to Seneca. Unfortunately, no one is certain if this rumor has any truth to it. There is no sign that marks the tomb. There is no clear archeological proof that the bones or ashes of the famous Stoic ever laid underneath it. What the tomb looked like in ancient times is uncertain as well, for no one bothered over the intervening two thousand years to paint, sketch, or describe Seneca’s grave, even as time slowly wore it away.
The same is true of the many ornate and enormous monuments which line the roads to Rome. Despite the many thousands of sesterces spent to build them, despite how large their owners loomed in life, today they are but curiosities, best used as sources of much needed shade for bike-riding tourists.
This would have been a surprise to many people at the time, possibly even to Seneca himself, despite the philosophical work he did to prepare himself for death. It’s almost always a surprise to powerful and important people, who fancy their reputations as immortal. In Samuel Johnson’s A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland, he writes of a series of enormous tombs that dot Iona, known today as “the cemetery of the Scottish Kings.” As he says,
“By whom the subterraneous vaults are now peopled is now unknown. The graves are very numerous and some of them undoubtedly contain the remains of men who did not expect to be so forgotten.”
The same is true for Seneca--sure we remember him here in these emails, but the vast majority of the world has never even heard of him--and it will also be true for each one of us. This is why the Stoics warn against the temptation and the ego of chasing fame, living or posthumous. Because it inevitably fades away. No matter how much money we accumulate or acclaim we receive. No matter how beautiful our tomb. We will all soon be forgotten.
So let that humble us today while we are still alive, let that curb selfish or toxic ambition, let that help us choose between doing the wrong thing to get ahead and the quiet thing we know is right in our heart.
Let that inform what we do today.
|Oct 26, 2018|
Time Doesn’t Make Everything Better...It Just Makes Them What They Are
When we get dumped or we fail or we lose someone, we often hear that “Time heals all wounds” or some such remark, all of it in consolation. Obviously this is meant well, but it’s also frustrating--if only because it’s trite...and way too simple.
As Rilke wrote, “Time does not ‘console’ as people say superficially; at best it puts things in their place and it creates order.” There is a Zen story about a man whose horse ran away. People said it was bad luck. Then the horse came back, which people thought was good luck, and then his son broke his leg while falling off it and people thought that was bad luck come round again. But because his leg was broken, the man’s son was saved from fighting and dying in a war, and the cycle went on and on.
Time doesn’t make things better or worse, it simply makes them what they are. That’s why the Stoics talk about not rushing to judgment about anything, about waiting and seeing. Because we don’t know. Just giving something time isn’t automatically going to make it better--but it does at least give things a chance to shake out, for us to see the full picture. If there is one aphorism about time that we CAN rely on, that the Stoics would agree with, it's that 'time will tell.'
That’s the moral of the Zen story too. Trying to label things as good luck or bad luck is shortsighted. It assumes that all the facts have been entered into evidence. It’s better to hold off on forming an opinion, because fate is constantly unfolding around us, and today’s bad luck may very well be setting up tomorrow’s good luck (and vice versa).
Time isn’t a panacea, but it is a form of truth. So watch for it. Time will, in fact, tell.
|Oct 25, 2018|
Be Severe Only With Yourself
One of the things that separates us from other people--indeed that has been responsible for our success--is our ability to be strict and self-disciplined. Where other people are fine making excuses or taking shortcuts, we are not. Where other people wing it or do what’s easiest, taking the path of least resistance, we don’t. That’s really the essence of Stoicism and why those of us who have committed to doing the hard work have been able to get so much out of it.
But it can be a problem when people like us come into positions of leadership or become fathers and mothers. Suddenly it’s not just our own behavior we’re regulating, we’re now responsible for other people as well. It’s tempting to try to hold them to the very same standards we hold ourselves to, but this is not only unfair (they didn’t sign up for that), it’s often counterproductive. It burns people out, and it sets you up for disappointment. Or worse, disillusionment.
This observation from Marcus Aurelius’s most thoughtful biography, by Ernest Renan, explains the right way to do it.
“The consequence of austere philosophy might have produced stiffness and severity. But here it was that the rare goodness of the nature of Marcus Aurelius shone out in all its brilliancy. His severity was confined only to himself.”
That’s exactly the key. Your standards are for you. This philosophy is about your self-improvement. It’s about being strict with yourself and forgiving of other people. That’s not only the kind way to be, it’s the only effective way to be. It’s the only defense to being constantly upset and let down.
|Oct 24, 2018|
We All Have The Same Nature
Robert Greene’s five international bestsellers earned him descriptions like genius and master of human behavior. His newest book was just released. The Laws of Human Nature is the culmination of his life’s work to understand why. Why do humans behave the way we do?
As well as penning manifestos on subjects inherent to the human experience, Robert Greene has been a student of Stoic philosophy for over three decades. Daily Stoic sat down with Robert for what we think is our best interview to date. It was his first interview since suffering a stroke only weeks before The Laws of Human Nature’s release. The Stoic influence is obvious throughout, but perhaps no more than in his response to our question about empathy.
“Let's start with the primary law of human nature. If I had to say what the primary law of human nature, the primary law of human nature is to deny that we have human nature...The truth is we all evolved from the same source, from the same small number of people. Our brains are basically the same. We are wired in a similar way. We experienced the world, emotionally, the same way that hunter-gatherers experienced the world. Very little has changed in that sense. So if we all come from the same source, why would it be that only a small number of people are aggressive or are irrational? We are all the same.”
This is what Marcus Aurelius meant when he wrote, “the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not the same blood or birth, but the same mind." This is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “Don’t criticize them, they are what we would be under similar circumstances.”
Aren’t we all just the sum of our circumstances? It’s not so much that we are unique individuals, but that our circumstances are uniquely individual. The family we happened to be born into, where that family happened to live, who else happened to live there. In a lot of ways--for the most part in fact--we can’t help it. We can’t help the circumstances that shaped us, our thinking, our interests, our beliefs, our attitudes, our responses.
So next time someone is driving you insane, or you just can’t believe the ignorance, you can’t fathom the stupidity--remind yourself, you are shockingly similar to them. We all share the same nature. We all have the same flaws. Try to understand them...while you work on improving yourself.
|Oct 23, 2018|
We Take The Bitter To Get To The Sweets
“The hunter worthy of the name always willingly takes the bitter if by so doing he can get the sweet, and gladly balances failure and success, spurning the poorer souls who know neither.”
Theodore Roosevelt was talking about the philosophy of hunting when he said this, but he was also describing his philosophy of life. This is how the Stoic looks at things as well.
So much of life is outside of our control, and indeed much of that is bitter. We set out to do something and we are quickly beset by challenges, by loss, by other people’s frustrating tendency to think about themselves over our needs. Yet we continue to put up with this. Not just because we have to, but because we know what’s on the other side is wonderful: friendships, success, excellence, life-changing experiences.
It is said that Marcus Aurelius was dour, but his Meditations is full of odes to the many sweets of life. Seneca’s writing, too, captures life’s great balancing act--he speaks of how unpredictable and unfair fate can be just as eloquently as he speaks of joy and flourishing.
