Thursday, December 5, 2013

Notes on Letter I

Of all of Seneca's letters, I think Letter I ranks as one of my top ten to read, if not the first. It doesn't take long to be introduced to the frankness in his tone, which at times can sound harsh. But you can easily tell that he cares for Lucilius.

The main focus of Letter I is about saving time, or more to the point, about not wasting our time.

Seneca writes that our time escapes us in many ways, but the worst way to lose it is by carelessness. I couldn't agree more. Of course, agreeing doesn't mean doing, and I admit I'm very careless of my time. Indeed, I find myself wasting time, as he writes, "a goodly share...doing nothing." But even Seneca admits he wastes his time, too, though he says that he "free-handed, but careful."

One of the reasons I love this Letter is because of the lessons he gives. He advises Lucilius to do today's tasks and not depend so much on tomorrow. He tells us a man is not poor, if what little he has is enough for him. And, even better, I can draw out a couple of Stoic exercises out of this.

Stoic Exercises: Letter I

1) Senca writes, "What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily?" Ask yourself, is there anyone who does? Think about family, friends, teachers. Do any of them value time? It's okay to think of bad examples, but at some point you have to turn the question to yourself and ask if you really value your time as much as you should. Remember, you or I could be dead before the next sentence. Are we really using our time wisely?

2) Seneca writes that he is free-handed with his time, but careful. He goes on to say, however, that he can at least tell us why he is a "poor man" in this regard. A Stoic exercise here is to take time thinking about what we do and, at the very least, know what we spend our time on. It's the first step to taking some of it back.

Further Thoughts

There's a tactic I've read about in minimalism that asks people to look at what they buy and figure out how much time at work they spend to buy said item. It really isn't meant for things like food and bills (though some bills can be done away with), but more like trinkets and other things that we don't really need, but want. So, for example, we want a Starbucks coffee, which for a good one can cost $3. If you're making, say, $8 an hour, that means that coffee took 22.5 minutes of your time to earn. Now, seeing as work is, for most of us, time we must spend, we could ask ourselves this: if I acted like money was time, would I spend my money differently? Indeed, at the wage I'm making, it would take me a quarter of an hour (give or take a few minutes) to earn that coffee. Is it worth it?

Sure, the Letter itself doesn't deal with money, but if we are going to be losing time earning said money, shouldn't we treat our money a little better, too?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Blog is Not Dead

I know I haven't posted in a bit, but I've been a bit lost in books lately. It's a weakness of mine, really.

I've got a lot of ideas I want to post, but not enough meat behind them. Hopefully, I'll have something this Friday, but we'll have to see.

Again, sorry to everyone.

Friday, September 27, 2013

On The Road Again...

So, tomorrow I'm leaving for my grandparents for a few days. Vacation is always refreshing, but it also brings that feeling of regret, that unwillingness to return to your life and haunts most people, I think. This disruption of our tranquility is never fun and I think it sort of takes away from our enjoyment of the vacation. Is there any Stoic advice that can help us stay with our vacation?

Do you suppose that you alone have had this? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. -Letter 28, Seneca

The above passage opens Seneca's letter 28, a letter that addresses our very question. Indeed, these opening remarks show that discontent during, and even after, our travels is nothing new.

We often take vacations as a means of escape. In fact, we often see this in adverts for travel agents and airlines: escape into paradise. We're made to feel that taking a vacation is enough to alleviate our woes. The reality, though, is far from this.

"Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels." -Socrates, quoted by Seneca

Often, we use travel as a means of leaving our lives. We often use the phrase "getting away" when we talk about it. "Oh, it'll be so nice to get away from it all." The problem is, as Socrates points out, is that your not really getting away from anything if you're coming along.

We tend to believe that our problems are external of ourselves. Our jobs sucks because it just does. Our lives are boring because nothing new is going on. But as the Stoics would point out, this really isn't the case. It isn't that our jobs suck, it's that we think our jobs suck. It isn't our lives are boring, we think it's boring. And that's the problem. Escaping work for a few days isn't going to change how you feel about work. Rather, it could make you feel even worse about it as you have to confront those feelings all over again. It's nice to put those feelings aside when you can, sure, but that's like moving clutter to another side of a room and thinking you've fix the issue. hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man. -Letter 28, Seneca

Perhaps even stranger, we often find we have more problems with our lives during our travels. Why? Because we start comparing the rest of life with the (supposed) relaxation and joy of our vacation. We start asking why our lives can't be more like this. We may begin hating our lives instead of just being discontented. To use vacation as a means of ending our troubles, it seems, is a very dangerous thing to our tranquility.

But how does any of this help us? It almost seems travel is the wrong course of action. This isn't the suggestion, mind you. Seneca says that a wise man, though he could live a peaceful life even in a crowd, would still choose someplace quieter if he could. It would follow, I assume, that if he could get a quieter place, even for a little bit, he would.

What we want, then, is the ablilty to travel without having our peace of mind distrubed. This is easier said than done, as most things are, but there are a few things we can do that'll ease our minds.

Before you even plan the vacation, you should ask why you want it. Thinking that it'll spice up your life or make your problems melt away is only going to set you up for a worrisome trip. Instead of vacation, you need a change of vocation. If your life is missing something, perhaps you should spend some time reflecting on your life rather than trying to get away from it.

Of course, sometimes, we just a quiet place to get to so we can do just that: think about our lives. We often call these sort of trips "retreats". I think it's a wonderful term. Most of us have a hard time thinking clearly in the muck and mire of our own lives, to "retreat", as it were, into our thoughts. It's hard to make changes when you're stareing right at the problem sometimes. Getting away for a bit so you can look at the larger scope of everything isn't a bad idea, though to rely on it without cultivating this ability in everyday is a mistake.

So, let's say you decide to go on vacation to just enjoy yourself. Your life isn't missing anything, or at least nothing that you feel you're trying to avoid, and work isn't the problem. Yet there's often something else the plagues us in our attempts for enjoyment: perfection.

On a workday, we often run into minor annoyances. Things like traffic, spilt coffee, ect. -- these things often cause minor irks, but most of the time we accept them as par for the course. But when we're trying to get away?

Traffic becomes a personal attack. Spilt coffee becomes something time-consuming, taking minutes away from our time off. We often put more work into not working. Quality control isn't normally a exciting job to begin with.

We have to remember that we're not escaping from reality. Though we'd like it to, the universe isn't going to go any easier on us just because we're going off, but on the flip side, it also isn't going any harder on us. Traffic isn't usually worse than normal just because we're going off to vacation, we just think so.

