Stoic Disclaimer

I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters. I too have a right to form an opinion.  


I make a single claim concerning Stoicism. If I practice Stoicism diligently, I will flourish. That is the full extent of what I am willing to argue about my philosophy. The Stoics have made, do make, many claims. We live in a determined universe. Happiness is generated from within. We are kin to the gods! I am interested, often deeply, in the many topics that Stoics have addressed throughout the ages. However, those details are not the foundation on which I build my life philosophy.

Stoicism allows me to flourish. It moves me to act, and to act well. In increasingly frequent moments the practice helps me capture joy, and when joy escapes me, there is still tranquility.

I expect that you can have a similar experience. That if you choose to practice Stoicism diligently, you will flourish as well. That, however, is not part of my claim. I plan on writing about the practice of Stoicism. In particular, I plan on making Stoic Saturday a weekly event. All of my posts are Van Natta Stoicism. I mean to do well by the Stoics of the past and present, but my opinions are my own. I hope that what I write is applicable to others. I welcome conversation.  But please, remember this disclaimer before taking me to task. Thanks.



Where Do Ideas Have Sex?

Chance favors the connected mind
- Steven Johnson
I just watched a Steven Johnson TED talk about ideas. He's recently written a book titled, Where Good Ideas Come From. I haven't read it yet. And no, I won't once again recommend a book I haven't finished. I will recommend Johnson's talk itself, but his point of view is simply a catalyst for this post, not the main topic.

 I want my ideas to have sex. That's what I took from the talk. Specifically, I want my ideas to have crazy unprotected sex that leads to unexpected bundles of joy. Don't blame me for the metaphor, Johnson attributes it to Matt Ridley. In his presentation, Johnson brings up the coffeehouse as a "conjugal bed" for ideas. At least, it was that in 18th century England. At that time the coffeehouse was the perfect mix of stimulants and stimulating conversations.  Great ideas were born as people from various walks of life intermingled.

I'm not positive I have a coffeehouse. Not in that sense. My frequent visits to actual coffeehouses are solitary episodes. I do good work. I'm creative. But San Diego cafes are not built for mingling. I don't blame them for this, American society isn't really built for mingling either. Even at San Diego Red Cross headquarters, where I am privileged to serve with some very talented and creative people, the environment doesn't favor serendipitous idea-liaisons. Sometimes good things come out of meetings but, in general, meeting agendas don't promote the free atmosphere necessary for truly innovative thinking.

I want to find an idea brothel. Or found an idea brothel. I'm betting that my dealings on the internet will facilitate this goal, but I'm still looking for the right collaborative environments. Presently, I'm really good at sifting interesting tidbits out of the info-dump that is the web. Info-curation is an important modern skill, but it's not a substitute for collaboration. I'm lucky to have a large social network of smart, willing-to-chat-it-up people, but our worlds are so closely related that chances for out of the box input are reduced. The Trustocracy blog/twitter feed is partly an attempt to tap into a network of individuals that I don't know personally (yet). I'm also trying to use Google+ in a collaborative way. I've been playing around with Hangouts and such. G+ is definitely more useful to me than Facebook ever was, but that isn't saying much.

So that's that. I'm not ending this anywhere because I haven't ended my search for an idea brothel. Idea brothel, I'm going to drop that into a few conversations just to see the looks on people's faces. If anyone would like to recommend a modern equivalent of the 18th century coffeehouse, by all means comment. Or tweet it with #ideabrothel so I can laugh out loud when I see it.


Daily Stoic Ritual

Every morning for the last month I've begun the day with these words from Marcus Aurelius.

Today I will be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness--all of them due to the offender's ignorance of what is good and what is evil.

I came to modern Stoicism a few months ago, through the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In it, author William Irvine makes a strong case that stoicism has much to offer the modern world. I don't believe the practice is for everyone. It fits best in an analytical mind and, in my opinion, particularly benefits those who have a touch of social anxiety. Stoicism is concerned with the internal and dismisses the external. Its central message may have best been described by Descartes, who must have cribbed heavily from the Stoic masters.

Always to seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, to change my desires rather than the established order, and generally believe that nothing except our thoughts is wholly under our control, so that after we have done our best in external matters, what remains to be done is absolutely impossible, at least as far as we are concerned.

I remember reading that quote over a decade ago and being upset by the phrase, to change my desires rather than the established order. At the time I could only imagine the worst forms of passivity deriving from such a creed. That is no longer a fear of mine. Stoics were passionate, world-changing types. When you are free from anxiety about the external world you are free to live out the world you want.

I've been reading the Stoic essentials, mainly The Enchiridion and Meditations. I've enjoyed arguing with Epictetus, Aurelius, and Seneca. I've been looking for fellow stoics. I'm noticing that stoic teachings spring up a lot on the web. Unfortunately, stoicism tends to be one ingredient in most peoples' larger philosophy of life. I have found few people who use it as the core of their value system. No matter, stoicism delivers for me.

I'll be posting about stoicism from time to time. I feel a bit duty-bound to share. There's just so little out there. I'd love to engage in dialogue concerning the practice. I'm on G+, Twitter and, of course, this very site. Also, if anyone knows the secret stoic handshake, teach it to me please.


Google as Guidance Counselor

I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.

-Eric Schmidt

A recent interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt is gaining a lot of attention, mostly for his belief that children will need to change their names as adults to escape the youthful indiscretions captured and posted on sites like Facebook. I'm more intrigued by his thoughts on the future of search.

Schmidt says, "We're trying to figure out what the future of search idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type." It's easy to see the practical benefits of a 24/7 digital personal assistant. Facebook is already the only reason I ever know when anyone has a birthday coming up. I would love it if my phone reminded me I was out of milk while driving past the local grocery store, but do I really want Google to tell me what I should be doing next?

I suppose it's a matter of finesse. Right now, I think Google could recommend "next steps" to me with about as much accuracy as Netflix recommends movies, meaning not that well. Netflix thinks I will enjoy every documentary Ken Burns ever made just because I liked Spellbound. That's better than Amazon's recommendation of Sawyer's Premium Clothing Insect Repellent...which was based on my ownership of the book Colloquial Swahili, but not by much. I attended a Nerdcore show at the Casbah a few weeks ago, but I wouldn't want my phone to text me every time I pass the O'Reilly books at Borders. That's the wrong kind of nerd.

I could hope that Google's recommendations were on the level of Pandora, a music service I find useful, but that would bring its own set of problems. My musical taste is very specific, so all my Pandora stations have a laser-like focus and consist of about five songs on constant rotation. Now, I like these stations very much, but they play no part in expanding my musical horizons. If Google were like Pandora, it would only alert me when I pass liquor stores and pizzerias. I don't need my ruts dug deeper.

I hope the future of search is something amazing. I hope Google can bottle serendipity and send it to my phone. I'm fearful that the next few years will be more like Microsoft's office assistant paperclip, everpresent and annoying.