Monday, February 13, 2017

On (Short and Most Likely Wrong) Thoughts About the Modern Stoic Schools

Recently, I’ve been working on not only gaining a deeper understanding of Stoicism, but also how to use in modern life, as well as attempting to figure out if there is anything of the modern world that could be of some use to Stoicism. This attempt, of course, has me seeing Stoicism of today as two different schools: New Stoicism and Traditional Stoicism. The following, of course, may be a gross generalization that could be dispelled with a little work, but I find that the best way to find answers is to sometimes be wrong on the internet.

Traditional Stoicism

I also call this “religious” Stoicism, not because Stoics from this camp follow one faith or another, but rather they’re attempting to keep the physics side of Stoicism alive. This means keeping the idea of Providence going.

To the Traditional Stoic, dropping this aspect of Stoicism effectively changes it from a philosophy to a form of CBT psychology. You won’t find anyone (that I can tell) arguing that this isn’t useful, but rather that it just isn’t Stoicism.

This school, as far as I can tell, is attempting to fit new ideas into the framework of an old philosophy. They don’t ignore science or anything like that, but they also don’t ignore the physics of Stoicism. Providence is real and, through the use of both science and philosophy, attempt to prove this.

This school’s biggest challenge is overcoming the skepticism of most modern people. Providence, seemingly, plays no part in today’s world. Atheists find no need to for it and it seems a lot of theists see divinity more as a form of prosperity (“Pray to God for x, and pray like you mean it, and you’ll get x in some form or another!”).

New Stoicism

If Traditional Stoicism is about fitting new ideas into an old philosophy, New Stoicism is about fitting an old philosophy into new ideas. The Roman Stoics all but abandoned the logic side of Hellenistic Stoicism, and New Stoics abandoned the physics side.

A majority of New Stoics are atheist or agnostic (and before that debate starts, yes, I’m aware you can be both). For them, divinity just simply isn’t needed for Stoicism to exist. If, after all, an atheist derives the same benefits from Stoicism as one that believes in Providence, at what point did it stop being a valid philosophy?

This school’s biggest challenge is accounting for individual suffering. It can be hard to take Stoicism’s “medicine” about evil and overcoming it when the big Doctor in the sky isn’t around to dispense the treatment. When you try to take the cosmos as a whole, the atheist perspective can leave it a little cold whereas with the Providential view, the universe “provides” for you.

Final Thoughts

This is, as stated, my starting thoughts in this new understanding of Stoicism. I want to explore the way of the old schools and see if they can withstand the test of time. Personally, I think both schools have valid points about the other: I’m leery about outright ignoring one aspect of Stoicism, but it’s also hard to accept that the universe is looking out for us.

Monday, January 23, 2017

On the Dichotomy of Control vs. Trichotomy of Control

Side Note: I actually wrote this sometime last year and, as it turns out, never posted it. So here goes.

This essay, as the title points out, is a look at the Epictetus's dichotomy of control and Irvine's trichotomy of control. More to the point, just who the hell has it right, anyway?

Let's look at Epictetus first.

Epictetus is pretty straightforward about things. He says there are some things in our control and some things not in our control. And that's it. Okay, it's a little bit more than that, though not much more.

See, there's only two things in our control: our opinions and our will. So whatever isn't our opinion isn't in our control. Will is our ability to attempt influence over the world, including our own actions.

Irvine is more nuanced in his idea. To him, there's three things: things in our control, things not in our control, and things that we have limited control over.

The example he gives is someone practicing for a tennis match. According to Irvine, by practicing, our tennis player is exerting some control over the outcome because the player is improving their game. Ultimately, however, winning the match comes down to a lot of uncontrollable factors, such as if the weather plays in anyone's favor, if the opponent is better or cheats, whatever.

The problem with Irvine's trichotomy is that the third category – things we have limited control over – is actually a part of things we have control over. Think about it: we have control over if we practice or not, because it's of our opinion that we can improve our game and we have the will to make ourselves to it. But as Irvine himself points out, the outcome isn't up to the tennis player. So did the tennis player really exert control over fate? No. All they did was improve themselves, not their outcome.

Personally, it feels like Irvine is attempting to lessen the feelings of fate in Stoicism. If we have limited control over the world around us, it isn't as big or strong as it seems.