It's key to remember the basics of Stoicism here: most things simply aren't in our control. This is great, mind you, because in remembering that, we free up a lot of worry and anger. Weather, car problems, all that jazz? Sure, they may put a hamper on some of your plans, but by remembering you can't control it, you might be able to ease your mind and find a way around the problem (unless you're already a better Stoic than I, which in that case, you'd already knew something like this could happen and already planned around it). So, step away from prefection you wouldn't demand from the rest of your life and move on.

Seneca writes that all that's really set in stone is our pasts, but this is great because we can visit it anytime we want to. Here's the thing, though: we need to fill that past up with something we'd like to revisit in the first place. Now, we can spend our time fretting about controlling every aspect of our lives, even the supposed enjoyment of our relaxation, or we can, in a way, let go of that micro-management that doesn't exist anyway and control our thoughts so that at least, if we aren't physically enjoying whatever's going on, we can at least carry with us the tranquil mindset that we can look back on and remind ourselves that, yes, we have gotten past these minor problems before and we can do it again.

Or, you know, we can just remember that vacations are for relaxing and just do that instead.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Do we have a problem with tranquility?

When Seneca found out his son died, he replied, “I know I sired a mortal.”

For most people, this seems wrong. A father coldly accepting his son’s death just isn’t kosher. Heck, we might we think he was responsible for the death to begin with. But I wonder why we feel this way. Do we have a problem with tranquility? I’d like to imagine a conversation with Seneca and a modern person today.

Modern Person: Seneca, I’m so sorry to hear about your son’s passing.
Seneca: [not reacting] I know I sired a mortal.
MP: Wait, what? Aren’t you the least bit upset?
S: I held no expectation of him outliving me. Death can strike us at anytime, no matter our ages.
MP: So you don’t care your son is dead.
S: I enjoyed the time I had with him while he was here, to be sure. But tell me, will grief make my son come back?
MP: No.
S: So what then? Do you assume my lack of grief means I did not love my son?
MP: Well, most people would be a lot more upset.
S: So you have a problem with me being at peace? That my tranquility isn’t disturbed?
MP: Yeah. I mean, whose this calm after their child’s death?
S: Tell me, what’s the point of grief?
MP: To help people find closure! So they can find... [here, MP pauses, a sudden realization dawning] ...peace.
S: So, my being peaceful isn’t the problem. It’s because I didn’t come to it like everyone else did.

Do people, perhaps even Stoics like ourselves, judge people like Seneca? I believe we do. I used to think I could never be so calm with something disastrous to my son. But you know how it is. You don’t know how you’ll act until you’re actually in a high-stress situation.

Febrile seizure. Perhaps of everything you could teach a parent, this should top the list. Apparently, young children, should they have a fever that spikes quickly, can have seizures. This isn’t dangerous in most cases, though scary. Our son, Syrus, suffered one.

We didn’t know a thing about it. So when I get a call at work that my son’s eyes are rolling into the back of his head, his body shaking, and no one could tell if he was breathing or not, it struck that I saw him for the last time that morning.

Not a conductive thought for feelings of peace.

And yet, driving up to what I thought would be the worst, I felt strangely calm. So something was happening to my son. There was nothing I could do from where I was. They already called 911. Panic would have neither help him nor myself with whatever was going on. If he was gone, my tears wouldn’t have made him come back. It wouldn’t have made me feel better.

Strange as it seemed, I was tranquil. And I realized that tranquility didn’t mean I felt great about the situation. It only meant that I was acting with a clear head.

The peace, tranquility, and happiness of the Stoics is far different from most people’s ideas. Happiness to the Stoics is more of an undertone related to their tranquility. It’s an easiness to what’s happening around them, not joy at everything that happens. I don’t have to like what’s happening to be tranquil. I only have to act with reason.

When I got to see my son, he stayed close to me. Perhaps it was because he was scared and felt safest next to me, or maybe it was because, unlike everyone else, I kept my head level. Maybe that’s what he needed.

It’s still a little strange to admit the feelings and a lot harder to explain it.

At the hospital, I never left his side. He slept on my chest, mostly. I got a lot of questions, mostly if he was all right. But the second most commonly asked was if I was all right.

I was more afraid to admit I was fine than I should have been. Everyone told me they were there to talk to, but I didn’t need it. And to this day, I don’t.

Syrus is fine and hasn’t had one of those attacks since. But it turns out, my calm didn’t go unnoticed.

A few days after what happened, my wife confronted me about my state. She asked me if I was okay with everything, if I needed to talk, so on. When I told her everything was fine, she seemed a little upset about it. Our next fight revealed why.

I can’t remember how the fight started (really, can you ever remember how most fights start?), but somehow it turned to that day. The problem? I didn’t care, she said. Syrus could’ve died, and I didn’t look like I cared.

She had a point. I looked like I didn’t care. But looks mean little. I cared, just in a different way. It’s hard to describe, but the best way that I can think of is to say I was both present with my son and with the situation. Because I had already done the hypothetical, I didn’t spend my time worrying about what could happen. Instead, I was just mentally there.

With everyone asking about how I was and telling everyone I was fine, something stranger happened. I felt guilty. Like I should’ve been more showy of my feelings, although I wasn’t feeling the same as everyone else. Was there something wrong with me? Or was there something wrong with being Stoic?

I realize now that it isn’t so much a problem with Stoicism, but our society. We live in a world where outward expression of our feelings is not only a good thing, but passionate expression is often praised (or condemned, depending on what you’re passionate about). It would reason that any lack of it shows just how little you care, or perhaps how “manly” you’re trying to be (maybe “stiff upper lip” is better). Not showing emotion, it seems, is a sign of unhealthy emotions. And the attitude that is it so is infectious. To not show emotion might very well bring guilt, anger, or sorrow to a person. It’s almost funny: if you don’t feel bad one way, you’ll just feel bad another way.

I think this could very well be the biggest problem Stoicism faces today: not if our goals are reachable, but if we can be all right with doing so. It almost seems we need to be Stoic about being Stoic. Epictetus said that to improve, we be thought foolish. But nowadays, we could very well be seen as uncaring and impersonal, monstrous some might say. To weep with the world, or cry out in anger, or anything is considered a good sign. As we Stoics understand it, no emotion is “good” and so the expression of said emotions, or lack of it, can’t be said to be good or bad, either. And yet we seemly live in a world that would say otherwise, almost as if to say we’re bad people if we don’t express ourselves the way other people want us to.

The other problem is that, mostly, we’re not exactly great at achieving calm in dire situations. One problem we can face without showing the least bit of worry. Yet another, often lesser problem, will cause great anxiety and worry. This gives some people the idea of Stoics being hypocritical. “Well, so much for being Stoic.” This isn’t what it is in most cases, though. But people think, unless you constantly uphold your philosophy, you’re only pretending. The more commonplace a philosophy is, the more you can ignore or break the tenets with no one noticing. Break one from something obscure and watch people call you out on it. (The same, I’ve notice, happens to atheists and other minorities like Pagans. It’s almost like people think you’re living the life you lead just so you can go against the grain, not actually because you feel it’s right.)