If today ends up being another one of those days for you, try to remember what Roosevelt was talking about. Try saying to yourself, ‘I am taking the bitter to get to the sweet.’ Say, ‘It all balances out and I am lucky to have both when so many have neither.’ In this way you will not only grow stronger and more able to endure any misfortune that comes your way, but you will also be more grateful for and appreciative of the gifts you are given as well.
|Oct 22, 2018|
How To Be A Winner and a Loser
Michael Lombardi is a former NFL coach, GM and front office strategist who is largely responsible for introducing Stoic philosophy to professional sports. In 2014, he read The Obstacle is the Way and spread it around the locker room of the New England Patriots. They went on to win the Super Bowl that year and Stoicism became a favorite of teams not just in football but in the NBA, MLB, the NHL and many other sports. Lombardi spent the last few years writing his own book, and it’s brilliant--a lifetime of wisdom on sports, leadership and life. The book is called Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL and we were lucky enough to interview him for Daily Stoic about two important Stoic concepts--how to do with winning and losing. As he told us about heartbreaking defeats,
"In the NFL most teams exaggerate the wins and forget about the losses. Belichick is the same with both. He does an autopsy after each game and understands there is a fine line between winning and losing. The outcome is significant, but the process has to be the same after each game. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. Chess champions keep their emotions in check because they are in deep thought. The same deep thinking should happen after a win or loss."
And what about when you win?
"The best way to win is first not to lose. How to avoid losing, is the first step to having any success. Great coaches must have a system of checks and balances to assist them in assessing their team. Working in football is much like being in the veterinarian business. The patient cannot speak. Therefore a coach must establish a set of checks and maintain discipline after the good and the bad."
That sounds a lot like Stoicism. Absorb the losses--but learn from them. Accept the winning--but don’t let ego creep in. Maintain excellence, always.
Mike’s book is great. Check it out: Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL
|Oct 19, 2018|
Accepting The Little Facts of Life
In the late 1800s, Theodore Roosevelt was on a hunting trip in Big Hole Basin in Montana. The trip did not get off to a good start. Upon getting off the train, and searching for a wagon to transport them, Roosevelt and his party immediately ran into the first of many issues. The wagon they found was overpriced, the harnesses were rotting and falling apart, and the horses were spoiled and ill-trained. There wasn’t much use in complaining, Roosevelt later wrote in his wonderful hunting memoir, The Wilderness Hunter, because “on the frontier one soon grows to accept little facts of this kind with bland indifference.”
Because what’s the alternative? Let it ruin the trip? Yell at the horses? Fix the harnesses with your anger? In fact, part of the appeal of the outdoors lifestyle is that it’s a challenge and that it tests us in these little ways. Camping and hunting, the Stoics would have said, are both great metaphors and great training for the difficulties of life.
Bad luck continued on the trip, with mishap after mishap. The wagon got mired at various crossings, the horses were a constant struggle, and the weather was freezing. At one point, it looked like the weather was set to take an even more serious turn. Roosevelt turned to his partner and said casually that he would “rather it didn’t storm.” His partner, even more stoic than Roosevelt, stopped his whistling, looked at him and said, “We’re not having our rathers on this trip,” then cheerfully resumed whistling.
The truth is, we don’t get our rathers in life either. All of us are pulled along by Fate, or the logos as the Stoics would call it, as well as by Fortune. Sometimes they line up with what we want, sometimes they don’t. That’s why amor fati is the right attitude. We have to embrace it. We have to accept the little facts of life. Bland indifference is a start, but cheerful whistling is even better.
|Oct 18, 2018|
Don’t Make This Mistake
There is a repeated pattern of failure in Marcus Aurelius’s life, and no matter how much we might admire him, it’s hard to deny it. His step brother, Lucius Verus, who he elevated to co-emperor, was a ne'er-do-well who never proved himself worthy of Marcus’s respect. His wife, despite his praise for her, was probably unfaithful. His son, despite Marcus’s love for Commodus, was deranged and completely unfit to succeed him. His most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, considering his betrayal of Marcus and attempt to overthrow him, clearly was not deserving of the trust or faith Marcus put in him. These are just four examples, but they are revealing enough that we can assume it was a common pattern in his life.
Ernest Renan wrote that if the emperor had one flaw, it was that he was “capable of gross illusions when the matter in hand was rendering to others their proper meed of virtue.” It’s a common failing: Good people often assume that other people are like them. Sadly, this is far too generous of an assumption. The virtues of Marcus Aurelius--his honesty, his loyalty, his commitment to principles, his kindness--these are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to most people. (In fact, we even have a rule about rulers, that absolute power corrupts absolutely, to which Marcus is of course the exception).
If anyone should have known better and been able to see through the facade of someone like Commodus or Avidius or Verus, it was Marcus. After all, he wrote in his Meditations repeatedly about the idea. He warned himself about seeing people’s true nature. He wrote about seeing them as sparring partners. He reminded himself not to get too close in the ring to someone who cheated. And yet...
We can’t go around thinking that everyone is virtuous, because this misplaced trust is a vice. At the very least, it has very serious consequences for innocent bystanders. The world would have been a better place if Marcus had not projected undeserved virtue on his brother or his son, if he’d had the courage to see them for who they were rather than who he wished they would be. In this sense, Marcus’s personal struggle with evaluating those closest to him is a microcosm of the struggle Stoicism is meant to combat for all of us--dealing with the world as it actually is, rather than how we wish it were.
|Oct 17, 2018|
Are You A Coward? Or Are You Brave?
Varlam Shalamov was a brilliant writer who was sentenced in 1937 to years of hard labor in a Soviet gulag. If that were not painful enough, though he was eventually freed, his writings were more or less lost to history until today—his book, Kolyma Tales, is finally enjoying a well-deserved resurgence. In a piece published by the Paris Review, Shalamov lists things he learned in the Gulag:
“I am proud to have decided right at the beginning, in 1937, that I would never be a foreman if my freedom could lead to another man’s death, if my freedom had to serve the bosses by oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.”
“Both my physical and my spiritual strength turned out to be stronger than I thought in this great test, and I am proud that I never sold anyone, never sent anyone to their death or to another sentence, and never denounced anyone.”
“I learned to “plan” my life one day ahead, no more.”
All are worth reading, but one stands out to the aspiring Stoic:
“I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.”
Stoicism holds up four virtues--just four. The most important is courage. Courage to face misfortune. Courage to face death. Courage to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.
Nassim Taleb, a fan of the Stoics who writes a lot about intellectual courage and independent thought, captured all these versions of courage well when he said, “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” That is: If you aren’t willing to risk yourself, your comfort, your wealth to speak up when it counts, you’re a coward.
Shamalov’s division of the world is a stark one and so is Taleb’s. Then again, the gulag was a stark place, as was the Lebanon of Taleb’s teenage years when civil war ripped the country apart. There were lots of cowards and frauds in both places. The question is, when things are difficult, will you join them? Will you be a fraud and a coward? Or will you defy them and be brave? Be courageous? Virtuous?
Today, when you take actions, which category will they fall in?
|Oct 16, 2018|
Why Ego Is Your Enemy
One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what?
From everything and everyone, including our own nature.
When we are in the sway of ego, we are arrogant, selfish, shortsighted. We are mean, we are superficial, we are insecure, we are fragile. In short, we are everything a Stoic is not supposed to be.