What it comes down to is Irvine's trichotomy tries to make more categories of control than needed. For clarity, let's go back to an old Stoic staple, the Stoic archer.

The old Stoics said that the archer didn't have any control over if their arrow hit the target or not. All the archer had control over was how much effort they put into doing their best. Practicing archery is one such way the archer could put effort into hitting the target. Yet there isn't any amount of practice that will make that arrow hit.

This doesn't make the archer's practice worthless. For what it's worth, the archer improves by practicing. And while the archer that does practice has a better chance of hitting their target, once that arrow leaves, it isn't up to the archer anymore.

Of course, for all the blustering I just did, there's one caveat that turns all this around and makes Irvine right.

See, for Epictetus to be right, you have to accept the traditional Stoic position on fate: that everything is up to the gods. No amount of practice would matter. If the gods wanted you to hit your target or win your tennis game, so be it. You could practice, but it was for your own sake.

However, a lot of atheist Stoics don't buy this concept of fate. For them, fate is more along the lines of probability. You have a certain odds of doing something and a certain odds of doing said thing successfully. So, going back to the archer, you have certain odds of hitting the target. You can't know the exact number, of course, as it involves a lot of unseen factors. However, you can improve your odds in different ways, such as practicing, buying a better bow, better arrows, and so on. In this case, Irvine is right. We can change the odds – perhaps even in our favor – and so we have some control over the world around us.

At the end of the day, how you see fate determines who is right and who is wrong. Believe fate is divinely determined and Epictetus is right. Believe fate is numbers and Irvine is right.

I'll be frank. When I started out on this, I was attempting to prove Irvine wrong. In fact, over at the Mountain Stoic (who has a wonderful post on this very subject), I commented that I disagreed with Irvine. However, having taken the time to think over how things played out, I found myself having no choice but to agree with Irvine. I'm an atheist Stoic, you see. I'm one of those that see fate as probability. Given that you can change probability into your favor (such as by practicing), I had to concede. For me, Irvine is right: I do have some control over external events.

However, this doesn't mean I have to get wrapped up in the outcome of said external events. I still don't have the ability to make something happen. I can only improve the odds of making something happen.

And I've yet another thought one the subject (I didn't think I'd be so divided by this!). Whilst working, I got to thinking about the fact that we can't actually know the odds to any event. Sure, there are some smart people out there that can make a good guess at it. But as anyone who's lost a sure bet knows, there isn't anything concrete about odds.

Now, seeing as the numbers are a total mystery to us and even something that is “sure” to happen can be screwed up, I think it's fair to say that we don't really know the numbers. And what is the difference between not knowing the numbers and having no control over the outcome? Nothing.

In this sense, Epictetus is right. No amount of planning can give you a sureness to the world around you. You can, however, have a sureness about the fact you practiced. In fact, you can say that at the very least, you tried to improve your odds and still accept that it's not up to you to succeed in what you do.

Okay, that's it. I'm done. Here's what I got.

The Dichotomy is right if: you think something like God or Fate controls everything or you think the uncertainty of odds makes it impossible to put the odds in your favor due to too many other unforeseeable events.

The Trichotomy is right if: you think that, despite being able to know the odds, you think you can influence them through your actions.

For me, the dichotomy, at the end of the day, proves true.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

On "Real" Stoicism

I was listening to the Painted Porch podcast, specifically episode 8. In this episode, they tackle the question of just how needed a god is to Stoicism. I remember the Facebook kerfuffle that happened, too. If I remember correctly, I saw a lot of the phrase “real Stoic” being thrown around.

While the main focus of the episode is an interesting topic, it's the idea of “real” Stoicism that got me thinking more. Just what is this “real” Stoicism that we sometimes hear about?

To be clear, since the fighting died down, I don't think I've seen this talked about since. But it could also rear its head again at any time, because any big enough disagreement seems to bring out the true Scotsmen. So, just what is “real” Stoicism?

See, this all depends on who we ask. Today, you might get a lot of answers. “Those who follow Stoics ethics are real Stoics.” “Those who follow Stoic physics are real Stoics.” Oh, poor Stoic logic. Nobody seems to give two damns about you anymore.

Ask a Roman Stoic and they might be a little confused. “How could you guys be real Stoics if you ignore this part or that? Atheists, you ignore the physics. What good does that do you? And religious folk, you impose your religion's ethics on top of Stoic ethics. What's that all about?”