So it would seem that the world really has a problem with our concept of tranquility, especially if you try to explain that it means the elimination of negative emotions and keeping only the positive ones. This gives people the impression that Stoics are happy or jovial all the time, even if someone they love dies. And while the Stoic should very well feel happy during positive times (such as when loved ones aren’t dying), it’s a little harder to explain what it being happy means in darker times. And even after having experiencing it myself, it’s still hard to say how it feels. It was like worrying without the worry. Perhaps that’s the true compassion that Seneca (and, oddly, Buddha) talk about. Maybe.

But I want to know what you guys think. Have you ever been in a dire situation and yet remained calm, even when it seemed you should have no reason to?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Sage in Pain

Pain is strange. Couldn't the body have figured out a better way to tell you something's wrong? Why is pain the only alarm we have? Not even bleeding is enough to tell you something's wrong, as you might not feel that happening. And what's the point of suffering chronic pain? Pain is the way your body says something's wrong, but what if that something wrong just so happens to be endless pain? What's the point?

Maybe asking these questions is the wrong thing to do. See, I began to think about what a Stoic Sage might say about pain. And why not? Stoics are no strangers to pain, physical or otherwise, chronic or minor.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was shipwrecked, though if he was the one actually stranded or just an unlucky business man is up for debate. Seneca suffered from asthma his entire life, possibly other illnesses, and then committed suicide at the orders of Nero. Epictetus's leg was broken when he was a slave and suffered the rest of his life. And Marcus Aurelius had to watch nearly all his children die, then suffer cancer, which caused him to decide to starve himself to death. These are only the names of the older Stoics at that and even then, only the more famous ones. Who knows how many unnamed Stoics suffered similar or worse pains for their entire lives. Even modern Stoics today, such as Keith Seddon who suffers from chronic fatigue, deal with their pain philosophically.

But how can we just starting out in Stoicism deal with pain?

I decided to do an thought experiment: ask two different Stoic Sages – one theistic, the other atheistic – about pain. Here's what I got.

Okay, so, why pain?

Theistic Sage: The gods saw it befitting for man to experience pain as the means of telling us something is the matter. And though we're reasoning creatures, it isn't up to us to question why the gods would allow pain. Perhaps the gods weren't able to prevent it, in which case we cannot be upset with them. Perhaps there is a greater purpose. In that case, we should feel honored. Besides, as good people, the gods would rather keep testing us than let us become soft like bad people. It may not be the favor of the gods you were looking for, but know that by enduring it well and keeping yourself good, you stand beside the gods as kin.

Atheistic Sage: Evolution helped this happen. Those that felt pain were more likely to seek help or avoid doing something that could kill them, so really, pain is more of a survival thing. It kept our ancestors alive, so in some way we should be grateful to feel pain, otherwise we would have died off a long time ago.

What can we do when we have pain?

TS: Simple. Realize it actually isn't hurting you as a person, just your body. And what is your body but a vessel for your soul?

AS: Well, besides the soul junk, I agree with my fellow here. Who we are isn't being hurt. And we don't normally define ourselves by our bodies.

TS: Correct. We don't consider it good when we or other people judge who are person is by their looks – their bodies, really – alone. So to say that our bodies affect us wouldn't be good, either. By this reasoning, we shouldn't let what happens to our bodies, such as pain, affect who we are.

But that's talking about the person we are at our cores. Let's face it, we might not be our bodies, but we can feel what's happening.

AS: Of course. We're merely outlining our thoughts on pain. It's something more practical you want.

TS: But this, too, is simple. Pain is out of our control. Lamenting about it isn't going to make you feel better. In fact, it can make you feel even worse about the pain. Suffering is the problem here.

AS: And all you have to do is realize what you can do about your can and what you can't do.

TS: Right. You can't control when it happens. You can't control if a pain pill or some movie is going to help take away the pain. You can only control your thoughts about the pain.

So it isn't about making pain good or bad? It's about making your suffering less?

TS: Yes.

AS: Pain is unavoidable. Sometimes, it's part of our daily lives. Trying to run away from pain is only going to make it that much worse when it actually gets to you. Instead of running, we should think differently about pain.

But it doesn't work all the time.

TS: It would if you were a sage.

AS: And, let's face it, we're not, either. You made us up.

TS: No one is perfect. It isn't about getting it all the time. It's about being able to when you can.

I have more thoughts on this, but I'm going to leave it off for now to better develop those ideas.

Friday, September 6, 2013


Early this morning, I met with one of the ways Nature tells you a limit broke. It wasn't one of the more glorious limits.

If you remember back to the first post, I mention that my vice is overeating. Well, this morning around three, my body reminded me of the “out the front door” policy my stomach has.

I remained philosophical about it all. I thought about how amazing it was our body has limits. I mean, we have built-in sensors that tell us we've had way too much. Even more amazing is the fact we have the ability to ignore these sensors, to tell our bodies that it doesn't know what it's talking about. We can go past our limits, make ourselves last longer.

Of course, this also means we're a bit cursed.

See, I began thinking how some limits are easier to break than others. Take overeating. Nowadays, that's a real easy limit to go past. Some of us perhaps can't even feel it anymore. We can eat sunup to sundown and never stop shoveling food into our mouths. If you think about it, it's quite a feat. You can make your body several times bigger and still move around. You can weigh hundreds of hundreds of pounds more than your body should and still live.

But take another limit: exercising. That's hard. Tuesday, I couldn't jog more than 58 seconds at once. Not because I couldn't keep going, but because I quit. I hit my limit, so I stopped. And I didn't move too much more since then.

Until Friday morning's offering to the porcelain god. Somehow, this made me realize that people look at our bodies' limits backwards. We break the easy limits and completely ignore harder ones. After all, it's a lot easier to eat a box of doughnuts than it is to jog for more than a couple of minutes.

So, wait, how does this relate to Stoicism? I mean, it's all well and good, but the heck, man?

Stoicism teaches that discomfort isn't all that bad. It's more of a nothing. It's also says the same thing about pleasure. The limits we're choosing to break has more to do with what we believe to be good and, as I often say, pleasure rarely means good.

Yes, I do take a lot of pleasure out of eating. I do. I suppose that's not so bad because I enjoy toast with jam as much as I do most any other dish. But, let's face it, I think it's the act of eating I enjoy more than the food. And I broke the threshold of how much I should eat for years. It took a toll. And though I feel pleasure eating, I often feel bad about it, even during the act.

