Roman Calendar

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

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.

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