Then's there Zeno. “Hey, where's all the orgies I wrote about?”

It's hard to find out what “real” Stoicism is these days. We've lost much of the history. That's what it got for being a “pagan” philosophy, after all. But from what we know, Stoicism changed much since it's time of the hippy Zeno, the boxer Cleanthes, to the slave Epictetus and emperor Marcus. In fact, we can say “real” Stoicism changed with each new head. Refined, if you will.

It's hard to say what Stoicism looked like when Zeno started it. In fact, it's hard to point out a consistent philosophy besides the basics. And without a head for the school, we'll never get back the unified philosophy of old. And we'll never agree on everything, not any more.

This isn't a bad thing. Not at all. In fact, it could help out school. By disagreeing with each other, we must refine our own positions or concede loss. If we aren’t will to do either, we’re missing the point of philosophy.


In short, there’s no real Stoicism anymore than there is a “real” Scotsmen. In fact, the only real Scotsmen are, well, actual Scotsmen. And the only “real” Stoics died a long time ago. We modern folk are just picking up pieces they left behind.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Thoughts on Book 1

Today, I want to talk about the first book of Meditations.

When's the last time we thought about why we are thankful for people in our lives? Sure, we may be thankful for our parents and loved ones, but how many of us can sit down and say why, exactly, we are? I sure as hell couldn't.

That's why, even though it's a little boring, the first book is, when considered all at once, one of the more interesting books. He was able to sit and list various people in his life and consider what it was that made them so important.

It isn't just that his mother was his mother that he was thankful. He accredits her for teaching him reverence, generosity, and living simply. He thanks his great-grandfather for teaching him the importance of good private tutors. He even thanks a man named Rusticus for showing him he needed to learn discipline, a man he later states he was often upset with.

Isn't that interesting? He thanks people that, with good odds, butted heads with him often. When's the last time we felt thankful for people in life that upset us that much? Never, I'm willing to say.

And get a load of some of the things he thanks the gods for:

  • that he had a good family
  • that he didn't lose his virginity too early (and as he puts it, delayed losing it)
  • that he wasn't more talented in rhetoric or poetry, because if he had improved, he wouldn't have given them up
  • that his body held out
  • that he never did anything to Rusticus (you know, the one that pissed him off) that he would have regretted
  • that his mother spent her last few years with him, despite dying young
  • that he could always lend money without worrying about being told no
  • that he had dreams that helped him cure illnesses he had
  • and, lastly, “All things for which 'we need the help of fortune and the gods.'”

This is why I have a hard time thinking that Marcus was as depressed as some made him sound. Someone that takes the time to be thankful for so much had to realize a reason for thankfulness. This was a man that was thankful for putting off the loss of his virginity, something I think would surprise most young men these days.

I think, even if we read no other part of this book, we can learn more than enough from this.

It got me to wondering, though. Did he write this part all at once? The rest of the books was sort of like an undated journal, him just writing when the fancy hit him. I wonder if he does the same for this book. Was it written over time? One week? One year? An hour? Who knows.

I think we can all learn something here about being thankful. Here was the most powerful man in Rome thanking others for teaching him a sense of humor or showing strength in illness. And yet we of lesser status get mad that the fast food clerk forgot a packet of ketchup.

So, who can we be thankful for in life?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

On East and West

I was listening to the radio, which in of itself is nothing special. I heard a song about some guy who had found new life in Christ, but was afraid of his old self coming back and ruining all that. He asks, “How far is east from west?”

The man was singing and said that the difference was from one hand to the other. But I don't quite think that hits the mark. Why? Because vice and virtue (as well as sin and righteousness) is a journey, not one side or the other. How far is east from west?

One single step.

One step is all that's needed to go from one direction to another. You don't even have to turn around: even walking backwards counts.

I feel that this is the way the path of virtue is. It's long and narrow. It only goes one way. And, as it turns out, a lot of things like to block that path.

Little wonder, then, it's so tiring and hard to become a Sage, to be like Christ, this, that, and the other thing. It's far easier to turn around, find another way, go around, whatever, than it is to keep on the path. And I think Stoics have it harder than the Christians. At least Christians believe there's a reward at the end. A Stoic without religion, atheist or theist, doesn't have that same promise.