But now I'm finding that breaking the tough limits is a heck of a lot better for me. Pushing past the pain, this discomfort, the urge to quit, I jogged my butt for five minutes. Broken up in 30 second intervals within 10 minutes, but still, that's more than I ever did before. And I took a quick stock of how I felt. Not that bad. A little heavy in the feet and sweaty, but nothing that wiped the smile off my face.

We need to face up to our discomforts. It's a simple fact if we want to go through life. As we get older, we realize more the hardships of life. In fact, the ages we can reach is just proof of our amazing ability to break limits. But it comes with problems, many that I don't see too many people ready to go up against. Breaking the easy limits, like how much you can eat or how long you can sleep in a go, aren't going to make your olden ages golden. But, beating aches and pains, a little sleep deprivation (don't go wild. I'm not looking to kill you, just uncomfortable), and little more discomfort and you can live those years golden.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Readers, discuss! Virtue the highest *and* only good?

Okay, so the post I wanted to do for this morning didn't pan out the way I thought it would, so I scraped that in favor of this one instead, so that's that.

I was thinking the other day about virtue, specifically that according to Stoicism it's the highest good. However, Stoics also say that the virtue is the only good. I realized that this is a bit of a problem.

It goes like this: if we say virtue is the highest good, it suggests that there are other lesser goods out there. But in Stoic philosophy, all the things we typically think of as “good” are actually indifferent. Also, Seneca argued in the Letters that there was no such thing as a lesser good. By saying there's a highest good, however, we're actually saying there's more than virtue as a good. Thus, there's a contradiction in our philosophy.

However, if we choose to say that virtue is the only good, we have a different – though less damaging – problem. Just by being the only good, virtue automatically becomes the highest good, so instead of there being a contradiction, there's only a redundancy.

Well, seeing as it's a lot easier to admit to redundancy than rework an entire philosophy, I settled on accepting that we don't need to say the virtue is the highest good. We only need to say the virtue is the only good.

Still, I feel like I might be missing something here, so I'm asking every one of you people out there to give me your input. Is there a contradiction? Is it only redundant? Or is something else afoot here? Let me know what you all think!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Insight into my anger

I found out that I do something weird: I sometimes try whipping myself up with anger when I'm not actually angry.

I first noticed this Friday while I was at work. The short of it is I needed a manager to check my work and none could be found. I was late for lunch by nearly 20 minutes. And while I wasn't angry, I was talking to myself. A lot. About how stupid the situation was, about how irresponsible the mangers were. I kept going on until realized I didn't believe a word I was saying. I was only trying to get myself upset.

I did it again today, too. As I was driving home from my parents' house, almost every other driver in front of me failed to use their turn signals. Once again, I started bad talking these drivers (to my wife, so at least I wasn't talking to myself this time), only to stop myself when I realized I was trying to goad myself into anger.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized most of my anger came from this type of talking. And I couldn't help but to think, why? Why am I trying to get myself upset over something that's clearly not making me upset?

Having read Seneca's On Anger, I believe I know fully agree with him that anger is a short-term madness. After all, how is trying to disrupt a calm state of mind so willingly anything but insane? Actually, this is worse: those suffering from a mental illness often don't have a choice in the matter when it comes to this. But here I am, trying to will angry and hurtful thoughts into my mind.

But why? Why would I do this? What's the point?

I know anger doesn't fix a thing. I've caused (or made worse) too many fights by letting myself fly off the handle. When I see other people get angry over, well, anything, I see how foolish it is. I can't even see a good reason to feign anger (something Seneca recommends in certain cases).

It didn't take too long, but I figured it out: I made myself anger because that seemed like the thing to do.

I've heard it a few times from my sister-in-law and even from other people. “Sure, he exploded, but at least that shows he cares.”

Yikes. And to think I used to agree with that idea.

Well before I discovered Stoicism, I often wondered why I did get anger over stupid things, like video games or feelings of being snubbed. It came down to the idea that we, as a society, tend to think that stronger emotions mean stronger care, and what emotion is stronger than anger?

Mother-in-law says something that rubs you the wrong way? Get angry, that's the normal thing. Spouse is mad over something you did for no reason? Get angry and they'll think twice.

Anger is something to do. It means you care. It means you have passion. It means you're not willing to be walked all over.

But that's all wrong.

Anger is something wicked. It means you're weak. You have no control over your emotions. It means you're willing to run everyone over to protect yourself.

I'm not perfect. Far from it. I know I'll still get angry, even after this weekend's revelations. It's a problem I've had for a long time and I know it isn't going to away with just two days' worth of heavy thinking. But now I'm starting to get why I get mad. And I'm starting to realize just how dumb, selfish, and weak I am for ever letting that emotion into my life.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Enchiridion: A Commentary (Part 2)

It's been awhile since I did this and, lacking any other ideas at the moment, I think it's a good time to examine more of Epictetus's work.

Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched.

This is pretty much the reasoning behind all Stoic thought on why we should work to rid of ourselves of passions. Both desire and aversion are forms of passions – at least in degrees – that can lead us down some pretty terrible roads. Sure, sometimes we get what we want and avoid what we don't want, but more often not, we're in a state of not getting what we want and usually stuck having everything we don't want. It's not a very happy state and, frankly, it makes a lot of people whiny (more maybe I'm just whiny about it myself).

If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you will never incur anything to which you are averse.

In short, if you only try to avoid things can actually choose to avoid – such as if you get upset at being cutoff in traffic or if someone says something stupid and really want to say something but know better – you'll avoid trouble.

But if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control.

Don't want to get sick? Too bad, it's gonna happen. Running away from death? Fat chance. Really, trying to avoid things not in your power is like trying to control the way the world works. Of course, this isn't to say you shouldn't at trying not to get sick – it isn't a license to not wash your hands and eat Big Macs all day – only that it's silly for us to think we can avoid it by our actions alone.

But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.

I'll be frank: I'm a little confused by what he says here. The first part I get. By desiring things outside my control, I'm going to be disappointed. (And, as a further thought, this only makes sense to begin with, as I wouldn't desire stuff I already have, so by having desire it mean by default I feel like I'm lacking something and therefore I'm disappointed). It's the second half I'm a little confused about.

The way I see it, he's saying this: “...and of those which are [in your control], and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession.” So, if I am seeing this right, what's he's saying is that, even if the desire for things I have in my control are commendable, but just desiring it I'm still disappointed and probably working against myself. And that does sort of make the last bit make even more sense. After all, if I too strongly feel desire and avoidance for things in my control, I'm still creating problems for myself: should I feel something I was trying to avoid, I'll be upset with myself; and should I not feel something I really would like to, I once again am disappointed.

That's why Epictetus says we need to use these two passions appropriately and, even then, we shouldn't be too harsh in their usage. Don't strongly desire things in your control and don't be too fearful of things you can actually avoid.

IN OTHER NEWS: In order to keep my butt on track with this, I'm doing a post every Friday at 6:00 AM PDT (okay, well, actually, I'm scheduling posts to go up, but the point is, there will be at least one post every Friday). Also, I lost my little blogroll and I think I lost a few pages. I've added back, but I might have missed a few. So, if you have any suggestions on blogs that are Stoic, just give me the heads up and I'll add it to my list.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Is Stoicism Self-Help?

If you go to any bookstore today, odds are you'll have some trouble finding the philosophy books. They're sometimes buried near metaphysics, religion, and New Age books for some reason. However, seek out self-help books and you'll have no trouble. They're everywhere.

Of course, these books are a joke. If they aren't banal for what they're saying, they're overreaching: buy this book and all your woes will be solved! Have all the friends you want. Make all the money you want. All that you want will be gotten! JUST BUY THIS BOOK! They can help you in every area of life. But we know better. After all, just how many books make same claims? And look how miserable most people are.

But should we who use Stoicism – or any philosophy of life, really – be so smug in thinking we have a leg up on these people? I mean, there are similarities:
  • Both self-help gurus and philosophers say they can help in every area of life.
  • Both seek to make people happier.
  • Both tend to repeat the same points over and over.
  • Both preach a lot, but have a hard time proving they live it.
  • Both, save for a few differences, tend to agree with rivals.
Yikes. It's almost like self-help is the bastard child of the philosophies of life and good old-fashioned money making. I mean, if I took out all the references to Seneca, Epictetus, all the Stoics, and the history they often speak of, repackaged the philosophy as pop psychology, I'm sure I'd have a best seller.

And yet, having mired myself in self-help books since my early teens, I can confidently say that only Stoicism makes any impact on my life. And, not only that, stays with me.

The question is, why?

Now, I don't think this will be a popular view, but I think philosophies of life are sort of like the Greek and Roman versions for self-help. Each one had proof that they were right (even the Skeptics, living up to their namesake everywhere else, believed in their proof). All of them promised some sort of happiness. And, yeah, all the other above-mentioned things.

So what's so different?

One, you could live with the person teaching the philosophy. You could watch them screw up and see if what they preached helped them in their difficult moments. Two, and this is the most important thing, it wasn't about always getting what you want.

Stoicism pretty much tells you outright that not very much is within our control. Actually, except for our thoughts, nothing is in our control. It's the honesty: there's nothing you can do about most of your life, but you can control how you take it.

Take in contrast self-help: all you have to be is more (confident, organized, decluttered, whatever). Master only one thing in your life and the rest of it will be magic.

Another is just what is meant by the “good life”. When people speak of the good life today, what they really mean is more money, more stuff, more free time to do whatever you want. But when none of this stuff comes your way, people are often left floundering. You could be sweating blood following what these gurus want you to do and you'll failure will be chalked up to not trying hard enough. Even supposing you did get all that you wanted, no one tells you what you really shouldn't do with it. As a result, you stand a good chance of squandering all that hard work.

Now, the philosophical good life is different. It's not about getting more money or even ahead in life. It's about becoming a more virtuous life. Unlike materiel stuff and thinking happy thoughts, virtues can help better guide your actions, so that no matter your lot in life, you know you're doing not only the best you can, but are always improving yourself.

I'll admit it: I've neither of these good lives. But I can say I'm closer to a philosophical good life than a material one. And having pursued stuff for a long time, I can say that at least with Stoicism – call it self-help or philosophy – I know I'm becoming a fair better person than any of those gurus could have ever made me.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Negative Visualization: Thinking of Bad Things

We live in a world where we’re told thinking and worrying are the same.

We’re not allowed to think about the things in our life that won’t go our way. To think about it might mean you’re worried about it, and we can’t have that. Worry is unhealthy. We need to be positive! Don’t fret so much about not making ends meet, finding a new job, dying. You’ll cross that bridge when—or even if—you come to it.

But where do these people go when the bad things really happen? Vanished. Whatever is going on in your life might bring them down. Or maybe they’re telling you it’s really not that bad, but can’t really offer why it isn’t. Where did everyone’s earlier goodwill go?

The Stoics have something to say of this.

First, worry is wrong. Worry will not help you out. But before people give themselves a pat on the back for getting at least that, the Stoics would say that worrying about bad things happening and thinking about bad things happening are two different beasts. Worry is a stifling emotion that weakens us and potentially prevents us from doing something. Thinking is, well, not an emotional action by itself, though if you’re not careful, it can lead to worry or, perhaps worse, overconfidence in one’s abilities.

But why should we think about bad things in the first place? What’s the use? And if there is a use, how can we prevent thinking about bad things from turning into worry?

The why is simple enough: contemplating bad things before they happen makes it easier to handle when bad things happen. Never consider the possibility of being broke and you’ll be shocked the first time you overdraw your account. Think about it every so often and you’ll know that it was a possibility and won’t be as shocked if it happens.

We’d do well to keep in mind that negative visualization isn’t so much about preventing us from feeling bad should something come up, though that may be possible. Rather, it’s about taking the shock out of it. It’s sort of like boxing: just because you learn to take a punch doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. You’ll just recover, if not faster, at least better.

Okay, but how do we prevent worry?

This, too, is simple. We don’t have to think about bad things all the time. When you first start out, it might be best to do this exercise once or twice a week, perhaps in the morning. Just run through all the things that could happen that morning. Don’t dwell on one thought or another, just keep going. When you get good at that, increase the amount of days you do it and the number of times you do it. When that’s done and you’re ready, start thinking about some heavier things like relationships and death.

Whoa, what? Death?

All right, I have to admit, this one really isn’t fun, but yes, the Stoics encourage us to think about not only our deaths, but the death of loved ones. In fact, one of the earliest examples of negative visualization is by Epictetus. Every time we kiss our child or spouse—even when we say goodbye to a friend—we should remind ourselves that this could very be the last time we can do that. Death spares no one.

Sure it seems bleak, and at first it may cause you to be downcast. You might even shudder at the thought. But keep up with it and you’ll find something strange. That shuddering gets weaker. The sadness doesn’t last as long. And sometimes, just sometimes, you can get away with thinking about your end without even slowing down.

So, what, all I get out of this is less shock? That seems hardly worth it.

It may seem like a lot of work just for a little less shock. But there’s more to it than just that. By thinking of the possibility of the worst that can happen, you appreciate more when things don’t. Have a prepaid phone that barely keeps up with everyone’s I-droid? Think about all the bad things that could happen to it, and you might just realize that it’s only a phone, just like everyone else has. Heck, you might even marvel that you don’t have the stupid thing yelling at you to check Facebook or your email. You might even joke that it has too many features: not only is it a phone, it has an alarm clock!

Let’s go back to Epictetus’s example. What if we realized that our friend or loved one could not be with us tomorrow? We can’t even say they’ll be with us for the next 30 seconds. Knowing that, how much love do you think will be in that kiss? How much more you’ll mean it when you say you’ll miss your friend? You might not always be more attentive and mindful of such things, but you’ll be more so than the person who thinks their loved ones will always be there.

There’s something you’re not saying.

Okay, so I know I kept saying that we should think of bad things, but a Stoic wouldn’t say “bad” things. Rather, they’d say they were “undesirable” things. While it might not seem to make a difference, keep in mind that just because things don’t go our way, the Stoics would say that doesn’t make it bad. Early Stoics—and perhaps modern theistic Stoics—thought the gods would challenge a good person more, not as punishment, but because they wouldn’t want us to go soft. Our ability to endure made us almost godlike, Seneca even saying we might we surpass them, as the gods don’t have to endure any misfortune while mankind can overcome it.

For some of us not so highly thinking of godliness, it’s still good to remind yourself that, once again, just because something doesn’t go our way, doesn’t make it bad. We can work with whatever befalls us. Remember the words of Marcus Aurelius: life is more like wrestling than dancing. Stepping into the ring with Life is the price we pay for being born. We can either cower and try to avoid everything “bad”—which never works—or learn to take our hits and grow stronger. We might not like it, but that doesn’t stop us from being the best human we can be.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

What Would Seneca Cook?

Alright, people might not like me jumping onto the whole “diet” bandwagon, but the fact is, what we eat and put into our bodies is important. Even the Stoics saw that. After all, philosophies of life deal with every action we take. What's the point of being a Stoic for every other part of our lives if we just dive into unabashed hedonism with our food? Not only that, we set ourselves for potential guilt for our gluttony and we certainly put our bodies in harm's way. So, yeah, our diet is important. Which is odd, because, if you follow the Stoics right here, then our food doesn't become all the important at all.

Now, I'm not going to quote endlessly here, but if you want some idea of what the Stoics thought of food, you can read Musonius Rufus – who went into a lot of details about our food – and there are some letters by Seneca that address this, though the best one is Letter 18.

The Basics
  • Simple. For the Stoics, food didn't need to be lavish, imported from wherever, cooked on a specially made stove, whatever. Simple is the name of the game here. If a peanut butter sandwich can sate your hunger as well as a Maine lobster with x amount of sides, go for the sandwich. Rufus would say the less preparation needed, the better (he'd be a big fan of the raw food diet).
  • Cheap versus expensive. Easy to understand. Why pay more for food if you don't need to? Does the name brand really taste that much better than the store brand? Often it doesn't. And if it does happen that way, you have to ask yourself, does it taste better because it's made better or because you think it's better? So long as it's keeping you alive (and not killing you – see the next point), aim for the cheap.
  • Healthy. Our food shouldn't be our enemy. Sure, frozen dinners are both simple and cheap, but does that made it a good choice? Candy bars, too, are cheap, but that doesn't make them a good meal. Food should sustain us and help us stay alive. (Okay, I fudged this one a bit. While no Stoic back in the day told no one not to eat terribly, they also didn't have processed foods to deal with. But seeing as both Seneca and Rufus advocated vegetarianism, I'm willing to say they'd tell us to avoid the garbage).
  • Moderation. None of this advice is going to do you any good if you insist on stuffing so much into yourself you make yourself sick.

The Advanced
Okay, so this isn't really all that advanced, and is totally optional on your part, but as I stated before, Seneca and Rufus were vegetarians. Rufus thought eating meat was beneath people and only fitting for animals, while Seneca got it from his teacher, Sotion, and thought that by not killing animals, we reduce our own cruelty. Of course, that didn't stop Hitler from being cruel, but then he was also insane, so who knows?

The Last Word
Remember you are human. The Stoics, though they thought we should always be working on improving ourselves, knew people made mistakes. Overate? So long as you keep an eye on it and be mindful, you'll do it less often. Ate a candy bar? So long as you're not eating five or six a day, one isn't going to kill you (though you still should resist the impulse, as it'll make you stronger). Became a vegetarian but your family doesn't respect your wishes? Even Seneca went back to eating meat when he thought Nero was going to kill him over it (long story).

The idea here isn't perfection. It's remembering that our food and diet are a part of us, not an area to dominate our lives. Most of us aren't chefs, yet we made a lot of us spend more time thinking about what we're going to eat. By keeping it simple, you don't have to think about food as entertainment or face potential culinary crisis over what's for dinner. Go the way of Rufus and you won't even have to worry about cooking anymore, either.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What are Indifferents?

There is a common misconception about Stoics that they're nothing more than a bunch of apathetic and lofty people. Maybe it has something to do with our modern day definition of the word “stoic”, which means someone who is aloof and uncaring about what happens around them. This is of course wrong, but I can see where people might have gotten the idea.

The very basics of Stoic philosophy states that there isn't much in our control. It's easier to say what is in on control: our thoughts, opinions, and desires. Anything outside of that belongs to what we can't control. These things that we can't control the Stoics call “indifferents”.

So, doesn't indifferent basically mean uncaring? If anything we can't control is an indifferent, does that mean we shouldn't care about it?

Well, no. What the Stoic means when they speak of indifferents is that the object or event at hand have no bearing on living a good life. To the Stoics, Nature has given us reason, and with reason we can obtain virtue, and with virtue a good life (and, at least according to the later Roman Stoics, tranquility).

Does that mean we shouldn't worry about indifferents? Again, no. The Stoics saw a difference in indifferents: preferred and undesired. Even though a cave would shelter us, we'd prefer a house. Catching a cold didn't mean we couldn't work towards a good life, but that doesn't mean we'd go looking for illness. It's all in how we judge these things. If you think money buys happiness, you'll never have enough money. If you think you create your own happiness, you'll always be rich. Think dying is the greatest evil, you'll be too worried to live. Think dying is no thing at all, you'll have all the time to live. And so on and so on.

One way to think of indifferents is that they are like tools. We'd use a screwdriver to place screws, but we'd be silly to think it could hammer in nails or paint. We'd also be foolish to think the more screwdrivers, the better, simply because we needed one in the first place. And we wouldn't insist on using a screwdriver when only a hammer is needed. Sure, some people might get overly attached to one brand or another (another indifferent), but in the end, it's what works for you in that moment that's most important. And none of it would work without proper use of reason (like that whole “trying to paint with the screwdriver” thing. Reason prevents that sort of silliness).

Of course, the analogy falls a little flat when it comes to situations and people, both of which also counts as indifferents. We don't like to think of people as tools, which thankfully Stoicism doesn't promote, and we do often feel like we have at least some control over most situations. So how can it be these things are indifferents?