“It’s impossible to learn that which we think we already know,” Epictetus said. That’s why we avoid ego. Marcus talked about avoid the stain of “imperialization”--the ego that would come from being emperor and having power. He talked about the foolishness of trying to make yourself remembered for a thousand years or of thinking you’ll live forever. Both these wise and successful men, were doing constant battle against their egos, as all Stoics have tried to do through the centuries.
We can’t work with other people if we’ve put up walls. We can’t improve the world if we don’t understand it or ourselves. We can’t take or receive feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from outside sources. We can’t recognize opportunities—or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion. How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we can’t relate to their needs—because we’ve lost touch with our own?
The Greeks knew that hubris—ego by another name—was the ultimate enemy. That it must be conquered. That humility and self-awareness were were true strength lies. We need to remember the same. That’s why we do this work and do this reading.
Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy is a $1.99 ebook in the US this week. If you haven’t read it, give it a shot. It might change your life.
|Oct 15, 2018|
Don’t Be All About Business
Is there anything sadder than a person whose work is their life? They neglect their family, they put in crazy hours, they have no interests, no hobbies outside what they do at the office. It’s bad enough to be stuck next to them at a party, but imagine what it must be like to be inside their heads. The only thing they care about is work...work that few notice or even understand and fewer still will care about in the future.
Marcus Aurelius had a pretty important job. He was the Emperor. Millions depended on him. He was famous. They literally put his face on the coins of the currency. Yet, he reminded himself in Meditations, not “to be all about business,” because he could see what our friends who make work their life have trouble seeing: very soon, no one will care.
Marcus liked to repeat to himself the names of the emperors who came before him and marvel at how unfamiliar they were, how quickly they had been forgotten. He also knew that character was a far more important legacy, because as impactful as his actions as chief of state were, it was how he treated the people around him that had the deepest effect.
We would do well to remember this lesson. There is more to life than work, more to life than just making money or getting bigger, stronger, faster. Instead, we should do the most important work--becoming the person we need to be for the people who need it from us the most.
|Oct 12, 2018|
Why Do You Care What They Think?
There’s a moment that almost everyone remembers from their childhood. They have just received something they really liked--a new shirt, a new toy, a haircut they thought was cool--and showed up for school with it...only to be mercilessly teased and mocked for it. Many a trash can has been filled by this experience. The toy, the shirt, the opinion no longer the same now that some jerk has weighed in.
If this were simply the naivete of a child, it would be one thing. But the truth is that we carry this attitude with us into adulthood. Even Marcus Aurelius spoke of it. "It never ceases to amaze me,” he said to himself, and now to all of us. “We all love ourselves more than other people, but care about their opinion more than our own."
We’re proud of the job we did until our insecure boss attacks us for it. We’re excited about the book or movie or product we’re launching until we read the reviews from the critics. We feel like we’re making progress at the gym until somebody makes a nasty remark. Yet, we never stop to consider whether these people have any credibility, whether they even know what they’re talking about. Suddenly, because they commented about something we care about or are sensitive to, we believe them more than we believe ourselves. And then we are miserable.
This is no way to live. The Stoic must cultivate their own high standards, their own strong opinions about what is right and good and important. This is what they need to use to evaluate reality. Other people’s opinions? We need to stop caring about them. Or, at the very least, we cannot give them the power to give us whiplash, to make us miserable, or to question ourselves. It is not their judgment that should be guiding our minds in the quiet of our evening journaling, because it is not their life that we are living.
It’s our life. It’s our opinion. That’s what matters.
|Oct 11, 2018|
What You Think You’re Lacking Is The Problem
George Ball, the diplomat and advisor to President Kennedy (one of who David Halberstam would call ‘the best and the brightest’), once observed about Lyndon Johnson that LBJ was hardly disadvantaged by his lack of an Ivy League education. Rather, he said, LBJ suffered from his sense of lacking that education.
That is, LBJ’s insecurity about his deficiency was far worse than any actual deficit that may have existed. Isn’t that how it usually goes? Seneca’s line that we suffer more in imagination than in reality, would indicate that it’s been that way for millennia. But more appropriate on this occasion is that essential insight from Epictetus: It’s not things that upset us, it’s our opinion about them that does. And from Marcus Aurelius too: Choose to feel harmed and you have been, choose not to and you haven’t been.
LBJ was convinced that he had been done an injustice by growing up poor and unable to afford a school like Harvard or Yale. On its face, this was absurd--he still ended up being President--but he carried what we would today call ‘populist rage’ for so long and believed it for so long that it became true. Worse was the result; LBJ was alternately too trusting and too suspicious of those who were more credentialed or smarter than he was. He was harmed by his lack of education...because he harmed himself by believing there was something lacking.
The same is true for us. You’re not lacking whatever you thinking you’re lacking. It’s your opinion that you’re deficient that is far worse than any potential deprivation. You’ve got plenty. You are plenty. Remember that.
|Oct 10, 2018|
1981 was a tough year for tennis great Billie Jean King. That year, she sat down to write her memoir having endured serious betrayal on multiple fronts. One was emotional and financial: a woman she’d had an affair with attempted to extort her, creating a massive scandal. The other was physical and inevitable: Her body had begun to betray her mastery of the game. She was getting older, the other players were getting younger. She had to confront the fact that most of her winning was behind her. Yet, she would close her memoir with a pretty remarkable series of sentences that capture one of the most important (but most difficult) concepts in Stoicism: Amor Fati.
But more important now, I must think in terms of very specific goals and realities. Of course, I can just say I want to win all three -- the singles, doubles, and mixed. Easy to say and easy to want, but so difficult to execute. How can I do it? More than anything else, I must love everything that is part and parcel of the total Wimbledon scene. I must love hitting that little white ball; love every strain of running and bending those tired knees; love every bead of sweat; love every cloud or every ray of sun in the sky; love every moment of tension, waiting in the locker room; love the lack of total rest every night, the hunger pains during the day, taking a bath in my favorite tub, buying lollies for the ball boys, looking at the ivy and the trees and the flower arrangements, driving through Roehampton on the way to the courts every morning, practicing on the outside court with your stomach in your throat before the match; love watching people queue, knowing some of them have waited twenty years to experience one day at the Wimbledon; love playing on the Fourth of July, talking with Mrs. Twyman, having a rubdown, hearing the women talk (or not talk), and feeling the tension in the air, running up to the tea room through the crowds; love feeling and absorbing the tradition of almost one hundred years.
In essence, I have to possess enough passion and love to withstand all the odds. No matter how tough, no matter what kind of outside pressure, no matter how many bad breaks along the way, I must keep my sights on the final goal, to win, win, win -- and with more love and passion than the world has ever witnessed in any performance. A total, giving performance: give more when you think you have nothing left. Through the desire the inspiration will be present. Love, passion, attitude, ability, intensity -- the only way, a street with no curves or cul-de-sacs. I must let my inner self be out front and free. Love always.
What’s particularly striking about this passage are King’s observations about the mundane difficulties of the life of a tennis player and the way she was able to capture and appreciate--much the way Marcus Aurelius could--the ordinary pieces of experience. The beads of sweat...the moments of tension...the treats for the ball boys...even the pain of playing -- these are the things we see in a different light when we choose Amor Fati. In Marcus’s time he wrote about stalks of grain bending low, about the flecks of foam on a boar’s mouth, ripe fruit, the chattering of the adoring (and not adoring) crowds, the yapping of small dogs.