Thankfully, the path of virtue will always be there, waiting for us to get back on it. It doesn't blame us for taking an easier path from time to time. It knows that if we are truly good people, we'll admonish ourselves for taking the paths of vice. And if we aren't that good, well, that by itself is its own punishment.

How far is virtue from vice? The same distance between east and west.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Week 7: Marcus Aurelius's Deconstruction

Besides being one of the most accessible Stoic writings, Meditations also has some of the best examples of how to practice Stoicism. This week, we're going to focus on one such tactic: deconstruction.

Break It Down

The idea behind deconstruction is simple: break down an object to simple terms. Marcus did this well, to the point that the stuff he deconstructed looked disgustingly absurd. For example, he took his royal robes, dyed purple, and explained to himself that it was nothing more than sheep's hair and urchin blood.

Oh, that's not that bad. I hear you. But what about what he said about the fancy foods he ate at dinner? He thought of them as bits and pieces of rotting flesh and plant matter, warmed up. Wine is nothing more than smashed and rotten grapes. Sex is nothing more than two people rubbing genitalia together and making odd noises in the hopes of inducing muscle contractions and the secretion of certain bodily fluids.

All I'm saying is, Marcus Aurelius ruined my sex life.

Buddhist Overlap

Some readers might recognize this exercise in Buddhism. In order to help break our attachment, Buddhists say we should imagine things in a decaying state, much in the same way Marcus did. See the food as moldering. When having sex, see your partner turn old and decay into nothingness.

Enlightenment, it seems, is learning how to hate sex.

You know, this doesn't seem all that fun.

Yeah, no, it isn't. But it is valuable.

Like Buddhists, Stoics cation against placing too much value into anything. For Buddhists, it's about avoiding attachment. For Stoics, it's for making sure we don't believe something other than virtue to be a good.

But this can also go the other way, too. Breaking things down can prove to you something isn't bad, either. What is pain but your brain letting you know something is wrong with your body? Fever is just the warming of the body.

Jealous of someone? Is it because of their money? Nothing more than little bits of paper. No, not even that, not anymore. Just little bits of data on some bank's computer. Their job? I'm sure you can find a way.

Like a lot of Stoic practices, the more you do something, the easier it becomes. Forcing yourself to see food as rotting might turn your stomach. That is, until it doesn't anymore and it's just one of those things you do.

Do this long enough and it'll become second nature. At least, it did for me. You won't even have to try.

The Challenge

In your journal, I want you to do your best to deconstruct something. Start small: try a food you've been wanting to avoid or a gadget you want to distance yourself from. It doesn't have to be intentionally disgusting, though when it comes to organic objects, odds are it'll end up that way. There's just no way to see meat as something other than a dead animal.

Next Thursday, I want us all to share one entry.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On Musonius and Food, Part 1

This essay is more of a breakdown of the lecture Musonius gave about food. As a fat Stoic, food is of keen interest to me, more than any other subject. This essay focuses on part A. In it, I try to just both sum up and expand on what Musonius is talking about. 


The first thing that strikes me about Musonius and food is his seeming anger about it. I mean, here's just a few quick quotes:

“He often talked in a very forceful manner about food...”

“We thought that this lecture about food was rather unlike the lectures Musonius customarily gave.”

Now, I can't say for certain, but something tells me Musonius wasn't one to just go off on a tangent. Yet shortly after the first quote, it's suggested that he didn't bother with his normal topics and instead spoke about food.

But it's the second quote that hits me most. Why was this lecture so unlike the others? This is a man who felt the need to tell men that they shouldn't shave their beards or cut their hair. Him telling people what to do doesn't seem to be the problem. No, I'm willing to bet what make it so unlike his other lectures is that he was actually angry about it.

So, my question is, why?


Of course, there's no way of knowing why. Maybe he was a porker before becoming a Stoic and carried a hatred for food when he did because it controlled his life. Maybe he was sickened by the way the Romans ate. Or maybe I'm over-thinking this part. All I know is that this lecture stiffened my spine. And provides one of the few “practical” applications of Stoicism.


He starts his lecture in a logical way. Choose cheaper foods over more expensive ones (I kid you not, there is a $5k hamburger out there). Choose foods that are easy to get over hard to get. And, lastly, choose foods that are good for humans over foods that aren't.

Simple, isn't it?


Well, not quite. See, Musonius felt there were only so many foods that were suitable for human consumption. Foods that didn't need to be cooked were the best. Fruits, cheese, honeycombs, things like that. Some cooked foods were a-okay, too. Bread, certain veggies, things of that nature.


Perhaps you noticed that there wasn't any meat listed up there. That's because Musonius didn't think meat was human food. Sure, you can use animal byproducts like milk and eggs. But don't you dare eat that animal.

However, the argument Musonius puts out is, well, weak in today's world. He argues that meat makes people stupid and that the smoke from cooking it darkens one's soul. He also goes on to say that, because humans are closely related to the gods, we should eat like they do. The gods eat vapors from the earth and water, because yeah, sure. Whatever. But we should eat foods that are “light and pure” and meat just isn't that.

As you can see, talk of soul and gods falls flat in a secular age. As for if meat makes you stupid, there's been suggestions that the eating of meat does the brain a whole host of good.

It does get me wondering, though, how Musonius would argue this in a more modern age. Odds are, he would choose the religious route, which may convince some. I couldn't think of any good secular reasons, at least none that would make me give up meat all the way.


Now, when it comes to the pull food has in our lives, Musonius says we're worse than “brute animals.” This, perhaps, is both the most convincing and funniest. Convincing, because he says that while animals may wildly go after food, they aren't too picky about it. Humans, on the other hand, can be just as wild, yet act very fussy about it. The need to pretty up our food and come up with “tricks to...better amuse our palate” points to our absurd behavior towards food.

I can give you an example of this. Ever hear of the orange roughy? It's it type of fish that many people seem to like and can get a little pricey. Yet for the longest time, you couldn't find it anywhere as food, nor would anyone want to eat it. Why? Because before its name change, it was known as the slimehead. It was a marketing trick to make our brains think we're eating something tasty.

The reason I find this section so funny as well is because he talks about the dangers of – get ready for it – cookbooks. But it makes sense when you think about. This is a man who's idea about cooking is little more than boiling some veggies and baking some bread. Recipes, and the cookbooks they come in, are unnecessary.


Actually, wait, maybe this section is funnier. Picky eaters who eat rich foods are, he says, like pregnant women. Why? Because they eat weird combinations of food. According to him, both pregnant women and picky eaters can't tolerate regular food. Of course, I think Musonius is being a little harsh on pregnant women.

Now, this part is a little confusing for me. He speaks of people's appetites needing to be sharpen by unmixed wines, vinegar, and tart sauces. Appetite, in this case, isn't just being hungry. It's one's willingness to eat even if hungry. And I'm also assuming he's saying people need various sauces and shit to make the food more appealing and, thus, increase their willingness to eat.

So, in short, he's saying picky eaters that need to spice up their food in order to eat it, even if they are hungry, are strange for just not eating the food for the way it is. At least, that's what I'm getting out of it.

In any case, he tells of a story of a Spartan and a picky eater. Mr. Picky refuses to eat a expensive, fat, and tender bird because he didn't have an appetite. Now, it's obvious this guy was there to eat, so he was hungry. But it wasn't good enough for him. The Spartan, though, sneered at the man and said, “I could eat both a vulture and a buzzard.” To Mr. Picky, food needed to be just right. To the Spartan, food was just right.


To finish off Part A, Musonius talks about Stoicism's founder, Zeno. In another story, he tells us that when Zeno fell ill, his doctor ordered him to eat young doves. Zeno refused, noting how slaves weren't treated in such a manner, yet somehow managed to get better. To quote, “A good man won't expect to be coddled, any more than a slave does.”

He also says that Zeno avoided gourmet foods because, like a drug, all you need is a taste to get hooked. (I can almost see a Stoic anti-drug message, but for food. “This is your brain. This is your brain on gourmet food.”)

That's it for Part A. Part B will either be sometime later this week or next week. There will be a part 3, in which I talk about some things I infer from all this, as well as a more modern Stoic approach towards food.

On (Short and Most Likely Wrong) Thoughts About the Modern Stoic Schools

Recently, I’ve been working on not only gaining a deeper understanding of Stoicism, but also how to use in modern life, as well as attempti...