Stoic Meditations

Below is a periodically updated list of episodes of my podcast, Stoic Meditations. Each episode is only a few minutes long, begins with a quote from one of the ancient Stoics, and ends with some reflections on the meaning of the quote in the context of contemporary life. Entries organized by relevant Stoic source.

(Note: page is currently being updated. Check back frequently.)

Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius
Musonius Rufus
Epictetus’ Discourses
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
Hierocles

Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius

I.1: This could be the last day of your life. Are you going to waste it by binging on a mediocre television show?

I.2 & I.3: Seneca tells us that time is a precious commodity, and one that, once loaned, can never be paid back.

II.2: Seneca reminds us that reading is serious business, and that time is limited. Choose well the authors in whose company you wish to spend time.

II.5: Seneca wanders into Epicurean territory, as a scout, not a traitor.

II.6: Seneca tells Lucilius that wealth should be limited, something that exposed him to charges of hypocrisy. Regardless, what is the relationship between wealth and virtue?

III.2: Seneca advises us on how to behave with true friends, and reminds us of how important they are in our life.

IV.3: Seneca uses Epicurus’ argument for why we should not be afraid of death, focusing instead on how to best live our life.

IV.4 & IV.5: Seneca says that the important thing is not how long a life you live, but what you do with it.

IV.7: Seneca uses a beautiful analogy to explain why the Stoic practitioner should not rely on luck, and indeed should be positively weary of it.

V.1: Seneca has a problem with people who measure their worth by fashion or wealth.

V.4: Seneca makes a surprising statement about the primary aim of philosophy. Surprising, that is, if you confuse Stoicism and stoicism…

VI.4: Seneca makes the surprising (to some) statement that Stoicism is all about community and sharing.

VII.7: Seneca warns us that the path to virtue is easily disrupted by exposing ourselves to temptation and unsavory company.

VIII.5: Seneca says that it makes no difference whether your house has a roof of gold, what matters is the character of the person who lives there.

IX.3: Seneca puts forth a paradox: the wise person is self-sufficient, and yet she desires friends and neighbors. How is this possible?

IX.13: The wise person, according to Seneca, needs others to live her life, but not to live a life worth living. For that, all she needs is to keep her faculty of judgment in good order.

XI.10: Seneca advises Lucilius to choose a good role model to improve his character, for we cannot straighten what is crooked unless we use a ruler.

XII.4 & 9: Seneca tells Lucilius to pay attention to the joys of old age, and to be grateful for every day we live.

XII.11: Seneca explains to his friend Lucilius why on earth he approvingly quotes one of the Stoics’ main rivals, Epicurus.

XIII.4 & 5: Seneca says that we often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the wrong sorts of things.

XIV.2: Seneca says that it is incumbent on us to take care of our body, but that we should even be willing to destroy it, if virtue demands it.

XVI.3: Seneca tells Lucilius that philosophy is not just a way to amuse the mind, but an exercise to guide our actions and mould our souls.

XVI.5: Seneca says that whether the universe is controlled by universal laws, by a god, or by chance, we still have to do the right thing. And philosophy is our guide for that.

XVIII.4: Seneca tells Lucilius about two levels of engagement with drunken crodws during the holidays. Good to remember for your next Thanksgiving, Christmans, or whatever you celebrate.

XVIII.5 and 6: Seneca explains the Stoic practice of eating poor and scant food, and going outside dressed with old clothes, in order to remind ourselves that we can cope with difficult situations, and to appreciate anew what we have.

XVIII.15: Seneca tells us that anger is a form of temporary madness, not to be indulged by the person who cultivates reason.

XIX.10: Seneca tells Lucilius that one can learn a thing or two even from Epicurus, particularly that it is the company we keep that is the most important part of our meals.

XX.1: Seneca says that talk is easy, but the real measure of whether we are making progress lies in our practice. Have our desires for the wrong things decreased? Are we focusing on what is truly important?

XX.13: Seneca tells Lucilius that it is crucial, from time to time, to engage in exercises of self deprivation, so to prepare ourselves for whenever luck will turn, and also to be grateful and appreciative of what we normally have and may take for granted.