Remember, anything outside of our control is considered an indifferent. People, no matter how much we'd like to think about it, are always outside of our control. We can't help what they do, say, think, and so on. Insults, flattery, being cutoff in traffic – all these things don't bother the Stoic sage or inflate their ego. Now, we mere mortals aren't going to be prefect, of course, but the thing to remember is that most people aren't out to get us and, even if they were, we don't have any control over them. All we can control is what we think of other people and what they say and do. We can either become upset with them and ruin our day or think nothing of it and go on our day with little to no disturbance to our emotional state.

Okay, so maybe that makes some sense, but what about events in our life? Don't we have control over, say, getting to work on time? Sure, maybe we can't account for traffic and bad driving, but we do control some things. Well, not really. See, we are in control of our intention – our desire – to get to work on time, but that's it. Maybe we don't hear the alarm, or wake up and we find ourselves bound and gagged (my commiserations to your bad start, by the way). Even if we don't have any problems and do get to work on time, none of that was in your power. Once again, only your intention of getting to work was in your power.

The thing that needs to be remembered is that indifferent in the Stoic sense isn't one of apathy. The only thing it means is that they aren't either good or bad. Most of the time, it's how we see and think about the indifferents is what make them good or bad. So if it seems if a Stoic is unaffected by insults and maybe a little too uncaring about a underlings flattery, or if a flat tire doesn't disturb them, odds are it's because they decided it wasn't going to help them to live a good life to be concerned about it. But apathy it isn't.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Enchiridion: A Commentary (Part 1)

Today I finished "The Enchiridion", one of the works of Epictetus. I think, due to it's shortness, it is one of the better reads for those just getting into Stoicism. It takes no more than a few hours of reading to get it done (though, it is philosophy and that'll take years, if not a lifetime, to live it). But, as a bit of a two-way better digestion of the text, I decided to write up a commentary, expressing my thoughts and hopefully encouraging others to think and express theirs.

If you need a free copy, just click. It'll take you to the Internet Classics Archive. It's also the version I used.
Somethings are in our control and others not.
This is simple enough. I think if you needed a simple way to start summing up the basis for Stoic tranquility, this is the one line you need.
Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions
Alright, perhaps this is where some confusion arises. It isn't so much what's in our power that we question, but what isn't in our power. Our bodies? Property? How are these things not in our power?

Simple. Let's take our bodies. While we do have a responsibility to take care of our bodies, we can't help if and when we get sick. We can make all the healthy choices in the world and still catch a cold. We could fall off a ladder, break a leg, whatever. There's nothing we can do and so outside of our control.

If I could simplify what Epictetus said what was in our control, I would say it comes down to two things: opinion and choice. What we think about things and how we try to carry out our choices are all we've got. Keep in mind, what we choose to do doesn't mean we always get to do it. But how we feel about our ability or inability to carry out a choice is up to us.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.
Basically, if you confuse things that aren't in your control as things that are in your control, you're going to have a bad time.

Now, when Epictetus said no one would hurt you, you'll have no enemies, and you won't be harmed, he meant it in a Stoic sense. See, hurt is in the sense of emotional or mental hurt, not psychical pain. He means more along the lines of if someone insults you, you remember that you don't have any control over what other people do and so, realizing that, choose not to feel hurt by the insult. Enemies can't happen, either, because the Stoic won't really be concerned with people liking them or not. While a Stoic doesn't go out of their way to make people upset, they know they can't make everyone happy and don't let themselves get bothered when they can't. Enemies can only happen when hate goes two ways.
Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.
Okay, philosophers were a bit extreme back then. Epictetus seemly advocates dropping everything that isn't helping you towards tranquility right now and everything else that you can't tell if it's helping or not, postpone it. But you can't have shoot for tranquility while at the same time shooting for, as he puts it, power and riches. Power and riches, all that jazz, that's outside your control and so, by going for it, you're setting yourself up for potential failure and sadness. Even if you did obtain power and riches, you'd worry about losing it. However, this is where the postponement  thing comes in. If you go for tranquility first and realize what's in your power and what's not, you'll better understand power and riches. You can take the sting out of failure and the dread of loss if you never thought it was in your power to get any of it in the first place.

Oh, and while this may seem depressing, I'll be addressing in a different post way this worldview isn't that bad.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
This is the start of how one can gain Stoic tranquility. Don't just remind yourself with harsh thing. Remind yourself everything is but an appearance and not what it appears to be.

Monday, July 29, 2013

On the Modern Stoic and Suicide

Oh, this is going to be touchy.

Let's be clear on one thing right now: early Stoics advocated suicide. They felt that, if you live in a situation that will most likely never get better, taking your own life was the way to go. Cato did this when, knowing that Caesar took power, took his own life. He knew Caesar wasn't going to let him get away with opposing him.

Seneca devoted an entire letter to the subject. In letter 70, he writes that the wise man “...will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.” He continues. “As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.” Seneca didn't think we should hold to hope (such as in the events of a terminal illness or even prolonged entrapment) because often we pay more to stay alive through hope than if we ended it. Even more, even though he felt we should endure illness and pain bravely, he felt that to endure endless pain was foolish.

Yikes. So, now that times are a bit different, I think it's time to take another look at this subject. Stoicism, after all, changed with the times when it needed and yet kept it's core values. And we, as philosophers, should challenge what we don't agree with, if we are able to. And there certainly enough here for me to disagree.

I'm going to start off by saying I'm not totally against suicide in all situations. I do think that those with terminal illness, nearing end-stage, should have the right to skip over the pain they might have. Having said this, I don't necessary think we should end our lives.

What is the goal of living our lives with Stoicism? It's like the archer Epictetus talked about. The Stoic archer shouldn't concern themselves with hitting the target. They should worry more about making the best shot they can. After all, a sudden gust of wind, a cough, anything can ruin our chance of even landing a hit, let alone a bulls-eye. We'd laugh or even admonish the archer who'd let a screw up cause them to quit.

For me, life goes the same way. We all have death as the end, with a good death (a virtuous one, that is) being the “bulls-eye”. Sometimes, we have these screw ups, like bad breakups and other short-term problems to long-term problems like chronic illness. But, like the archer above, we'd be foolish to quit simply because something happens to us and, perhaps, keeps happening to us. It's all about taking the best shot possible each time.

To base it off William B. Irvine's words, we need to act as the best person possible. Sometimes, that means acting like the best person possible with chronic pain, or cancer, or mental illness. Sometimes it means acting like the best person while trapped in prison or in captivity. If it's, as the Stoics say, possible to live virtuously in all this and worse, why should there ever be a need to kill ourselves?

