Recent essays, #23

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

How to square the circle: Stoicism as personal philosophy vs issues of social justice. Here is a conundrum I have been pondering for a while now. On the one hand, Stoicism is a personal philosophy, meant to help us to excel (in the ethical sense, not by becoming celebrities or making a lot of money) as human beings. On the other hand, the Stoics talk of the virtue of justice, which is other-regarding, and we have plenty of historical evidence of Stoic proficientes fighting against injustice.

The two aspects of Stoic philosophy seem at odds with each other. Take the concept of virtue, for instance. Even on Stoic fora I often read something along the lines of “action (or stance) X is virtuous / unvirtuous.” Where X may be concern for the environment, or for equality, and so forth. But, strictly speaking, that can’t be right, because virtues are not properties of actions or stances, they are character propensities of individual agents. It may, or may not, be virtuous for me — given my specific situation — to participate to a march in favor of action on climate change. But the action is not virtuous per se, without reference to both the specific circumstances and the motivation and other characteristics of the agent. If I go to the march not out of genuine concern for the environment, say, but because I want to impress my friends, then I am not acting virtuously. (continue to read)

Learning Stoicism from non-Stoics.

I have been practicing Stoicism seriously for five years now, I know a lot about the theory, I’ve read pretty much all the available ancient texts and a good number of the modern ones. And I’ve written two books about it. Oh, and of course I practice every day.

Nevertheless, recently I’ve learned something importantly Stoic from a non-Stoic acquaintance of mine. In fact, twice, from two different people. I’m trying my best to implement their advice, which in both cases is perfectly consistent with this quote from Epictetus, unknown, so far as I can tell, to both people in question:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43) (continue to read)

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Recent essays, #22

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and why the Stoics got it wrong — part I. Philosophies of life have a lot in common with religions. Up to a point. Both systems of thought comprise, at a minimum, two components: a metaphysics and an ethics. The metaphysics provides adherents to a given system some notion of how the world works; the ethics gives them guidance on how to live in the world. So if you are a Stoic, for instance, you accept the metaphysical notion of a universal web of cause-effect (which the ancient Stoics called “god”), as well as that everything that exists is made of matter. Ethically speaking, you are on board with the idea that virtue is the only true good, and that we should behave as citizens of the world (cosmopolitanism). If you are a Christian, by contrast, metaphysically you accept that the world was created by an omnipotent god who exists outside of time and space, and ethically you agree that we should help others and offer the other cheek even to our enemies. (continue to read)

Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, and why the Stoics got it wrong — part II. De Natura Deorum was written by Cicero in 45 BCE. Cicero himself narrates, playing the part of a mediator in a discussion on the nature of the gods involving Gaius Velleius, representing the Epicurean school, Quintus Lucilius Balbus, arguing for the Stoics, and Gaius Cotta, speaking for Academic Skepticism, Cicero’s own preferred school of thought. Last time we have seen some of the arguments put forth by Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus — the first three heads of the Stoa — and how they were based on faulty reasoning, chiefly relying on what we today call the argument from design. I want to continue this analysis here, in order to understand why the Stoics got this part of their “physics” (that is, their metaphysics and natural philosophy) wrong. I have already discussed elsewhere the consequences (not many, really) of this failure for modern Stoics. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #21

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

My first three (Stoic) steps. This past weekend my friend (and co-author) Greg Lopez and I run the fifth edition of Stoic Camp-New York. The general topic was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as a guide to Stoic practice. We had 19 students, and discussions were informative and constructive, with people having a great time socializing after sessions. During one of these social evenings I was asked how I got into Stoicism in the first place, so I did a bit of digging into my notes, and even on the internet, to reconstruct my initial steps. The first three are, I think, worth recounting, because they may be helpful to others who have found the Stoic way, or are considering it but are not sure what that entails and how to proceed. (continue to read)

Stoic advice: How do I date a single mom (or dad)? A. writes: I’m a reader of your work and a practitioner of Stoicism (thanks to your last handbook for new Stoics). I recently fell in love with a woman. The ‘thing’ is: she has a child, 8 years old. I wish to be my best with her, so I am seeking advice from a Stoic perspective about this kind of relationship (i.e., dating a single mother). I found some terrible article published by the “red pill” community (of which I knew nothing at the time). They used Stoicism to promote character, but at the same time they urge people not to date a single mom because it’s a trap made by women who cannot assume their own responsibilities. I admit I fell for it, because I was impressed by their apparent knowledge (for a layman like me) of Stoicism. I felt so bad that I talk about it with my girlfriend and I almost broke up with her. I’m into Stoicism, and I try to practice the dichotomy of control, but why then did I panic? Why can’t I enjoy my relationship as a preferred indifferent? Do you have some tips about dating a single mom and cultivating wisdom and virtue at the same time?

Let me start with the basics: it shouldn’t take the might of Stoic philosophy to realize that the red pill community is sick in the soul, and that it is insane to say that “women” spend their time springing traps at the expense of men, because they don’t want to take on their own responsibilities. The misogyny that motivates that sort of “thinking” ought to be obvious. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #20

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Stoicism in three simple steps. Stoicism is a philosophy of life, no different in that respect from a religion. True, Epictetus was not a god, and the Enchiridion is not Scripture. But all religions come with the same two fundamental components that characterize any philosophy of life: a metaphysics, that is, an account of how the world hangs together; and an ethics, that is, an account of how we should live in the world — given the way it hangs together. The major difference between Stoicism and an actual religion, say Christianity, is that Stoics feel free to keep updating and reinterpreting the ancient texts, and that the respective metaphysical axioms are different: naturalism and universal cause-effect for the Stoics, supernaturalism and a creator God for Christians. (continue to read)

The Delphic Commandments.

Four years ago, as part of my sabbatical devoted to writing How to Be a Stoic, I spent a few days in Greece with the primary intent of going after Epictetus. I visited Nicopolis, the Roman town where he went after he was exiled by Domitian in 93 CE. There he established his school and eventually died, probably around 135 CE, when he was about 80.

On my way to Nicopolis (modern day Preveza, in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece), I rented a car from Athens and drove the 370 or so kilometers with my friend Tunc, stopping at Delphi. I had been there before, but the place truly is magical, and was certainly worth a visit on our way to the Ionian coast. (continue to read)

Epictetus: 263 selected quotes

New e-booklet! Epictetus: 263 Selected Quotes. I began to practice Stoicism in 2014, and my first encounter with the philosophy was through the reading of Epictetus. It simply blew my mind. Or rather, the way Epictetus comes across through the writings of his student Arrian of Nicomedia, blew my mind, since Epictetus himself never wrote anything. And moreover, we have apparently lost half of Arrian’s Discourses, having been left with only four of the original eight volumes.

Epictetus was born a slave in Hierapolis (modern day Pamukkale, western Turkey) in the year 55 CE, and died in Nicopolis (western Greece) in 135 CE, having become the most famous teacher of practical philosophy of his time. His influence has reverberated through the millennia, as his Enchiridion (the Manual) was used as a training handbook of spiritual exercises by Christian monks during the middle ages, and has he influenced Renaissance scholars and philosophers, as well as generals and statesmen (including both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson).

Epictetus is blunt, his presentation of philosophy accompanied by a sharp sense of humor that borders on sarcasm (and sometimes clearly and willfully crosses that border!). He speaks frankly to his students, and to us, telling us all that if we don’t practice what we learn we are just wasting our time — and his. And remember, this is the only time allotted to us by the cosmic web of cause-effect that the ancient Stoics called “god.”

This booklet is not a commentary, but simply a selection of what I personally find to be Epictetus’ most powerful quotes, each sourced so that the interested reader can trace it back to its broader context. Use this booklet as a continuous source of inspiration, as life in the 21st century isn’t that different, in many respects, from that of 1st century Rome. Enjoy and reflect.

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume I
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume II
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume III
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume IV
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Enchiridion
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Fragments

24 Stoic Spiritual Exercises

New e-booklet: 24 Stoic Spiritual Exercises, culled from the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most readers too. That’s why in this booklet I collect a number of passages from the ancient Stoics where they explicitly advise certain practices or exercises. (Thanks to my friend Greg Lopez for helping curating the collection, on the occasion of Stoic Camp-New York). The first list is distilled from Epictetus’ Enchiridion (the aptly titled “Manual”), while the second list is derived from Marcus’ Meditations (again aptly, a diary that the emperor wrote for his own personal use).

Table of contents:

Introduction

Epictetus, from the Enchiridion

I. Examine your impressions

II. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things

III. The reserve clause

IV. How can I use virtue here and now?

V. Pause and take a deep breadth

VI. Other-ize

VII. Speak little and well

VIII. Choose your company well

IX. Respond to insults with humor

X. Don’t speak too much about yourself

XI. Speak without judging

Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations

XII. Morning meditation on others

XIII. Keep at-hand principles

XIV. Why am I doing this?

XV. Renunciation

XVI. Decomposition exercise

XVII. Acknowledging others’ virtues

XVIII. Take another’s perspective

XIX. View from above

XX. How did they (not) sin?

XXI. Keep change and death in mind

XXII. When offended…

XXIII. Rebutting thoughts

XXIV. Morning meditation on the cosmos

Recent essays, #19

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 9, Marcus Aurelius — the man himself. Well, it took a while, but we finally got to the end of Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It’s a long and difficult book, but it’s a crucial entry in the modern Stoic literature, which is why I spent so much time — and really put to the test my readers’ patience, I’m afraid — with this series. In this last post I will skip the short chapter 9, on “Virtue and Joy,” and focus on selected passages of the very long chapter 10, “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” where Hadot does his best to glean the character of the man behind the philosophy. However, this isn’t just a biographical chapter, as Marcus’ character, life, and philosophy are deeply intertwined. Which means we are just as likely to learn about the man from his philosophy and life as we are about the philosophy by looking at how this extraordinary man attempted to put it into practice throughout his life. (continue to read)

Here you will find a full list of the essays concerning Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel.

Book Club: The Art of Living, 1, The Skeptics don’t believe in the art of living. Or do they? John Sellars’ The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy is one of the best books I’ve read recently about philosophy understood as a way of life, as distinct from (perhaps even opposed to?) a specialized academic discipline. Here is how the publisher described the book: Ancient philosophy was conceived as a way of life or an art of living, but if ancient philosophers did think that philosophy should transform an individual’s way of life, then what conception of philosophy stands behind this claim? John Sellars explores this question through a detailed account of ancient Stoic ideas about the nature and function of philosophy. He considers the Socratic background to Stoic thinking about philosophy and Skeptical objections raised by Sextus Empiricus, and offers readings of late Stoic texts by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Sellars argues that the conception of philosophy as an “art of living,” inaugurated by Socrates and developed by the Stoics, has persisted since antiquity and remains a living alternative to modern attempts to assimilate philosophy to the natural sciences. (continue to read)