Roman Calendar

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 6

Evening Text for Reflection:


If what philosophers say about the kinship of God and man is true, then the only logical step is to do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, 'I am Athenian' or "I am a Corinthian", but always "I am a citizen of the universe."

Epictetus, Discourses 1.9

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercise (Philanthropy) - Day 6

From the Stoic Week Handbook:

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Philanthropy
So far we have focused mainly on the individual. Today we move on to think more about our relationships with other people. The Stoics were early advocates of the idea of cosmopolitanism – we are all fellow citizens of a single universal community, united by our shared nature. The Stoics also place great importance on “natural affection” of the kind of loving attitude that they believed we instinctively feel toward our own offspring, sexual partners, and perhaps other members of our family. Although some people mistakenly believe the Stoics were unemotional, like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, they actually rejected this interpretation themselves and frequently denied that they were advocating being insensitive, like someone having a heart of iron or stone. Instead of eliminating emotions entirely, the Stoics wanted to transform our natural sense of affection, in the light of reason and virtue. Marcus Aurelius neatly summed up the ideal when he praised his own Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, as providing him with a living role-model who was “full of love yet free from [irrational] passions”. This Stoic view of love appears to have several implications:
1.             Stoics should, as Epictetus says, love others as though they could be taken from us at any moment, i.e., without any trace of clinging attachment, because their presence in our lives is ultimately not “up to us” but lies partly in the hands of fate. (Epictetus notoriously advises his students to kiss their loved ones goodnight while telling themselves silently that they may die at any moment - notice that means still behaving affectionately toward them, though.)
2.             We should desire only to love others, while accepting that it is ultimately “indifferent” whether they reciprocate, as again, this is not “up to us” but to them. (Hence, the Stoics foreshadow Christians in loving even their enemies, wishing them to become friends and live harmoniously in the world, fate permitting.) However, Epictetus also encouraged his students to place the 'good' in their relationships with others. Your brother might not be 'good' (you can't control your brother), but your attitude toward your brother is something in which you can place the 'good', so that you always aim to act well in the relationship.
3.             To love others is to wish them to flourish and for Stoics that means ultimately to attain virtue, rather than health, wealth, or reputation – so our love for others is a wish for them to become virtuous and enlightened. (For this reason, incidentally, Zeno and his followers, like Socrates, dedicated their lives to teaching philosophy to others and training them in the virtues.)
4.             As others are external to us, though, we can only “prefer” that they flourish, while accepting their imperfection, folly, and vice, as inevitable and beyond our direct control – with the Stoic “reserve clause”, in other words. (It was often observed, for example, that even Socrates, despite being a man of exemplary wisdom and virtue according to the Stoics, nevertheless had wayward followers and children.)
5.             We should not discriminate between others, but should aspire to expand our sense of natural affection to encompass the rest of humanity, an attitude sometimes called Stoic “philanthropy” or love of mankind. Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself, for example, to love mankind and accept their imperfections with Stoic indifference.  Marcus himself was often specifically praised for his "philanthropic" character as emperor of Rome.
Hierocles, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, described the Stoic view that we live as though enclosed in a series of concentric circles, representing progressively more distance from our true selves.

Hierocles said that Stoics should attempt to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre”. He explained that, “The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.”
He even suggests verbal techniques such as calling one’s cousins “brother”, and one’s uncles and aunts “father” or “mother”. (Think of the way some people use the word "brother" to describe close friends or comrades, even today.) Elsewhere, he says that we should view our actual brothers as if they were parts of our own body, like our own hands and feet. The saying of Zeno, that a friend is “another self” (alter ego), also depicts this shift in perspective, taking others one stage deeper into the circle of natural affection and personal affinity. One benefit of doing this, as Seneca argued, is that by expanding love to encompass as many others as possible, through philanthropy, we actually learn to love in a more natural and rational manner, without over-attachment to any individual that we love. Indeed, he goes so far as to say: “he who has not been able to love more than one, did not even love that one much” (Letters 63.11). The Sage is not obsessed with anyone, in part, because she loves everyone as much as she is able and does so while accepting that they are changeable and that one day they will die.
The following contemplative visualisation or meditation technique is loosely based on Hierocles’ comments about enlarging our sense of affection towards others:
1.             Close your eyes and take a few moments to relax and focus your attention on the things you're about to visualise.
2.             Picture a circle of light surrounding your body and take a few moments to imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of affection toward your own true nature as a rational animal, capable of wisdom and virtue, the chief good in life.
3.             Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass members of your family, or others who are very close to you, whom you now project an attitude of family affection toward, as if they were somehow parts of your own body.
4.             Next, imagine that circle expanding to encompass people you encounter in daily life, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project natural affection toward them, as if they were members of your own family.
5.             Again, let the circle expand further to include everyone in the country where you live, imagining that your affection is spreading out toward them also, insofar as they are rational animals akin to you.

