Listen to a podcast, please open Podcast Republic app. Available on Google Play Store.
Do Less, Better
Here’s the simple recipe for improvement and for happiness. It comes from Marcus Aurelius and the fact that it came from such a busy man with so many obligations and responsibilities should not be forgotten.
“If you seek tranquillity,” he said, “do less.”
And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”
Follow this advice today and everyday. So much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. We do it out of habit. We do it out of guilt. We do it out of laziness or we do it out of greedy ambition. And then we wonder why our performance suffers. We wonder why our heart isn’t really in it.
Of course it isn’t. We know deep down there’s no point.
But if we could do less inessential stuff, we’d be able to better do what is essential. We’d also get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.
|Feb 21, 2019|
Speak The Truth, Let Them Howl
No matter what your profession is, there are things you can say that will cost you. Speaking up against somebody’s pet project can get an officer passed over for promotion. Voicing a certain political viewpoint can cost you fans or endorsements. Challenging the status quo can bring a hail of critics and haters.
And in those situations, what should we do? The answer to the Stoic is pretty simple: Speak the truth. Yes, howls may follow. Recriminations can as well. And? And what?
Nassim Taleb’s rule of thumb is worth remembering always: If you see fraud and do not say ‘fraud,’ you are a fraud. But that’s worth broadening a bit:
If you know the truth and decline to speak the truth, you are not living truthfully.
There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. Seneca speaks of a man whose son was executed by the emperor and then forced to dine with the tyrant after. The emperor was goading the obviously pained father to acknowledge who was the source of that pain (he wanted to see the pain he had caused, he wanted to feel his dominance over him) and yet the man never broke—because he had another son. OK, that’s a good excuse. But these other petty self-protections? Nope.
If you know the truth, speak it. If you believe in a truth, live it. Even if it costs you. Even if it’s a pain in the ass. Because to do otherwise is to lie. To do otherwise is to be a coward. To do otherwise is to allow darkness to put out the light.
The truth matters. Prove it. Be the light.
|Feb 20, 2019|
The One Thing To Be A Slave To
Slavery is one of the most common metaphors in Seneca’s writing. He talks about people who are slaves to sex and slaves to work. He talks about people who are slaves to their anxiety. He even mentions-—without much self-awareness for such a generally compassionate person—about his fellow slave owners who are slaves to their slaves.
So it might seem strange that there was something he said we should be a slave to. As always, this counter-intuitive observation came from one of his favorite thinkers to hate, Epicurus, who said:
“If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of philosophy.”
What does Seneca mean to say by quoting that line? It’s not that we should slave away reading endless amounts of books on philosophy. It’s not that we should work ourselves to the bone writing or researching or getting advanced degrees. Seneca talked quite negatively about people who did all of that.
He meant that we had to obey philosophy. That is, the words from these wise Stoics weren’t things to just nod our heads to and then move on. Philosophy isn’t something that we are supposed to take the bits and pieces we like from and then generally behave how we like.
The Stoic virtues of Justice, Temperance, Courage and Wisdom are not just buzzwords. They should be our masters. We have to follow them. We have to let them dictate our every move and decision. We have to accept that they own us and that when we attempt to go in another direction, we are fugitives. That’s what Seneca meant.
There are many things a human being can be a slave to these days. Drugs. Social media. Personal ambition. Money. Whatever. There’s no freedom in any of that. But in obeying timeless principles, the ones with proven superiority and authority? That’s worth surrendering to.
Even if that goes against every freedom-loving bone in our bodies.
|Feb 19, 2019|
This Is What Progress Looks Like
How do you know you’re making progress in this philosophy? It’s a question that every person has struggled with at some point in their practice, including Seneca. When he was writing his famous letters, he meditated on this theme. What does getting better look like? How do you know any of this is working?
Quoting one of his favorite philosophers, Hecato, Seneca comes up with a pretty good metric:
“What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.”
What a wonderful way of putting it. Not, “I am richer.” Not, “I am more famous.” Not even, “I sleep more soundly” or “I am handling a crisis well.” Sure those things are nice, and possibly even important. But to the Stoics, the point of this work was something simpler and more earnest: to be comfortable in your own skin; to be enough; to be a good friend to yourself.
A person who is a friend to themselves, Seneca wrote, is an aid to all mankind. They are kind. They are calm. They have empathy—for themselves and for others. They aren’t desperate. They can quietly spend time alone. They don’t need to pull others down to lift themselves up. They can stand on shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton famously said in 1675, instead of stepping on their necks to secure advantage.
Use that as your rubric. Is the voice in your head getting nicer? Are you more still? Are you practicing good self-care? That’s what progress looks like. That’s what you deserve as a human being—and as a friend.
|Feb 18, 2019|
This Is How To Go Out
Epicurus’s final letter begins with a rather remarkable sentence: “On this happy day, which is the last day of my life, I write the following words to you.” While the letter briefly touches on the painful symptoms of the disease that would soon kill him, Epicurus doesn’t dwell on that. Instead, he speaks of the joy in his heart—not caused by his impending death, obviously, but by the memories he has accumulated of the friend he is writing to. Then, before concluding the letter and his life, Epicurus gives final instructions on how to care for one of his young pupils that has shown promise.
What a way to go out! What strength, courage, and poise emanating from a man whose life was supposedly all about pleasure!
Remember, the point of philosophy is to prepare us for exactly this moment (To philosophize is to learn how to die). That’s why we do this reading, that’s why we carry these memento mori medallions, that’s why we think about this scary subject in advance.
So that when it happens—today or in a hundred years—we are able to capture just a fraction of the dignity and selflessness that Epicurus was able to marshall, even as his body quit on him. So that we can live with joy in our hearts to their final beats and call our last day a happy one, and mean it. So that we can continue to take care of the people we’ve found ourselves responsible for, even in death.
That’s what it means to be a philosopher. Now go live it, all the way to the end.
|Feb 15, 2019|
It Can Happen To You
A few weeks ago, we ran an email about Austin Murphy, the former Sports Illustrated writer whose thirty year career (which included interviewing presidents and champions) somehow ended in a gig delivering packages for Amazon.
There is always a variety of reactions to these kinds of stories. Some people feel a wave of pity for the person on the short end of it. Others politicize it—Look how terrible these big tech companies are, this is why we need more [insert policy]. Others react by trying to poke holes in the story or to blame the subject—He says that he had to get the job in order to qualify for refinancing his house, sounds like he was living outside his means. Or, what kind of stupid journalist doesn’t see the disruption his industry was facing?!?
All of these reactions are wrong in their own ways. Austin Murphy doesn’t need your internet pity. Nor should he be a pawn in your politics. And what good is blaming him for his circumstances? Does that make you feel better about yourself?
No, the Stoic response is to see these events as a reminder of how fickle Fortune can be. Seneca talks about how when we see something bad happen to a neighbor, sometimes we cry and then sometimes we privately smile that they got what they deserved, but what we really should be thinking about is how easily the same thing could happen to us.
You think that your job or your industry are so secure that nothing can ever disrupt them? In the early 20th century, it took less than a generation for the automobile to wipe out numerous horse-related industries. More recently, check the alarming suicide rate of big city taxi drivers.
You think you’ve saved so much money that you’ll never have to work some job that’s beneath you? There are some former lottery winners and Enron stockholders that might disagree.
You think life can’t knock you on your ass? It can. It will.
Besides, the real lesson of Austin Murphy’s story is not what happened to him. It’s how he responded. He got a job. He worked. He found something he liked about it. And then he turned the experience into the best piece of writing he’s done in a long time.
|Feb 14, 2019|
Escape This Indelible Stain
In Meditations, Marcus speaks passionately about escaping the “indelible stain” of power, of being changed by the purple cloak that the emperor traditionally wore. It is a timeless warning for anyone in a position of authority or acclaim: Be careful lest you be changed by your newfound bounty.
But let’s talk about a different indelible stain that is spoiling and ruining many people today: radicalization rather than imperialization. In the the early 2000s, after the heinous attacks of September 11th, the radicalization of young men (and women) by their exposure to extremist Islamic views, became a major topic of discussion at Senate subcommittee hearings and on cable news roundtables. It’s both sad and ironic that for all this focus, the same officials and pundits missed the rising threat of homegrown right wing radicals—young men (also women, but mostly men) who were being turned into extremists by their exposure to misleading and inflammatory materials online. Indeed, these numbers have been rising to the point that “of 263 incidents of domestic terrorism between 2010 and the end of 2017, a third — 92 — were committed by right-wing attackers,” according to the Washington Post.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is about taking the longview and seeing the big picture, so the purpose of this email is not to make you anxious about the danger of terrorism at home. Thankfully, America and Europe are still very safe places. Nor is the purpose of this email designed to advocate a particular political viewpoint or solution to this problem. No, the message today is the same theme inherent in all of Stoicism: To look internally, to look at your own habits, and to see where you stand.
If ordinary people living on the same block as you can be radicalized by falling down internet rabbit holes, if the toxic media (and social media) culture we’re in can nurture and feed unfathomably dark and awful views, then what do you think it’s doing to you? Do you think you yourself might be getting radicalized by your own filter bubble? Are you doing a good enough job holding up every impression and opinion to be tested? Or are you, too, in a less dangerous way, being swept up in the passions of the crowd, however fringe or alt or mainstream that crowd may be?
Radicalization is the scourge of our time. Ordinary people who share enormous amounts in common are being turned against each other. People who are polite and friendly and would help a stranger change a tire on a rainy night on the side of the road are being turned into weapons in a war that helps no one but advertisers and trolls and power-hungry populists.
Stoicism is a philosophy that holds up reason and virtue above all things. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor who believed in compromise and forgiveness and mercy. Epictetus was a victim of terrible injustices (first as a slave and later as a banished philosopher). Seneca too was exiled and stripped of much of what he held dear at various points in his life. Yet none of these men gave into bitterness or anger. All resisted the indelible stain of radicalization and instead worked to be kind, to compromise, and to ignore the mentality of the mob.
Each of us needs to do the same...and reach out to anyone we see being pulled in the opposite direction. Or worse, down a rabbit hole of<
|Feb 13, 2019|
An Important Reminder To Do The Right Thing
Summum Bonum is an expression from Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator. In Latin, it means “the highest good.”
And what is the highest good? What is it that we are supposed to be aiming for in this life?
To the Stoics, the answer is virtue. If we act virtuously, they believed, everything else important could follow: Happiness, success, meaning, reputation, honor, love. The Stoics didn’t claim this path was easy, or that it would always be recognized or appreciated by those closest to us, only that it was essential. And that the alternative—taking the easy route or the shortcut even if unethical or immoral—was considered only by cowards and fools.
As Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations,
“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn't matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying...or busy with other assignments.”
To the ancients, if we let virtue lead the way, every step we take will be safe. In Greek mythology, Arete was the goddess of virtue. The model for us to follow—the embodiment of this idea of doing and living right.
This idea is the inspiration for our newest Stoic-inspired medallion. The Summum Bonum medallion.
The front of the coin features an iconic rendition of Arete in Ephesus:
The back shows Marcus’s simple reminder:
“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.”
The phrase is ringed, as if by sentries protecting this essential truth, by Marcus’s reminders that virtue is the answer in all circumstances.
Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or Busy.
|Feb 12, 2019|
What Will You Do Now?
In the winter of 1824, things were not looking good for Simon Bolivar. He was at one of the lowest points of his decade-plus long revolution of South America. Many of the countries he had freed from Spanish rule were in chaos or at risk of being re-conquered. His own health had begun to fail from so many hours in the saddle on campaign. He was haggard and gaunt--skeletal, really.
Would he give up? Would he die? Would all this turn out to be for naught? With this in mind, a man asked Bolivar, as it appeared that he neared rock bottom, “What will you do now?”
The great liberator didn’t pause, he didn’t hesitate. All his charisma returned in an instant and he answered simply and definitively, “Triumph!”
It’s one of those scenes from history that sends chills down our spine. It’s Napoleon shouting, “There will be no Alps!” It’s the Spartans retorting to the Persians who claimed the arrows of their overwhelmingly superior forces would blot out the sun, “Then we shall fight in the shade.” It’s Churchill, “We shall go on to the end...we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be...we shall never surrender.”
It’s incredible bravery, fortitude, and strength. But here’s the thing: Those lines came from people just like you. Bolivar was a spoiled rich kid for most of his life. Napoleon started in the army as an artilleryman. No one, including Churchill’s parents, thought he’d amount to much. But these men did it--they put countless people on their backs and dragged their cause to victory.
Just like you can do. Remember Marcus’s line: If it’s humanly possible, know that you can do it. And think about Bolivar in that moment and how Stoic it was. He was focused not on the past, not on how bad things were, but on what he would do next. Because that’s all that matters. Because that’s all he controlled. And then he got to work.
|Feb 11, 2019|
YOU Are Not The Problem
Epictetus’s most powerful line is about how it’s not things that upset us, but what we think about things that does all the damage. What he really meant is that our sense of what an obstacle or a disadvantage or a trial is—our subjective understanding—is more powerful than the objective reality.
For instance, if you tell yourself that you were failed by your teachers and that’s why you’re not as smart as other people, for the rest of your life you’re going to have trouble learning and understanding things. It may be true that your teachers were less than adequate, but this story you’ve chosen to tell yourself is the true failure (and you can see how a person who tells themselves a different story about the same facts—’I attended underperforming schools but my hunger for learning allowed me to rise above it’ or ‘My street smarts make up for what I lack in education’—will do much better in life).
As Epictetus said:
“Sickness is an impediment to the body but not to the will unless the will wants to be impeded. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to will. If you tell yourself this every time, you will find the impediment is to something else but not to yourself.”
And let’s not forget, he was saying this as a person whose leg was crippled (from his time as a slave no less)! He refused to see a physical impairment as something that changed who he was as a person. He refused to tell himself that depressingly myopic narrative, that he was somehow inherently broken or deprived as a result of this injury. Instead, you can see in his teachings that, over and over again, he chose to tell himself a bigger, better story: That he had learned how powerful he really was, that no person could stop or harm him, even if they tried.
That’s the narrative we want for ourselves. Yes, we have problems, but we are not the problem. We have flaws but we are not flawed. We might do something dumb but that doesn’t mean we are dumb. We decide what things mean. We decide what is actually an obstacle and what isn’t.
We have the power.
|Feb 08, 2019|
How Do You Fill The Void?
Seneca wrote constantly about time. One of his most compelling observations was about how people are protective of their money, their property, their possessions, yet careless with the one thing they can’t get back. “It’s not that we have a short time to live,” he said, “but that we waste a lot of it.
Can you imagine what he would say about the fact that today people average more than 5 hours a day on mobile devices? That’s 52 days a year—one-seventh of our lives—murdered!
Cal Newport’s excellent new book Digital Minimalism, which just released this week, is an attempt to change that--to focus on limited time on the things that matter (deep work, family, being present, even the study of philosophy). In our interview with Cal for DailyStoic.com, he explained the two reasons why this is increasingly easier said than done. The first is that there are really smart computer scientists specifically engineering these devices and social media platforms to foster compulsive use. The second:
“It fills a void. Life is hard. This hardness is especially manifested during those periods of downtime when you're alone with your thoughts. People avoid these confrontations through constant, low quality digital distraction much in the way that people of another era might have dealt with these difficulties with heavy drinking. But this is just a band-aid over a deeper wound.”
How should we fill the void?
“As the ancients taught us, the sustainable response is to instead dedicate your free time toward things that matter. Take on as much responsibility as you can bear, seek out quality for the sake of quality (as Aristotle recommends in The Ethics), serve your community, connect with real people in real life and sacrifice for them.
All of this can seem daunting as compared to clicking "watch next" on your Netflix stream, but once engaged in these deeper pursuits, it's hard to go back to the shallow.”
What if instead of reaching for our phones for even a dozen of the more than 2,600 times per day (!!) the average user engages with their mobile device, we reached for a journal and a pen? Or a book? Or what if we reached for nothing at all and just stared at the ceiling lost in thought? There are few problems you couldn’t solve if those 5 hours per day were spent thinking instead of scrolling. Put some distance between you and your devices today. Fill the void with things that add value to your life.
|Feb 07, 2019|
Avoid Owing (and Being Owned)
Seneca was a very rich man. He accumulated that fortune largely due to his service to Nero’s corrupt and broken regime, and then he put that money to work in Rome’s British colonies. In fact, he made so many enormous loans to colonists in Britain, that when the debt was called in around 60 AD, it set off a rebellion in which tens of thousands of people ultimately died.
A few short years later, Seneca would learn just how painful it can be on the other side of an unpayable debt. Realizing, alarmingly late, just how deranged Nero was, Seneca tried to walk away from politics. Nero wouldn’t let him. Seneca tried to turn over to Nero everything Nero had ever given him. Even this was not enough--because Seneca, in working for such a man, had, in a sense, pledged him his life. In 65 AD, Nero, paranoid and cleaning house of potential enemies, called in the chit, and Seneca was forced to commit suicide.
The lesson: Be wary of debt. Because it is not simply a financial matter. It can be a spiritual matter as well. For to owe can mean to be owned. It can mean that you’ve given up the little bit of control you have in the world and handed it over to a capricious or an insensitive person--or just somebody who values their money more than they value you.
It was Marcus, after Seneca’s bloody cautionary tale, who exhibited a better relationship to debt. When he took over the Empire, its finances were a mess. So what did he do? He started selling off palace furnishings. In his view, it was better to live an austere life than one in debt to other people--people who would then try to influence his policy or limit his options.
Today in the modern world, debt is a little easier to manage and the markets are a bit more complex. No one is saying you can’t have a mortgage on your house, only that if you have more than one of them...you probably have too much house. No one is saying that you can’t use a credit card, only that if you’re carrying a balance with a minimum payment larger than your most expensive utility bill...you probably need to examine your spending habits. No one is saying you can’t borrow to invest or grow a business, only that you need to be rational and smart about it.
Avoid owing and being owned, before someone calls in a chit you cannot pay.
|Feb 06, 2019|
When You Should Give Up
No one would ever call Winston Churchill a quitter. His whole reputation is built on his instinct to fight. He was the lone objector when appeasement toward Hitler reigned as policy in the 1930s. He was the one strong enough to inspire the British people to hold out against the Nazi bombardment and a potential invasion until America entered the war. His personal motto was KBO...Keep Buggering On.
You may have even heard the first part of his famous speech which he gave to the boys at the Harrow School, which he had attended as a child, “Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty.”
But did you know there was a second part to it? That Churchill wasn’t saying to hold out forever in every circumstance? This is the full quote:
“Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty. Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
So there you have the famous never-quitter explaining the conditions under which you should quit or give in: when you are honor bound or when it makes no sense to continue.
An example: When Churchill lost the confidence of his government in November 1915, he resigned his position and enlisted in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. His old path ceased to be even remotely viable, so he found another way to serve with honor. And while Hitler might have thought that Churchill was insane for not negotiating a peace with Germany, Churchill actually did see a way through, and knew there was a good chance his country could endure. In one case, it was good sense to give in, in the other, it wasn’t.
The Stoics were all about this balance. Yes, they were big proponents of perseverance and persistence. No, they didn’t run away just because things got hard. But they weren’t masochists either. They didn’t believe in hurling themselves against a wall that would never give way.
Marcus used a vivid analogy for people who continue to be the same person, despite the obvious signs it wasn’t working—he said they were like "animal fighters at the games—torn half to pieces, covered in blood and gore, and still pleading to be held over till tomorrow...to be bitten and clawed again."
Today we talk about this colloquially as the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
That’s no way to live. It’s good to be tough, but hardly noble to be stupid. Sticking to something is commendable, but not if that inflexibility comes at the expense of other, viable solutions or if it becomes its own vice. Remember that today. Never, ever, ever, ever give in...except when it makes sense. Let honor be your guide, not bullheadedness nor cowardice.
|Feb 05, 2019|
All This In A Nutshell
Near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, the speechwriter James C. Humes was asked to help the president write a short address. After submitting a draft, Humes was called to Eisenhower’s office to discuss. As soon as he stepped into the room, he could tell that Eisenhower had a problem with what he’d written.
“What’s the QED* of this speech?” Eisenhower said to him with only a little patience.
Humes was confused. “QED,” he said, “what’s that?”
“Quod Erat Demonstrandum,” Eisenhower barked. “Don’t you remember your geometry? What’s the bottom line? In one sentence!”
Eisenhower was a brilliant man, but a simple and a straightforward one after years in the Army. He didn’t have time to beat around the bush and so he didn’t put up with rambling or equivocation. He wanted his speeches to have a point and he wanted everyone who worked for him to know the message.
This is a good lesson for anyone and everyone when it comes to communication. (You may remember our earlier email: If It’s Not Simple, It’s Bullshit). Don’t dress things up more than they need to be. Don’t hedge. Don’t distract. Be blunt. Tell the truth. Speak plainly.
But what if we had to apply Eisenhower’s test to Stoicism itself? What’s the QED of this philosophy we’re studying? Well, that’s good for everyone to think about today. Can you describe Stoicism in a sentence?* Could you actually offer a good definition if somebody asked you about it? Spend some time thinking about that.
Even better, don’t just ponder what Stoicism is about, what are you about? What defines you? What do you stand for? What’s your bottom line? In one sentence!
*Here’s our QED for Stoicism: A Stoic believes they don’t control the world around them, only how they respond--and that they must always respond with courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.
|Feb 04, 2019|
Out of Many, One
The motto of the United States—seen imprinted on its currency and its buildings—is e pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”
It happens that this is also more or less the aim of Stoicism too, to take the many parts of a person and turn them into a unified, coherent soul. Each of us is made up of competing desires and impulses and needs, yet all of this is part of who we are. More importantly, with work and study, philosophy is designed to integrate and order all of this into its proper place within us.
On a larger level, Stoicism—as a kind of civic religion in Rome—was designed to take the many and turn them into one thing, a Roman. Seneca was from Cordoba. Epictetus was fromHierapolis. Marcus was from Rome proper. These are diverse and far flung places, each had their own spin and their own style, yet they became part of a larger whole of Stoicism and the Roman empire. It was their notions of duty and responsibility and their sense of right and wrong that made this happen, that aligned interests and beliefs and lifestyles.
If you step back even further you can see how we, ourselves, are melded in and absorbed into this larger tradition and process. Time and distance and technology collapse temporal and geographic and cultural boundaries so that we may become one. Part of the same whole that the ancient Stoics were a part of..
This is sympatheia—on the individual and the marco level.
Unfortunately, we are losing that unifying thrust these days. As the documentarian Ken Burns has joked, there is too much pluribus and not enough unum. There’s too much focus on our individual selves and our differences and not what we hold in common or what joins us together.
This is a tragedy. It causes needless strife and conflict. Which is why today, as you walk the streets or the halls of your office, think about this process—the way we can become part of something larger than ourselves, what we share in common and what we can do for each other. Unity is better than division. Many is better than one only when the many become one.
But it starts...with you.
We think that every leader and citizen should think deeply about this idea of sympatheia. We were made for each other and to serve a common good, as Marcus put it. That’s why we made our Sympatheia challenge coin, which can serve as a practical, tangible reminder of the causes and the larger whole we are all members of. You can check it out in the Daily Stoic store
|Feb 01, 2019|
Success or Failure—Neither Reflect On You
Just a few weeks ago, the writer Austin Murphy wrote an insightful, revealing article for The Atlantic that personalized the changing nature of the economic and technological landscape in the 21st century western world. Murphy is one of the most successful sportswriters of his generation. He worked for Sports Illustrated for 33 years. He penned some 140 cover stories. He’d published 6 books. He’d interviewed 5 presidents. And yet—and this is the subject of the piece—now he finds himself delivering packages for Amazon for a living.
A job is a job, of course, but the man whose job used to involve trips to France with an expense account to cover the Tour de France now had a job where he struggled to find places to use the bathroom during the day.
The most interesting part of the piece is that it’s not a criticism of Amazon or a pity party for the author. In fact, it’s quite philosophical. Particularly this passage:
“Lurching west in stop-and-go traffic on I-80 that morning, bound for Berkeley and a day of delivering in the rain, I had a low moment, dwelling on how far I’d come down in the world. Then I snapped out of it. I haven’t come down in the world. What’s come down in the world is the business model that sustained Time Inc. for decades. I’m pretty much the same writer, the same guy. I haven’t gone anywhere. My feet are the same.”
There is a beautiful meditation from Marcus Aurelius along the same lines. "A rock thrown in the air,” he says, “it loses nothing by coming down, gained nothing by going up." This is easy to say, and easy to forget, but it’s an essential bit of perspective that both wards off ego when things are going well and protects us against depression when we experience setbacks.
We have to remember that external events, possessions, status markers, achievements don’t change us. An impressive job doesn’t make us an impressive person, just as a bad review doesn’t mean we’re without talent. Having a lot of money doesn’t make us special and not having money doesn’t make us worthless. Up, down, middling along—we are not changed by our status.
Only our actions and our choices reflect on who we are. Only what we are doing right now in the present moment matters—not the past, not the extrapolated future. And actually not even that—it’s how we are doing what we are doing that matters. Our feet are the same, wherever we are, regardless of the lofty heights we’ve climbed or darkened depths we’ve fallen to.
Don’t forget that. Because in it is strength and freedom.
|Jan 31, 2019|
When Something Breaks
If a close friend had their home broken into, you’d comfort them and tell them that it was only stuff that had been stolen. If your child broke their favorite toy, you’d tell them that these things happen and try to get them to play with something else. If a waiter spilled on your friend, you’d calm them down by saying it was an accident. Basically, when stuff happens to other people, we’re able to see it clearly with some perspective and some detachment.
But when our stuff breaks or is lost, it’s always so much different. It’s suddenly a tragedy, or worse, a deliberate misdeed that has been wrongly inflicted upon us. I lost so much. But I really loved that toy. You ruined my favorite shirt. You meant to do that. We take it personally, because it is personal--it happened to us.
And then we’re miserable.
That’s why the Stoics try to practice detachment. Not in the sense that they don’t love other people or that they avoid relationships or possessions, but in the sense that when something happens to one of those things, they try to see it with some perspective. Epictetus points out how when someone we know loses a loved one, we can say, “that’s just life.” But when we lose a loved one, it’s suddenly, “Poor me!” And yet it is fundamentally the same event. We’ve just decided to indulge the more severe judgment--the one that doesn’t bring back the person we grieved, and only makes us feel terrible.
Epictetus’s advice when we get upset is to remember how we feel when we hear it has happened to someone else. We care, sure, but not so much that it deeply distresses us. We’re empathetic but unbroken. We’re calm, we’re collected, we understand.
And then, we move on.
|Jan 30, 2019|
Closing Your Eyes Is Not An Excuse
In Richard III, Shakespeare has a scene where Brackenbury is handed orders from Richard by two men who clearly plan to murder the King’s brother. His response echos down through the ages as an example of willful and cowardly ignorance. As he replies after reading the orders:
I am in this commanded to deliver
The noble duke of Clarence to your hands.
I will not reason what is meant hereby
Because I will be guiltless from the meaning.
This idea that we can close our eyes to the implications of something and therefore remain unstained by it is common. Shakespeare knew this. It’s the story of Seneca tutoring Nero in the arts of persuasion and strategy and then pretending that he did not know that he was putting a loaded weapon in the hands of a madman. It was the many leaders before the Second World War who read Hitler’s works but refused to take them seriously—to tell themselves they didn’t know what he would do when he had power. It’s the bosses (and investors) at Uber and Facebook who knew their respective companies had installed a win-at-all costs mentality and then pretended to be shocked when the winning came at a very high cost. It’s the story of the boards of directors and the executives at Hollywood studios and other businesses that turned a blind eye to sexual harassers or sent vulnerable women to be alone with someone they knew had abused their power in the pa
Oprah has a great line: When people tell you who they are, you should believe them. But we often decline to do this, less out of stupidity than out of greed and fear (and occasionally, laziness). It’s easier not to probe. It’s easier not to get involved. If we let the truth sink in, then we have to get involved, and acting against the malicious is scary. So we deliberately don’t see the truth. If we step in, we might lose an income stream (as the folks at Uber would have if they had reigned in their ‘rockstar’ execs) or make an enemy (as Seneca would have in Nero had he stood up to him) or lose our lives (as any in the German leadership may have to Hitler as he rose to power).
We don’t want to be bothered. We are afraid. So we lie to ourselves. Or we look the other way.
We think this makes us guiltless, but it doesn’t. It stains us more so. It haunts us too, particularly as the years pass and we look back at our own cowardice and failures.
A Stoic stands up. A Stoic steps in. A Stoic doesn’t close their eyes. A Stoic calls a fraud a fraud when they see them. Even if it costs them. Even if it hurts.
|Jan 29, 2019|
The One (or Two) Words To Live By
Confucius was once asked by a student if there was a single word to to live by, a word that would always provide guidance and truth. He thought about it for a minute and replied with the word chu, which translates roughly into “forbearance.”
This is interesting because Epictetus was once asked which words would help a person live a life of peace and goodness. The two words, he said, were ἀνέχου (bear) and ἀπέχου (forbear). (Another translation puts it at: Persist and Resist).
Again, it’s remarkable how two wise men living in the ancient world some 5,000 miles apart from each other, raised in different cultures and very different circumstances, speaking very different languages, in very different philosophies, could come to express the same concept.
But that’s why we must take it to heart. There is universality in their simple formula (though it’s not an easy one): We resist giving in, resist temptation, resist despair, and resist degradation. We persist in our efforts, we persist in trying to be a good example for others, we persist in our training, we persist despite the obstacles thrown at us.
The definition of forbearance perfectly captures both those ideas: Patient self-control.
That’s our aim. Forever and always.
|Jan 28, 2019|
How To Make Better Decisions in Life
Believe it or not, there’s a pretty magical way to start making better decisions. It’s a secret that will also make you feel better, look better, and live better. You’ll live longer, think more clearly, and do less that you regret.
What is it?
Stop drinking. Or, at least, drink less.
Heraclitus’s line was that “a dry soul is wisest and best.” He’s right. Have you ever done anything you’re really proud of while drinking? Is anyone their best selves while drunk? Of course not. The best you can hope to say after a hard night of partying is that you didn’t make a fool of yourself.
Now, the Stoics are mixed when it comes to drinking. Cato was said to like to relax with drinking. Seneca clearly liked a good dinner party, but at the same time he wrote critically of people who obsessed over wine or bragged about how well they could hold their liquor. Marcus and Epictetus probably drank the least of the Stoics, though they did not say too much about the subject.
So while we can’t say that the Stoics were hardline teetotalers, their insistence on clear thinking, on self-control, and overall sobriety, makes it clear that they would have looked suspiciously at alcohol. As should we.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life or a nice glass of wine, but we should look honestly at our own habits. We never want to be dependent or a slave to any substance, no matter how good it makes us feel in the moment. And we should be wary of anything that impairs our judgment and decision making.
So if you want to be the better version of yourself, there’s a real straightforward change to make: Drink less. Or better, don’t drink at all.
|Jan 25, 2019|
Don't Limit Yourself
Epicurus’s dictum was that “One sage is no wiser than another.” Clearly, Seneca agreed with this idea because he loved quoting Epicurus, even though he belonged to a rival school. His famous line was that he’d quote even a bad author if the line was good.
This is a good example that does not go far enough. We should actively pursue and engage with anyone who can be a source of wisdom to us, regardless of the school of thought from which that wisdom arose. That does not mean you have to become best friends, or abandon your philosophical first principles, just that you should listen. And not just listen, but hear. Because if there is wisdom out there to be had, we’d be wise to avail ourselves of it—and ignorant (or worse, stupid) not to.
So don’t let your studies stop with Stoicism. Make sure you read widely. Pick up Epicurus and Confucius. Look at the best teachings of the Christians and the Buddhists, and the Islamists and the polytheists. There is good stuff in all these schools.
The ancients were voracious consumers of knowledge and information, but they had nothing compared to the access and tools we take for granted today. They would have loved to be able to carry around thousands of digital books in their pocket, or have access to a website that let them get every book ever written delivered to their door in minutes. Can you imagine what they would have thought about a digital subscription service like Scribd that gives you basically every book ever published for less than $10 a month?
What would they think of a world where, for free on YouTube, you can watch the lectures of the wisest people ever captured on film? You can bet they would have watched everything they could of Viktor Frankl, Alan Watts, the Dalai Lama, Ayn Rand, Richard Feynman, David Foster Wallace, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Camille Paglia, Maya Angelou, Stephen Hawking—the list is endless, just as their options would be.
Don’t limit yourself. There are many wise sages out there—all with different takes on the same essential truths. You can benefit from learning and listening to all of them, even if only your disagreements with some of their teachings serve to clarify what you do believe.
There’s a wide world of knowledge out there. Quote it and consume it all.
|Jan 24, 2019|
If You Were Tested, Would You Pass?
Perhaps you remember the 90s hit by the band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get.” You know, the ‘neeeeevvvvvvveeeerrrrrr had to knock on wood’ song? If you haven’t listened to it in a while, you should, because it holds up surprisingly well.
Anyway, there are a couple of lines at the beginning of the third verse that go like this:
I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass
It’s as if Dicky Barrett, the Bosstones’ lead singer and songwriter, was writing straight from the lessons of the Stoics, because it aligns perfectly with one of Seneca’s most beautiful observations. "I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune,” he writes of everyone who has lived a soft or sheltered life. “You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you."
Not even you.
That’s the question the song is about. That’s the angst it is trying to express. Yes, it’s great to live in a time of peace. Yes, it’s good to be well-off or successful in your career. Yes, it’s wonderful if everything always goes your way. But with this good fortune also comes a nagging doubt, an insecurity and a dissatisfaction. Because deep down, you know it can’t continue like this forever. You know that everything good comes to an end. And what then? How will you handle it? Can you handle it?
The lessons from this are two-fold. One, if you are going through something tough, well...keep going. And appreciate what you are learning, both about the world and about yourself. It’s a test, keep doing your best and you’ll pass. Two, if you haven’t experienced that kind of deep adversity, know that you are depriving yourself of something essential and meaningful. So start putting yourself out there. Take more risks. Get your hands dirty. Find something that you can struggle with.
Rise to the challenge. Put the doubts to rest. You’ll be better for it.
|Jan 23, 2019|
We Are What We Think About
Ok, so it’s worth saying bluntly to any of the nice people out there who might believe in it: The Law of Attraction is complete horseshit. If you need proof, here’s a funny example: In 2015, the author of The Secret had to reduce the price of her home in Santa Barbara some $4.7M—more than 20%—after it had languished on the market without selling. Of course, if she had been following the advice in her book she would have just thought good thoughts about it selling for list price (or better, written herself a check for the amount in advance) and the universe would have taken care of the rest.
We all know that’s not how things work. There’s no science that says your thoughts can will reality into behaving how you like or that thinking negative thoughts will invite negative outcomes—in fact, literally all of science contradicts this. Anyone that tells people differently is conning them.
That is not to say that our thoughts aren’t extremely powerful and that they don’t shape our lives. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”
Unlike a con woman like Rhonda Byrnes, Marcus and the Stoics would never say that your thoughts attract the reality you want (or don’t want), but they would say that our thoughts determine the character of the reality we live in. If you see the awfulness in everything, your life will feel awful—even if you are surrounded by wealth and success. If you have a growth mindset, you won’t be easily discouraged when you fail. If you find something to be grateful for in every situation, you will feel blessed and happy where others feel aggrieved or deprived. That’s the idea.
No, it won’t magically give you more. It won’t magically sell your house or make you famous. But it will help you appreciate your life and help you endure adversity that others can’t handle.
The best part is that it’s not a secret either. It’s just common sense.
So let’s practice it.
|Jan 22, 2019|
What Other People Get Away With Is Not An Excuse
Let us stipulate first that Serena Williams is an extremely talented tennis player and an honest and ethical person. Let us also stipulate that she has been unfairly treated by chair and line umpires, not just when she was an up-and-comer, but also, and inexplicably, now that she is one of the greatest players in the game. And yet, even stipulating all this—as well as recognition of the fact that the passion which drives athletes is a potent force that amateurs and spectators can never fully appreciate—her controversial behavior at the U.S. Open earlier provides an interesting lesson to chew on.
There’s no need to repeat what’s been extensively reported elsewhere, so we can just summarize: Serena Williams was having a tough match in the U.S. Open finals with Naomi Osaka. She disputed a coaching call with the chair umpire (believing that she was not being illegally coached from the stands and that a warning should have been issued first if she had been). Upset over this call, which implied she was a cheater, Serena ended up smashing her racket in frustration over another call a few games later. Not tolerating the jabs at her character, she continued to jaw at the referee, accusing him of stealing a point from her and demanding an apology. She lost her composure...and also ended up losing the match.
Again, while none of this is particularly Stoic, it is completely understandable. What was less understandable, from a Stoic perspective, was the argument made by supporters and Serena herself explaining the events that had just transpired on the court. Their point was that male tennis players regularly get away with similar behavior (some data on this here) so therefore an injustice had been committed in Serena not being able to release her frustrations as well. Some even considered her a hero in this drama for asserting herself with the chair umpire, and then with the WTA during the press conference, like the bad boys of tennis used to.
But to ask whether Serena’s gender affected her treatment is, from a Stoic perspective, to ask the wrong question. As Martina Navratilova wrote in a New York Times op-ed,
It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.
Important cultural and political issues of fairness obviously matter at the larger level, particularly for activists and lawmakers. However, at the individual level, the question we always must ask of ourselves is never “is there a double standard?” but “what standard will I hold myself to?” For the same reason, as we make choices, the idea of whether something is illegal is also a poor metric. A Stoic should care only whether something is right.
It might be possible, for instance, to get away with paying little to no taxes, but is it honest and fair to shirk contributing your share? It’s fairly well established that men historically have been able to get away with all sorts of bad behavior (though again the stats in tennis don’t seem to show that), but does that mea
|Jan 21, 2019|
We Must Live By This Rule
Zigong once asked Confucius: “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” His reply: “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word?”
Thus we have, by yet another source, another formulation of the Golden Rule. Matthew 7:12, for instance, has its version: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.” And Luke 6:31: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”
The Stoics would obviously agree with this concept, though they would take it a little bit further. In fact, what we see in Marcus Aurelius over and over again is the idea that we must treat other people better than they treat us. Because they didn’t mean to do wrong, because they aren’t as informed as we are, because they have their own problems. And that we treat people well not because we ourselves would like to be treated well, but because to do anything less is a betrayal of our own values and standards.
The Golden Rule is simple and all-encompassing. It should govern how we talk to people, how we run our businesses, how we raise our children, how we react in difficult situations. It’s also an impossible standard. We’re never going to fully get there. We’re human. Empathy is sometimes beyond us in the moment. Which is why we need to constantly review and reflect on our own behavior (journaling is great for this), so that we can learn from it and improve on it.
If we can follow the Golden Rule and reflect honestly on our transgressions of it, we will get a little bit better at following it as we grow.
|Jan 18, 2019|
When Are You Going To Be Free?
Most of us tell ourselves that we’re putting up with ill-treatment or keeping our mouths shut about our beliefs because we’re working on something big. We tell ourselves that we’re slogging away in this industry or that industry not because we’re big supporters of it, but because we need to, to get where we are going. We’re accumulating money or resources or playing politics to build up our base so that one day, some day, we can finally stand up and be who we really are.
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself in Meditations that he could be good today...even though his first impulse is to put it off until tomorrow. That’s what we all do. In the future, we say, then we’ll be blunt and honest and principled.
The problem is that this never seems to actually happen. DHH, who we interviewed for Daily Stoic a while back, joked about all the people in Silicon Valley who justify their 100 hour work weeks for dubious startups in order to get “Fuck You Money.” But for all the wealth in San Francisco...there seems to be very few people ever getting around to saying those words, or living that life.
Shakespeare has a better line in Julius Caesar. His relations with the Senate are falling apart and it would be easier to lie to smooth things over, but he catches himself before he does:
Have I in conquest stretched mine arm so far
To be afraid to tell graybeards the truth?
This is an important reminder for each of us. We’ve worked this hard. We’ve accomplished this much. We’ve carved out these skills and built these relationships. For what? To keep putting off the day where we stand up for ourselves? To keep going along to get along forever?
No. Now is the time. Now is the time to be good. To live as if we had the “Fuck You Money” or conquered enough of the world to tell the truth. Because there is no magic turning point. There is only the moment that we decide to be the person who lives those words.
|Jan 17, 2019|
How To Respond To Crazy People
One suspects Marcus Aurelius was referring to a particularly frustrating person, some opponent who just would not, or could not, get the message, when he wrote:
“You can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face and they’ll just go on doing it.”
There’s an American expression along those same lines: “Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty and the pig enjoys it.”
Both these pieces of advice are worth remembering for the inevitable moments that we find ourselves in conflict or at cross purposes with one of those nutty, obnoxious, stubborn jerks that make up a certain percentage of the population. Although it’s tempting to fight and argue with them, it rarely ends well, because you can’t beat someone with nothing to lose, and it’s impossible to reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.
It takes great skill to identify irrationality and emotional reactions in other people. It takes a lot of confidence to avoid battling with someone acting out of ego. It requires patience to endure their onslaughts and put up with them in your midst.
But if you can, you’ll preserve your happiness and live a much less stressful life. It’s not your job to change other people—and even it were, crazy doesn’t want to be changed. Learn how to walk away. Learn how to de-escalate. Learn how to let other people be themselves and you just do you. It’s a much easier life, you can count on that.
|Jan 16, 2019|
Don’t Be Distracted By Darkness
There’s no question that depressing things happen in this world. They always have and always will. People lie, cheat, steal. Envy, avarice, selfishness—it’s all out there. And it’s hard to miss.
It’s easy to despair about this. What do we do? Must it be this way? What’s the point of being good when everyone else is so bad?
This is the wrong way to think about it. It’s not up to us to change this unchangeable part of the human species, but instead to think about how to adapt to it, how to integrate it into our understanding of the world and not let it make us miserable. That’s a big part of why the Stoics talk about ignoring what other people do—their lying, cheating and stealing—and focusing on what we do. On making sure that we hold ourselves to a higher standard and put our energy towards evaluating ourselves according to those standards rather than projecting it onto others.
Marcus’s best advice on this is worth remembering today: instead of talking about other people’s selfishness and stupidity, our job is “to run straight for the finish line, unswerving.”
To not be distracted by the darkness of others, to head towards the light. To be good without hesitation, even when other people are not. That’s our job.
Today and for our whole lives.
|Jan 15, 2019|
The Civil War Inside Each One Of Us
Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of using the American Civil War as a metaphor, not just to explain the divisive political landscape, but the divide within each person. Just as there was a North and South in America (Anti-slavery and Pro-Slavery), there was a divide between good and bad within each of us. There was the part pulled towards higher principles and the part that was willing to compromise with baser instincts.
Certainly, in his own life, King was pulled this way. He was a man of enormous principle and selflessness, but he also had a number of affairs. This was a violation not only of his marriage, but the Christian teachings he preached at the pulpit. He knew better...but found himself doing it anyway. This tension must have been incredibly painful and shameful for him. So when King said that “there is something of a civil war going on within all our lives,” he wasn’t just speaking theoretically. He knew it firsthand.
The point of looking at examples like this isn’t to dismiss someone as a hypocrite—we’ve had quite enough of that zero-sum thinking in recent years and, quite frankly, there’s nothing Stoic about it. Nor are we trying to rationalize or excuse bad behavior. The point is to remember, just like with the US Civil War, that there is no such thing as a perfect person or a perfect cause. For all time, even the best of us have struggled with temptations and personal failings. This is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, after all.
Man has always been pulled apart by competing desires. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Cato—all the Stoics struggled with it too. They knew the right thing to do—they simply couldn’t always get there. We all fall terribly short of our own standards at times—even low standards. All we can do is get back up when that happens and try better next time. We can’t undo the past, we can’t go back in time, but we can try harder to be better right now—today—and in the future.
Just as we are pulled lower, towards our baser selves, we are also capable of pulling ourselves higher, towards our better selves. The North won the US Civil War. And we can win the one raging inside us too. We just have to realize which side we want to fight for. That self-evaluation starts today.
|Jan 14, 2019|
This Is What Karma Looks Like
There is a simple proposition at the heart of classical Christianity: if you are a good person and do good works on Earth, when you die you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven and know the full bounty of God’s unending love. But if you are a bad person on Earth, and you sin without repenting, when you die you’ll end up in Hell for all eternity.
In many Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, that duality is baked into the singular notion of Karma: good intentions and good deeds will be repaid in the next life with great kindness; bad intent and bad deeds (or sin) will be repaid in the next life with great severity.
The Stoics take a different approach. They don’t say that cheating or lying or murdering should be avoided out of fear of future punishments at the hands of God. Instead, they make a much more immediate and self-interested case. Seneca especially, who saw Caligula and Nero and other infamous Roman rulers up close, takes pains to point out these people are not winning. Nor are they getting off scot-free for their crimes. Actually, they’re paying for it every single day.
Seneca would have liked the passage at the conclusion of the novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg, which renders this verdict on the empty, broken life of an immoral Hollywood studio boss:
I had been waiting for justice suddenly to rise up and smite him in all its vengeance, secretly hoping to be around when Sammy got what was coming to him; only I had expected something conclusive and fatal and now I realized that what was coming to him was not a sudden pay-off but a process, a disease he had caught in the epidemic that swept over his birthplace like a plague; a cancer that was slowly eating him away, the symptoms developing and intensifying: success, loneliness, fear. Fear of all the bright young men, the newer, fresher Sammy Glicks that would spring up to harass him, to threaten him and finally overtake him.
The Stoics would say don’t sin or your life will be hell. Not your next life, not your afterlife, but this life right now. Today.
|Jan 11, 2019|
The Great Equalizer
The author Michael Malice has a running gag: whenever a celebrity dies he posts a meme that says RIP but is a photo of a similar looking but a very different (and very alive) celebrity. It’s partly a commentary on how easily fake news spreads but it’s also an ironic dismissal of all that person has accomplished. It says: You’re dead now and we’re already forgetting your legacy. It says: You’re dead and we think it’s pretty funny.
Sure, there is a trollishness to that and it’s probably definition of the expression “Too Soon” but there is also truth and Stoicism in it. Marcus Aurelius liked to remind himself that Alexander the Great and the man’s mule driver are buried in the same ground. Shakespeare was equally impious.
To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why
may not imagination trace the noble dust of
Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?
The point is that death is not only inevitable but it is a great and merciless equalizer. It doesn’t matter how much money you pile up, how many territories you conquer, how many people know (or tremble at) your name—in the end you will die. Not only that, but some people will laugh! They will think your death is hilarious or even deserved.
That should humble you. It should serve as a Memento Mori for you. It should motivate you to live while you still can and not take any of it too seriously. Because it isn’t that serious. In fact, it’s kind of funny.
|Jan 10, 2019|
If It’s Not Simple, It’s Bullshit
There’s not much in Stoicism that’s particularly groundbreaking: Focus on what you can control. Be a good person. Manage your emotions.
A lot of the famous Stoic quotes are pretty basic too:
Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgement about things.”
Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Seneca: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”
The elementary school-level simplicity isn’t a bug. It’s a feature:
There’s a great line in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:
"Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn't explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan."
A lot of complicated stuff isn’t actually complicated...it’s made to seem that way so no one will notice that it’s actually bullshit. A lot of philosophy is badly written...because if it wasn’t, people would actually understand what the “philosopher” was saying and laugh them out of a job.
What the Stoic writings are about is not impressing anyone, nor making the reader feel like a genius for getting all the way through. No, they are designed to be short and to the point. No puffery. No throat-clearing. Using the absolute minimum number of words to make the most straightforward point.
We might call this counter-signaling, or better, a show of confidence. When you’ve got the goods, you don’t need to dress it up or make a hard sell. Just lay it out and let people take it or leave it.
So it should go for us, in all aspects of our lives. No obfuscation. No dog and pony show. No sound and fury. Just do the work, be the best version of yourself you can be, and people can take it or leave it.
|Jan 09, 2019|
Find A Point!
Peter Barton’s beautiful memoir, Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived, takes readers along a man’s search for meaning when he’s forced to confront mortality. Struggling for a reason to persist amid a terminal diagnosis, his wife, Laura, orders Peter to "Find a point!"
"So where was I supposed to find something to feel good about, some realm where I could still feel strong and hopeful? The answer now seems obvious, but for me it was the hardest place to accept: that realm was my mind. My frame of mind was something I could still control. Doing so would be a sort of victory I was not accustomed to valuing—a total inward, private victory—but a legitimate accomplishment nevertheless. I resolved to control my own discomforts, to rise above them if I possibly could. In doing so, I came to understand the deep truth that, while my pain may be unavoidable, suffering is largely optional…Pain can make you thoroughly miserable, or pain can just be pain. The trick, I've realized, is to confine it to the body and not let it infect the mind.”
Not only is this separation between pain and suffering a very Stoic idea, but this idea of “Finding a point” is an exercise we all need to practice. It’s part and parcel of amor fati.
When someone we love has been hurt, we need to find a point (for instance, that this will bring us closer together and remind us to not take time for granted). When a project we are working on fails, we need to find a point (to examine our choices and the systems by which we operate or simply realize that not everything we are going to do will be successful). When we are stuck in traffic, we need to find a point (that this is a chance to listen to a podcast or make a phone call). When we feel exhausted and burned out, find a point (your body is telling you something, or remember why or who you are making this sacrifice for).
Do these points magically undo what we are feeling in those moments? Of course not. Nothing can. But they do make sure the feeling is not permanent, nor completely in vain and without value. This is the crucial distinction between pain and suffering.
Suffering is needless. Pain can instruct.
|Jan 08, 2019|
The Habit You Must Start This Year
Why does Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations speak to us so? The answer, ironically, is that because the author had zero intention of doing so—in fact, he probably would have been mortified to know how well the book has been received...because it meant the exposure of his private thoughts and fears and struggles
As Ernest Renan observed, Marcus was writing for an audience of one. “Never,” Renan said, “has one written more simply for himself, for the sole end of emptying his heart, with no other witness than God.” That’s what journaling is about. Getting the thoughts out of our head, the anguish out of our hearts, and onto the page. It’s a way of clarifying and alleviating, excising and exercising.
For centuries—nay, millennia—people have been pouring themselves into private journals. Some did it at night. Some did it in the morning. Some did it in sporadic bursts or on rare occasion. But in literally countless cases, journaling has been a source of relief and self-guidance.
Which is why you should strongly consider picking up the habit this year. Do it on your phone. Do it on scrap paper. Do it in a free notebook you were given in the swagbag at a conference. Or—if we may so humbly recommend it—check out The Daily Stoic Journal, which provides daily prompts and over 20,000 words of Stoic wisdom. Just as Marcus developed this daily habit, so can you. As Musonius Rufus, teacher to Epictetus, said: habit always beats theory for it’s where “one brings together sound teaching with sound conduct.”
Whatever method you go with, just go with it. Give yourself quiet time where you can write simply for yourself, with no witness over your shoulder or hovering in the clouds above. Empty out your heart. Clear the racing thoughts of your mind. Leave a record of what you’re learning and what you’ve done. Practice becoming a better human.
It will be the best decision you make this year.
|Jan 07, 2019|
The One Thing You Must Avoid
Imagine this. You’ve worked for years on this novel—one that is indisputably the best thing you’ve ever done. You manage to get a publisher to buy it. You start to get rave reviews. You sell out your first printing. Then suddenly, all the momentum evaporates. You talk to the clerk at a bookstore and he tells you the publisher has just stopped resupplying them. Within months, what should have been a beloved bestseller, slips into obscurity.
Why? Well, according to your editor it’s because they’ve been sued by Hitler over the rights to Mein Kampf...and a US Federal Court sided with the Nazis. And that is basically the end of your career as an author—at least it was for John Fante.
You can read the full story, which Ryan wrote in an original piece for Medium, but one would expect this would make a person pretty bitter and angry right?
“I think the one thing that a writer must avoid is bitterness,” John Fante told the writer Ben Pleasants in an interview in 1979. “I think it’s the one fault that can destroy him. It can shrivel him up… I’ve fought it all my life.” His son, many years later, would reflect on how his father dealt with this incredibly unlucky and ill-timed setback.
I’m not naive enough to think good work always wins out in the end. There are plenty of painters who died in Auschwitz. I don’t necessarily think there is justice in the world, it’s that he had the strength of character not to let it break him.
No one would say John Fante was Stoic. He was often egotistical and vain and could hardly be called self-disciplined. But John Fante did respond to that those strokes of misfortune in his life with a poise that Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus couldn’t have helped but admired. It’s a good lesson for the rest of us: We can work really really hard on something. We can do everything right and more. And we can still get royally screwed. But we have to resist the temptation to see things that way, we can’t nurse a sense of aggrievement or bitterness. Because it will shrivel us up. That is what will break us.
Besides, as you’ll see in the Fante story, his bad luck was, many decades later, compensated for with almost unimaginably good luck. Which is just how life goes.
|Jan 04, 2019|
Do The Little Thing, It’s All The Matters
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza, as the Prague Spring happens and the Soviets begin a military occupation, takes the time to rescue a crow that was hurt on the side of the road. Yet when dissidents come and ask Tomas, her husband, to sign a political petition, he refuses. Which prompts a rather interesting sentence in the book
“It is much more important to dig a half-buried crow out of the ground than to send petitions to a president.”
A lot of people would reflexively disagree with that. Certainly the actions of most people do—even though there is the saying that “all politics are local,” we tend to think big picture before we think little picture. Seneca was the same way. Look at how he expressed his priorities in the essay, On Leisure:
“The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbors, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.
It’s ironic, Seneca’s impact on trying to help as many of his fellow men as possible was what drove him into politics and eventually to Nero’s court, where he probably hurt more than he helped. It was only after that failure that he retreated back to his writing and to small town life. But what if he’d switched the order? What if he’d focused on the suffering crow instead of petitioning the emperor? Might the world have been a better place?
These are unanswerable questions, but they raise a provocative point that goes to the core of Stoic thought: We should get our own house in order first, before we try to tackle other people’s problems. We should deal with what’s in front of us, with how we can help those in our neighborhood and our town, before we try to change the world.
Because if tragedy ever befalls your family—cancer, unemployment, a debilitating accident, an untimely death—the world will not be there to take your kids to school so you can make the doctor’s appointment. The world is not who will leave the casseroles on your doorstep or start the GoFundMe page. It will be your neighbors, your town. And you should do the same.
Doing those small things won’t change the whole world, but they will change somebody’s world, and that’s all that matters.
|Jan 03, 2019|
It’s Not How Long You Live, It’s How You Live
In late December, Richard Overton passed away at the ripe old age of 112 and 230 days. When he was born, Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States, and the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in America, was only a few decades old (for contrast, Richard was nearly 60 when the Civil Rights Act passed). That’s a long time to be alive. That’s a lot of history to live through.
But the Stoics would say that simply existing for many years is not all that impressive. What mattered was what you did with that time. What mattered was how you lived.
Seneca liked to point out how many people live to be old but have little to show for it. Richard had plenty, even if he never became rich or powerful. At the personal level, he triumphed over segregation and racism—and was never made bitter by the hatred and bigotry that far too many of his fellow Texans (and Americans) had for him for far too much of his life. He served honorably in one of history’s few just wars. He was a hard worker, and he built his own home (there’s a big pecan tree in his front yard that’s still going strong after 70 years). He liked to sit on his porch and talk with his neighbors. He never had children, but he was close with a big family who he loved and they loved him in return. He stuck around long enough to meet presidents and athletes and billionaires. He enjoyed many cigars, bowls of ice cream, and glasses of whiskey. He was beloved by his community, his city, and, eventually, his country.
In short, it was a life of many years but also of many experiences. He was clearly gifted at birth with a strong body, but he had an even stronger soul. Because it’s much harder to live to 112 and still be a happy, friendly, funny person than it is to simply hold on grimly to existence.
No one would say that Richard was taken from us too soon—because, clearly, he was given plenty of time on this planet (in fact, nearly three and a half times the life expectancy for a black man born in the early 20th century). But the important thing is what he did with that time.
And we can say, unequivocally, that this man lived.
R.I.P. And if you want some lessons and wisdom from Richard, you might like this piece.
|Jan 02, 2019|
Keep These Thoughts At Hand, Everyday
The Stoics were all about routine and concentration. Epictetus said that philosophy was something that should be kept at hand every day and night. Indeed, his book Enchiridion, actually means “small thing in hand,” or handbook. Seneca, for his part, talked about deep diving into the right books—rather than chasing every new or exciting thing published. “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works,” he said, “if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.
One of the reasons we wrote The Daily Stoic was to help accomplish just that. We thought it was pretty remarkable that despite more than two thousand years of popularity, no one had ever put the best of the Stoics in one book—let alone one that was easy to carry, read and study. It’s been pretty incredible to see the success it’s had since its release in 2016, having now sold more than 300,000 copies in the English language, and it’s currently slated for publication in 14 languages. The book has spent more weeks on the bestseller list than any other book about Stoicism ever. In celebration of that, the ebook is $1.99 in the US for the next week if you haven’t picked one up ye
Of course, that success is a reflection of the power of Stoic teachings above all. But it’s also a testament to the power of combining the right idea with the right medium. Marcus Aurelius was a brilliant mind and a beautiful writer, but his Meditations is not organized in any coherent way. While Marcus acknowledges many other Stoics including Epictetus, neither Marcus nor Epictetus acknowledge Seneca in the writings they left, even though Epictetus was once the slave of Epaphroditus who served Nero when Seneca did (one suspects they didn’t like him, or couldn’t be associated with his service to Nero). What we have from Epictetus is really a collection of quotes and highlights from his lectures jotted down by his student Arrian, and what we have of Arrian’s work is only half of what originally existed. Just ploughing straight through those writings is, for many, not the best way to digest the philosophy—it’s almost un-Stoic in its disorderliness. However, reading excerpts by themes with a focus on the concerns of everyday life brings these works both into focus and to life. Once this happens, going through the entirety of Seneca (a major undertaking), Epictetus, and Marcus can be richly rewarding for anyone.
Stoicism is designed to be a practice and a routine. It’s not a philosophy you read once and magically understand at the soul-level. No, it’s a lifelong pursuit that requires diligence and repetition and concentration. (Pierre Hadot called it spiritual exercising). That’s one of the benefits of the page-a-day (with monthly themes) format we organized the Stoics into (and the weekly themes in The Daily Stoic Journal). It’s putting one thing up for you to review—to have at hand—and to fully digest. Not in passing. Not just once. But every single day over the course of a year, and preferably year in and year out. And if Epictetus is right, it’s something you’re supposed to keep within reach at all times—which is why a collection of the greatest hits, presented daily, was so appealing to us.
So here we are beginning 2019 and we hope you’ll give The Daily Stoic a chance, in print or with this discounted ebook. Or make your own greatest hits and your own study plan of the Stoics that you keep and carry with you wherever you go this year.
Because if 2019 is anything like 2018, you’re going to
|Jan 01, 2019|
What We Do In Life Does Not Echo In Eternity
In the movie Gladiator, Maximus, the protege of Marcus Aurelius, says famously, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.” It’s a powerful, inspiring line, (also tattooed on Lebron James’s arm) one the average viewer might assume that Marcus Aurelius agreed with.
Funnily enough, in his actual writings, Marcus Aurelius could not have come out more strongly against this idea. He says at one point, in Meditations, that “People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations to Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal." But even if they weren’t, he asks:
“What good would it do you?...You're out of step—neglecting the gifts of nature to hang on someone's words in the future."
Indeed, not only do people deprive themselves of the wonder of the present in order to hopefully be remembered in the future, far too many people—especially leaders—do themselves and those they serve a disservice by “performing for history.” Instead of focusing on what they can do right now, what little progress or improvements they can make, they get caught up in the idea of a grand, sweeping legacy. Or they play things safe, not wanting to take risks that could turn out badly...at the expense of possible opportunities they’ll never even know they missed.
We should want to do the right thing, today, because it’s the right thing. We should pursue excellence because excellence is intrinsically valuable, not because we want to be admired after we’re dead and gone. Forget echoing in eternity—just speak loudly enough to be heard right now.
Or better yet, let your actions do the talking.
|Dec 31, 2018|
Don’t Wait. Get Started. Now.
This is that weird time of year where we start to think about how we want the following year to go. We call them “resolutions” and they are the promises we make to ourselves about what we’re going to do in the next twelve months. The habits we’re going to quit, the skills we’re going to learn, the standards we’re going to hold ourselves to.
On the one hand, it’s a wonderful and inspiring bit of reflection that the whole world basically comes together to do this at the same time. It’s excellent that everyone has finally decided to get in shape, to stop smoking, to try to give back more, to commit to being a better friend or relative, to read a certain number of books. But it’s strange that everyone puts it off for so long—we treat our self improvement like it’s a school project we hope might just complete itself, praying that maybe our parents or teacher will handle it for us.
Well, they won’t.
Epictetus asked why it is that we wait to demand the best for and of ourselves. It’s pretty crazy. But no matter, because here we are today, staring down the barrel of 2019 and while it would have been better to get started earlier, the second best time to improve is right now. We can put that missed opportunity behind us and repeat this passage from Epictetus,
"From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event."
Can you do that? Can you start right now? No more putting stuff off. No more, “I’ll start on Monday.” No more “in the future, I’ll do better and expect better.” No. Demand the best for yourself now.
It’s what a grown up does.
Thousands of people joined us for the challenge we did in October and found it life-changing. Here are a few testimonials:
“The challenge was awesome. One of the things that really blew me away was just the interaction with the group. The overwhelming support in the Slack channel was amazing, and I feel like it was a ‘quake’ towards sympatheia.” — Daniel Hebb
"I loved the fact that the daily challenges engage not only your mind, but your body and spirit. I’d highly recommend the Challenge to others who are interested in deepening their understanding of Stoic writings, but most importantly how stoic principles can be meaningfully applied to our daily lives." — Mark Clayton
“The 30 Day Stoic Challenge really helped push me deeper into actual practice of Stoic principles, aside from just doing daily readings and some journaling. I still have the 30 day challenge hanging on my fridge. It serves as a daily reminder of simple, relevant tasks that can be performed to keep this alive in my life.” — Shawn Sarazin
“The 30 Day Stoic Challenge kicked off an avalanche of change in my life. A wall of resistance crumbled during the Challenge. Over and over and over again I've heard that I can control the quality of my days, and my life is in my hands, and every other buzz phrase that's floating around out there. I've also done some other challenges and taken classes, but the 30 Day Stoic Challenge let me experience what those words meant. This was a unique experience and has probably saved me a ton of money that would have gone to a shrink.” — Mary Madsen
If that sounds like someth
|Dec 28, 2018|
Everything Is Breaking Down
Nearly two thousand years before Rudolph Clausius and Lord Kelvin first expressed the second law of thermodynamics (although there is debate on whether or not the French physicist Sadi Carnot discovered it earlier), Marcus Aurelius was musing on it. “Bear in mind,” he wrote, “that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. Or that everything was born to die.”
That is to say: We are all subject to entropy.
Science has since confirmed it into immutable law. We cannot eliminate disorder from the system, no matter how much we try. Everything we build, including ourselves, is constantly breaking down.
What does this mean for us? First, it should bake in humility. We are building sand castles. Even our real castles eventually fall into the sea or crumble into dust. Second, it demands presence. This moment is all we have. So enjoy it. Drink it in. Appreciate it.
But also be prepared to let it all go. Because it’s going, whether we like it or not. That’s the law.
|Dec 27, 2018|
Why You Need To Understand Power
The actor Josh Peck recently had Robert Greene on his podcast to discuss the book, The Laws of Human Nature. It’s a fascinating interview, but one of the most revealing parts is when Josh asks Robert about how Robert squares his interest in Stoicism with the rather ruthless and Machiavellian messages of his books.
As Robert explains, we need to understand how the world works, especially if we intend to stick to a path of virtue.
“Marcus Aurelius had a quote, I can't say it exactly, but he says, when a boxer gets in the ring with another boxer and he gets punched, he doesn't complain and go, ‘god dammit, you hit me. I don't deserve to be hit.’ He accepts that. That's the game of life. Well, we should see that in life in general: when people hit us, that's just who they are. People are who they are. We shouldn't judge them. We should just accept them like we accept a rock or a stone or that boxer. That's what people are like, that's what we’re going to get. And the Stoic attitude of accepting the world as it is and working with how things are permeates the 48 Laws Of Power.
It’s very much like Marcus Aurelius—advocating that you feel a level of detachment. In fact, I believe I use that quote from him. So it's not far off from Stoicism. But the latest book is more in that Stoic spirit than the 48 Laws. It's more about accepting that this is nature. The Stoics have a word, logos. This is the way that the universe is, this is what permeates the laws that govern all behavior. And so I'm very much in that spirit of kind of looking at people with some distance, but all my books are approaching life with a little bit of detachment because I feel like that's what will make you happier and also more successful in general.”
What Robert is really saying is that although each of us should commit to being good and honest and fair, it’s naive to assume that everyone else has made a similar promise to themselves.
In fact, we know from the opening of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that most people are greedy and selfish and rude and short-sighted. It’s essential that we understand these forces and the effects they have on the world. Not only to prepare for them and defend ourselves against them, but to remember that when we have important work to do or changes we are trying to bring about in the world, these same forces will be there as a kind of headwind.
We can’t take this personally. We can’t let it upset or discourage us. We’ll need to know how to slip past this resistance, how to use its momentum against itself, how to turn that negative energy around and convince those small-minded people to side with us, against their immediate impulses. That’s what a true amoral study of history helps us do.
Virtue may be the highest good to the Stoics, but not everyone else agrees. In fact, the people that don’t outnumber the people who do. And if we don’t understand how power and persuasion work, they will win. Today and forever.
|Dec 26, 2018|
Today Is A Very Special Day
On December 25th, people all over the world celebrate Christmas, a holiday which marks the birth of Jesus Christ, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. This was a man who lived two thousand years ago, taught timeless lessons about kindness, mercy, forgiveness, on doing one’s duty, on the dangers of money and the redemptive power of poverty and adversity.
It’s pretty remarkable to think that in that same year as Jesus, another philosopher was born, one who taught more or less the same lessons, one who for at least a century was far more famous and influential than Jesus was. That man’s name was Seneca.
No one can confirm for certain the exact birth date for either, but it is indisputable that Seneca and Jesus walked the earth at the same time and lived roughly parallel lives. Indeed, they are both written about by Tacitus, and Seneca’s brother even appears briefly in the Bible! Again, it’s incredible.
Ultimately, the two men met very similar ends, killed by the long reach of Nero’s tyranny. Both have lived on far beyond their deaths—Jesus it was claimed, rose from the dead after three days, and Seneca, through his writings, feels as alive to us as he would have to many Romans.
What’s lovely too is that there is much to be learned from the teachings of both, whether you’re a believer or an atheist.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness." Seneca
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Jesus
“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” Seneca
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Jesus
“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.” Seneca
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Jesus
“If my wealth should melt away it would deprive me of nothing but itself, but if yours were to depart you would be stunned and feel you were deprived of what makes you yourself. With me, wealth has a certain place; in your case it has the highest place. In short, I own my wealth, your wealth owns you.” Seneca
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal...No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus
Seneca was simply a man, a rather flawed one in fact. Jesus—depending on your beliefs—was much more than a man. In a way, this makes Seneca much more interesting and relatable because he was just like us. Seneca was no prophet. He was a person trying to do the best he could. He struggled like us. Jesus was supposedly a carpenter, but Seneca really did have to work for a living. Jesus couldn’t have liked being crucified, but he knew that God was looking out for him. Seneca, like us, had to wrestle with the uncertainty of mortality.
On this day right here, on Christmas Day, we should take a minute to simply marvel at this near-miracle—that two wise men were alive at the same time, and through their suffering and teachings, a great legacy has been passed down to us. While we don’t know what Jesus would have said about Seneca’s teachings, we know what Seneca would have told the Stoics about Jesus’s, because he said
|Dec 25, 2018|
You Make Your Own Good Fortune
We can all remember times when it felt like everything was going our way. We were getting the breaks we wanted and opportunities came easy. It was the opposite of Murphy’s Law: What could go right, did.
Perhaps we remember a time when we were younger, when it felt like more people were willing to help and teach us. But as time passes, this passes with it. Lucky breaks seem less common. We become like the man that Marcus Aurelius mimics by saying, “I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me.”
This is absolutely the wrong way to look at it.
Because, as Marcus continues, “true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions and good actions.”
Let us face today with that attitude in mind. Good fortune is not getting lucky. It’s not the ball bouncing your way. It’s not other people doing stuff for you. Because all of those things are out of your control. They are not up to you.
True good fortune is you doing stuff for other people. It’s you being a good person, regardless of whether you get cut a break for it. It’s you starting each day with a commitment to be your best, whatever happens.
|Dec 24, 2018|
Life Comes At You Fast Pt II
Just two and a half years ago, General Michael Flynn stood on the stage at the Republican National Convention and led some 20,000 people (and a good many more at home) in an impromptu chant of “Lock Her Up! Lock Her Up!” about his enemy Hillary Clinton. A few months later, he was swept into the White House with the Trump Administration, finding himself now the National Security Advisor to the most powerful man in the world. It was an incredible second act for a man who had been unceremoniously fired by the previous president and whose sanity many had questioned when he had first signed on with the campaign.
But then, just 24 days into his new job. Flynn was fired once more, in this case for lying to the Vice President about conversations he’d had with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. Soon enough there was a special prosecutor breathing down his neck with criminal charges for lying to the FBI. On December 18th, a grand total of 29 months since his appearance on that stage in Cleveland, Michael Flynn found himself standing before Judge Emmet Sullivan, who had the power to decide whether it was he who would be locked up, and possibly branded as a traitor.
Again, life comes at you fast.
The purpose of today’s email is not to gloat at the fall of Michael Flynn, a man who in a previous lifetime served his country honorably, but to ring the reminder that all tragedies are supposed to ring: That our fates are always uncertain and that hubris only makes them more precarious.
It was ambition of the kind that Flynn had--the desire to get ahead, or to get even, at all costs--that the Stoics warned against time and time again. Indeed, Seneca’s own life was a cautionary tale that Flynn might have done well to study as he greedily gobbled up consulting and speaking fees from foreign entities, and whose painful dance with power might have served as a deterrent to a man considering entering another controversial administration.
When we take shortcuts, when we fall in with the wrong crowd, when we act in ways we know run contrary to the principles we believe in...we are chipping away at our own security and our own peace of mind. When we attack the flaws in other people and ignore our own (or, use that as a strategy to obscure our own), we are writing the end of our own tragedy.
Life comes at us fast. It is unmerciful and often poetic in the justice that it metes out. Be careful. Be ready. And, more than anything, don’t be your own worst enemy.
|Dec 21, 2018|
How To Be The MVP
Yet again, Nick Foles has been called up to start at quarterback for the Eagles. After spending another heartbreaking season on the bench behind first round draft pick and star of the future, Carson Wentz—this time despite having won the Superbowl MVP (and the championship) for the Eagles the previous year—Nick Foles is back due to a surprise, late season injury. How did he respond to this opportunity? The same way he responded to losing the starting job when Wentz returned from injury earlier in the season—with poise and self-control. As Michele Tafoya, NBC’s sideline reporter and also a practicing Stoic, explained on Sunday Night Football,
“Last night, Foles told us he had not unexpected to play again with Philadelphia and wanted to finish his time with the Eagles simply being a good teammate and helping out the team in any way he could. But on Friday when he learned for certain that he'd be the starter tonight, he immediately thought about last year and all the emotions that came with it. He said he had to, ‘Fight the human side of it all’ and remind himself, “this is a different team and a very different situation” and after an open, honest conversation with his wife, he re-centered and decided to play with the mentality of not looking at the clock or scoreboard and simply hone in on what he’s supposed to do.”
There is a story about Cato being given an army command during the Roman Civil War and then having it stripped from him days later by some backstabbing enemies. It’s the same narrative as Foles, only in reverse, yet they both took the news the same way: By focusing on what they could control, on what was up to them. They didn’t let either the benching or the promotion affect them personally—they just did the best they could with both opportunities. They focused on contributing as much as they could—on being a good teammate—in both circumstances.
That’s what an MVP does.
|Dec 19, 2018|
14 Day Stoic Challenge: New Year, New You
We all know someone who constantly puts stuff off. Who loves to plan improvements for their health, their finances, their work, their friendships, their relationships. Plan after plan after plan. There is seemingly no end to them.
We know these people because we are these people.
Every one of us wants to improve, wants to be better, have better habits, live better, think better. But we can’t seem to actually do it. Time passes, the plans don’t come to pass, and then, as The Talking Heads famously sung, there we are same as it ever was.
Our problem is that what we really want isn’t improvement, it’s reinvention. It’s wholesale change. That’s why this coming moment, January 1st, is so powerfully important. It’s 2019. It’s a new year. And it’s an opportunity for a new you...if you want it.
To that end, the great Stoic, Epictetus, has the perfect question for us: "How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?"
What is it going to take for you to get impatient with yourself? To get started living the life you want in the mind and body you deserve. Not preparing to live it. Not planning how that life could or should look. Actually living it. Right now. This year.
Stop waiting for ‘next year,’ take control now.
We created the 14-Day Stoic Challenge to do just that — to help you create a better life, and a new you in 2019.
The 14-Day Stoic Challenge is a set of 14 actionable challenges, presented one per day, built around the best, most timeless wisdom in Stoic philosophy. 14 challenges designed to set up potentially life-changing habits for 2019 to make it your best year yet.
In this challenge, each day you’ll be inspired to create a habit that will help you:
✓ Stop Procrastinating
These won’t be pie-in-the-sky, theoretical discussions but clear, immediate exercises and methods you can begin right now to spark the reinvention you’ve been looking for but have not had the language to express.
We’ll tell you what to do, how to do it, and why it works. We’ll give you strategies for maintaining this way of living not just for this coming year, but for your whole life.
What is getting rid of one bad habit worth? What would you give to add a new positive way of thinking or acting into your daily routine? What would you give to be a positive person? And how great would it be to become a part of a community—part of a tribe—of people just like you, struggling and growing and making that satisfying progress towards the kind of personal reinvention that produces the kind of human beings they never knew they could one day be?
Well, here’s your chance.
What are the risks or the downsides of NOT taking c
|Dec 18, 2018|
Here Are Signs You’re Making Progress
Ok, you’ve been doing your reading and your journaling. You’re trying to be conscious of your thoughts and your actions. In short, you’re putting in the work.
The question is, how do you know if it’s working? The journey to becoming a “sage” is one that takes a lifetime. No one hands you a certificate. Wisdom accumulates and builds on itself until one day, well, there you are. If that feels a little too inexact, we empathize, but such is life.
Still, there has to be something we can look for to see whether we are making progress. Whether we are getting better as opposed to simply feeling better (or more dangerously, feeling self-satisfied?)
According to Epictetus, these are signs that someone is making progress:
-saying nothing about themselves to indicate being someone or knowing something
-when frustrated or impeded, they blame themselves
-if complimented, they laugh
-if criticized, they ignore
-relaxed in motivation
-banishing harmful desire
-they watch themselves as though they were an enemy plotting an attack
If you’re really doing the work, you will see yourself improve in these areas. Not all the time and certainly not in all of them all at once. But you will blame others less, ignore criticism more readily (and ignore leveling it at others). You will be humbler and desire less. You will take responsibility. You will examine yourself.
The question for you today is: Are you making any?
|Dec 17, 2018|
You Do You. Whether They Like it Or Not.
Think of all the people throughout history who were wrongly condemned and criticized by the mob. From the Civil Rights Activists to Galileo to ordinary people whose lifestyles were hypocritically condemned as perverted or a violation of God’s law. Think of Jesus himself, condemned and nailed to a cross for no good reason.
In a sense, this is a rather dark reality to accept. But it is a fact. Society has always stupidly attacked what it doesn’t understand and what it fears. So what should we do about that as individuals? Live according to the crowd, even if we know that’s wrong?
Of course not, at least according to Marcus Aurelius. No, we must live as we were meant to live. We must live in truth. Let them kill us if they don’t understand it, he said. Imagine that.
Indeed, many Christians were persecuted by Marcus’s regime, and ultimately by his sign off. Just as Epictetus himself had been exiled from Rome for his philosophy. Just as how Stoicism would later be suppressed by the Christians. Just as great minds and regular people have been attacked and criticized by ignorant, obnoxious other people.
But we can’t let any of that stop us. We have to do what we have to do. We have to be who we are. We have to follow the truth as we see it. Because if we don’t, what good is this life we’ve been given anyway?
|Dec 14, 2018|
You Don’t Get To Be Apolitical
There is a common complaint drifting through the culture these days: Why did you have to bring politics into things? Can’t she or he just sing/dance/dribble/write/paint? I was a fan until you said ___________.
First off, how fragile are your views that you can’t handle someone articulating different ones? Second, how fragile is your support that you only like people who agree with you? And third, what makes you think you get to tell other people what they can and can’t say or think?
None of those stances are Stoic. In fact, they are the opposite of Stoicism.
The fundamental distinction between the Stoics and other schools of their time (like the Epicureans) was that the Stoics believed a philosopher was obligated to participate in politics. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Cato—each of them spent the balance of their adult lives, and had their most profound impact, in politics.
To be apolitical is to be unphilosophical. Of course, each person should be thoughtful, inclusive, and civil in all their discussions, particularly ones about government and social issues. We should not needlessly seek out argument or contention. We should be ready to change our minds (in fact, that’s why we should talk politics). But the idea that we should take whole topics off the table so as not to offend? C’mon now.
Our job as citizens is to participate in the polis. To cast our votes. To contribute to the common good. To take stands when we feel they matter. This will occasionally bother snowflakes on either end of the political spectrum, but that’s to be expected. What it cannot be is accepted, as the way we will engage with ideas, with each other, with the world.
|Dec 13, 2018|
Don’t Let Your Virtues Become This Vice
So we’ve begun to get serious about our training, both physical and philosophical. Before, we never read, and now we do. Before, we were lazy and slothful, and now we’re regularly going to the gym. Before, we would eat everything we felt like eating—too much of it usually—and now we’ve got a diet and we’re sticking to it.
This is great. We’ve conquered that vice.
Now there is a new danger. That this virtue becomes a new vice—the vice of pride, of superiority, of obnoxious self-satisfaction. You know the type...because, well, they won’t let you not know how great they’re doing, how they can’t believe they used to eat that, what a rush it was to finish that marathon, or just how transformative all these mind-blowing books have been. Ugh.
Apparently, these folks existed two thousand years ago, too. As Epictetus warned his students:
“When you have accustomed your body to a frugal regime, don’t put on airs about it, and if you only drink water, don’t broadcast the fact all the time. And if you ever want to go in for endurance training, do it for yourself and not for the world to see.”
This is good, timeless advice. Progress is wonderful. Self-improvement is a worthy endeavor. But that’s sort of the point. It should be done for its own sake—not for the congratulations or the recognition. Are you really running that marathon for the medal?
Don’t let your progress become pride. Otherwise you have just traded one set of vices for a new one. And the worse part is that because of your new healthy lifestyle, the rest of us risk having to endure it for your many remaining years.
|Dec 12, 2018|
Be Good To Each Other
“Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn.”
It is a verse from the poet Robert Burns. It was a favorite of Ulysses S. Grant as well as Winston Churchill, two men who witnessed the absolute worst of what people can do to each other. The line itself may have been borrowed from a similar observation by a 17th century German philosopher, who remarked that “more inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature’s causes.” It also echoes some of the darker observations from Marcus Aurelius, who wrote most of his Meditations while at the front with the Roman army, where he regularly saw decapitated and desiccated bodies.
Our ability and tendency to forget that we are all brothers and sisters is partly what allows this inhumanity to happen. Marcus said he was a citizen of the world...yet he saw huge swaths of the population of that world as barbarians simply because they were different than him. He saw the Christians, with their very different beliefs, as something dangerous and unnatural. In a way, he forgot his own teachings, even as he was writing them down on a nightly basis as reminders and cautions to himself.
“The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm,” he wrote.
In another spot, “Human beings have been made for the sake of one another. Teach them or endure them.”
And another still, “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”
The Stoic concept of sympatheia, that we are all connected and unified and made for one another, should never be far from our minds (in fact, you can carry a reminder of it in your pocket if you like). We should be humane to each other because we are all human, all part of the same larger body. We spring from the same soil and will each return to it alike one day. When we forget this, it not only hurts other people—makes countless millions mourn—but it hurts us as well.
Be good to each other today!
|Dec 11, 2018|
We Aren’t Rational, We Become Rational
Most of us don’t think of ourselves as irrational. We don’t think we’re reactive creatures. We presume that we’re in control of our emotions, not the other way around. Other people are irrational of course, but what we feel is what reality is.
Robert Greene’s latest book The Laws Of Human Nature begins from the premise that humans, by the way we’re wired, are irrational beings. The part of our brain that processes reason, cognition, and thought is separate from the part that processes emotion. He says that while we think we’re naturally rational, we’re not. We become rational. It’s an effort.
As Robert said in his interview with us about the book,
We descended from chimpanzees. It’s the fact that we tend to react to what’s immediately in front of our face, like a cow or a dog or anything. We bark and that’s who we are. And we tend to always want things to be easier to take the path of least resistance. We all have that lower part of our nature and it’s a lot stronger, but at the same time, there’s a higher self that we’re straining to become. And maybe I’m being optimistic, but I’m saying that everybody has that desire to reach the higher self.
There is a strong element of Stoicism in this. Although Marcus and Epictetus and Seneca spoke of living in accordance with nature, they knew how unnaturally this came to most people. They knew how much work it was to get to that higher self, to transcend our baser instincts and emotions. Epictetus said we must put every impression to the test, to say to it, “hold on a moment, let me see who you are and what you represent.” To stop and put it to the test takes an effort. Socrates, who the Stoics considered as the rational ideal, said one must always begin from the premise of ignorance because what you presume to know is often quite wrong.
To presume you know is acting from emotion, not reason. To presume that what you feel like doing in the moment is obviously the right thing, is taking the easy way out, it’s taking the path of least resistance, it’s leaping over the space between stimulus and response.
The key then is to work towards that higher self, to become rational. Through journaling. Through discussion. Through challenges and courses and other exercises. Through reading books like Robert’s and other books on psychology and philosophy that help you understand what’s really going on inside your brain. Through taking the time to put every impression and impulse to the test—to not let that monkey part of the self be in control.
It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
|Dec 10, 2018|
This Is How They Treat You After You’re Gone
Da Vinci painted his brilliant fresco, The Last Supper, and how did they respond? They nagged at him for taking too long. Then, after he finished, they cut a giant hole in the bottom for a door. Marcus slaved away on his private Meditations, a work of incredible vulnerability and emotional exposure, that he almost certainly would not have wanted anyone to see. And what did we do? We not only published it, but we had the nerve to move the writing around in an indecipherable order. Seneca and Epictetus? They were the unconsenting victims of fake dialogs--with St Paul and Hadrian, respectively--that sought to capitalize on their names to make political or religious points.
That’s just what we do to genius. We disrespect it. We manipulate it. We mistreat it. And that’s the preferential treatment that genius gets. The vast majority of ordinary people from ancient times? We promptly forgot about them after they died...except the occasions where we dug them up and displayed their bones for educational purposes...and profit.
The point is: The dead don’t get no respect. Which is why anyone overly concerned with their legacy is wasting their time. Same goes for anyone who values posthumous fame. It ain’t coming. In fact, the opposite is probably more likely.
Focus on the here and now. Focus on living well, on doing good, and not giving two cares for what happens later. Because you’ll be gone...and soon enough, so will everyone else.
|Dec 07, 2018|
What Would You Do?
News reports re-surfaced earlier this month that the teenaged son of Jeff Flake, the Republican Senator, had made a number of homophobic and racist comments on his Twitter account. When confronted with the remarks, the senator immediately and directly apologized.
As so often is the case these days, to the social media mob—increasingly partisan and tribal—this was not enough. The news cycle kicked in too, with talking heads on both sides of the aisle rushing to either out-minimize or out-condemn each other. Professional and amateur, the discussion was an endless barrage of criticism, mockery, and, of course, speculation about how the response “could have been handled better.” (Isn’t that interesting—how much time we spend talking about how leaders and celebrities should do a better job spinning...us?)
Needless to say, this is not how a Stoic responds to others’ failures and mistakes. A Stoic doesn’t care about that. When a Stoic sees that someone’s son has messed up, they think: If my son messed up and it reflected on me publicly, would I know what to do? What would the appropriate response to that challenge be? What is the right—the virtuous—thing to do? A Stoic doesn’t see trouble in someone else’s home as a chance for judgment or gossip but as a reminder of where they might one day fall short of their own duties as a father, mother, aunt, uncle, brother, or sister. When a Stoic sees a teenager being stupid or ignorant, they don’t waste time with outrage and indignation. They look at their own behavior in their younger years and consider their own ignorance (along with the pain it might have caused others), and then redouble their efforts to be a good example for the people around them.
We live in times when abhorrent views are creeping back into the public view when scandal and corruption are all too commonplace. But again, the Stoic does not get distracted by this. A Stoic learns from it. A Stoic doesn’t take glee in the misfortune or the failings of others. They know they have plenty of issues in their own home to deal with. Which is why they use instances like this as a reminder of where their focus must return--on themselves, on their own families, on their own inevitable screw-ups.
Because there is plenty there to keep us busy...and to keep us humble...and hopefully, in dealing with them, to teach us a little more empathy.
|Dec 06, 2018|
The Powerful Are Not Free
It’s funny that we spend so much time being jealous of people whose lives we do not even begin to understand. People look at the famous and the powerful and wish they could have what they have. As if those bounties did not come at very high costs!
Ernest Renan, writing about Marcus, observed that the “sovereign...is the least free of men.” Look at a telling moment in Obama’s presidency—he showed up for work one day in a brown suit...and everyone freaked out. One cannot imagine the same reaction to Professor Barack Obama wearing that same suit to teach his law students. Look even at President Trump today, where one can grant that he has a number of abhorrent beliefs (and has done abhorrent things) and still see that part of his persona is to be over the top and to joke and to not mean everything he says literally. For most of his life, this was all pretty well understood by the public and by the press. But now that he is president? Not so much. Everything is made to seem deadly serious and there is not even room for a typo without much scrutiny. This was a freedom Trump lost when he took office.
Renan said that Marcus did not have the right to his own opinions, even his own tastes as emperor. As a father, he probably would have been able to ship his son off to serve in the army or kick him out of his house. As an emperor, his son’s life was not fully in their possession. He was essentially legally obligated to groom his heir for the throne, despite the fact that as a man he must have known this was not right.
Thankfully, few of us will find ourselves in any of these “imperial” problems. But they should give us some gratitude and appreciation for our own stations in life. Do you really want to be a billionaire who is constantly on guard against being kidnapped (or your children being kidnapped)? Do you want to be a celebrity who has to deal with photographers following you everywhere you go? Do you want to be the athlete who has so spend countless, mind-numbing hours in the pool every single day, who cannot let up after countless gold medals and millions of dollars?
In truth, no you wouldn’t. We are lucky to be as free as we are. To be normal, “regular” people. We must cherish our rights to our opinions and our privacies and our safe spaces to screw up and be human. And if we can, stop chasing the “good fortune” that will take all that away.
|Dec 05, 2018|
It’s All In How You See It
Seneca said that the growth of anything is a long process, but its undoing can be rapid, even instant. Jordan Harbinger built his career for 11 years. With over 4 million monthly downloads, he had one of the most successful podcasts in the world. But then an amicable split with his business partners went sideways—and Jordan lost what he spent 11 years of his life building, in an instant.
In our interview with Jordan for DailyStoic.com, he shared the many lessons learned from suddenly having to start over. One, he said, relied on this quote from The Obstacle Is The Way, “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective,” which Jordan explained:
I took this to mean that I am the one who gets to decide...Is this something that ends my career or is it the beginning? Is this the worst thing that has happened in my life? If so, does that even matter? How big of a setback is this? I realized I have the power to decide what this event means in my life, because events themselves are neutral and dependent upon my perception to take on meaning of any kind.
|Dec 03, 2018|
These Are Life Choices You Control
If you haven’t heard of George Raveling, you should. This a guy that Michael Jordan addresses as “coach” even though Raveling never coached the Bulls or the Tar Heels. He’s also been retired from coaching for more than two decades.
In fact, most people who know him call him Coach Rav, not because he’s got a great sense of the game, but because his wisdom about life. On Coach’s website, there’s a tab titled Life Lessons. It’s full of wonderful lessons. But it’s one post in particular that the aspiring Stoic should consider, because it deals with what Epictetus said is our chief task in life--discerning what’s inside our control and what isn’t and then, having made the distinction, focus all our energy on making the right choices in regards to what’s ours to decide.
Rav’s post is titled 23 Life Choices That Are In Your Control.
Here are all 23 of them:
1. Be YOU, not them.
2. Do more, expect less.
3. Be positive, not negative.
4. Be the solution, not the problem.
5. Be a starter, not a stopper.
6. Question more, believe less.
7. Be a somebody, never a nobody.
8. Love more, hate less.
9. Give more, take less.
10. See more, look less.
11. Save more, spend less.
12. Listen more, talk less.
13. Walk more, sit less.
14. Read more, watch less.
15. Build more, destroy less.
16. Praise more, criticize less.
17. Clean more, dirty less.
18. Live more, do not just exist.
19. Be the answer, not the question.
20. Be a lover, not a hater.
21. Be a painkiller, not a pain giver.
22. Think more, react less.
23. Be more uncommon, less common.
And now that we have been given 23 choices that are up to us, let’s start making them.
|Nov 30, 2018|
It’s Always Been This Way, Always Will Be
We like to think that we’re so advanced. That things have changed so radically since the ancient days of tyrants and barbarism. But have they?
Here’s a photo of Jamal Khashoggi's son, whose father was brutally executed mere days before, being forced to shake the hand of the alleged mastermind of his father’s murder: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There's a television camera in the background, and each man probably has an iPhone in his pocket, but it's a scene reminiscent of story told by Seneca straight of the reign of Emperor Caligula; one in which Caligula kills a man's son and forces the man to have dinner with him).
Marcus Aurelius is often criticized for some of his depressing observations about the brutality of human nature and its excesses. He seems to take almost a perverse pleasure in pointing out how evil and pathetic man has been. He reminds himself that in the age of Vespasian (a forgotten emperor) people were killing and lying and stealing just as readily as they were smiling, raising children, and writing books. The age of Trajan, which came a half century later, was the same. “Survey the record of other eras,” Marcus points out, “and see how many others gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the elements that formed them.”
Today, thousands of years later, things are inarguably better...and yet they are still in many ways inarguably the same. Injustices happen. Tyrants exist. Bad luck befalls us, evil lurks in the shadows. We are tested. We are challenged. We wish it could be otherwise, but that’s just not the way it is or will ever be.
So what do we do with this knowledge? First, we return to first principles, to humility. We are not all that different or superior to the ancestors we so casually judge. Man’s nature is deeply ingrained and, despite our best efforts, very difficult to change.
Second, we prepare ourselves for the very worst. The security and progress that surrounds us is an illusion. A couple days without food or water, or a couple years of rising unemployment, and you’ll see how uncivilized civil society can get. To think that we are past any of this merely because times are currently prosperous is profoundly misguided.
And finally, we cultivate dignity, self-respect, and endurance as the most important traits in our lives. Whether we are called to shake hands with a killer or live through the reign of a divisive, petty, and unqualified leader, all we can do is struggle onwards, doing the best we can, with what is in our power to control.
|Nov 29, 2018|
Power and Success Can Make You Better
Lord Acton’s line is so famous and so undeniably true that most people don’t even know that it’s a quote from a real person: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Yet this is what makes their reigns so remarkable. As Ernest Renan observed, it’s nearly unbelievable that “two models of irreproachable virtue are to be found in its ranks and that the most beautiful lessons of patience and disinterestedness could proceed from a condition which we may suppose was unreservedly exposed to all the seductions of pleasure and vanity.”
Just think about what the emperors before them had done: Nero killed his mother and step brothers. It is said that Claudius appointed his horse, Incitatus, a senator. Augustus (Octavian at the time) executed 300 senators. Even after Marcus, look at Commodus. His own son spent most of his time slaughtering animals in the Coliseum because he enjoyed wanton killing more than serving the state. And who could tell him to do otherwise?
Both Marcus and Antoninus had unlimited power too. Unlimited wealth. Unlimited sycophants. But they ignored it. They didn’t give into it. They did their jobs instead. They stayed true to their values. They were virtuous.
This all must have been extraordinarily difficult, and in resisting it, proved Lord Acton at least partially wrong: it is not that power absolutely corrupts, it is that power reveals the character of those who are susceptible to corruption, who are corrupt in their bones.
Renan believed that “the throne sometimes is an aid to virtue, and Marcus Aurelius certainly would not have been what he was if it had not been that he exercised supreme power.” By that he means that as a regular citizen, Marcus still would have been virtuous. That was his character. But it would have been much less impressive wouldn’t it? The temptations and opportunities of power make his goodness shine brighter and more of an example to each of us.
Today, we should remain wary of power and fame, for they are hard to resist. But if we find ourselves in the spotlight or in a position of leadership, let us see that as both a gift and a challenge. Can we be good despite it? Can we strive to be an example for others to follow? Can power be an aid to our virtue? Let it reveal our character, and let us rise to the occasion.
|Nov 28, 2018|
Making A Difference IS Up To You
Look, there’s no way around it: Part of Stoicism is accepting that a lot of what happens in the world is outside our control. Some people have taken this to mean that the Stoics were resigned to their fate—that they were willing to tolerate the status quo and despair of the idea of improving the world or society.
Of course this is rather silly when one considers that Marcus Aurelius and Cato and Senecawere all active in political life. Or that a millennium and a half later, the Stoics would directly inspire George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to take action in the founding of a new nation.
In accepting what is outside of their control, a true Stoic makes a deal with themselves, and to all those with whom they are connected, to redouble their efforts to influence those things they can change.
Earlier this year, Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes and, as it happens, a longtime student of the Stoics (particularly Marcus Aurelius), got a call from his wife after yet another tragic mass shooting. As he described it to us in our interview:
My wife called me very emotional and was afraid of taking our son to school. She kept reciting all the recent shootings on the phone, and before we got off, she said, someone must do something about it (she was not suggesting me per se). I got off, and a higher power put a thought in my mind and it was simply: if not me, then who? If not now, then when?
Blake came to feel that given his success as an entrepreneur, his track record as a leader, and his platform as the owner of a large, well-known company, perhaps it was in his control to do something about the problem of gun violence in America.
Was he delusional to think he could solve the problem all by himself? No. Did he think it would be easy or simple or happen all at once? No. But he did think he had at least some power to make a difference, and so he got to work.
First, he and TOMS committed $5 million to groups on the ground fighting to reduce gun violence (which happens to be the single largest corporate donation ever for that cause). But he did not stop at simply giving money. He also built a tool that made it possible for every single American to go to TOMS.com and fill out a quick form that sends a free physical postcard to their congressional representative asking for just one thing: universal background checks for anyone buying a gun (something that 90% of Americans support). And then Blake went on an active, exhausting media tour to spread awareness of this tool, launching it on The Tonight Show and many other outlets. In less than five days, more than half a million citizens participated. Tens of tho
|Nov 27, 2018|
What Is Sympatheia? (And Why It’s So Damn Important)
In Book Six of Meditations, Marcus gives himself (and us) a command to keep an important idea in mind. “Meditate often,” he writes, “on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” He is speaking of the Stoic concept of Sympatheia, the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.
Why should we think about this? What will it do?
Well according to Marcus, understanding how we are all connected and dependent on each other will prompt us to be good and do good for each other. He almost sounds like a broken record considering how much he repeats it:
“Revere the gods and look after each other.” (6.30)
“The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm.” (9.1)
“Human beings have been made for the sake of one another. Teach them or endure them.” (8.59)
“You've been made by nature for the purpose of working with others.” (8.12)
This idea of Sympatheia is such an important one because it is so easy to forget. It’s just simpler to think about and care about the people immediately around you. It’s tempting to get consumed by your own problems. It’s natural to assume you have more in common and the same interests as the people who look like you or live like you do. But that is an insidious lie—one responsible for monstrous inhumanity and needless pain.
When other people suffer, we suffer. When the world suffers, we suffer. (What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee, Marcus said). To the Stoics, we are all part of the same larger organism. We are all unified and share the same substance. We breathe the same air. We share the same hopes and dreams. We are all descended from the same long chain of evolution—and this is true no matter what race you are, no matter where you come from, or what you believe.
At Daily Stoic, we think this idea is so important that we spent the last several months developing a way to turn it into a physical reminder. Which is why today we are announcing our newest creation: the Sympatheia Medallion.
The front shows the famous 1972 “Blue Marble” earth, which instantly changed man’s perspective on himself.
|Nov 26, 2018|
Do Not Avoid This Thought
In his new book, The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene concludes his final chapter with this meditation on mortality:
“Many of us spend our lives avoiding the thought of death. Instead the inevitability of death should be continually on our minds. Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals. Training ourselves to confront and accept this reality makes it easier to manage the inevitable setbacks, separations, and crises in life. It gives us a sense of proportion, of what really matters in this brief existence of ours. Most people continually look for ways to separate themselves from others and feel superior. Instead we must see the mortality in everyone, how it equalizes and connects us all. By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.”
In short, memento mori.
Every aspect of the human experience, every moment in human evolution, Robert reminds us, has been shaped by death. Without death, we would not be here (there would be no room!). Without death, we’d have nothing to eat. We’d have nothing to live for.
All of the greatest moments in human history occur in the shadow of death: glory on the battlefield; enduring artistic achievement; parental sacrifice. Moreover, these moments were produced by people for whom death was far less removed from daily existence than it is today. Plagues, infant mortality, lack of sanitation or antibiotics, they all meant that death was ever present in the lives of men and women, ordinary or otherwise.
Death is central to who we are as a species and who we are as people. To deny it is not only to live in ignorance, but to deny oneself the benefits that Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus spoke of so often:You could leave life right now, let that determine what you do and say and think.
Is there better advice than this? If so, it has yet to be written. Keep it close.
|Nov 23, 2018|
What Marcus Learned From Antoninus
Where did Marcus learn to be Marcus? Ernest Renan writes that Marcus was very much a product of his training and his tutors. But more than his teachers and even his own parents, “Marcus had a single master whom he revered above them all, and that was Antoninus.”
All his adult life, Marcus strived to be a disciple of his adopted step-father. While he lived, Marcus saw him, Renan said, as “the most beautiful model of a perfect life.”
What were the things that Marcus learned from Antoninus? In Marcus’s own words in Meditations, he learned the importance of:
-Constancy to friends.
He also learned how to keep an open mind and listen to anyone who could contribute, how not to play favorites, how to take responsibility and blame, and how to put other people at ease. He learned how to yield the floor to experts and use their advice, how to respect tradition, how to keep a good schedule, how to be moderate with the empire’s treasury, and never get worked up. Antoninus taught Marcus how to know when to push something or someone and when to back off. He taught him to be indifferent to superficial honors and to treat people as they deserved to be treated.
It’s quite a list, isn’t it? Better still that the lessons were embodied in Antoninus’s actions rather than written on some tablet or scroll. There is no better way to learn than from a role model. There is no better way to judge our progress than in constant company with the person we would most like to be one day.
It’s easy to say, but each of us needs to cultivate people like that in our lives. We need to comport ourselves as their disciples, striving to do as they do and to never fall short of their standards if we can help it. And of course, we need to hold them up for view and record, as Marcus did, what they have taught us so that we may never forget.
|Nov 22, 2018|
Don’t Get Upset By What You Disagree With
The response to the Daily Stoic emails can be a fascinating peek into human psychology. One email, because it makes a fairly objective point about Donald Trump’s temperament, produces a record number of unsubscribes. Another, because it mentions Winston Churchill without condemning British imperialism, gets all sorts of angry comments on Facebook. We are alternatively criticized for being too liberal and too conservative, often on successive days and sometimes for the very same email.
It’s not just remarkable the way that some well-intended Stoic practitioners get really upset when their views or political opinions are challenged, but it offers an unsparing look at the dimensions of the filter bubble in which we live and don’t even notice. We take for granted how often our beliefs are confirmed or implicitly validated by the information we consume and the company we keep. Yet, the second the walls of that bubble are breached by something or someone that appears to disagree with our worldview, we act like victims of some profound personal violation. We rear up like a bull that’s had a big red flag waved tauntingly in front of us. We just have to charge it.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about practicing with his non-dominant hand so that he can get better (and be more balanced). We should do the same with viewpoints we disagree with. Instead of being upset when someone makes a point we don’t like today, try to really listen. Don’t think about all the ways they are wrong, take a moment to think about where they think you are wrong. Assume good faith on behalf of the person on the other side of the issue in question and engage. And if they are not arguing in good faith? Even better--use that as an opportunity to be patient with them. See if you can hold your temper and just let them do what they do, without it ruining your day.
This is not only how we get stronger and better as people, but it’s also how civil society is supposed to work. Debate and disagreement are good. Diversity of opinion is good. If you let it bother you, you will never be at peace and, paradoxically, actual peace will be less achievable as well.
|Nov 21, 2018|
Write And Think Clearly
In his short new edition of How To Be Free, A.A Long observes the relative ease he had translating Epictetus from ancient Greek into English. This is because, he says, Epictetus’s “conversational manner and short sentences suit our modern idiom.” According to Long, Epictetus avoids complex sentence structure and needless verbosity. Better still, he tended to use simple, direct metaphors and diction for which there are accessible everyday equivalents.
This is high praise to both Epictetus and his dutiful scribe/student Arrian. If we were to flash forward two thousand years, it’s unlikely that many of today’s working philosophers would pass this test. They’re inscrutable and unreadable today—imagine how they’d read across the vast gulf of time.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus, on the other hand, knew that clear writing was a reflection of clear thinking. Marcus was writing in Greek, to himself, and still managed to produce beautiful, inspiring words that endure to this day. Seneca was such a brilliant epigramist that his one-liners and epigrams were taught to Latin students for centuries. Epictetus was usually speaking extemporaneously to students, yet his words roll off the page. Each of them has had enormous impact and changed millions of lives (in addition to their own) as a result.
Richard Feynman’s line was that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. That’s a good rule. It’s worth thinking about today for our own writing, thinking, and speaking. Don’t let yourself get away with sloppy, half-baked thinking. Avoid exaggeration and insist on clarity in your conversations. Don’t make lazy assumptions. Annunciate. Care about your word choice—but don’t be pretentious. Be direct. Be simple. Take your time. Don’t rush if you don’t have to. Insist on getting things right. Learn how to tell a good story. Hold even your journaling to this higher standard.
Because it matters. To yourself. And to the world.
|Nov 20, 2018|
The Best Way To Fight Evil
Tolstoy believed his most essential work was not his novels but his daily read, A Calendar of Wisdom. Like in The Daily Stoic, each day in that book is a meditation on a theme of ancient wisdom which provides insights for self-improvement. In a June entry (published in the early 20th century, but clearly both timeless and very timely), Tolstoy speaks about how to fight evil and improve society.
It doesn’t start with ambitious plans to remake the order of things or with the passing of laws to ban this behavior or that one. On the contrary. “There can be only one way to fight the general evil of life,” he writes. “It is in the moral, religious, and spiritual perfection of your own life.”
The Stoics would have agreed with this, that a more virtuous society begins at home—at our home. If you want the world to be better, improve yourself, for this is entirely in your circle of control. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius: Don’t talk about what a good person should be like. Be that person. Again, because this is in your control. But also because it is the most compelling argument and the best way to prod others to change. How can you possibly have the gravitas necessary to convince others to be better when you clearly haven’t convinced yourself? How can you fight evil or sin or bad habits in the world when you’re losing the battle at home?
Of course, this is not an excuse to not be politically or charitably active, but it should inform your priorities. Get your life in order. Do the work you need to do. Because it will make the biggest difference and it will give you the platform—the moral high ground—necessary to make a difference for the world.
|Nov 19, 2018|
The Dance We Each Will Dance
It would be hard to find a deeper, darker yet more philosophically interesting short film than the “Silly Symphony” that Walt Disney produced in 1929. And while many Disney franchises were built around classic stories and fables, one might have trouble naming one more directly based on an ancient art form than “The Skeleton Dance.”
|Nov 16, 2018|
The Perils of ‘Comfort Inflation’
It’s so easy to take progress and luxury for granted. Warren Buffet has talked about how somebody today--with the comforts of heating and air conditioning--has what a 15th century king could have only dreamed of: being cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Yet how many of us have sat in the seasonally appropriate climate of our home and felt bad that we didn’t live somewhere bigger or nicer?
The coach section of most airplanes now has technology--electrical outlets, headrest televisions with hundreds of movie options--that first class didn’t have just a few years ago. The planes are faster and cheaper to buy tickets on too (and they are no longer filled with toxic Don Draper-era cigarette smoke) Still, we complain that they don’t serve meals anymore or that we didn’t get a free upgrade or that the seat in the emergency exit row doesn’t recline.
This is why the Stoics spent so much effort trying to limit their attachments to various comforts. They worked at being self-contained—at not needing the newest or fanciest or most expensive new luxury—because they understood that it was not only ungrateful, it was a quest that only ever ended in disappointment.
|Nov 15, 2018|
The Most Important Ritual You Can Practice This Year
Why did Marcus Aurelius spend those precious hours in his tent, writing by the lamplight, even on the nights and mornings he strained under the burdens of his war-time duties? It wasn’t for our benefit. No, he never expected Meditations would see an audience. He was writing for himself, to himself, as a way to practice the principles of the philosophy we are still following today. He was journaling as a means of self-improvement as much as he was of self-expression.
As Tim Ferriss has said of his daily journaling habit, “I don’t journal to ‘be productive.’ I don’t do it to find great ideas, or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me...I’m trying to figure things out...I’m just caging my monkey mind on paper so I can get on with my fucking day.”
It’s been exactly one year since we released The Daily Stoic Journal--our attempt to create a modern, accessible (and beautiful) medium through which to practice Stoicism. Epictetus said that everyday we should keep our philosophical aphorisms and exercises at hand, that we should “write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”
That was the idea behind The Daily Stoic Journal. One Stoic prompt for each day, to be journaled about--meditated on--in the morning and in the evening. It’s been wonderful to hear from the thousands upon thousands of people who have done precisely that for the last 365 days. And to hear everything they’ve gotten out of the process. Because a journal is a place to clarify your thoughts, find some peace and quiet, calm the negative energy swirling around in your head, and cope with stresses and struggles. It’s your loyal companion. It’s your sounding board. It’s your guide.
And now at the one year mark, it’s time to start the process over again. Or start for the first time, if you’ve been keeping yourself on the sidelines.
To kick off the one year anniversary, we are giving away 50 free copies to anyone who enters this drawing. We’re also offering personalized and autographed copies of The Daily Stoic Journal, from BookPeople.com.
Be A User, Not A Loser
Dr. D.T. Suzuki, a 20th century Japanese author who was largely responsible for popularizing Buddhism, Zen, and Shin in the West, was once approached at the end of a dinner party. “How is it, Dr. Suzuki,” the woman asked, “we spend the entire evening asking you questions and nothing is decided.” He looked at her and replied, “That’s why I love philosophy: no one wins.”
While the Stoics, notably Cato the Elder, had a visceral disdain for sophistry and debate for debate’s sake, they would have agreed with this premise. Stoicism was not a parlor game, nor was it religious dogma with its absolutism and black and white rules.
Stoicism is ultimately a philosophy for life and life is complicated. It is also a philosophy that embraces the individual, and every individual life is different. That’s why the writings of Seneca don’t fit puzzle perfect with the writings of Marcus Aurelius, which themselves are not perfectly aligned with the teachings of Epictetus, despite the latter’s influence over the former. There is no “winner” or “best” among these equals, there is simply a wide breadth of overlapping wisdom designed for a multitude of situations.
Our job is to avail ourselves of this information and put it to use where we can, however it makes sense for the situations in which we find ourselves. What we don’t have time for are pedantic debates about whether so-and-so was a true Stoic or in-fighting about whether this person or that person is continuing the Stoic legacy properly. There are no winners in philosophy, though there certainly are losers. The best person to be, of course, is a user of the philosophical knowledge we have available to us.
|Nov 13, 2018|
You Become Like Your Friends
“Nature gave us friendship,” Cicero wrote, “as an aid to virtue, not as a companion to vice.”
Do the people you spend your time with make you better by association or worse? Do you make the people around you better as well? The question for you today, then, is whether you and your friends pass that test.
|Nov 12, 2018|
Get Yourself Under Control
It was Heraclitus--a favorite of Marcus Aurelius--who said that “to be self-controlled is the greatest of excellence.” Isn’t that the truth? It’s why we admire athletes and Navy SEALS and the Civil Rights Activists of the 1950s and 1960s.
To see someone being provoked with horrific language and threatened with bodily violence--only to ignore it. To see someone under incredible pressure and perform despite it. To see someone override their fears and physical limitations in service of their country. This, we know, is self-control par excellence.
The reason we study this philosophy, follow its precepts and practice its exercises, is to develop our own ability to control ourselves. To control our desires, our emotions, our bodies, and our minds. So that under pressure, under threat, under siege, we can be our best selves. We are working to get ourselves under control so that we can be excellent--we can be virtuous--and because we know that self-control is its own form of excellence.
It’s a hard thing to do, and that’s why we admire it.
|Nov 09, 2018|
We Have So Much In Common
In a very short period around 2003, the musician Rosanne Cash lost her sister, her step mother, her father , and her mother. It was a series of blows that rocked her, even as stoic and strong as she was. She would write later in her wonderful memoir, Composed, that rather than harden her--though these losses were quite hard on her--they helped her forge a deeper understanding and connection to other people.
As she wrote,
“You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy and that if he doesn’t, he will. You recognize how much is hidden behind the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrow and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevator first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.”
The reason we do this Memento Mori work is not just to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of life and to protect us from the shock of loss and pain. We do it also to connect with something that makes us fundamentally human. We do it to help us cherish and understand the people around us. There is a stoic camaraderie that exists in the cancer ward, for this very reason. But why should that be limited only to hospitals? Why should goodness and compassion be limited to the Make a Wish Foundation and other such charities?
“Loss,” Rosanne Cash wrote, “is the great unifier, the terrible club to which we all eventually belong.” The truth is, we are already in that club. We were inducted at birth. We are all facing terminal diagnoses. We are all losing loved ones and family members. Everyone is going through something, just like we are--and always will be. We should let that connect us, we should allow that to bring us together.
And let’s do it now, today, before it’s too late.
|Nov 08, 2018|
Your Hunger For Money Is Starving You
William MacAskill is a fascinating guy. He is the youngest Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He’s one of the founders of the Effective Altruism movement. He’s written a great book called Doing Good Better - Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference and given a popular TED talk. Will also happens to donate every dollar he earns over $30,000 each year to charities of careful choosing. That was a commitment Will made to himself in 2009. He estimates that will be a lifetime sum well into the millions of dollars.
In our interview with him for DailyStoic.com, we asked Will whether there are philosophical benefits to living so cheaply, in addition to the fact that it means he can use those savings to help other people. After all, the Stoics talk a great deal about being indifferent to wealth and the finer things in life for entirely selfish reasons--as in it makes your life better. Will’s response is great.
I’m sympathetic to that Stoic idea. "Mo money mo problems" has some truth to it: the more things you possess, the more things there are to worry about, or feel sad about if they're damaged or lost. And they take attention away from the things that really are important to making your life go well — your relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners, finding work that you can excel in, staying fit and healthy. This isn't just my anecdotal experience either: there's a ton of evidence from the psychological literature that, above around $30,000 per year, additional income doesn't do much to increase happiness.
Will certainly would agree with what Marcus Aurelius wrote, “The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.” It’s not about getting more. It’s about getting enough and then helping others get there too. That’s our job, that’s the job of being a human being.
Check out our full interview with Will, check out his book Doing Good Better - Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, and watch his TED talk. And see what changes you might be able to make in your life to help other people.
|Nov 07, 2018|
Each Of Us Has A Duty
In one sense, it’s hard to argue with the statistics that any individual’s vote makes a difference. One person out of so many? When more than 50% of the population doesn’t even bother? In a country of gerrymandering and voter suppression? In the other, it’s stunning to think that the 2016 US Presidential Election, which saw some 135 million votes, was decided by roughly 77,000 ballots across three states. Michigan was swung by just 10,000 voters.
But to this argument, the Stoic would scoff. Whether your vote counts or not is not the reason that one should engage in the democratic process. First off, the Stoics are explicit that the philosopher is obligated to contribute to the polis, and to participate in politics (this is an essential difference between the Epicureans and the Stoics). But more important, the idea that one should only do something if their preferred outcome is guaranteed violates just about everything we talk about here.
“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible—and no one can keep you from this.”
Which is to say: The act of casting a ballot is in your control. Who gets elected is not. The latter is not an excuse from the duty of the former. Think about how dangerous the logic of non-voting would be if extrapolated out. Almost no difference is made by the individual who decides to do the right thing, to do an act of kindness, to insist on the truth when a falsehood is easier, to be a good parent, to care about the quality of their work. Is that a reason to be a liar, a cheat, an asshole, a bad parent, or a poor craftsman? Of course not. And imagine what the world would look like if everyone insisted it was?
A better world is built action by action, vote by vote, even if the vast majority of those votes and actions are thwarted.
Being good, like voting, is in our control. Whether it has a noticeable or significant impact on the world is not. But we do it anyway because it’s our duty. The same is true for voting—today, in the next election, in every election. Make your tiny contribution to the common good. Because it will make a difference, if not to the whole, it will to you.
|Nov 06, 2018|
Let Us Argue With Reality No More
So much of what we do as a society could be described as arguing with reality. Turn on cable news and you’ll find talking heads screaming at their upset viewers about how whatever has happened as part of the story of the day is “Just not normal!” Look inside most businesses, especially legacy businesses, and you’ll see otherwise smart and capable individuals putting everything they have into not reading the writing on the wall, into denying the obvious change and transformation happening in the world around them. It’s almost as if their jobs are dependent on them not concluding what is obviously true, and insisting otherwise.
We all spend countless hours of our finite lives talking about whether things are fair, whose fault they are, whether they should be as they are. As if that changes what they are. As if reality and truth are up for debate.
This lyric from Foster the People is worth remembering always:
Well an absolute measure won't change with opinion
No matter how hard you try
It's an immovable thing
Our opinions can’t alter the inalterable. Don’t waste time trying to move the immovable. That’s the essence of Stoicism isn’t it? Of course, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus believed we still had a lot of agency in our lives, that there was still plenty of room for us to maneuver and achieve and affect change. They just accepted there were some things we could not change.
That’s right. There are things outside our control. Today we’re going to accept them without argument. We’re not going to spend one minute fighting or arguing or adding opinions on top of them.
|Nov 05, 2018|
Don’t Borrow Suffering
Here’s a line from Seneca: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Meaning, we spend so much time worried about how bad things are going to be, that we actually torture ourselves more than the thing we’re worried about ever could (that is, if it happens at all).
This is an interesting tension in Stoicism. After all, isn’t Seneca the guy who also said:
We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events... Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.
Isn’t that a contradiction? No, not exactly. Notice that Seneca does not say that we should suffer unnecessarily in advance. He says we should rehearse and prepare--he does not say that we should torture ourselves with worry or fear.
That’s what most people miss about premeditatio malorum (which you can get in medallion form from DailyStoic.com). It’s about being realistic. It’s not about borrowing worry or pain in advance. It’s not supposed to make you paranoid or pessimistic. It’s supposed to make you prepared.
Bad stuff can happen. Bad stuff can happen to us. We need to be aware of that. We shouldn’t be surprised by it. But we also shouldn’t work ourselves into a state and confuse that worry with prevention or preparation. A Stoic is aware of the possibilities of life and, at the same time, has their head down and focuses on what’s in front of them and what’s inside the circle of their control.
Is that complicated and a bit of a balance? Sure. But welcome to life. You can handle it.
|Nov 02, 2018|
Let It Go, You’re Plenty Guilty Yourself
Like you’ve never cut in line, on purpose or on accident.
Like you’ve never done something selfish or spoken with an attitude.
Like you’ve never been jealous or petty or mean.
Of course you have. You’ve done all these things. We all have.
Yet when other people do them, it’s somehow different. It’s a transgression. A violation. That’s why we stew. We plot. We shower them with insults. Because when they do it, it’s intentional, it’s a sign of bad character, it must be stopped.
The Stoics teach us, when we butt up against someone else’s awfulness, to always remember when we ourselves have behaved like that. Marcus writes patiently about considering the motivations of the person responsible, of trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, of considering the crazy possibility that they aren’t irredeemable assholes. Who knows, they may even think they’re doing the right thing!
So whatever it is that’s pissing you off today, let it go. We are all plenty guilty of our own sins and stupidity. Which is why we need to forgive and forget other people’s. We need to give them the same clemency and patience we grant to ourselves (which is to say, basically, an unlimited amount). This is the essence of the Golden Rule. It’s easy to treat others the way you would like to be treated when everything is looking up. It’s when the chips are down that the Golden Rule is hardest to employ, which of course is when it is most important of all.
|Nov 01, 2018|
Don't Be A Snowflake
A few years ago, conservative commentators in America began using a term for young college students--mostly liberal--who insisted on #noplatforming speakers they disagreed with: Snowflakes. It was said with both a sneer and well-meaning wisdom because the world just isn’t going to work if you think you can block out or censure everything you find objectionable.
But here’s the problem. It’s totally hypocritical. Because on all sides of the political debate we have this snowflake tendency. Conservatives freak out now when people question or criticize the president (indeed, the president himself loves to dish it out, but complains constantly about having to take it). You’d be amazed at the number of Donald Trump supporters--the same ones who accuse liberals of Trump Derangement Syndrome--who send in angry notes to DailyStoic.com that illustrate not just their inability to deal with views they disagree with, but also exhibit what ought to be called Clinton Derangement Syndrome.
Why point this out?
Because the whole aim of Stoicism is to reduce the amount of offense we take from things that are outside our control. Remember, Epictetus says we are complicit when we allow someone to make us angry, when their words produce a disproportionate reaction from us. Intellectually, a philosopher has to be someone who can calmly entertain, consider, and engage with views and ideas different from their own. The notion that you would love listening to a band and then turn them off because they “brought politics into it” is positively infantile, whatever those politics are. Or that you’d turn away from a friend or a parent because they are on their own intellectual or social journey. (Or unsubscribe from a free email you otherwise liked!)
Snowflakes, whether they are on the left or the right, are miserable because they need the world to be a certain way--their way. They are constantly at risk of being upset and disturbed because someone else--someone with views different than their own--has the power to say or do or think for themselves. A Stoic, on the other hand, is open-minded and content to let others live and think as they wish. Not only that, but they relish the opportunity to have their own views challenged, because they know they grow stronger for it.
Don’t be a snowflake. Be a Stoic.
|Oct 31, 2018|
Is Anxiety Playing Tricks On You?
You’ll likely know Charlamagne Tha God as the host of the nationally revered radio show The Breakfast Club where provocative celebrity interviews help drive the daily national conversation about issues related to hip-hop, race, society, and politics. Lesser known, the unique and compelling media personality is a Stoic. When Daily Stoic saw Charlamagne sharing pages from The Daily Stoic book across social media, we had to know more.
We interviewed Charlamagne to talk about Stoicism and his new book Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks On Me. His advice about anxiety? You might think it the words of Seneca if we didn’t tell you beforehand,
“What I would tell people who struggle with fear and anxiety is that it's natural, just always try to be aware of the source of it. That's why I believe in rational anxiety and irrational anxiety. Rational is when you know why you're afraid and anxious. Irrational is when these thoughts just flood your mind and you don't know where they are coming from, so you're just scared and having a panic attack for no reason.”
Compare that to what Seneca wrote in On Groundless Fears,
“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes...some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
Next time you’re feeling anxious, let that be a cue. Let that be a command to stop and analyze. Where is this coming from? Am I bringing this on myself? The cure to anxiety is often simply in dissecting the source. It’s natural for anxiety to creep in. Just don’t let it stick around for no good reason. Nip it. Don’t help it grow.
|Oct 30, 2018|
The Present Is Pleasurable Enough
On one of his more arduous hunts, after days of patiently tracking (and weeks of planning before that), crawling through the dirt and enduring difficult conditions, Theodore Roosevelt finally got the bull caribou he had been chasing. It was a big animal, felled by several shots in a chaotic confrontation.
“It was one of those moments,” he later wrote, “that repay the hunter for days of toil and hardship; that is if he needs repayment, and does not find life in the wilderness pleasure enough in itself.”
What he was saying is something we all know but constantly lose sight of in life: Yes, the rewards are nice, but the process of earning them is plenty wonderful too. A hunter who only enjoys bagging their quarry is likely to be a disappointed hunter, nine times out of ten. More importantly, they are a blind and deaf hunter who needlessly misses out on the majesty of life outdoors.
Too many of us are like this in all aspects of our lives. We are so focused on an end-result, on achieving the success or fame or wealth we crave that we don’t even notice the little pleasures of the experience and the people around us. The Stoics speak constantly of returning to the present moment for a reason. They practiced their power of observation for a reason too--so they wouldn’t miss out, so they would truly see and feel and take in just how lucky they were to be alive. By practicing the dichotomy of control, they also knew that the journey is up to us, while the outcome is not. As a hunter, Roosevelt understood this innately: Getting the kill--that’s luck. Listening to the birds sing, breathing in the forest air, enjoying the time away from the city--that’s up to you.
Find pleasure enough in what’s present today. Don’t get distracted by the outcome you crave (or fear). Don’t demand repayment for the struggle--because the struggle is where the true rewards live. The weight is supposed to be heavy--that’s where strength comes from. Your lungs are suppose to burn--that’s where speed and energy come from. Cherish these things while you can, while it’s still in your control.
|Oct 29, 2018|
We Are So Soon Forgotten
A few miles outside Rome, along the still-smooth stone-paved Appian Way, is a tall brick tomb that is rumored to belong to Seneca. Unfortunately, no one is certain if this rumor has any truth to it. There is no sign that marks the tomb. There is no clear archeological proof that the bones or ashes of the famous Stoic ever laid underneath it. What the tomb looked like in ancient times is uncertain as well, for no one bothered over the intervening two thousand years to paint, sketch, or describe Seneca’s grave, even as time slowly wore it away.
The same is true of the many ornate and enormous monuments which line the roads to Rome. Despite the many thousands of sesterces spent to build them, despite how large their owners loomed in life, today they are but curiosities, best used as sources of much needed shade for bike-riding tourists.
This would have been a surprise to many people at the time, possibly even to Seneca himself, despite the philosophical work he did to prepare himself for death. It’s almost always a surprise to powerful and important people, who fancy their reputations as immortal. In Samuel Johnson’s A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland, he writes of a series of enormous tombs that dot Iona, known today as “the cemetery of the Scottish Kings.” As he says,
“By whom the subterraneous vaults are now peopled is now unknown. The graves are very numerous and some of them undoubtedly contain the remains of men who did not expect to be so forgotten.”
The same is true for Seneca--sure we remember him here in these emails, but the vast majority of the world has never even heard of him--and it will also be true for each one of us. This is why the Stoics warn against the temptation and the ego of chasing fame, living or posthumous. Because it inevitably fades away. No matter how much money we accumulate or acclaim we receive. No matter how beautiful our tomb. We will all soon be forgotten.
So let that humble us today while we are still alive, let that curb selfish or toxic ambition, let that help us choose between doing the wrong thing to get ahead and the quiet thing we know is right in our heart.
Let that inform what we do today.
|Oct 26, 2018|
Time Doesn’t Make Everything Better...It Just Makes Them What They Are
When we get dumped or we fail or we lose someone, we often hear that “Time heals all wounds” or some such remark, all of it in consolation. Obviously this is meant well, but it’s also frustrating--if only because it’s trite...and way too simple.
As Rilke wrote, “Time does not ‘console’ as people say superficially; at best it puts things in their place and it creates order.” There is a Zen story about a man whose horse ran away. People said it was bad luck. Then the horse came back, which people thought was good luck, and then his son broke his leg while falling off it and people thought that was bad luck come round again. But because his leg was broken, the man’s son was saved from fighting and dying in a war, and the cycle went on and on.
Time doesn’t make things better or worse, it simply makes them what they are. That’s why the Stoics talk about not rushing to judgment about anything, about waiting and seeing. Because we don’t know. Just giving something time isn’t automatically going to make it better--but it does at least give things a chance to shake out, for us to see the full picture. If there is one aphorism about time that we CAN rely on, that the Stoics would agree with, it's that 'time will tell.'
That’s the moral of the Zen story too. Trying to label things as good luck or bad luck is shortsighted. It assumes that all the facts have been entered into evidence. It’s better to hold off on forming an opinion, because fate is constantly unfolding around us, and today’s bad luck may very well be setting up tomorrow’s good luck (and vice versa).
Time isn’t a panacea, but it is a form of truth. So watch for it. Time will, in fact, tell.
|Oct 25, 2018|
Be Severe Only With Yourself
One of the things that separates us from other people--indeed that has been responsible for our success--is our ability to be strict and self-disciplined. Where other people are fine making excuses or taking shortcuts, we are not. Where other people wing it or do what’s easiest, taking the path of least resistance, we don’t. That’s really the essence of Stoicism and why those of us who have committed to doing the hard work have been able to get so much out of it.
But it can be a problem when people like us come into positions of leadership or become fathers and mothers. Suddenly it’s not just our own behavior we’re regulating, we’re now responsible for other people as well. It’s tempting to try to hold them to the very same standards we hold ourselves to, but this is not only unfair (they didn’t sign up for that), it’s often counterproductive. It burns people out, and it sets you up for disappointment. Or worse, disillusionment.
This observation from Marcus Aurelius’s most thoughtful biography, by Ernest Renan, explains the right way to do it.
“The consequence of austere philosophy might have produced stiffness and severity. But here it was that the rare goodness of the nature of Marcus Aurelius shone out in all its brilliancy. His severity was confined only to himself.”
That’s exactly the key. Your standards are for you. This philosophy is about your self-improvement. It’s about being strict with yourself and forgiving of other people. That’s not only the kind way to be, it’s the only effective way to be. It’s the only defense to being constantly upset and let down.
|Oct 24, 2018|
We All Have The Same Nature
Robert Greene’s five international bestsellers earned him descriptions like genius and master of human behavior. His newest book was just released. The Laws of Human Nature is the culmination of his life’s work to understand why. Why do humans behave the way we do?
As well as penning manifestos on subjects inherent to the human experience, Robert Greene has been a student of Stoic philosophy for over three decades. Daily Stoic sat down with Robert for what we think is our best interview to date. It was his first interview since suffering a stroke only weeks before The Laws of Human Nature’s release. The Stoic influence is obvious throughout, but perhaps no more than in his response to our question about empathy.
“Let's start with the primary law of human nature. If I had to say what the primary law of human nature, the primary law of human nature is to deny that we have human nature...The truth is we all evolved from the same source, from the same small number of people. Our brains are basically the same. We are wired in a similar way. We experienced the world, emotionally, the same way that hunter-gatherers experienced the world. Very little has changed in that sense. So if we all come from the same source, why would it be that only a small number of people are aggressive or are irrational? We are all the same.”
This is what Marcus Aurelius meant when he wrote, “the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not the same blood or birth, but the same mind." This is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “Don’t criticize them, they are what we would be under similar circumstances.”
Aren’t we all just the sum of our circumstances? It’s not so much that we are unique individuals, but that our circumstances are uniquely individual. The family we happened to be born into, where that family happened to live, who else happened to live there. In a lot of ways--for the most part in fact--we can’t help it. We can’t help the circumstances that shaped us, our thinking, our interests, our beliefs, our attitudes, our responses.
So next time someone is driving you insane, or you just can’t believe the ignorance, you can’t fathom the stupidity--remind yourself, you are shockingly similar to them. We all share the same nature. We all have the same flaws. Try to understand them...while you work on improving yourself.
|Oct 23, 2018|
We Take The Bitter To Get To The Sweets
“The hunter worthy of the name always willingly takes the bitter if by so doing he can get the sweet, and gladly balances failure and success, spurning the poorer souls who know neither.”
Theodore Roosevelt was talking about the philosophy of hunting when he said this, but he was also describing his philosophy of life. This is how the Stoic looks at things as well.
So much of life is outside of our control, and indeed much of that is bitter. We set out to do something and we are quickly beset by challenges, by loss, by other people’s frustrating tendency to think about themselves over our needs. Yet we continue to put up with this. Not just because we have to, but because we know what’s on the other side is wonderful: friendships, success, excellence, life-changing experiences.
It is said that Marcus Aurelius was dour, but his Meditations is full of odes to the many sweets of life. Seneca’s writing, too, captures life’s great balancing act--he speaks of how unpredictable and unfair fate can be just as eloquently as he speaks of joy and flourishing.
If today ends up being another one of those days for you, try to remember what Roosevelt was talking about. Try saying to yourself, ‘I am taking the bitter to get to the sweet.’ Say, ‘It all balances out and I am lucky to have both when so many have neither.’ In this way you will not only grow stronger and more able to endure any misfortune that comes your way, but you will also be more grateful for and appreciative of the gifts you are given as well.
|Oct 22, 2018|
How To Be A Winner and a Loser
Michael Lombardi is a former NFL coach, GM and front office strategist who is largely responsible for introducing Stoic philosophy to professional sports. In 2014, he read The Obstacle is the Way and spread it around the locker room of the New England Patriots. They went on to win the Super Bowl that year and Stoicism became a favorite of teams not just in football but in the NBA, MLB, the NHL and many other sports. Lombardi spent the last few years writing his own book, and it’s brilliant--a lifetime of wisdom on sports, leadership and life. The book is called Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL and we were lucky enough to interview him for Daily Stoic about two important Stoic concepts--how to do with winning and losing. As he told us about heartbreaking defeats,
"In the NFL most teams exaggerate the wins and forget about the losses. Belichick is the same with both. He does an autopsy after each game and understands there is a fine line between winning and losing. The outcome is significant, but the process has to be the same after each game. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. Chess champions keep their emotions in check because they are in deep thought. The same deep thinking should happen after a win or loss."
And what about when you win?
"The best way to win is first not to lose. How to avoid losing, is the first step to having any success. Great coaches must have a system of checks and balances to assist them in assessing their team. Working in football is much like being in the veterinarian business. The patient cannot speak. Therefore a coach must establish a set of checks and maintain discipline after the good and the bad."
That sounds a lot like Stoicism. Absorb the losses--but learn from them. Accept the winning--but don’t let ego creep in. Maintain excellence, always.
Mike’s book is great. Check it out: Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL
|Oct 19, 2018|
Accepting The Little Facts of Life
In the late 1800s, Theodore Roosevelt was on a hunting trip in Big Hole Basin in Montana. The trip did not get off to a good start. Upon getting off the train, and searching for a wagon to transport them, Roosevelt and his party immediately ran into the first of many issues. The wagon they found was overpriced, the harnesses were rotting and falling apart, and the horses were spoiled and ill-trained. There wasn’t much use in complaining, Roosevelt later wrote in his wonderful hunting memoir, The Wilderness Hunter, because “on the frontier one soon grows to accept little facts of this kind with bland indifference.”
Because what’s the alternative? Let it ruin the trip? Yell at the horses? Fix the harnesses with your anger? In fact, part of the appeal of the outdoors lifestyle is that it’s a challenge and that it tests us in these little ways. Camping and hunting, the Stoics would have said, are both great metaphors and great training for the difficulties of life.
Bad luck continued on the trip, with mishap after mishap. The wagon got mired at various crossings, the horses were a constant struggle, and the weather was freezing. At one point, it looked like the weather was set to take an even more serious turn. Roosevelt turned to his partner and said casually that he would “rather it didn’t storm.” His partner, even more stoic than Roosevelt, stopped his whistling, looked at him and said, “We’re not having our rathers on this trip,” then cheerfully resumed whistling.
The truth is, we don’t get our rathers in life either. All of us are pulled along by Fate, or the logos as the Stoics would call it, as well as by Fortune. Sometimes they line up with what we want, sometimes they don’t. That’s why amor fati is the right attitude. We have to embrace it. We have to accept the little facts of life. Bland indifference is a start, but cheerful whistling is even better.
|Oct 18, 2018|
Don’t Make This Mistake
There is a repeated pattern of failure in Marcus Aurelius’s life, and no matter how much we might admire him, it’s hard to deny it. His step brother, Lucius Verus, who he elevated to co-emperor, was a ne'er-do-well who never proved himself worthy of Marcus’s respect. His wife, despite his praise for her, was probably unfaithful. His son, despite Marcus’s love for Commodus, was deranged and completely unfit to succeed him. His most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, considering his betrayal of Marcus and attempt to overthrow him, clearly was not deserving of the trust or faith Marcus put in him. These are just four examples, but they are revealing enough that we can assume it was a common pattern in his life.
Ernest Renan wrote that if the emperor had one flaw, it was that he was “capable of gross illusions when the matter in hand was rendering to others their proper meed of virtue.” It’s a common failing: Good people often assume that other people are like them. Sadly, this is far too generous of an assumption. The virtues of Marcus Aurelius--his honesty, his loyalty, his commitment to principles, his kindness--these are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to most people. (In fact, we even have a rule about rulers, that absolute power corrupts absolutely, to which Marcus is of course the exception).
If anyone should have known better and been able to see through the facade of someone like Commodus or Avidius or Verus, it was Marcus. After all, he wrote in his Meditations repeatedly about the idea. He warned himself about seeing people’s true nature. He wrote about seeing them as sparring partners. He reminded himself not to get too close in the ring to someone who cheated. And yet...
We can’t go around thinking that everyone is virtuous, because this misplaced trust is a vice. At the very least, it has very serious consequences for innocent bystanders. The world would have been a better place if Marcus had not projected undeserved virtue on his brother or his son, if he’d had the courage to see them for who they were rather than who he wished they would be. In this sense, Marcus’s personal struggle with evaluating those closest to him is a microcosm of the struggle Stoicism is meant to combat for all of us--dealing with the world as it actually is, rather than how we wish it were.
|Oct 17, 2018|
Are You A Coward? Or Are You Brave?
Varlam Shalamov was a brilliant writer who was sentenced in 1937 to years of hard labor in a Soviet gulag. If that were not painful enough, though he was eventually freed, his writings were more or less lost to history until today—his book, Kolyma Tales, is finally enjoying a well-deserved resurgence. In a piece published by the Paris Review, Shalamov lists things he learned in the Gulag:
“I am proud to have decided right at the beginning, in 1937, that I would never be a foreman if my freedom could lead to another man’s death, if my freedom had to serve the bosses by oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.”
“Both my physical and my spiritual strength turned out to be stronger than I thought in this great test, and I am proud that I never sold anyone, never sent anyone to their death or to another sentence, and never denounced anyone.”
“I learned to “plan” my life one day ahead, no more.”
All are worth reading, but one stands out to the aspiring Stoic:
“I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.”
Stoicism holds up four virtues--just four. The most important is courage. Courage to face misfortune. Courage to face death. Courage to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.
Nassim Taleb, a fan of the Stoics who writes a lot about intellectual courage and independent thought, captured all these versions of courage well when he said, “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” That is: If you aren’t willing to risk yourself, your comfort, your wealth to speak up when it counts, you’re a coward.
Shamalov’s division of the world is a stark one and so is Taleb’s. Then again, the gulag was a stark place, as was the Lebanon of Taleb’s teenage years when civil war ripped the country apart. There were lots of cowards and frauds in both places. The question is, when things are difficult, will you join them? Will you be a fraud and a coward? Or will you defy them and be brave? Be courageous? Virtuous?
Today, when you take actions, which category will they fall in?
|Oct 16, 2018|
Why Ego Is Your Enemy
One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what?
From everything and everyone, including our own nature.
When we are in the sway of ego, we are arrogant, selfish, shortsighted. We are mean, we are superficial, we are insecure, we are fragile. In short, we are everything a Stoic is not supposed to be.
“It’s impossible to learn that which we think we already know,” Epictetus said. That’s why we avoid ego. Marcus talked about avoid the stain of “imperialization”--the ego that would come from being emperor and having power. He talked about the foolishness of trying to make yourself remembered for a thousand years or of thinking you’ll live forever. Both these wise and successful men, were doing constant battle against their egos, as all Stoics have tried to do through the centuries.
We can’t work with other people if we’ve put up walls. We can’t improve the world if we don’t understand it or ourselves. We can’t take or receive feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from outside sources. We can’t recognize opportunities—or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion. How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we can’t relate to their needs—because we’ve lost touch with our own?
The Greeks knew that hubris—ego by another name—was the ultimate enemy. That it must be conquered. That humility and self-awareness were were true strength lies. We need to remember the same. That’s why we do this work and do this reading.
Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy is a $1.99 ebook in the US this week. If you haven’t read it, give it a shot. It might change your life.
|Oct 15, 2018|
Don’t Be All About Business
Is there anything sadder than a person whose work is their life? They neglect their family, they put in crazy hours, they have no interests, no hobbies outside what they do at the office. It’s bad enough to be stuck next to them at a party, but imagine what it must be like to be inside their heads. The only thing they care about is work...work that few notice or even understand and fewer still will care about in the future.
Marcus Aurelius had a pretty important job. He was the Emperor. Millions depended on him. He was famous. They literally put his face on the coins of the currency. Yet, he reminded himself in Meditations, not “to be all about business,” because he could see what our friends who make work their life have trouble seeing: very soon, no one will care.
Marcus liked to repeat to himself the names of the emperors who came before him and marvel at how unfamiliar they were, how quickly they had been forgotten. He also knew that character was a far more important legacy, because as impactful as his actions as chief of state were, it was how he treated the people around him that had the deepest effect.
We would do well to remember this lesson. There is more to life than work, more to life than just making money or getting bigger, stronger, faster. Instead, we should do the most important work--becoming the person we need to be for the people who need it from us the most.
|Oct 12, 2018|
Why Do You Care What They Think?
There’s a moment that almost everyone remembers from their childhood. They have just received something they really liked--a new shirt, a new toy, a haircut they thought was cool--and showed up for school with it...only to be mercilessly teased and mocked for it. Many a trash can has been filled by this experience. The toy, the shirt, the opinion no longer the same now that some jerk has weighed in.
If this were simply the naivete of a child, it would be one thing. But the truth is that we carry this attitude with us into adulthood. Even Marcus Aurelius spoke of it. "It never ceases to amaze me,” he said to himself, and now to all of us. “We all love ourselves more than other people, but care about their opinion more than our own."
We’re proud of the job we did until our insecure boss attacks us for it. We’re excited about the book or movie or product we’re launching until we read the reviews from the critics. We feel like we’re making progress at the gym until somebody makes a nasty remark. Yet, we never stop to consider whether these people have any credibility, whether they even know what they’re talking about. Suddenly, because they commented about something we care about or are sensitive to, we believe them more than we believe ourselves. And then we are miserable.
This is no way to live. The Stoic must cultivate their own high standards, their own strong opinions about what is right and good and important. This is what they need to use to evaluate reality. Other people’s opinions? We need to stop caring about them. Or, at the very least, we cannot give them the power to give us whiplash, to make us miserable, or to question ourselves. It is not their judgment that should be guiding our minds in the quiet of our evening journaling, because it is not their life that we are living.
It’s our life. It’s our opinion. That’s what matters.
|Oct 11, 2018|
What You Think You’re Lacking Is The Problem
George Ball, the diplomat and advisor to President Kennedy (one of who David Halberstam would call ‘the best and the brightest’), once observed about Lyndon Johnson that LBJ was hardly disadvantaged by his lack of an Ivy League education. Rather, he said, LBJ suffered from his sense of lacking that education.
That is, LBJ’s insecurity about his deficiency was far worse than any actual deficit that may have existed. Isn’t that how it usually goes? Seneca’s line that we suffer more in imagination than in reality, would indicate that it’s been that way for millennia. But more appropriate on this occasion is that essential insight from Epictetus: It’s not things that upset us, it’s our opinion about them that does. And from Marcus Aurelius too: Choose to feel harmed and you have been, choose not to and you haven’t been.
LBJ was convinced that he had been done an injustice by growing up poor and unable to afford a school like Harvard or Yale. On its face, this was absurd--he still ended up being President--but he carried what we would today call ‘populist rage’ for so long and believed it for so long that it became true. Worse was the result; LBJ was alternately too trusting and too suspicious of those who were more credentialed or smarter than he was. He was harmed by his lack of education...because he harmed himself by believing there was something lacking.
The same is true for us. You’re not lacking whatever you thinking you’re lacking. It’s your opinion that you’re deficient that is far worse than any potential deprivation. You’ve got plenty. You are plenty. Remember that.
|Oct 10, 2018|
1981 was a tough year for tennis great Billie Jean King. That year, she sat down to write her memoir having endured serious betrayal on multiple fronts. One was emotional and financial: a woman she’d had an affair with attempted to extort her, creating a massive scandal. The other was physical and inevitable: Her body had begun to betray her mastery of the game. She was getting older, the other players were getting younger. She had to confront the fact that most of her winning was behind her. Yet, she would close her memoir with a pretty remarkable series of sentences that capture one of the most important (but most difficult) concepts in Stoicism: Amor Fati.
But more important now, I must think in terms of very specific goals and realities. Of course, I can just say I want to win all three -- the singles, doubles, and mixed. Easy to say and easy to want, but so difficult to execute. How can I do it? More than anything else, I must love everything that is part and parcel of the total Wimbledon scene. I must love hitting that little white ball; love every strain of running and bending those tired knees; love every bead of sweat; love every cloud or every ray of sun in the sky; love every moment of tension, waiting in the locker room; love the lack of total rest every night, the hunger pains during the day, taking a bath in my favorite tub, buying lollies for the ball boys, looking at the ivy and the trees and the flower arrangements, driving through Roehampton on the way to the courts every morning, practicing on the outside court with your stomach in your throat before the match; love watching people queue, knowing some of them have waited twenty years to experience one day at the Wimbledon; love playing on the Fourth of July, talking with Mrs. Twyman, having a rubdown, hearing the women talk (or not talk), and feeling the tension in the air, running up to the tea room through the crowds; love feeling and absorbing the tradition of almost one hundred years.
In essence, I have to possess enough passion and love to withstand all the odds. No matter how tough, no matter what kind of outside pressure, no matter how many bad breaks along the way, I must keep my sights on the final goal, to win, win, win -- and with more love and passion than the world has ever witnessed in any performance. A total, giving performance: give more when you think you have nothing left. Through the desire the inspiration will be present. Love, passion, attitude, ability, intensity -- the only way, a street with no curves or cul-de-sacs. I must let my inner self be out front and free. Love always.
What’s particularly striking about this passage are King’s observations about the mundane difficulties of the life of a tennis player and the way she was able to capture and appreciate--much the way Marcus Aurelius could--the ordinary pieces of experience. The beads of sweat...the moments of tension...the treats for the ball boys...even the pain of playing -- these are the things we see in a different light when we choose Amor Fati. In Marcus’s time he wrote about stalks of grain bending low, about the flecks of foam on a boar’s mouth, ripe fruit, the chattering of the adoring (and not adoring) crowds, the yapping of small dogs.
When we accept and embrace everything that is around us, we can truly begin to see it. We can see everything, big and small, good and bad, and find beauty in it--find something to love in it. We can find the intensity a
|Oct 09, 2018|
Things Worse Than Dying
Death and dying are the worst parts of life, right? After all, they do end the whole thing.
So while it does make sense, generally, to try to avoid dying, Seneca marvelled at the terrible things people do to stay alive--things much worse than death. We’ll betray friends, he said, betray our most closely held beliefs, people will even sell out their own children and grandchildren--as the elderly often do in almost every election--just to keep things the way we like them.
How pathetic is this? And what a contradiction it is. Sure, you’re literally still alive, but you traded your soul to make it so. You might as well be in a coma on a ventilator.
Actually, according to Seneca, that would be better. Because the problem with the pathetic, unprincipled, selfish things we do to stay alive--stealing, hoarding, lying, and cheating--is that we then have to live with them. People do terrible things to live to see the sunrise the next day, he says, “a dawn that’s privy to their many sins.”
There are many worse things than death, many things that no amount of years are worth trading for. That is: Living with what we had to do to keep living, well, that can be worth than death.
We must always remember that. Life is not the scarce resource, living well is. Being a good person is. Doing the right thing is. That’s what important. Not how many years you pile up.
|Oct 08, 2018|
If Today Was Your Last Day
We put a lot of thought into making distinctions about what’s urgent and what’s not. We put a lot of effort into planning. We have our conservative calculations for retirement and our ambitious ones. We have a bucket list that includes the things we want to do now, in the future and in the way way off distant future. All of which presumes we’ve got plenty of time with which to do it all. The thought exercise from Marcus Aurelius: “Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was--what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.” We live under precisely the kind of sentence that Marcus described. We could go today. We could go tomorrow. This week or next week. In twenty minutes or twenty years. These are, in the big scheme of things, infinitely small amounts of time. You get that, right? So why are you living as if you have forever? Why are you wasting so much time? Don’t be a coward. Don’t split hairs. Live your life.
|Oct 05, 2018|
We Pay The Iron Price
In Game of Thrones, the people of the Iron Islands believe they have been entitled by God to steal and seize whatever they like. Women, land, possessions, even the rightful kingdom of one’s own brother--all of this is capriciously taken by the ironborn if they think they’d like to have it. "I take what is mine. I pay the iron price,” Balon Greyjoy says. It’s a tradition that the Roman empire, even at its most aggressive and belligerent, never fully embraced. Yet there is something or someone who actually does lives by the iron law and always has: Fortune. Which is why Seneca and Marcus and every Stoic lived with profound respect for her power and dominance. It doesn’t matter who you are, how rich you are, how big your army is, how pious you have been in your life. Fortune can and will come take it from you. The pages of Seneca’s writings are not only filled with stories of powerful people who were attacked by Fortune paying the iron price for their most prized possessions; his own life follows the same storyline. He was exiled, he lost loved ones, his reputation was destroyed, and in the end, his breath itself was taken without recompense. Epictetus too had his freedom taken this way, even partly giving up his ability to walk to a slave owner who paid nothing in return for this deprivation. We measly humans are not mythical characters in Game of Thrones, but we are nonetheless subjected to those wicked economics. We are what’s paid. Never forget this. Never forget, as Seneca said and needed to remember himself, Fortune’s habit of doing what she pleases, acting as capriciously as she wishes, and how little she cares for our feelings in regards to it. Because it will happen. Oh and, now and forever, it’s important to remember: Premeditatio Malorum
|Oct 04, 2018|
Nothing Exempts You From Hard Work
It’s interesting, if you think about Greek and Roman mythology, that the Gods were so active and busy. Athena and Circe and Hermes all worked to help Odysseus. Apollo guided Achilles. Zeus and Jupiter were always getting involved in this squabble or that one. Sort of weird, right? They were Gods, they could do anything...or nothing...and yet they still worked really hard to keep the universe in balance or to see this cause or that one triumph. There is a similar theme in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna appears to Arjuna and tries to convince him of his destiny to fight in the Kurukshetra War. In one verse, he says, “I have no work to do in all the worlds, Arjuna, for these are mine. I have nothing to obtain, because I have it all. And yet I work...” It could be said that the same theme emerges in the lives of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Cato, despite their status as lesser mortals. Marcus Aurelius was emperor and he could have just as easily spent his reign on an island retreat like his predecessor Tiberius. Seneca came from a wealthy family and could have spent his time on one of the family estates. Cato could have been a playboy or a bookish philosopher. Yet all these men chose the active life instead. They chose to participate in public affairs. They risked their lives. They were not content to coast on their reputations or past accomplishments. They held themselves to high standards. They didn’t have to. But they did anyway. And so must we--no matter how successful we get, nor how much easier it would be to rest on our laurels. Even when we have everything, even when we achieve wisdom and perspective about how silly and unimportant most worldly matters are, nothing exempts us from hard work. Nothing gives us a pass on our duty. We just keep going. That’s the job of being a good person just as it’s the duty of a god.
|Oct 03, 2018|
Nothing Can Touch The Soul
The anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun and the song it inspired, One by Metallica, tell the story of Joe Bonham, a soldier who has been grievously injured on the battlefield in World War I. Upon waking in the hospital, the soldier finds that he cannot walk or speak, see or hear. Modern science has saved his body—or at least part of it—and he is left questioning what kind of life this actually is. There is the haunting lyric in Metallica’s epic song: “Landmine has taken my sight Taken my speech Taken my hearing Taken my arms Taken my legs Taken my soul Left me with life in hell” Certainly one would not want to be flip about the unreal torture that would have been Joe’s position—a position that far too many soldiers have found themselves in. However, the Stoics would have pushed back on the second to last line—taken my soul. Because to the Stoics, nothing, not even the explosion of a landmine, can touch what is inside us. And in fact, the plot of the novel and the song are evidence of this. Despite the terror and pain of his ghastly position—trapped in his own body, unable to move, alive only in the most technical sense of the word—Johnny shows a remarkable amount of control over his own life. Remembering that he knows Morse Code, he begins to communicate with his doctors by tapping his head. First, telling them SOS, SOS, SOS until eventually they understand. Then, finally, he asks the military to exhibit him across the country, in a glass box, as evidence of the horrors of war. This is not a man whose soul has been taken. This is a man who has been deprived of everything but his soul and it is that soul that he is leaning on in this moment of unimaginable suffering and difficulty. Our soul is the only untouchable thing within us. No arms, no legs, no eyes, no face, and Jonny retains the ability to determine his own fate, to decide the terms he is going to live or not to live on. And we do possess this power and fortitude, which we can apply in any and all situations we face today...ones that if Fortune holds will be far less ethically fraught and painful than those that real soldiers face in the intensive care units every day. Oh and, now and ever, it’s important to remember: Memento Mori.
|Oct 02, 2018|
It’s Time To Get Up. It’s Time To Get Up
One of the best passages in all of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the opener to Book V. In it, Marcus has a dialog with himself as he struggles to get out of bed in the morning. It’s just marvelously relatable. Here we have an extraordinary man, some twenty centuries ago, struggling just like every ordinary man and woman has, to get up the willpower to get up from his warm bed and get to work. Who hasn’t had a similar conversation with themselves? Who hasn’t thought, just as Marcus did, that “it’s nicer here” under the covers? As Dante wrote in his Divine Comedy, “beneath the blanket is no way to fame.” Not that Marcus or the Stoics would have advocated chasing fame. Still, Marcus did get out of bed that morning and every other morning. Why? Because he had to. He had a job to do. We all do. Ordinary and extraordinary alike, we weren’t put on this planet and evolution didn’t mercilessly improve and refine our species to do nothing. No, we have skills to deploy and duties to fulfill. We have things to do. It’s time to get up and do them.
|Oct 01, 2018|
Another Reason To Journal
In Walter Isaacson’s wonderful new biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, he spends a lot of time dissecting and exploring the ideas in Da Vinci’s notebooks. From his military sketches to his lesser known fables to self-portraits and scientific breakthroughs, Da Vinci poured his best self onto these pages (in fact, he often carried them around on a rope attached to his belt so they were always at hand). As Isaacson observed, Da Vinci’s lifelong habit of journaling should inspire us to do some of our own: “Five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are around to astonish and inspire us. Fifty years from now, our own notebooks, if we work up the initiative to start them, will be around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.” He is so right. Marcus Aurelius is himself a wonderful example of this. The American philosopher Brand Blanshard was as enthralled with Marcus’s writing as Isaacson was with Da Vinci. As he said: “Few care now about the marches and countermarches of the Roman commanders. What the centuries have clung to is a notebook of thoughts by a man whose real life was largely unknown who put down in the midnight dimness not the events of the day or the plans of the morrow, but something of far more permanent interest, the ideals and aspirations that a rare spirit lived by.” The question for you then is when are you going to stop wasting your time tweeting and chattering and texting and start producing your own notebooks? Keep a commonplace book. Keep a diary. Start a journal. Create something that, if the centuries don’t cling to, at least your family can. Or if they don’t care, produce something that will give you something to look back on and learn from. But start. Stop putting it off. Take the initiative.
|Sep 28, 2018|
Don’t Make This Mistake (Or Stop Before It’s Too Late)
Why are good people attracted to serving bad people or bad causes? Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Seneca advised Nero. Da Vinci attached himself to Cesare Borgia. Mattis accepted a cabinet position from Trump. There are, of course, many other examples of academics who were blind to the horrors of the Soviet system or the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, just as everyday there are good people who go to work for less than ethical companies or leaders. But it is sad that there are two prominent Stoics on that list. Seneca knew what Nero was up to. Secretary of Defense Mattis, a wise, patriotic four-star general, is currently serving a man who is almost his polar opposite in every single way, who says and does things he can’t possibly agree with and would never defend. Now in all these instances, there is a good case to be made that if these wise men didn’t serve in these roles, someone else--someone less disciplined and less compassionate--would simply fill their place. Would we have preferred Alexander without Aristotle’s tempering? Would we want someone less strong, less ethical, less driven by duty to take over as Secretary of Defense? That’s a reasonable argument, and we simply cannot know how much either of these individuals struggled with the dilemmas of their position. Still, that’s only an explanation, not an excuse. The writer Paul Johnson defined an intellectual as someone who believed that ideas were more important than people. It was this fallacy, he said, that wrongly encouraged otherwise smart people to rationalize Stalin’s murderous regime or attracted them to personalities like Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. Sometimes people are too smart, too in their own heads, to see what was obvious to any outsider. Or worse, their brain and their ambition overrode their heart. Because the heart knows. The heart knows that Alexander and Nero and Borgia and Trump are tragically awful. Even if they do, or did, some good in the world. The point of this email is condemn anyone or to get into a partisan argument (reasonable people can disagree about America’s current president), but to serve as a reminder: The good guys end up enabling the bad guys far too often. And unlike the stupid, they can’t claim ignorance and unlike the desperate, they can’t claim they didn’t have a choice. We need to work extra hard to avoid that mistake. If we are already doing it--like if your boss is an abusive wreck of a human, or if your industry makes the world a worse place--then we need to make the hard decision to walk away. Don’t let ideas or ideals get in the way of the real human cost of your work. Don’t be a cautionary tale. It’s not too late.
|Sep 27, 2018|
Love Not Hate
It’s easy to stir up resentment, harder to create common ground. It’s easy to point out what’s wrong, it’s much more difficult to come up with a solution. Our current political and social dialogue has taken the easy road, no question, which is why we’re divided and despair of solving any of our problems. The Stoic rejects this, resists the urge to point fingers or label other groups “the enemy.” As Booker T. Washington wrote, “Great men cultivate love, only little men cherish a spirit of hatred.” And this was from a man who had been born in the final days of slavery, who faced incredible racism and adversity. Yet he, like all great men and women, sought common ground, solutions and love over distrust and anger. What excuse do you have to be little? What do you expect this smallness is going to accomplish? Even if playing to divisions and pointing fingers gets you attention, even if it plays well with today’s social media algorithms, does it make you feel better or happer? Of course not. Love. Love. Love. Other people. Your fate. Your obstacles. Amor fati. Love it all. Because it’s the only way.
|Sep 26, 2018|
Make Sure You're Coming Home
All of us have day jobs. Even professional philosophers are still professors or authors, which means they have other responsibilities than just thinking and reading. That means that like the rest of us, they’ve got meetings to take and phone calls to make and paperwork to do and politics to play. And that’s okay. It’s only an issue when, if we’re not careful, those “other” things grow and grow until they take over our whole life. It’s as true for us now as it was true for Marcus Aurelius. He was responsible for a whole empire. Yet to explain how to balance his priorities, he made this analogy, “If you had a stepmother and a real mother, you would pay your respects to your step mother, yes...but it’s your real mother you’d go home to. The court...and philosophy: Keep returning to it, to rest in its embrace. It’s all that makes the court--and you--endurable.” His point was that you should return to that which nourishes you, because self-improvement is your true task in life. Philosophy is part of that essential pursuit. It’s what birthed you into this world, raised you, and made you an adult. Sure, you also have to make money and contribute to society (or deal with the court, in Marcus’s case). You may have hobbies and other obligations too. Just remember that those come after. Those are your step-parents. It’s not that you love them less or that they haven’t been instrumental in your life. But there should be an extra loyalty to who and what made you. There is something extra special about home. Make sure you’re visiting enough. And paying the proper respects.
|Sep 21, 2018|
Different Folks Need Different Strokes
Confucius was once asked for advice by a student, and in replying essentially urged him to wait and be patient. Later he was asked for advice by another student, and advised that student to not be patient and to solve the problem immediately. An observant third student noticed the seemingly contradictory nature of Confucius’ responses and asked him to explain. Confucius replied, “Ran Qiu is over cautious and so I wished to urge him on. Zilu, on the other hand, is too impetuous, and so I sought to hold him back.” This seems like a fairly obvious insight--that different situations call for different, even potentially opposite solutions. Beyond Confucius, just consider Epictetus: He was not writing things down, but rather speaking aloud to his students. In many cases, what survives of his teachings is in similar form to what we have of Confucius--advice to particular people in particular situations. Same with Seneca’s letters, which were addressed to specific people and specific scenarios, and with Marcus Aurelius who was speaking about his own personal issues. Think of Walt Whitman, a lifelong student of Epictetus, who reminded us that even individuals contradict themselves because they are complicated and contain multitudes. These men were not attempting to explain a comprehensive or even coherent set of beliefs. They were not trying to articulate a paint-by-numbers instruction manual to life. Rather, they were trying to reveal, from their own experience, a general framework of principles that could help people solve an array of specific problems, however they arose. And yet, for centuries, professional philosophers and historians have had trouble comprehending this idea as they attempted to place it in a larger, abstract theoretical context. In fact, it’s due to their intellectualizing and tunnel vision and embarrassing simple-mindedness that Stoicism, specifically, has been misinterpreted as contradictory or unsystematic. Even more frustrating, the fact that many of the principles of Stoicism were born of private meditations on or advice about personal problems or stressors, has led many academics to wrongly believe Stoicism is pessimistic or cynical or even nihilistic. They fail to understand that, at a very basic human level, when we are struggling, our first question is not “how can I feel good?” but rather “how can I not feel so bad?” That is the more urgent need, after all. And for each person, the answer is always a little bit different, because they are different, and their circumstances are different. That is why sometimes the Stoics suggest practicing premeditatio malorum...and other times not to get caught up with all the possibilities of what might happen. It’s why the Stoics talk a lot about overcoming adversity and the problems of life and less about laughter and prosperity (students don’t often rush to their teachers for advice about how to have fun). It’s why Marcus returns to the same themes over and over again (because he needed help there, not because everyone else did). It’s why one Stoic philosopher will talk about working hard and doing one’s duty while another will remind us that we aren’t animals and there is more to life. Because everybody is different, and different strokes for different folks. Different advice for people depending on who they are, what they want, and where they are one day to the next. If there is anything that is consistently and systematically true about the practice of Stoic philosophy, it’s this.
|Sep 20, 2018|
What To Do When You’re Not Naturally Perfect
It was on this day in the year 86 AD, that Antoninus Pius, the man who would become best known as the stepfather of Marcus Aurelius, was born. Most people, even followers of Stoicism, don’t know much about Antoninus. This is sad because he was a truly great man. “Antoninus would have had the reputation of being the best of sovereigns,” Joseph Ernest Renan writes, “if he had not designated for his successor a man equal to himself in goodness and in modesty.” It’s worth taking a second today to consider what made him so special. Renan points out in his book The History of the Origins of Christianity: “Antoninus was a philosopher without pretending to be so, and almost without knowing it. Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher whose humanity and sincerity were admirable, but yet reflective. In this respect Antoninus was the greater. His kindness did not lead him to make mistakes. He was not tormented by the evil instincts which gnawed at the heart of his adopted son.” Where Marcus was conscientious and self-conscious, Antoninus was effortlessly and naturally all the things that Marcus wished he could be, both as a philosopher and as a person. Antoninus did not need to hold in his temper like Marcus, as he did not have one. He did not need to meditate on his mortality, as he was always present and took nothing for granted. As Marcus wrote in the opening pages of Meditations: “You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness--indomitable.” What a man. What an example. Yet the truth is, most of us have no shot at that. We aren’t so naturally, effortlessly perfect at anything, really. We’re more like Marcus. We have the example of Antoninus to strive for but must work incredibly hard to get even halfway close. And you know what? That’s ok. Because even if we fall short, even if we are not perfect, Antoninus would instinctively understand and appreciate our effort. He’d accept us unconditionally while still encouraging us to be better. Because that’s who he was. He may have ultimately been eclipsed by Marcus Aurelius in the annals history, but he was by no means less great.
|Sep 19, 2018|
Approach Your Troubles Like Doctor
It’s famously said that you should learn from the mistakes of others because you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself. In that way, the books we read and the information we digest gives us an advantage to those who choose to learn by painful trial and error. In studying the Stoics, we’re able to adopt a mentality battle tested by some of history’s most successful warriors, artists, businessmen, and politicians. We can use the same operating system that helped centuries of people solve the complex problems of daily life. Ward Farnsworth is the Dean of the University of Texas Law School. He’s also a lifetime student of the Stoics and author of The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual. He expanded on this idea in a recent interview: “Stoicism tries to get its students to approach the troubles of other people like a good doctor would. Veteran doctors are very compassionate, and they give their all to their patients. But they don’t get emotional about it. They might have done so when they were first getting started, but experience tends to turn them into natural stoics in their professional lives. That’s one way to think about Stoicism: it’s an effort to gain, by the study of philosophy, some of the traits and immunities that would otherwise be the natural result of long experience. The study of stoicism is kind of a surrogate for the passage of time.” That is why you put in the work, that’s why you listen to this podcast and subscribe to these emails. You have the same goal. To bring yourself to the state others take a lifetime to get to. When you read these emails, try to not just read them, but adopt their lessons into your everyday life. In that way, you’re inheriting the wisdom of generations past. And becoming wiser and stronger for it. For more, read our full interview with Ward on DailyStoic.com and check out his newest book The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual. The book distills the main ideas of the Stoics under twelve easy-to-reference headings.
|Sep 18, 2018|
This Will Help You Get Rid Of Crazy Thoughts
In Aaron Thier’s novel The World Is A Narrow Bridge (the title is a proverb we have written about before), one of the main characters is a runner. His wife teases him for his dedication to this hobby, which he claims settles his mind and makes him feel less crazy. She jokes that “it’s a craziness problem that makes you run and run.” His reply absolutely nails it, as any runner knows. “It’s the running that alleviates the craziness,” he tells her. “Sanity flows up from the feet, or actually it flows from the gravity, because gravity provides the resistance.” We know that the Stoic Chrysippus was a long distance runner. Seneca probably wasn’t a runner, but we know he was a walker. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” he wrote, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” Again, a runner knows that as wonderful as walking is, nothing nourishes the mind quite like getting into the zone on a great run and that the best way to get those deep breaths in is to push the tempo. Still, runner, walker, swimmer, weight lifter, wrestler (or horseback rider, fencer, et al), the point is that physical activity is an important complement to the study of philosophy. Sometimes we get so worked up, our mind gets wound so tight that the only way to get some slackget the body moving--to get lost in strenuous exercise in a way that brings you fully and completely into the present moment. Remember that sometimes we can’t think our way out of a thinking problem. And yet we can find sanity from other sources, from gravity and resistance and pushing ourselves in the physical domain. This is the mind-body connection. So try to make some room for the “strenuous life” today. Go for a hike. Or a run. Or take a dive into a swimming hole. Just get moving.
|Sep 17, 2018|
Virtue Is Contagious (and Has Obligations)
The line from Confucius was that “Virtue is never solitary; it always has neighbors.” What he meant by that was that good behavior and good thinking is contagious. In a way, virtue is like the homeowner who moves into a rundown neighborhood and through that investment and the cheerful improvements they make to their own home and the friends and family that follow, the block begins to turn around. It’s become a point of virtue-signaling these days to criticize this as “gentrification,” but of course that’s silly. We should want people to be doing this--not just in housing but in all walks of life. If politics is a snake pit of corruption and avarice, then good people should enter it and improve it, not simply denounce it. If capitalism is too selfish, then the caring should start businesses with better cultures (which, when successful, will steal market share from the bad actors). If a group has extreme or offensive views, it shouldn’t be cut off and isolated for fear of “normalizing it.” It should be normalized--by encouraging normal people to interact with it, correct it and prod these misguided people towards the right path. The silliness of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged is the premise that the talented, brilliant people leave society to create their own utopia...because they weren’t appreciated enough by everyone else. What childish nonsense. Since Plato’s allegory of the cave, the duty of the philosopher and of the virtuous person is clear: To come back to the group and share one’s knowledge. To resist the urge to be the solitary wiseman and to instead be a good neighbor. Remember that today as you work on your studies. That the point of all this is to make the world--not just yourself--a better place.
|Sep 14, 2018|
It Comes For All, Young And Old
The New York Times Obituary section this past weekend featured a somberly diverse list of losses: William Jordan, the impressionist, was dead at 91. Erich Lessing, a photographer died at 95. Amanda Kyle Williams, the crime writer, at 61. Randy Weston, the Jazz pianist, at 92. Mac Miller, the rapper at 26. Not included, of course, are the thousands of less famous people around the world, who died at ages young and old, of causes expected and unexpected. Some had lived full lives, others were cut tragically short. Mac Miller, whose promising music career ended prematurely, is a reminder of that to all of us. Just X weeks ago, he shot his final music video which included a scene of him carving the words memento mori in a coffin. Talk about art getting real. Death comes for all of us. Indeed, some of us are either in so much pain, or take our existence so for granted--or likely a mix of both--that we actually invite death in early. Others live much longer, but it’s never a given that longevity is superior (there are plenty of people whose age creeps up until the triple digits with little to show for it). Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself that the thought of our mortality should determine what we do and say and think. Meaning: Don’t waste time. Take care of yourself. Make the most of your talents while you’re here. Be prepared for the end. Life is a gift that can be revoked at any moment, we need to remember that. We need to remember that it’s a gift, period, and shouldn’t be treated with respect and appreciation. Memento mori. This is not just a fun phrase to throw around. It’s deadly serious.
|Sep 13, 2018|
What Should Good People Do?
Confucius, like Seneca, was an interesting hybrid of philosopher and politician. For instance, in addition to his teachings and writings, he pushed for “a revival of a unified royal state, whose rulers would succeed to power on the basis of their moral merits instead of lineage.” His justification for participating in the complicated, corrupting world of politics was captured in this metaphor: “If you possessed a piece of beautiful jade, would you hide it away in a locked box or would you try to sell it at a good price? Oh I would sell it! I would sell it! I am just waiting for the right offer.” Meaning, the virtue of the philosopher was exactly what the state needed. Yet even in the sixth century BC, there was an art to finding the right government or office to contribute that virtue to. As Confucius said, “When the state has the Way, accept a salary; when the state is without the Way, to accept a salary is shameful.” Five hundred years later, Seneca endured a similar struggle. As a Stoic, he rejected the belief of the Epicureans that the wise person should ignore politics and focus on their own self-development, because it neglected one’s obligations to the common good and one’s duty to their calling and abilities. Yet he ended up serving Nero’s administration, and in so doing, was complicit in the regime’s evils. Far too late, Seneca realized that “when the state is so rotten as to be past helping, if evil has entire dominion over it, the wise man will not labor in vain or waste his strength in unprofitable efforts.” (More on Seneca here in this New York Times piece) What does that means for the rest of us? It means that fulfilling our obligations as citizens and people can be tough. Should we serve an administration we disagree with? Should we accept a salary or work in an industry despite the qualms of our conscience? What is a soldier’s duty when they are ordered to fight in a war they don’t believe in? There are no easy answers to these questions--they must be wrestled with. What they can’t be is ignored. We don’t get to flee the debate to indulge ourselves in Epicurus’s garden of delights. Too many people--our families and our fellow citizens--are counting on us. Nor do we get to just observe from afar, ranting about the news or the state of things as if it’s someone else’s responsibility. Because if the philosophical-minded, if the good people, are checked out, who does that leave these incredibly important matters to? Right. The bad guys.
|Sep 12, 2018|
The Ideal Weapon For Spiritual Combat
Michel Foucault has a fascinating essay on journaling entitled “Self-Writing.” In it, he describes journaling as a “weapon in spiritual combat,” which is a brilliant phrase. That might seem to be overstating it, after all, is it really such a big deal to write down some of your thoughts in a notebook? Yes. It is a big deal. As he puts it, “writing constitutes a test and a kind of touchstone: by bringing to light impulses of thought, it dispels the darkness where the enemy’s plot are hatched.” He quotes Seneca and Epictetus as evidence of this, since both believed that simply reading or listening to philosophy wasn’t enough. Philosophy to the Stoics was not just “practical” but designed to be practiced. You had to write it down too, you had to show your work. You had to put the issues you were struggling with down on paper and go through the motion of articulating the solution that you’d heard from a master or a teacher. Foucault explains that this process has two benefits. First, it takes the philosophy from “meditation to the activity of writing and from there to...training and trial in a real situation--a labor of thought, a labor through writing, a labor in reality.” The second part, he says, is this becomes an endless, productive cycle. “The meditation precedes the notes which enable the rereading which in turn reinitiates the meditation.” It’s quite beautiful. You learn. You struggle. You journal about the struggle. You apply what you’ve journaled about to your struggle. You reread your journaling and it teaches you new lessons to journal about and use in future struggles. It’s a truly virtuous feedback loop. But of course, this process can only happen if you do the work. If you make time for the journaling and the writing, if you submit to the cycle. Too often, we are unwilling to do that. We claim we don’t have time. We are too self-conscious. We don’t have the right materials. Nonsense. Start. Today. Now.
|Sep 11, 2018|
You Are Worth Fighting For
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Given that a number of prominent Stoics committed suicide, and that suicide was described by Epictetus as the “open door” it might seem like a strange theme to write about here today. But the truth is the Stoics did not take this topic lightly. Nor were they in any way advocates for such a thing, excepting the most extreme circumstances. If we could summarize the Stoic attitude towards it, we’d have trouble doing better than Churchill’s line that one should “Never abandon life. There is a way out of everything but death.” When we look at a Stoic like Admiral James Stockdale who considered suicide in a North Vietnamese prison camp, it should be noted that he wasn’t considering killing himself because he was depressed. He was heroically declining to aid the captors and torturers who wished to make him betray his country. When Seneca committed suicide—a man who had written eloquently on this topic many times—it was not because he was tired of living. He was being executed by the tyrant Nero who demanded his death. The same goes for Cato, who had fought to the bitter end to save the Roman Republic. The point being: These men, like Churchill, were fighters. They never, ever, ever, ever gave up. And neither should you. Because you’re worth fighting for. Your life is worth fighting for. No matter who you are, or what you’re going through the course of our ordinary lives, you have options. Lots of them. Please remember that, always. Remember what you’re capable of. Remember how much is left in your control—your choices, your thoughts, your ability to turn this experience and this pain into something that makes the world a better place. Please don’t give up. And don’t be ashamed to ask for help either. There’s nothing un-Stoic about that.
|Sep 10, 2018|
Study The Lives of The Greats
It would be this Sunday that in the year 1813, General William Henry Harrison sent three volumes of an ancient book to his 15 year old son, John. The book was Plutarch's Lives, long a favorite of successful men and women throughout history. Indeed, the General would inscribe the first volume of the leatherbound set accordingly, "Willm H. Harrison send this set of Plutarch's to his beloved son J.C. Symmes Harrison in the hope that he will diligently study the lives of great men contained in it & that if he is unable to rival their splendid achievements in their country, service he will at least imitate their private victories. Head Qtr. Seneca Town. 9th Sept. 1813." The Stoics talk over and over again about studying the lives of the “greats.” Why? To learn what to do and what not to do. To be inspired by their splendid achievements for the common good, to be horrified by their selfishness and greed, and to direct this understanding of both towards private victories. Find yourself a Cato, find yourself an Alexander (both are profiled in Plutarch), or whomever to use as an example of who to be and who not to be. Diligently study them—today and tomorrow and forever—and then, when you find yourself in the position to do so down the road, pass the lessons down to the next generation. Think of it like your own version of Plutarch’s Lives which, if you like, Amazon has used copies of for $1.38, the University of Chicago has for free online, and an auction house is currently selling William Henry Harrison’s 200+ year old copy for $18,500. Whichever version of Plutarch you pick up, know that you are following a great tradition when you do so.
|Sep 07, 2018|
The Only Kind Of Comparison Worth Doing
It is said that comparison is the thief of joy and is, therefore, mostly to be avoided. This is true. You’re on your own journey with your own unique circumstances. Using what other people have or what they’ve done as a guiding light to chart your progress is rarely the way to happiness. The same goes for making yourself feel superior because of what you have or have done. It might feel good for a moment, but ultimately it’s a hollow happiness. Still, wise philosophers in both the East and West have spoken about the need to look at examples set by the greats to see where we can improve morally. As Confucius said: “When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate upon becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself.” Marcus Aurelius spoke often of similar wisdom. “When faced with people’s bad behavior,” he said, “turn around and ask when you have acted like that.” As for worthy examples, the entire first book of his Meditations is about precisely that: depictions of the influences in his life whom he strove to be like. Notice he does not speak about how rich or honored these people were, but rather about how they comported themselves and the standards to which they held themselves. We would do well ourselves to follow the example of both Confucius and Marcus Aurelius. Comparison is typically a dead end. The only comparison worth doing is the kind that propels you to be more worthy as a human being--whether that is aspiring to live up to the example of an admirable person, or recognizing your own shortcomings in the struggles and failings of the people around you, so that you might reflect on and fix them as you continue on your own unique journey.
|Sep 06, 2018|
How Are You Still Not Doing This?
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in Vita Antonii that the reason he did his journaling--his confessing, as the genre was called by the Christians--was that it was a safeguard against sinning. By observing and then writing about his own behavior, he was able to hold himself accountable and make himself better. “Let us each note and write down our actions and impulses of the soul,” he wrote, “as though we were to report them to each other; and you may rest assured that from utter shame of becoming known we shall stop sinning and entertaining sinful thoughts altogether...Just as we would not give ourselves to lust within sight of each other so if we were to write down our thoughts as if telling them to each other, we shall so much the more guard ourselves against foul thoughts for shame of being known. Now, then, let the written account stand for the eyes of our fellow ascetics, so that blushing at writing the same as if we were actually seen, we may never ponder evil.” The Stoics journaled for much the same reason. Seneca said the key was to put the day up for review so that one could see their faults and find a way to mend them. Epictetus said that by writing, reading and speaking our philosophical journal, we keep the teachings top of mind and are better able to follow them. Marcus, of course, said less on the subject of journaling, but left us the greatest lesson of all: his example. When you pick up Meditations, what you see is a man confessing, debating, considering, and struggling with all of what it means to be human. Marcus said in one of his notes that he should “fight to be the person philosophy made you.” His journal is the play by play of that fight--it’s his battles with his temper, with his urges, with his fears, even with his mortality. It took a lot of work, but from what we know, he won most of those battles. Through his writing and his philosophy, light prevailed over darkness. It’s a grand tradition and an inspiring example that each of us is called to follow. The Daily Stoic Journal is one way to do that. It prompts you to prepare for the day ahead and review the day just past. It gives you big questions to consider and standards to guide yourself towards. A blank notebook can work too. So can a letter or an email to a friend. So can a silent conversation with yourself on a long walk. The point is, you have to do the work. You have to put up the safeguards. You have to actively fight to be the person philosophy wants you to be...in the pages of your journal.
|Sep 05, 2018|
This Message Is Waiting For You
On April 24th 1924, the pioneer writer Laura Ingalls Wilder got a note that he mother, aged 84, had died. It was a sad day, particularly since it had been so many years since she had been able to see or spend time with the woman who had raised and loved her. Wilder would address this sadness with her typical grit and stoic demeanor in her now popular newspaper column a few days later. “Some of us have received such messages,” she wrote. “Those who have not, one day will.” It seems obvious but it is an obvious statement worth repeating because our mind does everything we can to avoid letting it sink in: Each and everyone of us that lives long enough to see it will be told that our parents have died. Like Seneca wrote, we see it happen to other people. We know that our folks, like all other humans, are mortal. Yet we refuse to learn the obvious lesson: That the same thing will happen to them and to us. Each of us holds the fantasy that we can escape this loss. The proof of this fantasy is the way we treat those relationships today. We ignore phone calls or sigh our way through family dinners. We hold onto to feuds or deprivations of our childhood. We put off until later coming to appreciate and understand the people who raised us--flawed people yes--but people who in the vast majority of cases, genuinely tried their best. To paraphrase Marcus: Your parents could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. The message of your loss is coming--and if it has already come, then some other loss--and it may be on its way right now. So do what you can now, appreciate them now. Ask them the things you want to ask them now. Say the things you want to say now. Before it’s too late.
|Sep 04, 2018|
In This Way You Are Unstoppable
Acceptance? Resignation? That’s not me, we say, when we hear the Stoics preach those concepts. I never give up. I’m a fighter. Ok. If you say so. But there’s a difference between being a fighter and a doer. Remember, one of the outcomes of “fighting” is losing. And that’s what happens most of the time; indeed, every time when you fight something that is outside your control. This is why the Stoic instead practices the “art of acquiesce.” Why they learn amor fati--a desire for things to be exactly as they are--so they can use them. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces--to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it--and makes it burn still higher.” Today, ask yourself which type you’re going to be. Are you going to be a fighter or a doer? Are you going to “resist” or are you going to accept obstacles and turn them into fuel for action? Amor fati. Be made brighter and hotter by everything that happens.
|Sep 03, 2018|
Your Heart Shouldn’t Be Getting Harder As You Go
The old joke--which dates back to the 1870s--is that if you’re not a liberal when you’re young you have no heart, but if you’re still a liberal when you’re older, you have no brain. Now we can put any partisan beliefs aside and see how this is at least partly true. When you’re young, it’s easy to believe in the inherent goodness of the world because you haven’t actually experienced any of it yet. You are naive. It’s easy to think that everything should be very simple and always fair in that phase of your life. But as you get older, you realize that the world is more complicated, and in fact that there is often a lot of wisdom and necessity in the mas morium--the way of your elders. A settling into a kind of conservatism as you age and experience life is reasonable and probably smart. However, it’s should be obvious that remark is also totally and completely wrong. Yes, it’s easy to believe in ideals when you are young, and yes it’s harder to maintain that idealism when you are older, but that is sort of the point: life isn’t about getting more selfish and colder as you go. What kind of life would 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|