XXI.9: Seneca explains that one doesn’t have to be an Epicurean in order to find value in the words of Epicurus. It’s like in the Senate: you vote for the parts of a motion you approve of, and reject the rest.

XXIII.3: Rather unusual advise from Seneca to his friend Lucilius: learn how to feel joy. Which doesn’t sound Stoic only if one buys into the incorrect stereotype of Stoicism as a practice to suppress emotions. Let’s learn how to feel joy, then.

XXIII.6: Seneca says the problem with pleasure is that if one is too much into it, it rushes us into the abyss of sorrow. So it’s time to discuss what pleasure means for a practitioner of Stoicism.

XXIII.7: Seneca says that the right path in life consists in a good conscience, honourable purposes, right actions, contempt of luck, and an attitude of equanimity toward whatever the universe throws our way.

XXIII.11: Seneca observes that some people begin to really live their life only near the end. And some never begin at all. So what’s sort of life you want to live, and have you started already?

XXIV.2: Seneca introduces a classic Stoic exercise, the premeditatio malorum, thinking about bad things happening, playing them in your head, so you get comfortable with accepting whatever may come.

XXIV.12: Seneca reminds Lucilius that we ought to hope for justice, but brace ourselves for injustice. This is just the way the world works, which doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility to do something about it.

XXIV.17: Seneca lists the worst things that could happen to him, and that we all fear, and reminds himself that the only truly terrible thing is being a bad person who holds to bad values and makes bad decisions.

XXVII.8: Seneca, with rather uncharacteristic sense of humor, says that one can’t buy a sound mind, and even if that were possible, there would be no market for them.

XXVIII.2: Seneca tells Lucilius that moving to the other end of the world will not be helpful if his troubles are generated by his own attitudes, because he will carry the same person around the globe, if he doesn’t address the real issue.

XXVIII.4: Seneca reminds us that even though we belong to different social groups, religions, ethnicities and so forth, we are, most fundamentally, members of the human cosmopolis.

XXX.2: In this episode we discuss a quote from Seneca which, together with several other passages in other authors, clearly points to the conclusion that the Stoics were in favor of suicide in the case of disease and frailty in old age. Which does not mean they took suicide lightly at all.

XXXI.5: Seneca reminds us that, regardless of external circumstances, the only life worth living is one of virtue, and the only life to avoid is one dominated by vice.

XXXIII.11: Seneca reminds us that Stoicism is a live philosophy, which must evolve over time in order to incorporate new truths and, if needed, reject old ideas that turned out to be wrong.

XXXVI.6: Seneca says that Fortune may take just as much, and as suddenly, as she can give. But we can work on improving our character so that we can accept with equanimity both the good and the bad stuff in life.

XXXVII.5: Seneca says that Stoic mindfulness is about paying attention to what is happening to us. We need to keep charting and re-charting our way forward, as our mind needs to be prepared for the vagaries of Fortune.

XLIII.5: Seneca observes our tendency to boast of the good things we do and to keep quiet about the not-so-good ones. As if our own judgment, the judgment of our conscience, didn’t matter.

XLIV.2-3: Seneca reminds us that philosophy is open to all, no matter what our background and means. Engage the philosophical life and you will get to converse with noble minds across time and cultures.

XLV.7: Seneca warns us to be careful with people who pretend to be our friends, or simply feed our narcissism. Like, you know, most of the “friends” you likely have on social media…

XLVII.1 & 10: Seneca reminds his contemporaries that slaves are human beings like everyone else. In this episode, we talk about slavery in the ancient world, what the Stoics thought about it, and what follows from their philosophy.

XLVII.16: Seneca reminds us that all too often we judge people on the basis of what they wear, or of their social rank, mistakenly assuming that those are good indicators of their character.

XLVII.17: Seneca says that if we are going after the satisfaction of lust, greed, ambition, and so forth, we make ourselves slaves to fortune. Not so if we regard what we have as loans from the universe, which the universe can take back at any moment, by any means.

XLVIII.2: Seneca reminds us that we can’t live happily if we transform everything into a question of our own utility. We must live for your neighbour in order to live for ourselves.

XLVIII.4: Seneca says that he’d prefer to be told how to help people, rather than how many different meanings of the word “people” there may be.

XLIX.10: Seneca argues that it is the quality, not the duration, of one’s life that is important, and that we often live long when measured in years, and yet too little in terms of what we accomplish.

XLIX.11: Seneca argues that we are born with the ability to reason and to improve our reasoning. We are also naturally social, and prefer virtue over vice. Hard to believe, right? And yet, he’s got a point.

Musonius Rufus

Lectures I.1: Musonius Rufus reminds us of the difference between useful philosophy and dull mind games.

Lectures I.6: Musonius Rufus says that philosophers should speak clearly, and most of all should live the way they talk.

Lectures II.4: Musonius Rufus says that nobody is born a writer, musician, or athlete. People get there by studying and practicing. The same goes for virtue.

Lectures III.1: Musonius Rufus says women have the same reasoning abilities as man, the same faculty of distinguishing good from bad.

Lectures III.3: Musonius Rufus reminds us why we study philosophy, a different pursuit from what goes on in the modern academy.

Lectures III.7: Musonius Rufus says that philosophy is like medicine: if it does not make you a healthier person, it is not useful.

Lectures IV.2, 4 & 8: Musonius Rufus says in no uncertain terms that men and women are capable, and indeed deserve, the same education, including in philosophy.

Lectures V.4: Musonius Rufus tells us that theory is important, and needs to precede practice. But it is the latter that makes the whole thing worth it.

Lectures VI.1-2: Musonius Rufus tells us that it isn’t enough to know that we should be virtuous, we need to constantly practice virtue. Stoicism is not a magic wand, but it will change your life, and is well worth the effort.

Lectures VI.4: Our body is a preferred indifferent, but Musonius Rufus tells us to take whatever care we can of it, as it is also an instrument of virtue. In other words, go to the gym…

Lectures VI.7: Musonius Rufus reminds us that we often act out of simple habit, without paying attention to what we are doing and why. Not the best way to proceed in life.

Lectures VII.1: Musonius Rufus rather sarcastically reminds us that being bad requires just as much work as being good, so why not choose the latter instead?

Lectures VII.2: Musonius Rufus reminds us that it is far easier to curb our desire for our neighbor’s wife than to pursue it Not to mention that it is the right thing to do.

Epictetus’ Discourses

I.1.5: Epictetus teaches us what is truly good in life.

I.1.32: Epictetus tells us that we have to tend to whatever is happening right now. If we are about to die, let’s deal with it. But if not…

I.2.33: Epictetus asks us at what price we are willing to sell our soul, and advises us to aim for the highest one possible.

I.4.20: Epictetus says that we become virtuous in the same way as athletes and musicians become more proficient at what they do: by constant practice.

I.5.1: Epictetus says that some people hardens their opinions into stones. It’s their problem, don’t waste your time arguing with them.

I.5.4 & I.5.5: Epictetus makes an interesting contrast between taking too much care of our bodies and too little care of our minds.

I.6.30: Epictetus reminds his student that certain things are an inevitable feature of the universe, and that it is better to work on them than just wish them away.

I.7.5: Epictetus reminds us that sometimes the reasonable thing to do is to suspend judgment. And always to face reality rather than engage in wishful thinking.

I.7.30: Epictetus says that not doing awful things isn’t enough, it’s too lazy. The point is to positively do good things.

I.8.12-13: Epictetus observes that even if Plato were handsome and strong, that doesn’t mean those are the traits that made him a great philosopher…

I.8.16: Epictetus says that the measure of a person is the goodness of her character. Let’s work on it, then!

I.9.1: Epictetus tells us that Socrates never replied to the question “where are you from?” with “I am from Athens,” but always with “I am a citizen of the world.”

 I.11.33: Epictetus on the fact that it isn’t exile, pain or death that determine our actions, but our opinions of those things.

I.11.37 & I.12.33: Epictetus reminds us that we are in charge of our judgments about things, and talks about Socrates, who chose to be in prison

I.12.26-27: Epictetus notes that we can do a lot more with our mind than with our body. And yet we obsess over the latter and care little for the former.

I.13.4: Epictetus reminds people with power that they should remember whom they have power over: fellow human beings, made of the same stuff, wanting the same things.

I.13.7: Epictetus reminds us that when we face an impression about an external thing we should consider carefully whether to assent to it, withhold assent, or remain neutral.

I.15.7-8: Epictetus cautions us to be patient while working on improving our character. Nothing important comes into being overnight.

I.17 & I.21: Epictetus reminds us of the wisdom of understanding what is and is not under our control.

I.17.1-2: Epictetus argues that the only way to criticize reason is by way of applying reason. There are no alternative facts for the Stoics.

I.17.6: Epictetus reminds his students that without logic there is no serious talking about how to live the life worth living.

I.17.25-26: Even when threatened with your life, says Epictetus, you are the one in charge, you make the decision to yield or not to yield.

I.18.3: Epictetus reminds us of the Stoic doctrine that people don’t do bad things on purpose, but rather because they are mistaken about the nature of good and evil.

I.18.18-19: Epictetus advises us to start practicing with small things. The next time you are sick, try not to curse or complain. You’ll discover in you the power of endurance, and you’ll be far less annoying to other people…

I.19.29: Epictetus mocks a student who is bent on pursuing power and wealth. Those things are neither good nor bad for the Stoics, it’s a matter of how we use them.

I.20.12: Epictetus explains why being blind is far less of a problem than having your mind in the dark.

I.21.1 & I.21.4: Epictetus tells his students that they are fools if they think that being praised is important, particularly by people who they themselves do not think highly of!

I.22.4: Epictetus notes that people want to be good, regardless of their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion. But then they get lost in arguments over whether it is acceptable or not to eat pork.

I.22.10: Epictetus clearly states one of the fundamental principles of Stoicism: the dichotomy of control. Once we realize that some things are up to us and other things aren’t, it follows that we should focus on the first ones and cultivate equanimity toward the latter ones.

I.24.1-2: Epictetus uses a nice metaphor in which the universe is our trainer, sending us tough stuff to deal with so that we get used to breaking a sweat and prepare for the Olympics of life.

I.25.17-18: Tough topic for this episode: what is known as Epictetus’ open door policy, that is, the Stoic idea that suicide is permissible, under certain circumstances. And indeed, that it is its possibility that gives us freedom and courage to fight on.

I.25.28-29: Epictetus counsels us to react to insults as if we were a rock, that is, by ignoring them. An insult is only effective if you let it be, and that power resides exclusively in your own faculty of judgment.

I.26.15: Epictetus says that philosophy begins with awareness of one’s mental fitness. So let’s work on that, shall we?

I.27.7-8 & 9-10: Epictetus uses his dark sense of humor to remind us that death is inevitable. At the same time, though, fear of it is not. Moreover, awareness of death is what, in a sense, gives meaning to our life.

I.27.19: Epictetus has a little bit of fun with the Skeptics, who denied the possibility of human knowledge. If that’s the case, he says, how is it that you reliably go to the thermal baths when you want to relax, and to the mill when you want bread?

I.28.4-5: Epictetus says that people cannot assent to what they think is false. We always want to be right, but we are often not, which is why we rationalize things. That’s why we need to improve our ability to arrive at correct judgments about things.

I.29.1-2: Epictetus says that externals (health, wealth, education, good looks) are the means by which we do good or evil in the world. So it is entirely up to us, really.

I.29.3: Epictetus says that the way we improve our character is by paying attention and making good judgments, while if we keep making bad ones we make our character worse. So today reflect carefully on your decisions, and ask yourself what would Epictetus do.

I.29.21: Epictetus tells the story of a thief stealing his lamp at night, and reflects on what each of them lost in the process. He concludes that he came ahead of the thief.

I.29.35: Epictetus asks us a simple question: if we didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did we learn them for?

I.29.53-54: Epictetus defends the apparently strange notion that philosophy, like mathematics (or science, or lots of other things) is a profession, requiring expertise. He is not being elitist, he’s just being reasonable.

II.1.22: Epictetus reminds us that education, which involves the ability to shape our moral values, is the only ticket to achieving freedom. Something to remember, in these days in which people freely elect tyrants and autocracts.

II.2.4: Epictetus tells us that nobody can force us to agree to a judgment we think is incorrect. Surprisingly, this has countless applications to everyday life.

II.2.12: Epictetus warns us that if we let an external take precedence over the integrity of our character we are doomed to become slaves for life. And who wants to be a slave, right?

II.10.8: Epictetus advises us to forgo issues of material resources and remember that family relationships in great part define who we are. After all, if we can’t practice virtue with our brothers, sisters, and parents, with whom can we practice it?

II.10.10: Epictetus introduced a major innovation in Stoic ethics with his theory of roles. We are first and foremost members of the human cosmopolis. But also fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, colleagues. How do we balance the conflicting demands of such diverse roles in life?

II.10.15: A straightforward quote by Epictetus allows us to reflect on what a philosophy of life is, and why everyone needs one.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

I.1, I.3 & I.6: Marcus Aurelius is thankful to his grandfather and his mother.

I.7 & I.9: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that it is a strange thing to get offended by what people say or do.

I.12 & I.13: Marcus reminds us that we have duties toward the people we live with, and how to be positive about our friends.

II.1: Marcus is summarizing here some of the most important concepts of Stoicism, especially why we should pity, and not get upset with, people when they make mistakes.

II.4 & II.5: Marcus reminds us that our life is short, and that we don’t really know what day will be our last. So why not use our time in the best possible way?

II.8: Marcus tells us that it’s too easy and unnecessary to worry about other people’s thoughts. It is far more difficult, but useful, to worry about our own.

II.11: Marcus Aurelius introduces us to the apparently paradoxical notion that life, death, honor, dishonor, pleasure and pain are neither good nor bad.

II.12 & II.14: Marcus Aurelius thinks that it’s good to keep things in perspective, and that we only control the here and now.

II.17: Marcus Aurelius talks about how we should keep our “daimon,” i.e., our deliberating faculty, or our conscience.

III.3: Marcus Aurelius lists a number of important people who are no more, as a reminder of the impermanence of things, and to help us keep what happens to us in perspective.

III.3: Marcus Aurelius sounds agnostic about the after life. He also seems to think it doesn’t matter.

III.4: Marcus Aurelius tells us to ignore the opinion that others have of us, and to focus our energy instead on positive projects.

III.4: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that to care for all people is according to (human) nature.

III.5: Marcus Aurelius says that we need to stand erect of our own accord, not wait to be propped up by others.

III.6: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we need to work for the public good, not pursue power, fame, or pleasure.

III.7: The emperor-philosopher tells us that there is no profit for our character in doing things that require lying, being hypocritical, or otherwise damage our integrity.

III.10: Marcus Aurelius engages in a view from above meditation, reminding himself that the quest for fame is just plain irrational.

IV.3: Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that he can always retreat into what Pierre Hadot famously referred to as the Inner Citadel, our own mind, where we can pay attention to and refine our faculty of judgment.

IV.3: Marcus Aurelius reminds us of one of the most difficult, and yet most profound, doctrines of Stoicism: nobody commits wrongs on purpose, but only because they lack understanding of good and evil.

IV.3: Marcus reminds us that the number of Facebook likes we get is irrelevant to our happiness.

IV.3: Marcus Aurelius here sounds like a Sophist, or a post-modern relativist. But he is a Stoic, so his message is a little more subtle than that.

IV.4: Marcus Aurelius articulates a series of if…then statements that argue that we are all members of a community of reasoners, and that reason dictates that we be helpful to such community.

IV.7: Marcus Aurelius says that there is a difference between objective facts and our opinions of them. And much of our misery comes from the opinions, not the facts.

IV.12: Marcus Aurelius reminds himself to use his faculty of judgment at its best, which includes changing his mind, should others have better reasons than his own.

IV.13: Marcus Aurelius asks himself the rethorical question of whether he has reason, and then the less obvious one of why he is not making good use of it. What about you?

IV.17: Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that his life is finite and brief. How to live it, then? As a good person would, which is in his power to do.

IV.19: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that fame is ephemeral and intrinsically meaningless. What we do for others and to improve ourselves here and now is what really counts.

IV.20: On the day of Marcus Aurelius’ birthday, April 26, let’s reflect on a simple Stoic precept: good or bad lie in actions, thoughts, and words, not in the praise or blame that those things get from others.

IV.22: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that justice is a crucial virtue in Stoicism, and we need to constantly keep it at the forefront. He also says that we need to evaluate our impressions of things, before acting. Don’t just do it, stop and think about it first!

IV.24: Marcus says that we have a duty to do what a social animal capable of reason ought to do. And that’s to practice virtue for the betterment of humankind.

V.31: Marcus writes near the end of his life about the sort of things he did that he values, from discounting honors and other externals to having been kind even toward people who were not kind to him.

V.34: Marcus Aurelius maintains that if we think and act the right way our life will be an equable flow of happiness. This is because we will do our best, but look at outcomes with equanimity.

VI.2: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that whether we are cold or warm, ill-spoken of or praised, and dead or “doing something else,” we still have a duty to make this a better world.

VI.11: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that all sorts of things will disturb our rational soul, and that we therefore need to practice re-centering it in order to respond to situations with reason and equanimity.

VI.16: Marcus Aurelius reflects on what is worth doing, and decides that it’s not seeking fame, but rather being helpful to fellow human beings.

VI.18: Marcus Aurelius observes that some people are obsessed with what posterity will think of them, even though they have no idea what sort of individuals will make that judgment. Meanwhile, how about taking care of those we know here and now?

VI.20: Marcus Aurelius suggests we think of others as partners at the gym: don’t hate or hold grudges against them, think of them as opportunities to improve your virtue.

VI.21:Marcus Aurelius reminds himself of something that modern politicians need to pay attention to: if someone shows you that you are in error, the right thing to do is to admit it and learn from the other.

VI.24: Marcus Aurelius reflects on what happens to us when we die: either we are absorbed in the seminal principle of the universe, or we become atoms scattered in the void. Either way, we still need to behave decently toward other human beings.

VI.27: Marcus Aurelius says that people make mistakes because they don’t know better. So there is no point in getting self-rigtheous and angry about it, instead we need to teach them where they go wrong.

VI.44: Marcus Aurelius recognizes that, as Antoninus, he is a citizen of Rome. But more fundamentally, he is a citizen of the human cosmopolis. Some pretty radical consequences immediately follow…

VI.47: Marcus Aurelius reminds us that Stoicism is both self forgiving and forgiving of others, and that while we should take the path of truth and justice, we should also be tolerant of people who are even further from wisdom and are gooing the wrong way.

VI.48: Marcus Aurelius suggests some simple therapy for our troubled souls: pause and observe some good things done by people around you. Appreciate what they are doing. And use it as an inspiration for becoming better yourself.

VI.51: Marcus provides us three options for what sort of thing is truly good for you, and argues that a person of understanding will go for the third one. Have you reflected on what is good for you, and why?

VI.52: Life is hard as it is, says Marcus Aurelius, there is no need to make ourselves more miserable by adding unnecessary opinions that increase our suffering.

Hierocles

Fragment, On fraternal love: The second century Stoic Hierocles sounds very Christian, and for good reasons.

Fragments, On fraternal love: Hierocles reminds us how to best respond to another human being who has ill feelings toward us.

Fragments, On fraternal love: Hierocles reminds us that we are fundamentally social animals, and that we are here to help each other.

Fragments, On wedlock: Hierocles reminds us that it is useless to blame things that have no fault. Rather, look at how clumsy or stupid we are sometimes when we use them.

Fragments, How we ought to conduct ourselves toward our kindred: Hierocles instructs us on a simple mental exercise to practice the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism.