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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 that even be? What the Stoics would say is that time will steadily reveal to you that there is such thing as evil. That equality of opportunity will never result in equality of outcome, except at catastrophic cost to all. But if you watch carefully, you should also see something else that time steadily reveals: How much we all have in common. How connected we all are. How being kind and generous to others is the most rewarding thing you can do. (This video is worth watching) Life exposes us to the truth of Marcus’s line that “what injures the hive injures the bee.” That what goes around comes around. That while we can’t let our hearts bleed for everything and every person outside of our control, allowing our hearts to harden is equally wrong. The point is to have a head and heart always--to be an idealist when it’s easy, but to stick to those ideals even when you see how painfully short reality measures up compared to them. Being lucky enough to continue to live on this planet should not be accompanied by cynicism and coldness.
|Aug 31, 2018|
This Is The Only Thing That Matters in Life
In 1940, while he was struggling as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Walker Percy wrote to his uncle and adopted father, William Alexander Percy, to give him the bad news about his grades. William Alexander, who introduced his young ward to the writings of Marcus Aurelius and had himself gone to Harvard, did not care for one second about the grades. As he wrote back to Walker, “My whole theory about life is that glory and accomplishment are of far less importance than the creation of character and the individual good life.” How lucky we might have been to get such a lesson from our own parents at that impressionable age! To hear, emphatically, that marks on a report card are not a reflection of who we are and that their recognition is such a hollow thing. Because it’s clear that most of us internalized the exact opposite: We think that fame and fortune are the marks of a good person. We connect them, like cause and effect. If/then statements in the logic of human existence. We chase these things, because like grades, they are quantifiable and easy to game. But character? The trait the Stoics believed was like fate, the determining factor in life? Well, that we mostly ignore. We assume it will take care of itself. It won’t. If we directed half the time we spend trying to advance our careers or ace a test, toward our individual moral improvement, the world would be transformed. And so would our individual lives--good lives.
|Aug 30, 2018|
Why You Do This Work
There is an element of this philosophy that is a lot of work. You do all this reading. You do your morning and evening journaling. Maybe you attend meetup groups or even have pursued an advanced degree. Maybe you’ve joined Daily Stoic Life and participate in our discussions, or you discourse about Stoicism online wherever you can. As rewarding as this might be, it’s also true that it comes at considerable commitment and expense. Why should one do this? There’s an exchange in Chicago, the new book by David Mamet (himself a fan of Stoicism), that captures the reasons well. The characters, having found themselves on the wrong side of a mob war, are arming themselves and discussing where to hide a pistol for protection. Then one reminds the other that “the one phrase you never want to use” when trouble arises, is “Wait here ‘till I fetch it.” Marcus Aurelius would say something similar--that philosophy was designed to make us a boxer and not a swordsman. Because a boxer is built with his weapon in hand(s) whereas a fencer has to fetch theirs. Accordingly, the reason we practice this philosophy--why we do our exercises and meditations, day in and day out--is to keep their lessons handy. We think about managing our tempers so that when we are provoked, we know how to respond. We make preparations for the twists and turns of fortune to make ourselves immune to the strokes of luck. We meditate on our mortality and the shortness of life in anticipation of that fateful day--for us or for loved ones. We keep all this top of mind--“at hand” is how the title of Epictetus’s Enchiridion translates--so that we are not scrambling to deal with the difficulties and temptations of life. So that when someone bursts through our door to hurt us we’re not running over to a locked cabinet and fumbling with the key. Better, we want to be the fighter of Marcus’s image, the one who doesn’t even need a weapon, because we’ve made it a part of us. That’s why we do this work.
|Aug 29, 2018|
There Is Always Something To Be Grateful For
One of the most stunning things about Anne Frank’s diary is how indefatigably happy it is. One might expect that her journal, which she kept from 1942 to 1944, as her family hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, would be sullen and scared. Here she was, trapped at 13 years old with her parents, sister, another family and a stange older man. She was mature enough to know that any time soldiers could burst in and send them all to the camps. Yet somehow, page after page, is filled with profound meditations on meaning, friendship, happiness and life. Apparently, this was how she was in the attic on a regular basis as well. One recorded exchange has her chatting with Peter, the 16-year-old Jewish boy also trapped in the attic. Anne explains how she’d like to be a help to him in this difficult time. Peter: “But you’re always a help to me!” Anne: “How?” Peter: “By being cheerful.” Anne would write in a different entry this heartbreakingly inspiring encapsulation of her philosophy: “Beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you’ll discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who’s happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery.” The Stoics, like Anne, like every other human no matter how privileged, were not immune to suffering. Exile. Torture. War. Shipwreck. Loss. Illness. Humiliation. These things happen. Not only do they happen, they sometimes happen on the horrific scale of the Holocaust, which wiped millions of promising souls like Anne from the earth. The question left to those of us still living, or living through our own suffering, is simply: How are we going to respond? Are we going to focus on the beauty that remains? Are we going to be cheerful and courageous and draw those traits out of the people around us? Or are we going to despair? Are we going to let it break us? We don’t get to choose whether we die, but we do get to choose how we live. We get to control whether we die in misery or not. Anne Frank proves that. Socrates proves that. Seneca proves that. We can prove that.
|Aug 28, 2018|
Why You’re The Luckiest Person In The World
“It’s unfortunate that this happened,” Marcus says in one of his imaginary dialogs. Then he corrects himself: “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.” This is the conversation we need to have when “bad” things happen. That car accident. That bad turn of the market. That messy breakup. Sure, we’d have rather none of it happened. But in a way, isn’t it better that it happened to us--someone as strong and well-trained as us--rather than to someone more vulnerable? Better another straw on your back than a back-breaking one for someone else. If you can start to think this way, you’ll realize just how lucky you are, even in the middle of so-called “misfortune.” Not everyone has what you have. Not everyone has the ability to rebuild like you do. Not everyone has the perspective to see the bigger picture. Not everyone has the philosophical insight to realize that we’re only truly harmed if we decide that we are, if we decide to label what happens as negative or unfair or insurmountable. Remember that today. It’s not unfortunate that this happened. It’s fortunate that it happened to you. Because you’ve got what it takes to get through it. Not everyone else is so lucky.
|Aug 27, 2018|
How To Make The World A Better Place
The line from George Bernard Shaw was that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” He isn’t wrong. The reasonable man bends himself to the world, because he insists to himself that the world is this way for a reason. The unreasonable man does not accept that and tries--sometimes with futility, sometimes with success--to bend the world to his will. So where does that leave the Stoics, given their repeated teachings on living according to nature and their emphasis on submitting to reason? Surprisingly, still in the camp of the unreasonable man. The man who declines to adapt himself to the world. Look at Cato and Marcus Aurelius, two men who lived amidst the decline and decay of Rome, two men who were rich and powerful and could have easily done the things most rich and powerful men did. But they never did. Instead they held themselves to incredibly high standards of behavior and personal morality. As a result, they stood as beacons of inspiration to millions of people around the world, in their lives and long after. Look at Epictetus, whose name in Greek actually means “acquired.” Did he submit to this identity as a slave? Did he listen to the world when it told him his life was worthless and without meaning? No, of course not. And as a result, he not only acquired his own freedom, but he helped countless people acquire their own through the study of philosophy. Remember: The Stoic creates progress in the world by their own unreasonable insistence on self-mastery, self-discipline, and self-actualization. The Stoic is just crazy enough that they don’t accept the compromises that other people use to rationalize weaknesses and indulgences. The Stoic sees a 1% chance of success and says to themselves “Well then this outcome is in my control and I will work to make it happen.” The Stoic has cultivated an inner-citadel of strength that allows them to endure the things that logical people--reasonable men--believe just aren’t worth it. This is how they make the world a better place. And how you can too.
|Aug 24, 2018|
Here’s Why Worry Is Pointless
Humble people worry less than the arrogant. Why is that? Because they aren’t so conceited as to think they have any idea (or control over) what may or may not happen. The poet Rilke put it well: “Life is not even close to being as logically consistent as our worries; it has many more unexpected ideas and many more facts than we do.” Worry is pointless not only because it rarely makes things better, but also because you’re rarely ever worried about the right thing! Seneca’s line was that “nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectation.” By that the arrogant person might take it to mean that the wise man is so smart that they are aware of all the possibilities. The humble soul knows that is probably not what Seneca meant. They know it’s more plausible that the wise are aware of Murphy’s Law and the absurd randomness of the universe. That is, within the range of expectations of the wise man is the idea that just about anything can happen. Remember that today when you get anxious. The thing you’re hoping won’t happen, or hoping will happen...well, it’s just as likely that the world has entirely different plans for you. These plans are often things we couldn’t have even comprehended, let alone anticipated or prevented. So let go a little bit. Don’t worry. It’s unbecoming. It’s arrogant. Be humble instead.
|Aug 22, 2018|
Everything Hangs By A Thread
One of the most misleading things about our world today is the increased sense of comfort we feel. Yes, on average planes crash less. Yes, diseases have been cured. Yes, infant mortality rates have made progress. Yes, crime is down. But the slow and steady increase in life expectancy obscures some very critical realities. First off, the fact that the average man in the United States now lives to be 76 and the average woman lives to be 81 does nothing about the fact that the clock of nuclear annihilation currently sits at two minutes to midnight. Second, averages do nothing for the individual. You can still get hit by a bus crossing the street. You can still fall off a ladder. You can still be the non-smoker who gets lung cancer. The odds might not make that likely, just as they don’t make winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning likely, but again, these things happen all the time. The purpose of pointing this out is not to scare you or contribute to your anxiety. It’s simply a reminder that there is nothing fair about black swans and randomness. It’s why the Stoics wanted us to always be aware of the possibilities of Fortune and to remember that we “could leave life right now.” It’s why they knew that Memento Mori was so important to understand. When you realize that our existence hangs by a thread, you are empowered. You seize the moment. You don’t sweat the silly things that other people worry about. You take more risks, better risks, not fewer. Because you have true perspective. Because you don’t take your years and your safety for granted. And hopefully you will live every one of those 75+ years and enjoy them all. But if not, you’re fine too.
|Aug 22, 2018|
You Always Have a Move to Make
Today you might find yourself dealing with something tough. Stuck in a new situation. Hit with a situation that’s been developing for some time, but only now is bringing you pain. In tight situations like these, you need energy, creativity and above all faith in yourself. Defeatism won’t get you anywhere (except defeat). Focusing your entire effort on the little bit of room, the tiny scrap of an opportunity, is your best shot. As Seneca put it, “Apply yourself to thinking through difficulties—hard times can be softened, tight squeezes widened, and heavy loads made lighter for those who can apply the right pressure.” That’s not to say everything can magically be fixed. Seneca didn’t say that. He said hard times can be softened. A little room can be made. Blows can be blunted. But not if you give up. Not if you quit. Not if you tell yourself it’s somebody else’s fault and that it’s terribly unfair. You always have a move to make. There’s always something you can do. Even if that move is just making your peace.
|Aug 17, 2018|
It Helps To Be A Little Deaf
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was given a little piece of advice on her wedding day by her mother in law: "In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf." Ginsburg would say she applied it to her job too: "I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade." The Stoics were all about this. There is a story of Cato, who was struck by someone in an argument in the Roman baths. The man was forced to apologize when it was explained to him what an important person he had just punched. Cato’s response? “I don’t remember being hit.” He was practicing not just deafness, but forgetfulness—even as his face was probably still stinging from the blow. That’s the point though: You can go around in this life looking out for every insult and snide comment. You can hang onto every time you’ve been wronged and investigate every case of possible bad faith. Or you can tune it out, be a little deaf to it and let things go. Not stupidly of course, not completely or utterly forgetful, but just enough that you can get along with people and function above the fray and the muck and the things that catch other people up. Just enough that you don’t go around angry all the time.
|Aug 17, 2018|
Be Tough On Yourself and Understanding To Others
Remember that Stoicism isn’t about judging other people. It’s not a moral philosophy you’re supposed to project and enforce onto the world. No, it’s a personal philosophy that’s designed to direct your behavior. This is what Marcus Aurelius meant when he said: “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” Be open to the idea that people are going to be fools or jerks or unreliable or anything else. Let them be. That’s their business. That’s not inside your control. But you have to be disciplined with yourself, and your reactions. If someone acts ridiculous, let them. If you’re acting ridiculous, catch the problem, stop it and work on preventing it from happening in the future. What you do is in your control. That is your business. Be strict about it. Leave other people to themselves. You have enough to worry about.
|Aug 17, 2018|
Exploring the Softer Side
There is a harshness and a hardness to the Stoics. But there is also a softness and a grace, the velvet glove over the iron first. Think of Marcus talking about how we must come to our “journey’s end with a good grace, just as an olive falls when it is fully ripe, praising the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.” First, it’s just beautiful language (and all the more impressive if you consider it was just a thought he jotted down to himself). Yet it is also an important example of that other side of Stoicism. The one that expresses gratitude and thanks and awe about the universe. As you toughen yourself up in this life—reading these emails, practicing these exercises—make sure you don’t lose touch with that. Make sure that you practice gratitude for what has made you in this life and the things you experience while you’re here. Make sure you practice that good grace.
|Aug 17, 2018|
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
There’s no way around the fact that the Stoics talked about suicide. A lot. To the Stoics, suicide was famously the “open door”—the option available to anyone, at any moment. Cato, one of the most vaunted and towering Stoics, went through that door, gruesomely and bravely. So too, did Seneca. But it is worth pointing out, in a summer that saw the world lose two truly great musicians to suicide, and in a world that loses over 2,000 people to suicide every day (on average, a U.S veteran commits suicide nearly every hour), that the Stoics knew that life was hard and they knew what depression was like. It’s very unlikely that they would have ever encouraged suicide from despair or depression. Because they knew that as real as these feelings were, as deep as that pain might be, that life was worth living and how easily the mind can become temporarily trapped in prisons of its own making. The Stoics believed that we needed to be here for each other, that we were made for cooperation, and that sometimes we have trouble making it on our own. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal “Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?” If you’re struggling, don’t let the concept of Stoic toughness deter you from reaching out. What Cato did, what Seneca did, what James Stockdale threatened to do and nearly did, these were the brave actions of men defying the tightening grip of tyrants. That’s the only reason. Thankfully, this is almost certainly not where most of us are. If you need something, ask. You don’t have to do this alone. Just as you have been there for other people, other people will be there for you—that’s fact. But only if you let them.
|Aug 17, 2018|