Let's go back to the terminal illness case. Certainly, I could live virtuously in a situation like this. I can still carry on my duties as a husband and a father. But I can now also serve another purpose: by being a role model for others suffering. I could also make it my duty to raise awareness or give to charity. In short, even the worst of situations do not mean I'm diminished in anything expect for some possible indifferents.

Sure, perhaps some could argue that some people aren't strong enough to carry on. And maybe this is true. But if we keep in mind that a good life leads to a good death, I think a lot more people might be more willing to change their thoughts on ending their lives. Especially when we consider that what enjoyment that comes from our lives comes not from external events like our bodies but internal. We don't need to be healthy or physically free to experience the Stoic joy. And, in knowing this, I can't ever see a reason to end our lives before our time.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On indulging one's pleasures

I came across an interesting line in Letters from a Stoic. Seneca,  in Letter LV, wrote, "He who lives for no one does not necessarily live for himself."

This letter talks about a man named Vatia and how he closed himself away from the world, living out his final years in complete leisure. While many were envious of Vatia, Seneca felt the man already dead, saying every time he passed his villa, "Here lies Vatia!"

Often we feel people who only think of the next chance to please their senses as selfish. We're surrounded by venues made for pleasure: buffets, pornography, designer clothes, and so on. People will drop cash on new smartphones and tablets, then use them to complain they have no money for food or bills. I have much trouble with food and sometimes find myself eating food for the sake of it.

But, thinking about it, all our indulgences are as much of a sign of imprisonment as it is selfishness.

Let's take a look at overeating, my pleasure. Of course it is selfish. I'm eating more than my share of food for no other reason than I didn't stop myself. But this is also putting my belly ahead of everything else as well. My health, my looks, everything about me goes out the window because of this.

It is all for that high of pleasure.

Take those that need to have the next new thing. It isn't so selfish if you live by yourself, but it is a punishment. That high of getting something new takes place over having enough money to live on a day-to-day basis. Imagine what we could do, if we only remember what Nature says we need!

Pleasure is a drug. And we live in a world more than happy to pump us full of it.

See, there is a difference between living a good life and living a pleasurable life. A heroin addict can live a pleasureful live, too, for as long (or short) as it is. But happy and contented? Hardly (and not so if you go by the Stoic ideas of a good life).

Pleasure doesn't mean happiness. The Stoic happiness lasts even in hard times. Paltry pleasure runs at the first sight of trouble, then beckons you to come to it while you ignore the rest of your life. Many can't think of something more pitiful than a person who drowns in excessive ecstasy just to escape some minor despair. And all despair is minor in the long run.

Pleasure is an adverse reaction to all problems. We don't want a constant, though perhaps for the time being weak, stream of happiness through our issues. We want a torrent of happiness to wash away all the problems. Trouble is, it washes away everything else, too.

Spurn pleasure. It cares nothing for you, no matter how you care for it. It's nothing more than a drug and the worst one of them all.

Monday, July 22, 2013

On atheism and the fear of death

I base this post on a question on /r/Stoicism, which I answered but will expand upon here. For those who rather wouldn’t click the link (it is Reddit and easy to get lost in), the question was how do atheists deal with the fear of death. Without the afterlife, is it ever possible to put the fear behind us?

Before I get onto my answer, I’ll address the Stoic ideas of the afterlife, to give a better sense of what the original Stoics believe.

The Stoics held various views of what happened to their souls when they died. Some believed the soul waited around until the end of the universe, which when started again, so, too, would our lives. Others felt that souls rejoined a “world soul” of sorts—which would then hang around until the end of the universe, yada yada yada. Yet it seems there wasn’t any belief that we ourselves would survive our deaths. In short, our soul would be out and about somewhere, but it wasn’t aware.

This may seem meaningless to the whole argument. Atheists don’t believe in a soul. But it’s the last bit that we should pay attention to. The Stoics of yesteryear didn’t think our souls would be conscious. Now, what’s the difference between an unconscious soul and no soul? Little. Perhaps the only comfort one could get is they believed they’d eventually come back, living the same life over and over. The Stoics were Nietzsche before Nietzsche was.

But as atheists, few of us—if any—think we’re coming back. This is our only life. What we have is it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Can we push past our fears of death? Can we ever be calm in the face of our demise?

I’ll admit it. I can’t always get past my fear. But here’s the thing: No one can ever. Not totally, anyway.

The Stoics knew people aren’t perfect. Seneca knew it. Marcus knew it. I’m sure Zeno knew it, too. While the Stoic Sage—unconcerned with all indifferents at all times—was the ideal, they knew no one would ever be one. The Sage was a role model. We can only hope to get close. So this means that, sometimes, even the most resolute of Stoics had their fear get to them every so often.

Yes, I fear death, but not all the time. Lately, at least after my last bad spell of fear, I’ve been able to look at death with neither hope nor dread. Death is, simple as that.

I know I’ll have that fear every so often. I know it’ll keep me up. But as time goes on, and I remind myself that there is nothing I can do about death and that this fear is preventing me from living my life, I see this fear lessening. It doesn’t last as long. And that feels good.

I also remind myself of another Stoic principle: that Nature entrusts everything outside of ourselves to us. When a Stoic loses something, be it a personal item to a person, we are to think, “Fate entrusted me with this. And fate has taken it back.” Nothing outside of minds are our own and we need to remember that. But what if our minds aren’t ours either?

It should work the same. When we die, it isn’t up to us if we remain conscious or are forever gone. Fate (or Nature or evolution or gods) have given us our minds. We are entrusted with our minds and must either have it taken back or we keep it. But I can’t get upset if I should lose it (not that I could, but you know what I mean).

We should also keep in mind that the belief in an afterlife doesn’t mean death is any easier to face. It should be harder. If there is an afterlife, we might be forced to reflect on all that we could have done and didn’t, should have done and didn’t, and shouldn’t have done and did.


I think I’d much rather not exist than that.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On starting this blog

So maybe this isn’t the best of ideas.

Stoic journals aren’t meant to be shared. Marcus Aurelius didn’t write “Meditations” for everyone’s good. It was for him. Only after his death did anyone paid any attention to the works, and even then it wasn’t for years later.

I suppose you could say this is more Seneca than Marcus. While Seneca’s letters were written for his friend Lucilius, they feel polished. More formal teaching of a student than informal advice to a friend. So a mix, eh? A less polished Seneca. Or not really.

Sorry. Let’s try again.

I’m not out to be arrogant. I don’t think I can teach much of anything to anyone. That’s not the point of this. No, if there is one thing I enjoy, it’s discussion. There aren’t many people around these days that openly call themselves “Stoic.” Still, someone to talk to is far and few between.

Call this an open journal. I talk, you read, you respond, I talk back, maybe. It’s all about the feedback, friends.

Ugh, first posts. Never could do these right.

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