When we accept and embrace everything that is around us, we can truly begin to see it. We can see everything, big and small, good and bad, and find beauty in it--find something to love in it. We can find the intensity a
|Oct 09, 2018|
Things Worse Than Dying
Death and dying are the worst parts of life, right? After all, they do end the whole thing.
So while it does make sense, generally, to try to avoid dying, Seneca marvelled at the terrible things people do to stay alive--things much worse than death. We’ll betray friends, he said, betray our most closely held beliefs, people will even sell out their own children and grandchildren--as the elderly often do in almost every election--just to keep things the way we like them.
How pathetic is this? And what a contradiction it is. Sure, you’re literally still alive, but you traded your soul to make it so. You might as well be in a coma on a ventilator.
Actually, according to Seneca, that would be better. Because the problem with the pathetic, unprincipled, selfish things we do to stay alive--stealing, hoarding, lying, and cheating--is that we then have to live with them. People do terrible things to live to see the sunrise the next day, he says, “a dawn that’s privy to their many sins.”
There are many worse things than death, many things that no amount of years are worth trading for. That is: Living with what we had to do to keep living, well, that can be worth than death.
We must always remember that. Life is not the scarce resource, living well is. Being a good person is. Doing the right thing is. That’s what important. Not how many years you pile up.
|Oct 08, 2018|
If Today Was Your Last Day
We put a lot of thought into making distinctions about what’s urgent and what’s not. We put a lot of effort into planning. We have our conservative calculations for retirement and our ambitious ones. We have a bucket list that includes the things we want to do now, in the future and in the way way off distant future. All of which presumes we’ve got plenty of time with which to do it all. The thought exercise from Marcus Aurelius: “Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was--what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.” We live under precisely the kind of sentence that Marcus described. We could go today. We could go tomorrow. This week or next week. In twenty minutes or twenty years. These are, in the big scheme of things, infinitely small amounts of time. You get that, right? So why are you living as if you have forever? Why are you wasting so much time? Don’t be a coward. Don’t split hairs. Live your life.
|Oct 05, 2018|
We Pay The Iron Price
In Game of Thrones, the people of the Iron Islands believe they have been entitled by God to steal and seize whatever they like. Women, land, possessions, even the rightful kingdom of one’s own brother--all of this is capriciously taken by the ironborn if they think they’d like to have it. "I take what is mine. I pay the iron price,” Balon Greyjoy says. It’s a tradition that the Roman empire, even at its most aggressive and belligerent, never fully embraced. Yet there is something or someone who actually does lives by the iron law and always has: Fortune. Which is why Seneca and Marcus and every Stoic lived with profound respect for her power and dominance. It doesn’t matter who you are, how rich you are, how big your army is, how pious you have been in your life. Fortune can and will come take it from you. The pages of Seneca’s writings are not only filled with stories of powerful people who were attacked by Fortune paying the iron price for their most prized possessions; his own life follows the same storyline. He was exiled, he lost loved ones, his reputation was destroyed, and in the end, his breath itself was taken without recompense. Epictetus too had his freedom taken this way, even partly giving up his ability to walk to a slave owner who paid nothing in return for this deprivation. We measly humans are not mythical characters in Game of Thrones, but we are nonetheless subjected to those wicked economics. We are what’s paid. Never forget this. Never forget, as Seneca said and needed to remember himself, Fortune’s habit of doing what she pleases, acting as capriciously as she wishes, and how little she cares for our feelings in regards to it. Because it will happen. Oh and, now and forever, it’s important to remember: Premeditatio Malorum
|Oct 04, 2018|
Nothing Exempts You From Hard Work
It’s interesting, if you think about Greek and Roman mythology, that the Gods were so active and busy. Athena and Circe and Hermes all worked to help Odysseus. Apollo guided Achilles. Zeus and Jupiter were always getting involved in this squabble or that one. Sort of weird, right? They were Gods, they could do anything...or nothing...and yet they still worked really hard to keep the universe in balance or to see this cause or that one triumph. There is a similar theme in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna appears to Arjuna and tries to convince him of his destiny to fight in the Kurukshetra War. In one verse, he says, “I have no work to do in all the worlds, Arjuna, for these are mine. I have nothing to obtain, because I have it all. And yet I work...” It could be said that the same theme emerges in the lives of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Cato, despite their status as lesser mortals. Marcus Aurelius was emperor and he could have just as easily spent his reign on an island retreat like his predecessor Tiberius. Seneca came from a wealthy family and could have spent his time on one of the family estates. Cato could have been a playboy or a bookish philosopher. Yet all these men chose the active life instead. They chose to participate in public affairs. They risked their lives. They were not content to coast on their reputations or past accomplishments. They held themselves to high standards. They didn’t have to. But they did anyway. And so must we--no matter how successful we get, nor how much easier it would be to rest on our laurels. Even when we have everything, even when we achieve wisdom and perspective about how silly and unimportant most worldly matters are, nothing exempts us from hard work. Nothing gives us a pass on our duty. We just keep going. That’s the job of being a good person just as it’s the duty of a god.
|Oct 03, 2018|
Nothing Can Touch The Soul
The anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun and the song it inspired, One by Metallica, tell the story of Joe Bonham, a soldier who has been grievously injured on the battlefield in World War I. Upon waking in the hospital, the soldier finds that he cannot walk or speak, see or hear. Modern science has saved his body—or at least part of it—and he is left questioning what kind of life this actually is. There is the haunting lyric in Metallica’s epic song: “Landmine has taken my sight Taken my speech Taken my hearing Taken my arms Taken my legs Taken my soul Left me with life in hell” Certainly one would not want to be flip about the unreal torture that would have been Joe’s position—a position that far too many soldiers have found themselves in. However, the Stoics would have pushed back on the second to last line—taken my soul. Because to the Stoics, nothing, not even the explosion of a landmine, can touch what is inside us. And in fact, the plot of the novel and the song are evidence of this. Despite the terror and pain of his ghastly position—trapped in his own body, unable to move, alive only in the most technical sense of the word—Johnny shows a remarkable amount of control over his own life. Remembering that he knows Morse Code, he begins to communicate with his doctors by tapping his head. First, telling them SOS, SOS, SOS until eventually they understand. Then, finally, he asks the military to exhibit him across the country, in a glass box, as evidence of the horrors of war. This is not a man whose soul has been taken. This is a man who has been deprived of everything but his soul and it is that soul that he is leaning on in this moment of unimaginable suffering and difficulty. Our soul is the only untouchable thing within us. No arms, no legs, no eyes, no face, and Jonny retains the ability to determine his own fate, to decide the terms he is going to live or not to live on. And we do possess this power and fortitude, which we can apply in any and all situations we face today...ones that if Fortune holds will be far less ethically fraught and painful than those that real soldiers face in the intensive care units every day. Oh and, now and ever, it’s important to remember: Memento Mori.
|Oct 02, 2018|
It’s Time To Get Up. It’s Time To Get Up
One of the best passages in all of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the opener to Book V. In it, Marcus has a dialog with himself as he struggles to get out of bed in the morning. It’s just marvelously relatable. Here we have an extraordinary man, some twenty centuries ago, struggling just like every ordinary man and woman has, to get up the willpower to get up from his warm bed and get to work. Who hasn’t had a similar conversation with themselves? Who hasn’t thought, just as Marcus did, that “it’s nicer here” under the covers? As Dante wrote in his Divine Comedy, “beneath the blanket is no way to fame.” Not that Marcus or the Stoics would have advocated chasing fame. Still, Marcus did get out of bed that morning and every other morning. Why? Because he had to. He had a job to do. We all do. Ordinary and extraordinary alike, we weren’t put on this planet and evolution didn’t mercilessly improve and refine our species to do nothing. No, we have skills to deploy and duties to fulfill. We have things to do. It’s time to get up and do them.
|Oct 01, 2018|
Another Reason To Journal
In Walter Isaacson’s wonderful new biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, he spends a lot of time dissecting and exploring the ideas in Da Vinci’s notebooks. From his military sketches to his lesser known fables to self-portraits and scientific breakthroughs, Da Vinci poured his best self onto these pages (in fact, he often carried them around on a rope attached to his belt so they were always at hand). As Isaacson observed, Da Vinci’s lifelong habit of journaling should inspire us to do some of our own: “Five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are around to astonish and inspire us. Fifty years from now, our own notebooks, if we work up the initiative to start them, will be around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.” He is so right. Marcus Aurelius is himself a wonderful example of this. The American philosopher Brand Blanshard was as enthralled with Marcus’s writing as Isaacson was with Da Vinci. As he said: “Few care now about the marches and countermarches of the Roman commanders. What the centuries have clung to is a notebook of thoughts by a man whose real life was largely unknown who put down in the midnight dimness not the events of the day or the plans of the morrow, but something of far more permanent interest, the ideals and aspirations that a rare spirit lived by.” The question for you then is when are you going to stop wasting your time tweeting and chattering and texting and start producing your own notebooks? Keep a commonplace book. Keep a diary. Start a journal. Create something that, if the centuries don’t cling to, at least your family can. Or if they don’t care, produce something that will give you something to look back on and learn from. But start. Stop putting it off. Take the initiative.
|Sep 28, 2018|
Don’t Make This Mistake (Or Stop Before It’s Too Late)
Why are good people attracted to serving bad people or bad causes? Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Seneca advised Nero. Da Vinci attached himself to Cesare Borgia. Mattis accepted a cabinet position from Trump. There are, of course, many other examples of academics who were blind to the horrors of the Soviet system or the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, just as everyday there are good people who go to work for less than ethical companies or leaders. But it is sad that there are two prominent Stoics on that list. Seneca knew what Nero was up to. Secretary of Defense Mattis, a wise, patriotic four-star general, is currently serving a man who is almost his polar opposite in every single way, who says and does things he can’t possibly agree with and would never defend. Now in all these instances, there is a good case to be made that if these wise men didn’t serve in these roles, someone else--someone less disciplined and less compassionate--would simply fill their place. Would we have preferred Alexander without Aristotle’s tempering? Would we want someone less strong, less ethical, less driven by duty to take over as Secretary of Defense? That’s a reasonable argument, and we simply cannot know how much either of these individuals struggled with the dilemmas of their position. Still, that’s only an explanation, not an excuse. The writer Paul Johnson defined an intellectual as someone who believed that ideas were more important than people. It was this fallacy, he said, that wrongly encouraged otherwise smart people to rationalize Stalin’s murderous regime or attracted them to personalities like Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. Sometimes people are too smart, too in their own heads, to see what was obvious to any outsider. Or worse, their brain and their ambition overrode their heart. Because the heart knows. The heart knows that Alexander and Nero and Borgia and Trump are tragically awful. Even if they do, or did, some good in the world. The point of this email is condemn anyone or to get into a partisan argument (reasonable people can disagree about America’s current president), but to serve as a reminder: The good guys end up enabling the bad guys far too often. And unlike the stupid, they can’t claim ignorance and unlike the desperate, they can’t claim they didn’t have a choice. We need to work extra hard to avoid that mistake. If we are already doing it--like if your boss is an abusive wreck of a human, or if your industry makes the world a worse place--then we need to make the hard decision to walk away. Don’t let ideas or ideals get in the way of the real human cost of your work. Don’t be a cautionary tale. It’s not too late.
|Sep 27, 2018|
Love Not Hate
It’s easy to stir up resentment, harder to create common ground. It’s easy to point out what’s wrong, it’s much more difficult to come up with a solution. Our current political and social dialogue has taken the easy road, no question, which is why we’re divided and despair of solving any of our problems. The Stoic rejects this, resists the urge to point fingers or label other groups “the enemy.” As Booker T. Washington wrote, “Great men cultivate love, only little men cherish a spirit of hatred.” And this was from a man who had been born in the final days of slavery, who faced incredible racism and adversity. Yet he, like all great men and women, sought common ground, solutions and love over distrust and anger. What excuse do you have to be little? What do you expect this smallness is going to accomplish? Even if playing to divisions and pointing fingers gets you attention, even if it plays well with today’s social media algorithms, does it make you feel better or happer? Of course not. Love. Love. Love. Other people. Your fate. Your obstacles. Amor fati. Love it all. Because it’s the only way.
|Sep 26, 2018|
Make Sure You're Coming Home
All of us have day jobs. Even professional philosophers are still professors or authors, which means they have other responsibilities than just thinking and reading. That means that like the rest of us, they’ve got meetings to take and phone calls to make and paperwork to do and politics to play. And that’s okay. It’s only an issue when, if we’re not careful, those “other” things grow and grow until they take over our whole life. It’s as true for us now as it was true for Marcus Aurelius. He was responsible for a whole empire. Yet to explain how to balance his priorities, he made this analogy, “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, because self-improvement is your true task in life. Philosophy is part of that essential pursuit. It’s what birthed you into this world, raised you, and made you an adult. Sure, you also have to make money and contribute to society (or deal with the court, in Marcus’s case). You may have hobbies and other obligations too. Just remember that those come after. Those are your step-parents. It’s not that you love them less or that they haven’t been instrumental in your life. But there should be an extra loyalty to who and what made you. There is something extra special about home. Make sure you’re visiting enough. And paying the proper respects.
|Sep 21, 2018|
Different Folks Need Different Strokes
Confucius was once asked for advice by a student, and in replying essentially urged him to wait and be patient. Later he was asked for advice by another student, and advised that student to not be patient and to solve the problem immediately. An observant third student noticed the seemingly contradictory nature of Confucius’ responses and asked him to explain. Confucius replied, “Ran Qiu is over cautious and so I wished to urge him on. Zilu, on the other hand, is too impetuous, and so I sought to hold him back.” This seems like a fairly obvious insight--that different situations call for different, even potentially opposite solutions. Beyond Confucius, just consider Epictetus: He was not writing things down, but rather speaking aloud to his students. In many cases, what survives of his teachings is in similar form to what we have of Confucius--advice to particular people in particular situations. Same with Seneca’s letters, which were addressed to specific people and specific scenarios, and with Marcus Aurelius who was speaking about his own personal issues. Think of Walt Whitman, a lifelong student of Epictetus, who reminded us that even individuals contradict themselves because they are complicated and contain multitudes. These men were not attempting to explain a comprehensive or even coherent set of beliefs. They were not trying to articulate a paint-by-numbers instruction manual to life. Rather, they were trying to reveal, from their own experience, a general framework of principles that could help people solve an array of specific problems, however they arose. And yet, for centuries, professional philosophers and historians have had trouble comprehending this idea as they attempted to place it in a larger, abstract theoretical context. In fact, it’s due to their intellectualizing and tunnel vision and embarrassing simple-mindedness that Stoicism, specifically, has been misinterpreted as contradictory or unsystematic. Even more frustrating, the fact that many of the principles of Stoicism were born of private meditations on or advice about personal problems or stressors, has led many academics to wrongly believe Stoicism is pessimistic or cynical or even nihilistic. They fail to understand that, at a very basic human level, when we are struggling, our first question is not “how can I feel good?” but rather “how can I not feel so bad?” That is the more urgent need, after all. And for each person, the answer is always a little bit different, because they are different, and their circumstances are different. That is why sometimes the Stoics suggest practicing premeditatio malorum...and other times not to get caught up with all the possibilities of what might happen. It’s why the Stoics talk a lot about overcoming adversity and the problems of life and less about laughter and prosperity (students don’t often rush to their teachers for advice about how to have fun). It’s why Marcus returns to the same themes over and over again (because he needed help there, not because everyone else did). It’s why one Stoic philosopher will talk about working hard and doing one’s duty while another will remind us that we aren’t animals and there is more to life. Because everybody is different, and different strokes for different folks. Different advice for people depending on who they are, what they want, and where they are one day to the next. If there is anything that is consistently and systematically true about the practice of Stoic philosophy, it’s this.
|Sep 20, 2018|
What To Do When You’re Not Naturally Perfect
It was on this day in the year 86 AD, that Antoninus Pius, the man who would become best known as the stepfather of Marcus Aurelius, was born. Most people, even followers of Stoicism, don’t know much about Antoninus. This is sad because he was a truly great man. “Antoninus would have had the reputation of being the best of sovereigns,” Joseph Ernest Renan writes, “if he had not designated for his successor a man equal to himself in goodness and in modesty.” It’s worth taking a second today to consider what made him so special. Renan points out in his book The History of the Origins of Christianity: “Antoninus was a philosopher without pretending to be so, and almost without knowing it. Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher whose humanity and sincerity were admirable, but yet reflective. In this respect Antoninus was the greater. His kindness did not lead him to make mistakes. He was not tormented by the evil instincts which gnawed at the heart of his adopted son.” Where Marcus was conscientious and self-conscious, Antoninus was effortlessly and naturally all the things that Marcus wished he could be, both as a philosopher and as a person. Antoninus did not need to hold in his temper like Marcus, as he did not have one. He did not need to meditate on his mortality, as he was always present and took nothing for granted. As Marcus wrote in the opening pages of Meditations: “You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness--indomitable.” What a man. What an example. Yet the truth is, most of us have no shot at that. We aren’t so naturally, effortlessly perfect at anything, really. We’re more like Marcus. We have the example of Antoninus to strive for but must work incredibly hard to get even halfway close. And you know what? That’s ok. Because even if we fall short, even if we are not perfect, Antoninus would instinctively understand and appreciate our effort. He’d accept us unconditionally while still encouraging us to be better. Because that’s who he was. He may have ultimately been eclipsed by Marcus Aurelius in the annals history, but he was by no means less great.
|Sep 19, 2018|
Approach Your Troubles Like Doctor
It’s famously said that you should learn from the mistakes of others because you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself. In that way, the books we read and the information we digest gives us an advantage to those who choose to learn by painful trial and error. In studying the Stoics, we’re able to adopt a mentality battle tested by some of history’s most successful warriors, artists, businessmen, and politicians. We can use the same operating system that helped centuries of people solve the complex problems of daily life. Ward Farnsworth is the Dean of the University of Texas Law School. He’s also a lifetime student of the Stoics and author of The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual. He expanded on this idea in a recent interview: “Stoicism tries to get its students to approach the troubles of other people like a good doctor would. Veteran doctors are very compassionate, and they give their all to their patients. But they don’t get emotional about it. They might have done so when they were first getting started, but experience tends to turn them into natural stoics in their professional lives. That’s one way to think about Stoicism: it’s an effort to gain, by the study of philosophy, some of the traits and immunities that would otherwise be the natural result of long experience. The study of stoicism is kind of a surrogate for the passage of time.” That is why you put in the work, that’s why you listen to this podcast and subscribe to these emails. You have the same goal. To bring yourself to the state others take a lifetime to get to. When you read these emails, try to not just read them, but adopt their lessons into your everyday life. In that way, you’re inheriting the wisdom of generations past. And becoming wiser and stronger for it. For more, read our full interview with Ward on DailyStoic.com and check out his newest book The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual. The book distills the main ideas of the Stoics under twelve easy-to-reference headings.
|Sep 18, 2018|
This Will Help You Get Rid Of Crazy Thoughts
In Aaron Thier’s novel The World Is A Narrow Bridge (the title is a proverb we have written about before), one of the main characters is a runner. His wife teases him for his dedication to this hobby, which he claims settles his mind and makes him feel less crazy. She jokes that “it’s a craziness problem that makes you run and run.” His reply absolutely nails it, as any runner knows. “It’s the running that alleviates the craziness,” he tells her. “Sanity flows up from the feet, or actually it flows from the gravity, because gravity provides the resistance.” We know that the Stoic Chrysippus was a long distance runner. Seneca probably wasn’t a runner, but we know he was a walker. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” he wrote, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” Again, a runner knows that as wonderful as walking is, nothing nourishes the mind quite like getting into the zone on a great run and that the best way to get those deep breaths in is to push the tempo. Still, runner, walker, swimmer, weight lifter, wrestler (or horseback rider, fencer, et al), the point is that physical activity is an important complement to the study of philosophy. Sometimes we get so worked up, our mind gets wound so tight that the only way to get some slackget the body moving--to get lost in strenuous exercise in a way that brings you fully and completely into the present moment. Remember that sometimes we can’t think our way out of a thinking problem. And yet we can find sanity from other sources, from gravity and resistance and pushing ourselves in the physical domain. This is the mind-body connection. So try to make some room for the “strenuous life” today. Go for a hike. Or a run. Or take a dive into a swimming hole. Just get moving.
|Sep 17, 2018|
Virtue Is Contagious (and Has Obligations)
The line from Confucius was that “Virtue is never solitary; it always has neighbors.” What he meant by that was that good behavior and good thinking is contagious. In a way, virtue is like the homeowner who moves into a rundown neighborhood and through that investment and the cheerful improvements they make to their own home and the friends and family that follow, the block begins to turn around. It’s become a point of virtue-signaling these days to criticize this as “gentrification,” but of course that’s silly. We should want people to be doing this--not just in housing but in all walks of life. If politics is a snake pit of corruption and avarice, then good people should enter it and improve it, not simply denounce it. If capitalism is too selfish, then the caring should start businesses with better cultures (which, when successful, will steal market share from the bad actors). If a group has extreme or offensive views, it shouldn’t be cut off and isolated for fear of “normalizing it.” It should be normalized--by encouraging normal people to interact with it, correct it and prod these misguided people towards the right path. The silliness of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged is the premise that the talented, brilliant people leave society to create their own utopia...because they weren’t appreciated enough by everyone else. What childish nonsense. Since Plato’s allegory of the cave, the duty of the philosopher and of the virtuous person is clear: To come back to the group and share one’s knowledge. To resist the urge to be the solitary wiseman and to instead be a good neighbor. Remember that today as you work on your studies. That the point of all this is to make the world--not just yourself--a better place.
|Sep 14, 2018|
It Comes For All, Young And Old
The New York Times Obituary section this past weekend featured a somberly diverse list of losses: William Jordan, the impressionist, was dead at 91. Erich Lessing, a photographer died at 95. Amanda Kyle Williams, the crime writer, at 61. Randy Weston, the Jazz pianist, at 92. Mac Miller, the rapper at 26. Not included, of course, are the thousands of less famous people around the world, who died at ages young and old, of causes expected and unexpected. Some had lived full lives, others were cut tragically short. Mac Miller, whose promising music career ended prematurely, is a reminder of that to all of us. Just X weeks ago, he shot his final music video which included a scene of him carving the words memento mori in a coffin. Talk about art getting real. Death comes for all of us. Indeed, some of us are either in so much pain, or take our existence so for granted--or likely a mix of both--that we actually invite death in early. Others live much longer, but it’s never a given that longevity is superior (there are plenty of people whose age creeps up until the triple digits with little to show for it). Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself that the thought of our mortality should determine what we do and say and think. Meaning: Don’t waste time. Take care of yourself. Make the most of your talents while you’re here. Be prepared for the end. Life is a gift that can be revoked at any moment, we need to remember that. We need to remember that it’s a gift, period, and shouldn’t be treated with respect and appreciation. Memento mori. This is not just a fun phrase to throw around. It’s deadly serious.
|Sep 13, 2018|
What Should Good People Do?
Confucius, like Seneca, was an interesting hybrid of philosopher and politician. For instance, in addition to his teachings and writings, he pushed for “a revival of a unified royal state, whose rulers would succeed to power on the basis of their moral merits instead of lineage.” His justification for participating in the complicated, corrupting world of politics was captured in this metaphor: “If you possessed a piece of beautiful jade, would you hide it away in a locked box or would you try to sell it at a good price? Oh I would sell it! I would sell it! I am just waiting for the right offer.” Meaning, the virtue of the philosopher was exactly what the state needed. Yet even in the sixth century BC, there was an art to finding the right government or office to contribute that virtue to. As Confucius said, “When the state has the Way, accept a salary; when the state is without the Way, to accept a salary is shameful.” Five hundred years later, Seneca endured a similar struggle. As a Stoic, he rejected the belief of the Epicureans that the wise person should ignore politics and focus on their own self-development, because it neglected one’s obligations to the common good and one’s duty to their calling and abilities. Yet he ended up serving Nero’s administration, and in so doing, was complicit in the regime’s evils. Far too late, Seneca realized that “when the state is so rotten as to be past helping, if evil has entire dominion over it, the wise man will not labor in vain or waste his strength in unprofitable efforts.” (More on Seneca here in this New York Times piece) What does that means for the rest of us? It means that fulfilling our obligations as citizens and people can be tough. Should we serve an administration we disagree with? Should we accept a salary or work in an industry despite the qualms of our conscience? What is a soldier’s duty when they are ordered to fight in a war they don’t believe in? There are no easy answers to these questions--they must be wrestled with. What they can’t be is ignored. We don’t get to flee the debate to indulge ourselves in Epicurus’s garden of delights. Too many people--our families and our fellow citizens--are counting on us. Nor do we get to just observe from afar, ranting about the news or the state of things as if it’s someone else’s responsibility. Because if the philosophical-minded, if the good people, are checked out, who does that leave these incredibly important matters to? Right. The bad guys.
|Sep 12, 2018|
The Ideal Weapon For Spiritual Combat
Michel Foucault has a fascinating essay on journaling entitled “Self-Writing.” In it, he describes journaling as a “weapon in spiritual combat,” which is a brilliant phrase. That might seem to be overstating it, after all, is it really such a big deal to write down some of your thoughts in a notebook? Yes. It is a big deal. As he puts it, “writing constitutes a test and a kind of touchstone: by bringing to light impulses of thought, it dispels the darkness where the enemy’s plot are hatched.” He quotes Seneca and Epictetus as evidence of this, since both believed that simply reading or listening to philosophy wasn’t enough. Philosophy to the Stoics was not just “practical” but designed to be practiced. You had to write it down too, you had to show your work. You had to put the issues you were struggling with down on paper and go through the motion of articulating the solution that you’d heard from a master or a teacher. Foucault explains that this process has two benefits. First, it takes the philosophy from “meditation to the activity of writing and from there to...training and trial in a real situation--a labor of thought, a labor through writing, a labor in reality.” The second part, he says, is this becomes an endless, productive cycle. “The meditation precedes the notes which enable the rereading which in turn reinitiates the meditation.” It’s quite beautiful. You learn. You struggle. You journal about the struggle. You apply what you’ve journaled about to your struggle. You reread your journaling and it teaches you new lessons to journal about and use in future struggles. It’s a truly virtuous feedback loop. But of course, this process can only happen if you do the work. If you make time for the journaling and the writing, if you submit to the cycle. Too often, we are unwilling to do that. We claim we don’t have time. We are too self-conscious. We don’t have the right materials. Nonsense. Start. Today. Now.
|Sep 11, 2018|
You Are Worth Fighting For
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Given that a number of prominent Stoics committed suicide, and that suicide was described by Epictetus as the “open door” it might seem like a strange theme to write about here today. But the truth is the Stoics did not take this topic lightly. Nor were they in any way advocates for such a thing, excepting the most extreme circumstances. If we could summarize the Stoic attitude towards it, we’d have trouble doing better than Churchill’s line that one should “Never abandon life. There is a way out of everything but death.” When we look at a Stoic like Admiral James Stockdale who considered suicide in a North Vietnamese prison camp, it should be noted that he wasn’t considering killing himself because he was depressed. He was heroically declining to aid the captors and torturers who wished to make him betray his country. When Seneca committed suicide—a man who had written eloquently on this topic many times—it was not because he was tired of living. He was being executed by the tyrant Nero who demanded his death. The same goes for Cato, who had fought to the bitter end to save the Roman Republic. The point being: These men, like Churchill, were fighters. They never, ever, ever, ever gave up. And neither should you. Because you’re worth fighting for. Your life is worth fighting for. No matter who you are, or what you’re going through the course of our ordinary lives, you have options. Lots of them. Please remember that, always. Remember what you’re capable of. Remember how much is left in your control—your choices, your thoughts, your ability to turn this experience and this pain into something that makes the world a better place. Please don’t give up. And don’t be ashamed to ask for help either. There’s nothing un-Stoic about that.
|Sep 10, 2018|
Study The Lives of The Greats
It would be this Sunday that in the year 1813, General William Henry Harrison sent three volumes of an ancient book to his 15 year old son, John. The book was Plutarch's Lives, long a favorite of successful men and women throughout history. Indeed, the General would inscribe the first volume of the leatherbound set accordingly, "Willm H. Harrison send this set of Plutarch's to his beloved son J.C. Symmes Harrison in the hope that he will diligently study the lives of great men contained in it & that if he is unable to rival their splendid achievements in their country, service he will at least imitate their private victories. Head Qtr. Seneca Town. 9th Sept. 1813." The Stoics talk over and over again about studying the lives of the “greats.” Why? To learn what to do and what not to do. To be inspired by their splendid achievements for the common good, to be horrified by their selfishness and greed, and to direct this understanding of both towards private victories. Find yourself a Cato, find yourself an Alexander (both are profiled in Plutarch), or whomever to use as an example of who to be and who not to be. Diligently study them—today and tomorrow and forever—and then, when you find yourself in the position to do so down the road, pass the lessons down to the next generation. Think of it like your own version of Plutarch’s Lives which, if you like, Amazon has used copies of for $1.38, the University of Chicago has for free online, and an auction house is currently selling William Henry Harrison’s 200+ year old copy for $18,500. Whichever version of Plutarch you pick up, know that you are following a great tradition when you do so.
|Sep 07, 2018|
The Only Kind Of Comparison Worth Doing
It is said that comparison is the thief of joy and is, therefore, mostly to be avoided. This is true. You’re on your own journey with your own unique circumstances. Using what other people have or what they’ve done as a guiding light to chart your progress is rarely the way to happiness. The same goes for making yourself feel superior because of what you have or have done. It might feel good for a moment, but ultimately it’s a hollow happiness. Still, wise philosophers in both the East and West have spoken about the need to look at examples set by the greats to see where we can improve morally. As Confucius said: “When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate upon becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself.” Marcus Aurelius spoke often of similar wisdom. “When faced with people’s bad behavior,” he said, “turn around and ask when you have acted like that.” As for worthy examples, the entire first book of his Meditations is about precisely that: depictions of the influences in his life whom he strove to be like. Notice he does not speak about how rich or honored these people were, but rather about how they comported themselves and the standards to which they held themselves. We would do well ourselves to follow the example of both Confucius and Marcus Aurelius. Comparison is typically a dead end. The only comparison worth doing is the kind that propels you to be more worthy as a human being--whether that is aspiring to live up to the example of an admirable person, or recognizing your own shortcomings in the struggles and failings of the people around you, so that you might reflect on and fix them as you continue on your own unique journey.
|Sep 06, 2018|
How Are You Still Not Doing This?
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in Vita Antonii that the reason he did his journaling--his confessing, as the genre was called by the Christians--was that it was a safeguard against sinning. By observing and then writing about his own behavior, he was able to hold himself accountable and make himself better. “Let us each note and write down our actions and impulses of the soul,” he wrote, “as though we were to report them to each other; and you may rest assured that from utter shame of becoming known we shall stop sinning and entertaining sinful thoughts altogether...Just as we would not give ourselves to lust within sight of each other so if we were to write down our thoughts as if telling them to each other, we shall so much the more guard ourselves against foul thoughts for shame of being known. Now, then, let the written account stand for the eyes of our fellow ascetics, so that blushing at writing the same as if we were actually seen, we may never ponder evil.” The Stoics journaled for much the same reason. Seneca said the key was to put the day up for review so that one could see their faults and find a way to mend them. Epictetus said that by writing, reading and speaking our philosophical journal, we keep the teachings top of mind and are better able to follow them. Marcus, of course, said less on the subject of journaling, but left us the greatest lesson of all: his example. When you pick up Meditations, what you see is a man confessing, debating, considering, and struggling with all of what it means to be human. Marcus said in one of his notes that he should “fight to be the person philosophy made you.” His journal is the play by play of that fight--it’s his battles with his temper, with his urges, with his fears, even with his mortality. It took a lot of work, but from what we know, he won most of those battles. Through his writing and his philosophy, light prevailed over darkness. It’s a grand tradition and an inspiring example that each of us is called to follow. The Daily Stoic Journal is one way to do that. It prompts you to prepare for the day ahead and review the day just past. It gives you big questions to consider and standards to guide yourself towards. A blank notebook can work too. So can a letter or an email to a friend. So can a silent conversation with yourself on a long walk. The point is, you have to do the work. You have to put up the safeguards. You have to actively fight to be the person philosophy wants you to be...in the pages of your journal.
|Sep 05, 2018|
This Message Is Waiting For You
On April 24th 1924, the pioneer writer Laura Ingalls Wilder got a note that he mother, aged 84, had died. It was a sad day, particularly since it had been so many years since she had been able to see or spend time with the woman who had raised and loved her. Wilder would address this sadness with her typical grit and stoic demeanor in her now popular newspaper column a few days later. “Some of us have received such messages,” she wrote. “Those who have not, one day will.” It seems obvious but it is an obvious statement worth repeating because our mind does everything we can to avoid letting it sink in: Each and everyone of us that lives long enough to see it will be told that our parents have died. Like Seneca wrote, we see it happen to other people. We know that our folks, like all other humans, are mortal. Yet we refuse to learn the obvious lesson: That the same thing will happen to them and to us. Each of us holds the fantasy that we can escape this loss. The proof of this fantasy is the way we treat those relationships today. We ignore phone calls or sigh our way through family dinners. We hold onto to feuds or deprivations of our childhood. We put off until later coming to appreciate and understand the people who raised us--flawed people yes--but people who in the vast majority of cases, genuinely tried their best. To paraphrase Marcus: Your parents could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. The message of your loss is coming--and if it has already come, then some other loss--and it may be on its way right now. So do what you can now, appreciate them now. Ask them the things you want to ask them now. Say the things you want to say now. Before it’s too late.
|Sep 04, 2018|
In This Way You Are Unstoppable
Acceptance? Resignation? That’s not me, we say, when we hear the Stoics preach those concepts. I never give up. I’m a fighter. Ok. If you say so. But there’s a difference between being a fighter and a doer. Remember, one of the outcomes of “fighting” is losing. And that’s what happens most of the time; indeed, every time when you fight something that is outside your control. This is why the Stoic instead practices the “art of acquiesce.” Why they learn amor fati--a desire for things to be exactly as they are--so they can use them. As Marcus Aurelius 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.” Today, ask yourself which type you’re going to be. Are you going to be a fighter or a doer? Are you going to “resist” or are you going to accept obstacles and turn them into fuel for action? Amor fati. Be made brighter and hotter by everything that happens.
|Sep 03, 2018|
Your Heart Shouldn’t Be Getting Harder As You Go
The old joke--which dates back to the 1870s--is that if you’re not a liberal when you’re young you have no heart, but if you’re still a liberal when you’re older, you have no brain. Now we can put any partisan beliefs aside and see how this is at least partly true. When you’re young, it’s easy to believe in the inherent goodness of the world because you haven’t actually experienced any of it yet. You are naive. It’s easy to think that everything should be very simple and always fair in that phase of your life. But as you get older, you realize that the world is more complicated, and in fact that there is often a lot of wisdom and necessity in the mas morium--the way of your elders. A settling into a kind of conservatism as you age and experience life is reasonable and probably smart. However, it’s should be obvious that remark is also totally and completely wrong. Yes, it’s easy to believe in ideals when you are young, and yes it’s harder to maintain that idealism when you are older, but that is sort of the point: life isn’t about getting more selfish and colder as you go. What kind of life would tha