6.             Imagine the circle now growing to envelop the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing this philosophical and philanthropic attitude affection to encompass every other member of the human race. 

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 6

Morning Text for Reflection:

At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: 'I am getting up for a human being's work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?' 'But this is more pleasant.' Were you born for pleasure - all for feeling and not for action? Can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world? And then do you not want to do the work of a human being, do you not hurry to the demands of your own nature?


Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.1

Friday, November 29, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 5

Evening Text for Reflection:


At every hour devote yourself in a resolute spirit, as befits a Roman and a man, to fulfilling the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity, and with love for others, and independence, and justice; and grant yourself a respite from all other preoccupations. And this you will achieve if you perform every action as though it were your last, freed from all lack of purpose and willful deviation from the rule of reason, and free from duplicity, self-love, and dissatisfaction with what is allotted to you. You see how few are the things that a person needs to master if he is to live a tranquil and divine life; for the gods themselves will demand nothing more from one who observes these principles.           

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.5

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercise (Controlling Emotions) - Day 5

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Controlling Emotions


The Stoics developed many strategies for controlling unhealthy and excessive desires and emotions. For example, a whole text by Seneca survives on Stoic remedies for anger. We’ve already looked at many aspects of Stoic “therapy of the passions”. However, in this section we’ll look in more detail at one of the most famous Stoic psychological exercises: the premeditation of future “evils” or adversities (praemeditatio futurorum malorum).


There are many references in the surviving Stoic literature to the strategy of anticipating future catastrophes and preparing to face them in advance by patiently imagining them, as if they were happening already. Typical examples include bereavement, poverty, exile, illness, and, perhaps most importantly of all for the Stoics, one’s own death.


By repeatedly picturing future “catastrophes” as if they were already happening, the Stoic could not only reduce anxiety about them, in a similar way to how 'exposure therapy' in CBT today can reduce anxiety attached to specific situation,  but also rehearse judging them in accord with his ethical principles, as being “indifferent” with regard to his ultimate wellbeing and fulfilment. Picturing even their own death in this way, repeatedly, day after day, allowed the Stoics to develop a habitual “philosophical attitude” in the face of adversity, when it happens for real. We know from modern research that the best way to overcome anxiety is to actually “expose” yourself to the feared situation in reality, repeatedly and for sufficiently prolonged periods. However, we also know that simply picturing the same event in the mind, repeatedly and for long enough, often works almost as well.


To begin with, you should not do this with anything that seems like it might lead you to “bite off more than you can chew”. Don’t imagine things that are deeply personal or traumatic until you’re definitely ready to do so without feeling overwhelmed. Begin by working on small things that upset you. Don’t let yourself worry about them, just try to picture the worst-case scenario patiently, and wait for your emotions to abate naturally. Remind yourself of the Stoic principles you’ve learned. In particular, the maxim that people are upset not by external events but by their own judgements about them, particularly value-judgements that place too much importance on things that are not under your direct control. Try to spend at least 20-30 minutes doing this each day. You might find it helpful to keep a record of your experiences as follows:


1.             Situation. What is the upsetting situation that you’re imagining?

2.             Emotions. How does it make you feel when you picture it as if it’s happening right now? How strong is the feeling (0-100%)?

3.             Duration. How long (in minutes) did you manage to “sit with it” and patiently expose yourself to the event in your imagination?

4.             Consequence. How strong was the upsetting feeling at the end (0-100%)? What else did you feel or experience by the end?

5.             Analysis. Has your perspective changed on the upsetting event? Is it really as “awful” as you imagined? How could you potentially cope if it did happen? What’s under your control in this situation and what isn’t?


If your anxiety level hasn’t reduced to at least half its peak level then you might need to pick an easier subject, or else spend more time on things to benefit. Use the natural “wearing off” of upsetting feelings as an opportunity to re-evaluate the situation in a more rational and detached manner, i.e., from a more “philosophical” perspective. What do you think a Stoic like Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius would make of the same situation? How might you view it differently if you had mastered the “virtues” of practical wisdom, moral justice, courage and self-control? Take your time to note down what you can potentially learn from this experience.

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 5

Morning Text for Reflection:


Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.49

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 4

Evening Text for Reflection:


There is one type of person who, whenever he has done a good deed to another, expects and calculates to have the favour repaid. There is a second type of person who does not calculate in such a way but who, nevertheless, deep within himself regards the other person as someone who owes him something and he remembers that he has done the other a good deed.

But there is a third type of person who, in some sense, does not even remember the good deed he has done but who, instead, is like a vine producing its grape, seeking nothing more than having brought forth its own fruit, just like a horse when it has run, a dog when it has followed its scent and a bee when it has made honey. This man, having done one good deed well, does not shout it about but simply turns his attention to the next good deed, just like the vine turns once again to produce its grape in the right season.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.6

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercise (The Practice of Stoic Mindfulness) - Day 4

From the 2013 Stoic Week Handbook:

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: The Practice of Stoic Mindfulness
A large part of Stoic 'mindfulness' is concerned with the 'discipline of assent'. Epictetus said (Discourses, 3.2.2.) that this is about 'freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever is connected with assent.' Essentially, that means developing more self-control over our thoughts and judgements. It involves a kind of continual mindfulness of our thinking processes, which the Stoics called prosochê or “attention” to yourself. Epictetus says that it requires training ourselves to avoid rashness or errors in our judgements. For Stoics, the key error of judgement that we make, as we’ve seen, lies in treating external things as if they were intrinsically good or bad, and forgetting that virtue is the only true good, as they claimed. We’ve already looked at this aspect of Stoicism when we talked about the practice of evaluating whether our judgements refer to things under our control or not. However, the discipline of assent also involves a process that’s perhaps even more fundamental, which Epictetus alludes to as avoiding “rashness” or being “carried away” by our thoughts and feelings. He says the key to retaining our grip on objective reality and not being swept away by irrational desire or emotions is that before we even begin to challenge our thoughts, we must learn to step back from them temporarily. The key passage here occurs at the start of the Handbook where Epictetus tells us to respond to each troubling thought or “impression” by saying: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”
This isn't a familiar concept to most people.  To understand what Epictetus may have meant, it helps to compare it to a psychological strategy commonly employed in modern cognitive therapy called “psychological distancing” or “cognitive distancing”. (So this is a modern interpretation and not something you'll find explicitly stated in most books on Stoicism.)  In cognitive therapy, which was originally inspired by Stoicism, it’s understood that before we can learn to challenge unhealthy patterns of thinking, we have to first spot them, and place our thoughts in question – they have to be “up for debate”. This is sometimes described as being able to see our thoughts as merely thoughts, rather than confusing them with facts or external events. Cognitive therapists commonly explain this by using metaphors. Imagine, for example, that you’re wearing coloured glasses, they could be “rose-tinted spectacles” or they might even paint the world in dark and gloomy colours. When you lack “cognitive distance” it’s like you’ve forgotten that you’re wearing coloured glasses, and you assume that the world really is, objectively, rose-tinted or gloomy, etc. When you engage in “cognitive distancing”, it’s like taking the glasses off and looking at them, rather than through them, or just realising that you’re wearing glasses that distort the colours you see. The first step in responding to troubling desires and emotions, in Stoicism, is therefore to gain psychological distance from them by reminding ourselves that the impressions they’re based upon are just impressions, just thoughts, and not the reality they claim to represent.
One quotation from Epictetus puts this so well that it is still taught to clients in cognitive therapy today. “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things” (Handbook 5). Epictetus repeatedly advised his students that remembering this Stoic principle could help them to avoid being “carried away” by their troubling emotions and desires. We should be alert for the early-warning signs of problematic emotions and desires, which are often habitual and barely conscious. When we spot this initial signs, often certain bodily sensations or internal feelings, we should quickly try to identify the initial impressions and underlying value-judgements that are causing them. For example, the modern cognitive model of anxiety, which is derived from Stoic psychology, says that anxiety is caused by a thought or judgement along the lines of “Something bad is going to happen and I won’t be able to cope with it.” Distancing would consist in saying “I notice I’m having the thought ‘something bad is going to happen’ and that’s upsetting me” rather than being swept along by the impression that something bad is going to happen and allowing your fear to escalate unnecessarily.
One of the simplest ways of responding to troubling impressions, when you spot their early-warning signs, is to postpone doing anything in response to them. Modern researchers, for example, asked college students simply to spot when they were becoming anxious and starting to worry, and to postpone thinking about their perceived problems any further until a set time, later in the day, when they would try to problem-solve more calmly. Within about a week, this was found to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of worry episodes by about fifty percent on average. Epictetus gave very similar advice to his Stoic students, nearly two thousand years ago. He says when we spot initial troubling impressions, especially if they seem overwhelming, we should “gain time and respite”, by reminding ourselves that these are just thoughts and waiting a while, until we’ve genuinely calmed down, before thinking about them any further, or deciding what action to take. The Pythagoreans mention a similar technique, which involved pausing, walking away, and waiting until your anger has naturally abated before rebuking someone over their behaviour. In modern anger management, this is sometimes called the “taking a time-out” strategy.  The Stoics talked of withholding our “assent”, or agreement, from upsetting initial impressions.  They knew that although some thoughts and feelings may appear to be very rapid or automatic, we do then typically have an opportunity to step back from them, spot what’s happening to us, and suspend judgement until things have calmed down enough for us to evaluate our thinking rationally.
You have already started self-monitoring your thoughts, actions, and feelings, and distinguishing between things under your control and things not. From this point onward, try to catch the early-warning signs of strong desires or upsetting emotions. Pause to give yourself thinking space and gain psychological distance from your initial impressions. If your feelings are particularly strong or difficult to deal with, postpone thinking about them any further until you’ve had a chance to calm down, which may be during your evening meditation practice. Epictetus  advises his students to do three main things when they return to the thoughts they’ve previously withheld their “assent” from:
1.             Most importantly, ask yourself whether the impressions that upset you are about things under your control or not and if they’re not under your control, accept this fact, and remind yourself that external things are “indifferent” with regard to your own flourishing and virtue.
2.             Ask yourself what someone perfectly wise and virtuous person would do when faced with the same problem or situation. This is the 'Stoic Sage', whom the Stoics treated as an ideal for imitation. Who would you pick as a wise role model?
3.             Ask yourself what strengths or resources nature has given you to master the situation, e.g., do you have the capacity for patience and endurance? How might using those potential virtues help you deal with this problem more wisely?

In a nutshell, don’t allow yourself to be carried away by irrational feelings, whether through force of habit or because they arise unexpectedly. Remember that you are upset by your own thoughts and value-judgments rather than by external events. Use this realisation to help you gain psychological distance, and the time and respite required to return to the subject later and evaluate it calmly and rationally, in accord with Stoic principles, using strategies like the three lines of questioning above.

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 4

Morning Text for Reflection:

Train yourself to think only those thoughts such that in answer to the sudden question 'What is in your mind now?' you could say with immediate frankness whatever it is, this or that: and so your answer can give direct evidence that all your thoughts are straightforward and kindly, the thoughts of a social being who has no regard for the fancies of pleasure or indulgence, for rivalry, malice, suspicion, or anything else that one would blush to admit was in one's mind.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.4

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 3

Evening Text for Reflection:
Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act - walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you'll see what the result is. And if you're laid up a mere ten days, when you get up and try to talk any distance, you'll find your legs barely able to support you. So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don't like doing something, make a habit of doing something different. The same goes for the affairs of the mind...So if you don't want to be hot-tempered, don't feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don't get angry. 'I used to be angry every day, then only every other day, then every third....' If you resist it a whole month, offer God a sacrifice, because the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether. 'I didn't lose my temper this day, or the next, and not for two, then three months in succession.' If you can say that, you are now in excellent health, believe me.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.18

ALSO - Do Daily Evening Exercise!

Stoic Week Lunctime Exercise (Stoic Acceptance and Stoic Action) - Day 3

From the 2013 Stoic Week Handbook:

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Stoic Acceptance & Stoic Action
One of the most fundamental ways in which Stoics achieved serenity was the practice of Stoic acceptance. Epictetus encapsulated this as follows:
Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.
Epictetus, Handbook 8
This doesn't mean passively resigning yourself to events, though. It’s important to emphasize that Stoic acceptance primarily means recognizing that some things are outside of your control, and that if those events have actually happened, this must be acknowledged and accepted. However, you still try to do your best in responding to these events, for that is something which is under your control. Put another way: Stoic serenity comes from “accepting reality” or “accepting the facts” – but not giving up! It is about establishing a sense of purpose within the events of your life.  The famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous provides a memorable summary of the Stoic doctrine:
God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage, to change the things I can;
And Wisdom to know the difference.
For example, there’s no point worrying about the past or the distant future, although of course we can learn from the past and prepare for the future. What’s beyond remedy is beyond regret. Stoics focus on acting with virtue in the “here and now”, insofar as that is within their sphere of control, from moment to moment. Practice the attitude of Stoic acceptance, therefore, during your morning and evening meditation, by reminding yourself to patiently accept the fact that it’s too late to change the past, and that the future may always turn out against your plans. Stoics desire only what it is within their power to change, which means desiring only to excel in terms of their character and conduct, while graciously accepting external events, even when they go against our plans or preferences. Throughout the day, as you bring your attention continually back to the distinction between what is under your control, and what is not, bear this in mind.
As we have just seen, whilst accepting there are some things we cannot change, the Stoics did focus on how you could act as well as possible in the things which are under your control. And in order to act as well as possible, the Stoic focussed on ensuring he was cultivating wise intentions for action. Marcus Aurelius said an intention should have three principal qualities:
1.             It should be undertaken “with a reserve clause”, an attitude of somewhat detached “indifference” toward the actual outcome.
2.             It should be “for the common welfare” of mankind, which perhaps comes closest to what we mean nowadays by saying that something is “ethical” – taking into account the well-being of others as well as our own, as if all of mankind were part of a single family.
3.             It should be “according to nature”, meaning that some things are naturally worth pursuing and preferring over other things, both for ourselves and others, such as physical health, although these things are not considered intrinsically “good” in Stoic ethics.
Let's focus here particularly on the “reserve clause”. As we saw earlier, some people mistakenly assume that Stoics will be passive doormats, because they emphasize acceptance of external things. This should seem puzzling because history teaches us quite the opposite: that famous Stoics were often very brave, determined, and active in the world. The “reserve clause” allowed Stoics to reconcile action in the external world with a “philosophical attitude” of acceptance toward their fate. Put simply, it’s like qualifying every intention by saying “I will do such-and-such, if nothing prevents me” or “fate permitting”. Stoics aim to undertake every action with this in mind. They may begin each day, as this morning's passage from Marcus shows, by mentally rehearsing the many ways in which people and events could thwart their plans and preferences, while training themselves in serene acceptance, whether they meet with success or failure. And what is the Stoic aiming to do? As Marcus' key points show us, he wants to perform ethically sound actions for both oneself and others, cultivating positive states of mind, and obtaining positive 'externals' as far as possible, such as good friendships and a healthy body.

From now on during your morning meditation, you can practice incorporating the 'reserve clause',  saying to yourself: “I will do xyz, fate permitting” or “if nothing prevents me” (or words to that effect). Imagine all the things that could go wrong, and rehearse an attitude of detached acceptance toward them, as if the only thing that really matters is that you “do your best” and that you intend to act wisely and virtuously. Do what you must; let happen what may.

Stoic Week Text for Morning Reflection - Day 3

Morning Text for Reflection:
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I might meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious and unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Not can I be angry with my fellow human being or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1

ALSO - Perform the Daily Morning Meditation!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Link to Article - "How Spartan Were the Stoics?"

Stoic Week Text for Evening Reflection - Day 2

Evening Text for Reflection:

This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring ...

Lucan, The Civil War

ALSO - Do the Late-Evening Meditation!

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercise (Stoic Simplicity) - Day 2

Here is another exercise from the Stoic Week Handbook for the second day's lunchtime exercise:

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise:  Stoic Simplicity
For the Stoics, one major challenge we face in life is excessive desire for wealth, or 'more stuff'. In training themselves to overcome this, they would adopt a simple life, periodically undergoing voluntary deprivation and hardship. Some Stoics apparently trained themselves to embrace voluntary hardship, like their predecessors the Cynics, whose philosophy Zeno had originally trained in for many years.  That meant consuming very plain food and drink, wearing simple clothes and sleeping on a rough straw mat. However, at other times the Stoics appear to suggest this level of hardship is unnecessary as long as we grasp the basic attitude of Stoic “indifference” toward external things and learn to become sufficiently detached from things the majority of people tend to worry about and desire. Seneca, for example, recommends practicing voluntary hardship for a few days each month, whereas for the Cynics it was their entire lifestyle.
If what Seneca and other Stoics describe doing sounds austere, consider that it’s not much worse than the “voluntary hardship” endured by people who like to go camping in the wilderness as a hobby, where they may eat plain food and sleep in a tent for several days – even Boy Scouts can manage that! In any event, the point is that we should, with courage and related virtues, practice enduring discomfort, such as the fatigue of exercise, when it is useful and healthy for us to do so. We should also practice renouncing our craving for empty pleasure.
So don’t worry, we’re not going to ask you to live like a Cynic. (Unless you really want to, of course!) It’s enough just to practice self-discipline by starting with small steps. Anyone who tries to follow a healthy diet or engage in more exercise, for example, will require self-discipline. You might just want to “renounce” coffee or snacks for a week, or “endure” doing stretches or sit-ups each morning, pushing yourself a bit further than normal, but in a way you judge reasonable and healthy.
That might seem like rather bland advice. There’s a crucial “Stoic twist”, though. For the Stoics, physical health is naturally “preferred” but ultimately “indifferent” with regard to our well-being, compared to virtues, such as self-discipline and endurance. Zeno was renowned for his physical self-mastery and Cato, the famous Roman Stoic, for his commitment to vigorous exercise and self-discipline. They didn't exercise to look good on the beach, though! For Stoics, the benefits that self-discipline and endurance have for our character are all that really matter, whatever the outcome in terms of our physical health and fitness. However, they would add, if we’re going to renounce some habitual pleasures and endure certain physical hardships then it is rational for us to prefer doing so in a way that’s physically healthy. That’s part of what they mean by “prudence”, or living wisely. Notice that whether or not we actually lose weight, or live longer, is partly in the hands of fate – there’s no guarantee that exercise or diet will do this for us – that’s not “up to us” or under our direct control. You could put the difference like this: Health is not 'up to us', but 'looking after our health' is. Likewise, it is “up to us” whether we act with self-discipline or not, at least in terms of our intention to endure some things and renounce others.
So this is a different sort of exercise, but an important one, and one that you’ll find fits well with the self-monitoring exercises you’re doing each day. Set goals for yourself in terms of your own conduct – that define the type of person you want to be. Try to become someone who exhibits self-awareness, practical wisdom, and corresponding self-discipline and endurance, where appropriate. Challenge yourself to do this by making some appropriate changes in your daily routine: simple, healthy changes, which will require self-discipline and patience on your part. For example, get up earlier in the morning, drink only water, eat a healthier diet, set aside time for simple physical exercise. For example, Musonius Rufus, who was Epictetus' teacher, described the purpose of food as the following: 'I maintain that its purpose should be to produce health and strength, that one should eat for that purpose only, and that one should eat with moderation, and without any haste or greed.' You might find Musonius' advice about eating simple food with mindfulness helpful in setting up your goals for a simpler life during the rest of this week.

It’s up to you exactly what changes you make but do so with self-awareness and practical wisdom. Focus on doing these things for the sake of developing greater self-awareness and strength of character, but view any other “external” benefits as just a kind of added bonus.

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 2

Morning Text for Reflection:

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so life is amply long for the one who orders it properly.


Seneca, On the Shortness of Life 1

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stoic Week Late-Evening Meditation - Day 1

Here is an excerpt from the Stoic Week handbook concerning the Late-Evening Meditation:

Late-Evening Meditation

Epictetus and Seneca both allude to the use within Stoicism of a form of contemplative, philosophical self-analysis, practised regularly, each evening, which was borrowed from Pythagoreanism. For example, Epictetus quoted the following passage from the Golden Verses of Pythagoras to his students:
“Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes,
Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed:
‘Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?’
From first to last review your acts and then
Reprove yourself for wretched [or cowardly] acts, but rejoice in those done well.”
Epictetus, Discourses 3.10.2-3
For Epictetus and his students the students of Epictetus, the evening meditation was apparently composed of three key questions:
1.              Where did I go wrong in matters conducive to serenity and personal flourishing? (What errors of judgement did I make?)
2.              What did I do that was unfriendly, or antisocial, or inconsiderate? (Where did I act foolishly?)
3.              What duty was left undone in regard to my personal serenity and social relationships? (What could I do differently next time?)
Seneca described a slightly different set of questions:
1.              “What evils have you cured yourself of today?”
2.              “What vices have you fought?”
3.              “In what sense are you better?”
We can probably assume that a Stoic whose self-analysis and review of the preceding day leads him to conclude he has erred in his judgement, acted badly, or failed to follow his principles, would seek to learn from this and act differently the following day. On awakening the next day, you’ll probably find it natural to base your morning meditation, in part, on your reflections made before going to sleep the previous night. These meditations therefore appear to combine to form a “learning cycle”, planning how to live and act more wisely, putting it into practice during the day, and then reflecting upon the outcome afterwards, which leads to the same cycle the following day.
For our purposes, at night, before going to sleep, take 5-10 minutes to review the events of your day, picturing them in your mind if possible. It’s best if you can do this before actually getting into bed, where you might begin to feel drowsy rather than thinking clearly. You may find it helpful to write notes on your reflections and self-analysis in a journal, documenting your “journey” as you learn to apply Stoic practices in daily life. Try to remember the order in which you encountered different people throughout the day, the tasks you engaged in, what you said and did, etc. Ask yourself the following questions (or questions similar to these):
1.              What did you do badly? Did you do allow yourself to be ruled by fears or desire of an excessive, irrational, or unhealthy kind? Did you act badly or allow yourself to indulge in irrational thoughts?
2.              What did you do well? Did you make progress by strengthening your virtues?
3.              What did you omit? Did you overlook any opportunities to exercise virtue or strength of character?
4.              Consider how anything done badly or neglected could be done differently in the future – do this by criticising your specific actions rather than yourself generally as a person.
5.              Praise yourself for anything done well.
In doing this, as Seneca put it, you are also rehearsing the role of a friend and wise counsellor, toward yourself.
The advice from modern psychotherapy would be that you’ll need to be cautious to avoid reflection turning into morbid rumination. Don’t dwell too long on things or go around in circles. Rather, try to keep a practical focus and arrive at clear decisions if possible; if not then set your thoughts aside to return to them in the morning. There are many hidden aspects to this exercise, which will become clearer as you progress in your studies of Stoicism. For example, bearing in mind that the past is beyond your ability to control, as a Stoic you should arguably use this “review” to practice acceptance and Stoic “indifference” toward your own failings, in a sense forgiving yourself while resolving to behave differently in the future. Hence, as Seneca emphasises, when describing his use of the same evening routine, we should not be afraid of contemplating our mistakes because as Stoics we can say: “Beware of doing that again, and this time I pardon you.”
You can download a free video and audio exercise on the Stoic Evening Meditation from the main Stoic Week 2013 page below: