Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 17: The Stoic Fool

Before we begin: My new book, The Beginner's Guide to Stoicism, published by Althea Press, is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be released October 8th. More on that at the end of the episode. The Good Fortune Handbook, my self-published book, has been recently re-edited (I fixed most of the spelling errors) and is also available through Amazon. The Good Fortune Handbook consists of the transcripts of thirteen Good Fortune podcast episodes along with additional posts from the website, Immoderate Stoic. Whether you read it cover to cover, or use the helpful appendixes to jump to specific questions about Stoic practice, this handbook is a useful companion on your Stoic journey. Available as an ebook and in print, if you'd like to support this podcast, picking up a copy of The Good Fortune Handbook is a wonderful way to do so. Thanks.

[Raven Caw]

"If you would improve, be content to be thought foolish and dull with regard to externals. Do not desire to be thought to know anything; and though you should appear to others to be somebody, distrust yourself. For be assured, it is not easy on the one hand to keep your will in harmony with nature, and on the other to secure externals; but while you are absorbed in the one, you must of necessity neglect the other." (Enchiridion, 13)

Are you ready to be considered a fool? If you walk a Stoic path, if you truly embody Stoic values, it's likely that that label, or similar, is coming. Why? Well, let's look into it.

Hi. I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

Why would practitioners of a wisdom philosophy be considered foolish?

What benefit is there to being foolish in the Stoic way?

How can I be certain I'm being Stoically foolish and not generally foolish?

Alright, let's get started...

[Raven Caw]

Why would practitioners of a wisdom philosophy be considered foolish?

It may have seemed strange, shocking even, to a new Stoic student attending Epictetus' lecture to hear that the world might consider them foolish for living as a philosopher. They had, after all, entered the school to learn about wisdom from the wise in order to themselves become wise. So in what way could anyone consider them foolish? Of course, any student who had spent time under Epictetus' tutelage would certainly begin to flesh out a picture of what he was alluding to. They could have heard their teacher say this line, recorded in Chapter 12 of the Enchiridion, "if you wish to make progress abandon reasoning of this sort, 'if I neglect my affairs, I will have nothing to live on..." They may have heard of the teachings of Musonius Rufus, the prior head of the school who said that he would, "never file a lawsuit for assault, nor would anyone who thinks that the study of philosophy is worthwhile..." That same Musonius who would not protect his honor in court was also keen to tell his rich students that their estates were worthless. He asked, "isn't it more praiseworthy to help a lot of people than to live expensively? Isn't spending money on people more noble than spending it on wood and stone?" In all this and so much more it becomes apparent that the values of Stoicism did not readily align with the values of Roman society. In fact, few urban societies past or present (particularly those that would be deemed conventionally successful) could enthusiastically endorse the Stoic approach to externals. And it's in the category of externals that Stoics can expect to be considered fools.

What is an external? It's anything that isn't under your control and, by that definition, externals are nearly everything. Your property, your reputation, your own body, all these are considered external to your core self; your ability to choose. If you've heard earlier episodes you're already well acquainted with the dichotomy of control; that there are things which you control and others that you do not. You also understand that Stoicism asks you to focus your attention on the things you control. It's that decision, to aim your time and attention first towards your moral choices that courts the label "foolish" from others. Many societies, many people, expect and often demand that you treat externals as important in themselves, but the Stoic interacts with externals through the lens of moral decision. Is a raise important? Well, more money is useful when it supports wise action, but detrimental if it leads to vice. So a raise is fine as long as I don't compromise myself to obtain that raise and if my gain is not to the detriment of others."That bond measure would hurt my property value." Perhaps, but it would also lift up those in need, so support it wholeheartedly. This is what Epictetus means when he says, "be assured, it is not easy on the one hand to keep your will in harmony with nature, and on the other to secure externals." Stoicism calls on us to focus our energy on strengthening our personal virtue, and that rarely leads to an accumulation of external wealth.

Epictetus' newer students might have thought, "well, if I gain externals through virtue, what isn't admirable about that? I'll be seen as a good citizen! Hardly any reason to call me a fool."  It wouldn't take long to uproot those thoughts. Chapter 39 of the Enchiridion records Epictetus speaking on the Stoic sense of value. We looked at it just last episode. Again, Epic says that, "Each person's body is a measure for their property, just as the foot is a measure for the shoe. If, then, you abide by this principle, you will maintain the proper measure, but if you go beyond it, you cannot help but fall headlong over a precipice, as it were, in the end. So also in the case of your shoe; if once you go beyond the needs of the foot, you get first a gilded shoe, then a purple one, then an embroidered one. For once you go beyond the measure there is no limit." Our choice of external goods should be focused on meeting our basic human needs, according to this view. A well fitted shoe is a lovely thing. Dye it in expensive purple? Not if you're Stoic. So even though both the plain shoes and the purple pair are, in themselves, what Stoicism refers to as indifferents (in that they don’t directly impact our virtue) the Stoics still taught a constraint on our choices. Why? Because the choice of shoe does impact our virtue.

Where did all this lead? Towards a radically different value system than what was adopted by the Roman elite. One more Enchiridion chapter, number 24 in its entirety. "Let not reflections such as these afflict you: 'I shall live without honor, and never be of any account': for if lack of honor is an evil, no one but yourself can involve you in evil any more than in shame. Is it your business to get office or to be invited to an entertainment? Certainly not. Where then is the dishonor you talk of? How can you be 'of no account anywhere', when you ought to count for something in those matters only which are in your power, where you may achieve the highest worth? 'But my friends,' you say, 'will lack assistance.' What do you mean by 'lack assistance'? They will not have cash from you and you will not make them Roman citizens. Who told you that to do these things is in our power, and not dependent upon others? Who can give to another what is not theirs to give? 'Get them then,' says he, 'that we may have them.' If I can get them and keep my self-respect, honor, magnanimity, show the way and I will get them. But if you call on me to lose the good things that are mine, in order that you may win things that are not good, look how unfair and thoughtless you are. And which do you really prefer? Money, or a faithful, modest friend? Therefore help me rather to keep these qualities, and do not expect from me actions which will make me lose them. 'But my country,' they say, 'will lack assistance, so far as lies in me.' Once more I ask, What assistance do you mean? It will not owe colonnades or baths to you. What of that? It does not owe shoes to the blacksmith or arms to the shoemaker; it is sufficient if each person fulfills their own function. Would you do it no good if you secured to it another faithful and modest citizen? 'Yes." Well then you would not be useless to it. 'What place then shall I have in the city?' Whatever place you can hold while you keep your character for honor and self-respect. But if you are going to lose these qualities in trying to benefit your city, what benefit, I ask, would you have done her when you attain to the perfection of being lost to shame and honor?"

Stoicism was a popular philosophy among the Roman elite, yet here is a teacher of the Roman Stoa telling the sons of free citizens, landholders, senators, that pursuing virtue will take your attention away from the accumulation of wealth and power. What explains that? Perhaps all the Stoic students went on to thread the needle of living out virtue while gaining power? This seems unlikely, but let's hope. History doesn't let me know Epicetus' students well, but it lets me know him. Epic challenged people to become who they should be and he presented Stoicism as it could be, if anyone bothered to follow it to its logical end. This Stoic teacher claimed that Stoicism well-lived would challenge others' perceptions in a way that would make many scoff. So why would we want to become a Stoic? What's the benefit?

[Raven Caw]

What benefit is there to being foolish in the Stoic way?

Epictetus taught that we can not live virtuously and obtain everything. What is off limits to the Stoic? Anything that would require an un-virtuous action to gain or sustain. Again from Chapter 24, "If I can get them and keep my self-respect, honor, magnanimity, show the way and I will get them." Depending on the time and place in which one lives, you may be unable to partake in much of what the world has to offer and remain virtuous. So what does Stoicism offer in exchange? Just austerity? No. It offers fulfillment. The outcome of Stoic living is a flourishing life in which you are content within yourself while you work joyfully to benefit others. That is the natural by-product of virtue.

I just painted myself into a corner because I have to explain virtue and its benefits and still keep this episode tight. Thankfully I did talk a lot about virtue in Episode 16: Progress, where virtue is shown to be the sole Stoic measure of moral progress. So you have either already heard that one or can go back to it. Here I'll get basic. Virtue is the art of living in harmony with the world. It is about how you interact with the challenges of life. Virtue is contextual. As Julia Annas put it in Intelligent Virtue, "We always learn to be virtuous in a given context; there is no such thing as just learning to be generous or loyal in the abstract." You can only enact virtue in the particular moment at hand; you can't store it up. When the gymnast Simone Biles landed a triple double during her floor routine, all her hard labor, consistent practice, and persistent dedication, added up to that moment, but it was only in that moment that a particular type of perfection could be enacted. Virtue is just like that moment. You always have the opportunity to be your best self in the present situation. If you choose to be your best, you create the conditions that allow you to remain content and fulfilled no matter your situation where externals are concerned. Zeno would speak of the "good flow of life." That flow is virtue. It's a person moving through life with grace and in harmony with all things. This immediate nature of virtue is at the root of why living out virtue and making gains in externals is often at odds. Virtue is enacted in how you obtain things and how you use them. Choosing vice isn't a decision to miss out on building up a bigger store of Justice in your virtue reserves (there is no such thing). Vice is a decision to derail your harmonious life and there is no guarantee that you can easily get back on track. This is why Epictetus constantly reminds his students to make the moral choice first, to aim for virtue. If an additional gift comes with it, awesome. If not, you still win, because you remained in harmony.

Stoicism's purpose is to focus you on expressing virtue. Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation; these are the "good things that are mine," referenced by Epictetus in Enchiridion 13 and those are the things that can be lost by aiming at externals. Epictetus' students were being asked to help their country in the wrong way. Rome had enough colonnades. It didn't have enough people focused on justice. It didn't have enough people enacting moderation; fulfilling their personal needs then using the excess to fulfill others' bodily needs instead of their own wants. Epictetus' students were being told to fight over Rome's scraps to gain wealth or a moment's glory. But virtue requires no competition; it's gained through humane and harmonious actions. The only person we battle for virtue is ourself.  You benefit yourself and society by aiming to be the best version of you in every moment. The Stoic is a fool concerning externals because the path towards wisdom takes us elsewhere. So where does that leave us? What social position can a Stoic have in life? "Whatever place you can hold while you keep your character for honor and self-respect." If society honors virtue, you can gain whatever becomes available to you. If society honors externals then there will be challenges, but if you can face them virtuously and still make gains, go for it. When society honors vice, you can expect opposition. Being called a fool may be the least of your worries. Ask Socrates.

If being called a fool sounds difficult, but the idea of living out virtue sounds appealing, you will need to make some effort to not be shaken by the occasional taunt. One way to deal with this would be Negative Visualization. You would visualize people, perhaps specific ones, treating you poorly for all your attempts at Stoic living. This would, at the least, inoculate you against future injury. As Seneca said, "that which you've anticipated comes as less of a shock." The higher purpose of Negative Visualization is to allow you time to reframe an event into a Stoic perspective. You remind yourself that other people's viciousness does not hurt you, morally. Only you can hurt your virtuous self. You could recall that vicious actions come from ignorance of a better way, this could stimulate Stoic pity for your adversaries rather than embarrassment or anger. Visualizing future challenges gives you a chance to practice virtuous responses.

There's another practice that I find works well when attempting to stand strong in the face of opposition. Imagine a person who you admire watching you triumph over adversity. The ancient Stoics had a variety of people they contemplated; Hercules the Hero, Diogenes the Cynic, Zeno the Founder of Stoicism. They would look to these people as examples to be followed, and would sometimes recall those ideal people in their moments of struggle as an encouragement. I'm looking at a bust of Zeno right now. He helps me focus. I'm reminded that he was just a person trying to live well and that he wrestled with issues that are not far removed from my own. I also have a portrait of the abolitionist John Brown on my wall. He helps me recall my moral courage. I also like to imagine the response of a favorite literary character to my circumstances,her name is Limpopo from the book Walkaway by Cory Doctorow. She reminds me of how I would like to walk through the world. She's fictional, but so is Hercules.

Be willing to be foolish. The world needs you at your best, even if it sometimes asks for something different. Of course, we can't always take an insult as a badge of honor. It is possible we're wrong. But how can we know?

[Raven Caw]

How can I be certain I'm being Stoically foolish and not generally foolish?

As I record this, I realize how much this episode is a companion piece to Episode 16: Progress. In that episode I ended by asking you to hold yourself up against Seneca's definition of the Stoic school. Here I ask you to develop a conception of virtue. Allow me to rework a line from Epictetus' Discourses 1:4, why do you divert yourself from consciousness of your own shortcomings? Are you not willing to seek the work of virtue, that you might learn where to look for progress? The expected outcome of Stoic practice is excellence as expressed by the Stoic model of virtue. Can you define Wisdom, for yourself? What about Courage, or Moderation, or Justice? How can we enact justice if we are unclear what our aims are? We Stoics must wrestle with virtue.

When we look at the lectures of the Stoic teachers, Epictetus and Musonius Rufus, we see an insistence that Stoicism is challenging. No one is praised as a natural Stoic who just gets it. No one walks into the Stoa with the right idea about virtue. They came to the school to learn virtue. Epictetus once cried out during class, "someone, anyone, show me a Stoic!"  All this to say, Stoicism takes effort. Look into virtue. What is it? How do you enact it? Pay attention to the word when it shows up in Stoic writing. How is it described? If you want a deeper dive I highly recommend Julia Annas' book, Intelligent Virtue. However you pursue a knowledge of virtue, pursue it. Virtue is the aim of Stoicism. The outcome of the Discipline of Desire is not simply less anxiety it is more Courage. And that courage was a specific thing. You have to know what you're trying to obtain to have any hope of getting it.

Of course, growth in virtue is a lifelong pursuit. I certainly am not consistently virtuous. How should we deal with incomplete knowledge? Stand strong in what you believe, leave room to have your mind changed. Epictetus, when talking to his students, told them, "When you do a thing because you have determined that it ought to be done, never avoid being seen doing it, even if the opinion of the multitude is going to condemn you. For if your action is wrong, then avoid doing it altogether, but if it is right, why do you fear those who will rebuke you wrongly?" (Enchiridion, 35) When you take a bold, unpopular action, can you defend it? If so, if you are acting in opposition to others in order to be on the side of virtue, if you’re giving up external gains to hold onto your moral character, then you're being foolish in exactly the right way. Keep it up.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode seventeen of Good Fortune. As to the news, I was hired to write a book and it will be available soon. The Beginner's Guide to Stoicism: Tools for Emotional Resilience and Positivity, will be released by Althea Press on October 8th and is available for pre-order right now. You can find a link to it on ImmoderateStoic.com. It's a practical, accessible introduction to the philosophy. I aimed to support the reader in laying a solid foundation on which to grow their future practice. If you like what you hear on Good Fortune, I think you'll enjoy The Beginner's Guide to Stoicism. And thank you all for your support over the years. If not for you, I would not have been approached for this project.

Good Fortune is hosted on SoundCloud and can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, and many other places. If you are willing to leave reviews on those services, they are always appreciated. Along with that, I would also appreciate reviews of The Good Fortune Handbook. If you find it useful, please take a moment to let others know.

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Raven Caw]


Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 16: Progress

Before we begin: The Good Fortune Handbook is available through Amazon and Kobo. The Good Fortune Handbook consists of the transcripts of thirteen Good Fortune podcast episodes along with additional posts from the website, Immoderate Stoic. Whether you read it cover to cover, or use the helpful appendixes to jump to specific questions about Stoic practice, this handbook is a useful companion on your Stoic journey. Available as an ebook and in print, if you'd like to support this podcast picking up a copy of The Good Fortune Handbook is a wonderful way to do so. Thanks.

[Raven Caw]

Today I'll be discussing progress. Past Good Fortune episodes have already covered everything from starting and ending our day, to dealing with bad news, handling jerks, and even wrestling with death. With so much of life covered...how are we all doing? As Stoic prokoptons (progressors) how are we actually progressing? What does Stoic progress even look like? Let's uncover how the ancient teachers defined Stoic progress and how they suggested we work towards that progress. 

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

  • How do Stoics define Progress?

  • How does a Stoic practice the philosophy?

  • How can we know if we're missing the point of Stoicism?

[Raven Caw]

How do Stoics define Progress?

In Book 1 of Epictetus' Discourses, Chapter 4, we have a recording of the teacher speaking specifically about progress. During this lecture, Epictetus defines progress in our philosophy while also addressing pitfalls; faux indicators of progress that were to be avoided. It opens this way;

"Those who are making progress, having learned from the philosophers that desire is for things good and aversion is towards things evil, and having learned that serenity and calm are not attained by anyone save they succeed in securing the objects of desire and they avoid encountering the objects of aversion -- such a one has utterly excluded desire from themselves, or else deferred it to another time, and feels aversion only towards the things which involve freedom of choice."

So the Stoic progressor has internalized and begun enacting the Discipline of Desire; on of our three main disciplines (the others concerning Assent and Action). The fundamentals of the Discipline of Desire are probably most succinctly expressed in Chapter Two of the Enchiridion if you need a review. The basic concept is that our desires contain a promise, an expectation that we will obtain what we want. The same with aversions, we hope to always avoid that which we seek to avoid. Stoicism points out that if we desire or avoid things that we can not actually control, we're bound to be disappointed. As Epictetus continues in his discourse;

"For if they avoid anything that is not a matter of free choice, they know that at some time they will encounter something in spite of their aversion to it, and will encounter grief."

Stoics sidestep these disappointments by aiming our desires only at things we can control. We desire only to act according to virtue and we seek to avoid nothing other than poor choices. Much, much easier said than done, but this is Stoicism. Attainment of virtuous, artful actions is the sole marker of real Stoic progress. And yet society often convinces Stoics to aim for goals other than virtue. In Discourse 1:4 we find Epictetus chastising his students for using things other than virtuous actions as "progress markers."

"Now if it is virtue that holds out the promise to create happiness and calm and serenity, then assuredly progress towards virtue is progress toward each of these states of mind... How come, then, since we acknowledge virtue to be this sort of thing, we seek progress and make a display of progress in other things?"

I assume there are many ways Epic's students missed the mark concerning Stoic progress. Perhaps some Stoics were prideful about their ability to hold up under pain. Other's may have found status in minimalism. "Oh, you have a coat. I just have this toga, but you do you." In Discourses 1:4 the problem was book learnin'. We find Epictetus mocking one student for praising another student's grasp of Chrysippus. Chrysippus, you may recall, was the third head of the Stoic school and his writings were credited as elevating Stoicism from a just a group of people who liked what Zeno had said to a full on legit philosophy. Important stuff. Chrysippus' writing was also famously difficult to understand. So it is pretty impressive that a newer student had a decent grasp of Chrysippus' works. Still Epictetus dismisses the bookworm's accomplishments and more so, digs into the student that praised him. Why? Because praise for book-learning had nothing to do with the point of Stoicism. Or as Epictetus asks the student;

"Why do you try to divert him from consciousness of his own shortcomings? Are you not willing to show him the work of virtue, that he might learn where to look for progress?"

And where is that progress found? Again:

"In desire and aversion, that you may not miss what you desire and encounter what you would avoid, in choice and refusal, that you may commit no fault therein; in giving and withholding assent of judgement, that you may not be deceived."

True Stoicism is found in the creation of a Stoic mind that is bent towards virtuous actions, everything else is at best, a means to that end. Epictetus compares the well read student to an athlete. Show me your shoulders, demands Epictetus. Here are my weights, says the athlete. Get out of here with your weights, the teacher exclaims, I want to see the effect of those weights!

"If you are acting in harmony, show me that, and I will tell you that you are making progress; but if out of harmony, begone, and do not confine yourself to expounding your books, heck, go and write some books yourself. And what will you gain?"

In Book 2, Chapter 2 of the Meditations, we find Marcus Aurelius telling himself to throw away his books because they are distractions. Philosophical books are all well and good, we need to be exposed to their lessons; but there comes a point where we have to enact the teachings within those books if we are to call ourselves progressors in Stoicism rather than simply book collectors. We have to practice our philosophy. Again to quote Marcus, "Waste no more time arguing about what a good person should be, just be one." 

[Raven Caw]

How does a Stoic practice the philosophy?

"Therefore practicing each virtue always must follow learning the lessons appropriate to it, or it is pointless for us to learn about it."

We are lucky to have a lecture from Epictetus's teacher, Musonius Rufus, that is actually titled "from the lecture on practicing philosophy." As we see in the quote above, the Stoic expectation is that we must diligently practice being virtuous or else all the lessons about it will go to waste. In Stoicism, virtue is practical wisdom, it's embodied in our everyday actions. Musonius compares the philosopher to a musician. We're to train our mind and bodies as diligently as the musician practices their instrument. A capable pianist doesn't think about what their hands are doing; their hands are so well trained that they simply respond to the musician's intent. As for Stoics,

"Could someone acquire instant self-control by merely knowing that they must not be conquered by pleasures but without training to resist them? Could someone become just by learning that they must love moderation but without practicing the avoidance of excess? Could we acquire courage by realizing that things which seem terrible to most people are not to be feared but without practicing being fearless towards them? Could we become wise by recognizing what things are truly good and what things are bad but without having been trained to look down on things which seem to be good?"

No. The answer is no. The ancient Stoics did not believe that we could become better without consistent training. Musonius, like Epictetus, couldn't care less if we agree with Stoic teachings or can explain and expound on those teachings if, in the end, we don't live in virtuous harmony with the world around us.

Musonius said that their were Stoic exercises that built up our soul, exercises that built up our bodies, and exercises that built up both soul and body. He recommended that we pay the greatest attention to "the better part" that is, the mind, but the body is not to be completely neglected. After all, "The philosopher's body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life." He goes on to say that, "We will train both soul and body when we accustom ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, scarcity of food, hardness of bed, abstaining from pleasures, and enduring pains."

Through Musonius we're told to get Stoicism out of our heads and to weave it into our every action. We prepare our mind and bodies for life in the world. Why would we practice hunger? Because the Stoic doesn't get to use being "hangry" as an excuse to be less than our best. Why would we abstain from pleasures? Because we can't just pay lip service to the idea that those pleasures are indifferent we have to live as if it is true.

Near the end of Discourse 1:4, Epictetus defines philosophical progress again:

"if they rise in the morning and proceed to keep and observe all this that they have learned; if they bath as a faithful person, eat as a self-respecting person, -- similarly, whatever the subject matter may be with which they have to deal, putting into practice their guiding principles...this is the one who is making progress, the one who has not traveled at random..."

Epictetus finds Stoic progress, or lack thereof, in how a person bathes and in how they eat. He expected his students to be Stoic 24/7 or, at least, to work towards being Stoic with that level of consistency. To gain that discipline, his prokoptons practiced. Yes they read texts and memorized sayings. They also meditated. They tested their bodies through voluntary discomfort. They faced their fears. Listen to Musonius' thoughts on Stoic progress:

"Likewise, we shudder at death as extreme misfortune, and we welcome life as the greatest good. When we give money away, we are distressed as if we are injured, and when we receive money, we rejoice as if we are helped. And in too many circumstances, we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit. Since I say that this is the case, the person who is practicing to become a philosopher must seek to overcome themself so that they won't welcome pleasure and avoid pain, so that they won't love living and fear death, and so that, in the case of money, they won't honor receiving over giving."

How are we practicing to meet this definition of progress? Are we truly becoming better at the art of living or are we aiming at things unrelated to virtue? 

I find that 24/7 Stoicism is a hard road to walk. I've also come to know that developing a consistent routine is key to unleashing the endurance that's necessary for the road ahead. In earlier episodes I've introduced a variety of Stoic practices and variations on those practices. Daily practices like The View from Above and the Retrospective Mediation. Stoic tools such as Physical Definition, the Dichotomy of Control, and the Stoic Reserve Clause. Mindsets like, "Festival!" and "it seemed so to him." There's been a lot and there are more practices out there in our literature. But I can guarantee, when it comes to living well, none of us require more practices, we need more practice.

[Raven Caw]

How can we know if we're missing the point of Stoicism?

"Why do you try to divert him from consciousness of his own shortcomings? Are you not willing to show him the work of virtue, that he might learn where to look for progress?"

To stay on track in life, we have to come clean about our shortcomings. The ancient Stoic students had teachers to keep them in check. Musonius said that, "the philosopher's school is a doctor's office, you must leave not pleased but pained." We have that line but we don't have the man to straighten us out. It's up to us. 

Practicing Stoicism through the exercises I've mentioned is one way to keep us on the right path. But I find that even daily practice can leave us morally plateaued. As Musonius put it, "in too many circumstances we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit." One way to know that we aren't stuck in our Stoic practice is to compare ourselves to the expected outcomes of the exercises. Do we bathe more faithfully than before, eat as a self-respecting person, can we say that we neither welcome pleasure nor avoid pain? And in making these gains, are we experiencing the expected outcomes of virtue; happiness and calm and serenity? And finally, with the strength that comes from that personal peace, how are we affecting the world?

I've shared Seneca's description of the Stoic school many times. Today I'm reworking it as a description of a Stoic:

No person has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. A Stoic's goal is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of themselves, but of everyone in general and of each person in particular.

Did you find yourself in that definition? Are we aiming for that outcome? Because that's the "why" of Stoicism. Everything else is either a means to becoming that person or a distraction from being that person. 

We're all Prokoptons, we're progressors; let's make progress together.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode sixteen of Good Fortune. Good Fortune is hosted on SoundCloud and be found on iTunes, Stitcher, and many other places. If you are willing to leave reviews on those services, they are always appreciated. Along with that, I would also appreciate reviews of The Good Fortune Handbook. If you find it useful, please take a moment to let others know.

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Raven Caw]

Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 15: Stoic Self-Care

Before we begin: The Good Fortune Handbook is available now through Amazon and Kobo. The Good Fortune Handbook consists of the transcripts of thirteen Good Fortune podcast episodes along with additional posts of the past five years from the website, Immoderate Stoic. Whether you read it cover to cover, or use the helpful appendixes to jump to specific questions about Stoic practice, this handbook is a useful companion on your Stoic journey. Available as an ebook and in print, if you'd like to support this podcast picking up a copy of The Good Fortune Handbook is a wonderful way to do so. Thanks.

[Raven Caw]

"People try to get away from it all - to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within."

(Meditations 4:3:1-5)

Today I'll be talking about finding refuge within ourselves. We live in a world that is filled with challenges and which can task our patience, our strength, and our sanity. And although we are often unable to disengage from the tasks before us, Stoicism promises that tranquility can still be ours if we know how to find it.

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

  • What does Stoicism advise, when I've had my fill of life's stresses?

  • How can I find personal harmony in a discordant world?

  • Why does Stoicism recommend brief and basic mental renewal?

Alright, let's get started...

[Raven Caw]

What does Stoicism advise, when I've had my fill of life's stresses?

This episode is focused on Meditations Book 4, Chapter 3. It's a chapter that first impacted me late in 2012 just a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy had devastated the East Coast of the United States. I had been sent to New York City by the American Red Cross to manage shelter teams. Shelter management can be difficult in the smallest of disasters, but in the wake of Sandy it was a trial for all involved. Before sleep, after waking, and in whatever downtime I could find, I had a copy of the Meditations as company. I can credit 4:3 as the best counsel I ever received during those weeks.

Again to the opener; 

"People try to get away from it all - to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful - more free of interruptions - than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant's recollection and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony."

In my last weeks serving in NYC, I spent my evenings managing a shelter team on Staten Island and my days sleeping on a Naval vessel. The Red Cross and other groups were housed in ship's berthing since what little local hotel space was available needed to be left open for victims of the hurricane. If you've never been in ship's quarters, well, your personal area is a bed that is a bit roomier than a coffin. There is a curtain so that people don't watch you sleep, but all other space is shared. Therefore, privacy consists of laying in bed or having no guaranteed privacy at all. So for a few weeks, even my time off shift offered very little solitude. This set up allowed me plenty of time to practice "going within" as a primary search for tranquility since without was very often a loud, challenging place.

This "going within" did not consist of long stretches of personal meditation while laying in my bunk. It was momentary, an intentional return to the harmony I had already built up through long philosophical practice. As 4:3 says, "An instant's recollection and there it is: complete tranquility." It's a basic Stoic tenet that harmony isn't found by arranging your environment, but instead in how you arrange your mind. If we had the consistently healthy mind of a Stoic Sage then we we would never be overwhelmed by life since we'd always be equal to the task at hand. But we're human. We need breaks. So Marcus says to, "Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic." That brief, basic renewal can be found by returning our mind to the Stoic perspective of the world.

[Raven Caw]

How can I find personal harmony in a discordant world?

Marcus is searching for what he calls "complete tranquility," which he goes on to define as a "kind of harmony." It's important that he qualified this tranquility that he was seeking. Harmony denotes both engagement and movement. One harmonizes with something over the course of time. As we visualize Stoic tranquility we shouldn't think of an escape from our tasks, like a solitary relaxing hour in a hot tub. No, it's more like the flow experienced by an artisan lost in her work or the pleasure found in undertaking meaningful work. The Emperor felt out of step in life's dance. What caused this dissonance? Complaints.

"What's there to complain about?" Marcus asks. The expected answer is, nothing. But no. Instead he lists four categories of possible complaint: the misbehavior of others, our "assignment's from the world," our body, and our reputation. He then goes on to undermine those complaints. To wipe them out with a Stoic perspective.

For instance, to disarm complaints about the behavior of others, Marcus reminds himself of a few core Stoic beliefs:

"What's there to complain about? People's misbehavior? But take into consideration:

  • that rational beings exist for one another;

  • that doing what's right sometimes requires patience;

  • that no one does the wrong thing deliberately;

  • and the number of people who have hated and fought and died and been buried.

...and keep your mouth shut."

Here we're confronted with Stoic thoughts that, if accepted, disarm all complaints against others. This is the singular approach of 4:3. Marcus looks at his complaining mind and lists reasons that such complaints are unwarranted. Remember, "Nowhere you can go is more peaceful - more free of interruptions - than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant's recollection and there it is: complete tranquility." What are the other things we have to rely on? The Stoic orientation to the world. It's the Stoic mindset that is being returned to through, "an instant's recollection." It's that mindset which returns us to harmony.

I expanded on the Stoic approach to difficult people in Episode 7, When People Are Obstacles. So I won't elaborate on Marcus' words here. I just want to point to his final advice, "...and keep your mouth shut." If the Emperor was expecting to perfectly rest in Stoic teachings, there would have been nothing left to speak about. And yet he tosses this final admonition at himself. I find that to be very human. It can be hard to keep from complaining about others. Sometimes the best you can do is keep your mouth shut.

Next. "Or are you complaining about the things the world assigns you? But consider two options: Providence or atoms. And all the arguments for seeing the world as a city." Throughout the Meditations Marcus reminds himself that that no matter the state of the universe, living according to virtue is the best path. For instance, this portion of 9:28:

"One way or the other: atoms or unity. If it's God, all is well. If it's arbitrary, don't imitate it." 

Third. "Or is it your body? Keep in mind that when the mind detaches itself and realizes its own nature, it no longer has anything to do with the ordinary life - the rough and the smooth, either one. And remember all you've been taught - and accepted - about pain and pleasure." Here we're reminded of Stoic indifference. Neither pain not pleasure are good or bad, they simply exist. Neither can affect our moral purpose. We can remain virtuous no matter the state of our body.

Finally. "Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us - how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space - most of it uninhabited. How many people there will be to admire you, and who they are."

As emperor, Marcus lived a life of fame. His face was on money. People fawned over him to gain favor, and likely talked behind his back just as often. The Stoic Seneca once wrote, "away with the world's opinion of you - it's always unsettled and divided." Who cares what a person thinks of us if what we are doing is right? 

During the hurricane aftermath, I had multiple confrontations with a city official. This person kept providing free food to a shelter I worked at. Thing was, every single meal he brought had ham mixed in and a few of the families I served were Muslim and Jewish. This meant that a small group had to purchase food for themselves while the rest got to save up to deal with the disaster aftermath. I explained this inequity to the official and yet the ham kept coming. So I refused to serve his donated food. This led to a threat on my continued service. I had a moment where I wanted to relent, but I reminded myself that my job was to serve all my clients justly, it was someone else's job to decide if I stayed in my position. So I waited for food that everyone could eat. And, thankfully, it did come and I stayed at the shelter until it officially closed.

When ever I felt stressed in that time period I returned to myself through Stoic thoughts. Concerning equitable food choices: doing what's right sometimes requires patience. Concerning belligerent government officials: no one does the wrong thing deliberately. Concerning my standing in my organization: the people who praise us - how capricious they are, how arbitrary. I spent my time satisfied and in harmony.

[Raven Caw]

Why does Stoicism recommend "brief and basic" mental renewal?

"So keep getting away from it all - like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be enough to ward of all <...> and send you back ready to face what awaits you."

And send you back ready to face what awaits you. The Stoic response to a stressful situation is to take a breath then return to the task at hand with a renewed perspective. We don't avoid the struggle, but within the struggle we seek to thrive instead of wither.

Seneca contrasts the Stoic embrace of struggle with the rival Epicurean philosophy in On Benefits 4.13. "You Epicureans take pleasure in making a study of dull torpidity, in seeking for a repose which differs little from sound sleep, in lurking beneath the thickest shade, in amusing with the feeblest possible trains of thought that sluggish condition of your languid minds which you term tranquil contemplation, and in stuffing with food and drink, in the recesses of your gardens, your bodies which are pallid with want of exercise; we Stoics, on the other hand, take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labor, provided that they lighten the labors of others; though they lead us into danger, provided that they save others, though they straiten our means, if they alleviate the poverty and distresses of others."

Stoicism loves labor; not work for the sake of coin, but the struggle of being human; particularly if we are struggling to make the world a place where all people can flourish. Stoic mental renewal is meant to return us to a healthy philosophical perspective so that we may rapidly reengage with the world as it is in the hope of making it better.

"So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self. Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal."

I love that phrase, "the back roads of your self." The Stoic refuge isn't the walled garden of the Epicurean, it's a series of well worn paths that are leading somewhere. Marcus is choosing to avoid the strain and stress of the highway not by making a pit stop but by taking a different and better mental road. This is Stoic renewal. It's not a vacation from our problems. It's a reminder that we are both capable and willing to engage with the world. We have to trust ourselves. If we've been laying a Stoic foundation; realizing what is and is not under our control, what is or is not worth pursuing, then we don't need to retreat when things seem tough. We need to take a breath. We need to pause and remember our better self. Then we can reengage with life as that better self.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode fifteen of Good Fortune. Good Fortune can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and many other places. If you are willing to leave reviews on those services, they are always appreciated. Along with that, I would also appreciate reviews of The Good Fortune Handbook. If you find it useful, please take a moment to let others know.

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Raven Caw]

Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 14: Self-Restraint

"Lay down for yourself, at the outset, a certain stamp and type of character for yourself, which you are to maintain whether you are by yourself or are meeting with people. And be silent for the most part, or else make only the most necessary remarks, and express these in few words."

That advice, found in Chapter 33 of the Enchiridion, was from Epictetus to his Stoic students. He goes on. The Stoic teacher advises a rather thorough restraint on the part of his students. He addresses how to comport oneself in general, in conversation, and at public events. It's this advice that we will be looking at now.

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

  • Why does Stoicism advise self-restraint?

  • What sort of restraint is advised?

  • Must I reign myself in forever, or can I loosen up eventually?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

Why does Stoicism advise self-restraint?

The Enchiridion is a collection of Epictetus' words to students. So as we review Chapter 33 of that work, it's possible that the words are meant only for the newest of philosophers.

After all, the perfect Stoic Sage would not need to "restrain" themself since there would be no conflict between the Sage's desires and the wisest course of action demanded by the moment at hand. But, of course, no Stoic is a sage. We are all progressors. As such, we're prone to mistakes. We have yet to conform all areas of our lives to wisdom. Epictetus advises that, because of this, we should restrain our actions in those areas where wisdom has yet to change us. Even the mature Stoic will take at least a moment to reflect on whether their thoughts and actions are aligned with virtue and not some rut of viciousness learned in an earlier life.

Later in the Enchiridion we find Epictetus cautioning all Stoics when he says, "In walking about, as you take care to not step on a nail, or to sprain your foot, so take care not to damage your own ruling faculty; and if we observe this rule in every act, we shall undertake this act with more security." [Chapter 38]

So we are all called to practice self-restraint for the express purpose of not damaging our ruling faculty, that aspect of ourselves that allows us to be agents in this world, rather than patients. The difference between a beginner and a seasoned practitioner is found in their discernment and the consistency of their practice. As we review Chapter 33, we'll find a strict list of don'ts given to Epic's students. These restrictions protect them from their own ignorance. They have yet to understand what is worth desiring and what is worth avoiding, so Epictetus has them avoid almost everything. Stoics who are well practiced can trust themselves to act more freely without acting foolishly. As to each of us, well, we need to be honest with ourselves and go from there. 

[Raven Caw]

What sort of restraint is advised?

Let's talk about sex. Epictetus advises that we save sex for marriage, if we can. If not, we should only do what is lawful. He then goes on to advise that if any Stoic successfully refrains from sexual encounters they should certainly not mention this fact to others nor speak a word against those who don't act in a similar fashion.

Side note: One of my favorite things about Epictetus is his continual insistence that Stoics not be obnoxious moralizers and know-it-alls. The insistence that we not brag nor lecture comes up multiple times in Chapter 33, so if there's any aspect of self-restraint we should adopted no matter our consistency of practice, it's this one.

Ok. Back to 33. Other than sex, Epictetus gives some general life advice concerning food, drink, clothing, and shelter. Specifically he says to, "take the things which relate to the body as far as the bare use...but exclude everything which is for show or luxury." I won't delve too deeply into Stoicism and consumerism, that would be its own episode. However, a quick look at Chapter 39 of the Handbook might be useful.

Chapter 39: "The measure of possession is to everyone the body, as the foot is of the shoe. If then you stand on this rule (the demands of the body), you will maintain the measure; but if you pass beyond it, you must then of necessity be hurried as it were down a precipice. As also in the matter of the shoe, if you go beyond the (necessities of the) foot, the shoe is gilded, then purple, then embroidered; for there is no limit to that which has once passed the true measure."

Epictetus had strict ideas concerning usefulness. I want to move on to Epic's advice on our comportment in conversation and social situations, but if you don't mind a little homework, read Book 3 Chapter 4 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations with Epictetus' shoe analogy in mind. I'd suggest that Aurelius is applying the same concept to his very thoughts.

But what does Epictetus advise concerning conversation? "Let silence be the general rule, or let only what is necessary be said, and in few words." Concerning laughter? "Let not your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor excessive." Concerning oaths, "Refuse altogether to take an oath, if possible; if not, as far as you are able."

Pretty sweeping rules, right? I mean, you might not be oath taking on a daily basis, but I hope you enjoy laughter often. So what's going on here? Are Stoics joyless statues? Not at all. But Stoic actions are taken with consideration of everyone's benefit, and Epictetus viewed most conversations as damaging and belittling.

For instance, you shouldn't talk much about yourself. "In company take care not to speak much and excessively about you own acts and dangers, for as it is pleasant to you to make mention of your own dangers, it is not pleasant to others to hear what has happened to you." Harsh, Epictetus. Harsh. But true. And here, Epictetus is simply trying to make you a pleasant dinner guest. Elsewhere he's protecting the community. "Take care not to provoke laughter; for this is a slippery way towards vulgar habits, and it is also adapted to diminish the respect of your neighbors." Epictetus recognized how often humor relies on the dehumanizing of others and he'd have none of that from his pupils. 

We can find similar concerns when he lists topics of conversation that are inappropriate for a student. Young Stoics don't talk about gladiators, horse-races, nor athletes. They also don't talk about food and drink. (I have a feeling Epictetus would not like Instagram) But they especially don't talk about people, "as blaming them or praising them, or comparing them." Talk about sports and luxuries can present a slippery slope to improper action but talk that ranks people? That is a direct embrace of non-Stoic thinking.

Epictetus also tells his students to avoid defending themselves against slander. He leaves only room for a bit of self-deprecating humor, providing the line, "if he knew the rest of my faults he wouldn't have mentioned only those." For any student that took Epic's words to heart and actually allowed harsh criticisms to pass without comment, well, that must have been quite the crucible. Rome was a status hungry society and Epictetus' choice to deny his students a defense against a perceived status-injury was strong medicine indeed. If you review chapters 20 and 42 of the Enchiridion you'll see the reasons why defense against slander isn't warranted from a Stoic perspective and, in this age of internet comments and deep social divisions, I do recommend looking at those chapters.

At this point, it may seem that Stoic prokoptons were meant to take a vow of silence! Not exactly. Epictetus does allow students a way to hold a conversation, but only if they are skillful. "If then you are able, bring over by your conversation, the conversation of your associates, to that which is proper; but if you should be confined to the company of strangers, be silent."

Epictetus also asked his students to restrict the events in which they participated. In particular, they were to avoid events that tended to encourage the unStoic conversations already forbidden to them. If you shouldn't talk about sports, then don't go to sporting events. If you do go well, don't get too excited and don't take part in after event conversations. Don't go to public readings by intellectuals because they are insufferable but, if you must, be dignified and don't be disagreeable. 

Chapter 33 of the Enchiridion is not the only place where we can find Stoic advice concerning self-restraint. The Stoics, after all, held Temperance as a fundamental aspect of virtue and temperance is the ability to rule over oneself, to direct ones mind towards worth actions and goals. So would the ideal Stoic simply scour the ancient literature and compile a checklist of dos and don'ts? No. But neither are we left free to do whatever we desire, at least, we're not yet that free.

[Raven Caw]

Must I reign myself in forever, or can I loosen up eventually?

Stoicism isn't a checklist philosophy. Stoicism treats living as an art or a craft. No doubt, the new sculptor has to first learn the tools and the medium and it can be helpful to focus the beginner on the basics. The expectation, however, is that that practitioner will grow in their abilities. In doing so, they learn to use their tools effortlessly which leads to true personal expression through the art.

But let's drop something as high minded as art and think about walking. Moving from the stumbling steps of the toddler to the surety of the adult or, even better, the confidence of a mountain climber or some other trailblazer.

Chapter 38: "In walking about, as you take care to not step on a nail, or to sprain your foot, so take care not to damage your own ruling faculty; and if we observe this rule in every act, we shall undertake this act with more security."

Stoicism reorients the practitioner's world. The focus of life becomes Virtue. Wealth, fame, health, and even life become indifferent; useful when they promote Virtue, hindrances when they obscure the same. It takes time to gain this new perspective. It takes a lifetime to perfect it. So when a student first steps through the columns of the Stoic school, what are they to do? Epictetus' radical program asked them to stay silent in conversation, sober in demeanor, hesitant to attend entertainments. Why? He wants them to avoid stepping on vices and spraining their ruling faculty. So he restricts them to the cleanest and smoothest ground as the try some Stoic baby steps. How can a person run free when they haven't yet learned to spot obstacles?

So when would the rules loosen up? Presumably when the Stoic became more sure-footed in the philosophy.  In his discourse titled, "Of Progress or Improvement, " Epictetus says;

"Where then is progress? If any of you, withdrawing from externals, turns to their own will to exercise it and improve it by labor, so as to make it conformable to nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unimpeded, faithful, modest; and if they have learned that those who desire or avoid the things which are not in their power can neither be faithful nor free, but of necessity they must change with them and be tossed about with them as in a tempest, and of necessity must subject themselves to others who have the power to procure or prevent what they desire or would avoid, finally, when one rises in the morning, if they observe and keep these rules, bathe as a person of fidelity, eat as a modest person, in like manner, if in every matter that occurs they work out their chief principles as the runner does in reference to running, and the trainer of the voice with reference to the voice - this is the one who has not traveled in vain."

This is the Stoic who can run free. This Stoic understands what to desire and what to avoid. They live out those principles on a daily basis. Applying wisdom to even the small details and chores of life such as what they eat and how they bathe (which takes a bit more thought when bathing is communal like in Epictetus' city). So what then for us? Have we made this sort of progress? If so, we can trust ourselves to blaze trails in the wilderness of life. We just need to be honest with ourselves as we evaluate our abilities.

So let's return to the beginning. "Lay down for yourself, at the outset, a certain stamp and type of character for yourself, which you are to maintain whether you are by yourself or are meeting with people."  However long you've practiced Stoicism, for days or for years, stop. Take a moment to picture who you want to be. Begin in the general sense but be certain to move towards the specific. Do I want to be a "just" Matt Van Natta? Well what does he look like at work, in conversation, in dealings with his adversaries? Can I be that person now or do I need more maturity? 

As Stoics, we need to evaluate our moral progress consistently and with complete honesty. We may find areas of life that we best avoid altogether or, if that isn't possible, where we need to limit our self expression. This self-restraint is meant to keep us living out a virtuous life, even if our ruling faculty is not yet a perfect leader. Over time, we'll grow in wisdom and live freer, more artful lives. But we'll always need to continue in our growth. As the ancient philosopher, Plotinus, advised, "Do not stop sculpting your own statue."

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode fourteen of Good Fortune. If you enjoyed this one, might I suggest you read Massimo Pigliucci's How to Be a Stoic, which I reviewed over on ImmoderateStoic.com. In an interesting coincidence this episode and the Spiritual Exercises chapter of Massimo's book are both based primarily in Chapter 33 of the Enchiridion. I had started writing this about a week before receiving the book and was near finished with the writing and the reading when I noticed the overlap. No matter. As I said in my review, How to Be a Stoic is a wonderful introduction to Stoicism and worth reviewing, I believe, even if you've been practicing for some time.

Speaking of books, I will soon be releasing one of my own. I have nearly completed an ebook that I'm calling The Good Fortune Handbook. This book is not comprised of new material, though much of it is likely to be new to anyone who hasn't delved into the back archives of Immoderate Stoic. The Good Fortune Handbook collects transcripts of the first thirteen episodes of Good Fortune, as well as nearly an equal number of additional articles that enhance the podcast content. I'm releasing this book for two reasons. First, I have been gratified to learn that many listeners return to certain Good Fortune episodes multiple times. It was my hope in conceiving of the podcast that this would be the case. I think the format I've created in this ebook can enhance the usability of the podcast content. It's searchable. There's an appendix that allows jumping to the specific questions asked and answered in each episode. It also allows articles that have fallen into old-post purgatory on ImmoderateStoic.com to find a new life. Second, the book will raise money. Hosting the site and the podcast has a cost, and it would be nice to cover a bit of that. I have also received a few direct requests to give me money to support this work and I want to allow a means of doing so. That said, all the content in the book is out there for free if you go digging and I have always wanted Good Fortune to be freely given. Anyway, look for that in the coming weeks.

Good Fortune can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and many other places. If you are willing to leave reviews on those services, they are always appreciated.

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Raven Caw]

Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode Thirteen: Death and an Epitaph for Ourselves

"Keep before your eyes day by day death and exile, and everything that seems terrible, but most of all death; and then you will never have any abject thought, nor will you yearn for anything beyond measure." Enchiridion Ch 21

How do you react to those words? Are they sobering? Off putting? Depressing? I could understand any of those responses and more. 

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today we'll be addressing the Stoic view of death and the Stoic insistence that confronting the fact of death is a useful exercise. Death is a huge topic and this podcast tends to come in at around 15 minutes, so please understand that we'll be covering only a glint of a facet of what the philosophy has to say. Also, this episode rests on the foundation of Episode 12, titled "Frightened of Change?" I'd suggest listening to it first.

Today's questions:

  • What is death, to the Stoic?

  • Why should we continuously confront death?

  • How can we come to accept death?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

What is death, to the Stoic?

You may remember Book 7, Chapter 23 of the Meditations from episode twelve, "Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly. It does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart." To the Stoics, death is harmless. The universe, of which we are a part, is in a constant state of change; death is but a word for one of processes that bring about that change. Simple, right?

Of course not. Death shakes the pillars of the earth. The death of a loved one can not only debilitate us through grief but force a complete restructuring of our lives. The ancient Stoics were aware of the impact of death, they lived as closely with it as anyone else. And still, Stoic quotes abound with shrugs towards mortality. It isn't difficult to find seemingly flippant or cold comments; comparing dead loved ones to broken clay pots, for instance. So what gives? Is death completely meaningless to Stoics? No. Death is real. It's a fact. As such, death has to be addressed. However, people can build their entire lives (entire societies) around avoiding the fact of mortality. Both the Greek and Roman Stoics lived in such times. They were willing to question those societal norms. The Stoics asked, "what is a healthy response to death?" With death as a certainty, what is to be done?

The Stoics wanted to shape their understanding of death in a way that accorded with reality. Part of that relearning relied on thoughts like Emperor Aurelius' horse-to-tree-to-human quote. Death is, and death is unavoidable. The other half of their relearning had to do with meaning we attach to death. 

In the Enchiridion, Chapter 5, Epictetus is recorded as saying, "It is not the things themselves that disturb people, but their judgments about those things. For example, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgment that death is dreadful, this is the dreadful thing..." To pick up Epic's point, people understandably wail at the loss of their loved ones, but they sometimes rejoice at the death of their enemy. They grieve the the loss of a child much differently then the death of their elders, particularly if the final years were painful ("it's a blessing, really"). The Stoic insistence is that we shape our reactions to death, the Stoic challenge is to reshape our judgments in a way that not only accepts, but embraces the fact that everything is mortal. 

[Raven caw]

Why should we continuously confront death?

"Furthermore, at the very moment when you are taking delight in something, call to mind the opposite impressions. What harm is there if you whisper to yourself, at the very moment you are kissing your child, and say, 'Tomorrow you will die'? So likewise to your friend, 'Tomorrow you will go abroad, or I shall, and we shall never see each other again'? --Nay, but these are words of ill omen. --Yes, and so are certain incantations, but because they do good, I do not care about that, only let the incantation do us good. But do you call anything ill-omened except those which signify some evil for us? Cowardice is ill-omened, a mean spirit, grief, sorrow, shamelessness; these are words of ill-omen. And yet we ought not to hesitate to utter even these words, in order to guard against the things themselves."   Discourses Book III xxiv, 85-90

That first advice is harsh, yes? I found it mildly shocking when I first read the Enchiridion, decades before becoming a father. Now, as a father, it's...challenging. Why would a Stoic teacher advise such a potentially off-putting practice? Over the years, wrestling with and returning to the many Stoic admonitions to dwell on death, I've concluded that the hope and expectation of the ancient teachers was that their students, that we, would find the practice freeing.

The act of confronting death provides a scalpel with which we can cut away the extraneous aspects of our life. It can allow us to be our best self now. To fully love now, be attentive now, enact justice now. "Keep before your eyes day by day...death; and then you will never have any abject thought, nor will you yearn for anything beyond measure." What better way to instill an urgency to be better than to remember every morning that we are not promised tomorrow?

I love every moment with my daughter. Still, I've tossed away plenty of experiences with her while staring at a screen, whether it's a TV, laptop, or phone. I've lost out on time with friends by either passing on time together out of laziness or not giving them my attention when I am technically present. Same for my wife. Outside of these close relationships I've also not invested fully in my community for similar reasons. What a waste. I don't have eternity. 

What harm is there if I whisper to myself when kissing my daughter, "tomorrow you will die, Freyja?" I have done this. I've meditated on it. It's quite the splash of cold water to the face. In my own life, the practice snaps my attention right back to my girl. I put the phone down. I listen to and answer her questions. I relate. And in living fully in that relationship, I not only appreciate what I have, but invest in making it even better.

I don't dwell on how any of my loved ones could pass. The practice isn't meant to be some CSI-style voyeurism. I work to internalize a fact. Mortal I was born, to me mortals have been born. I can't spent every minute soaking in the joy of parenthood. There's other stuff to do. But when I choose those other things, which ones make sense?

The Stoic focus on death is not simply meant as "You Only Live Once," advice. But that is part of it, and it's worth taking seriously.

[Raven caw]

How can we come to accept death?

If you, like myself, have been raised to deny mortality, to shun death, and to never speak of the raw fact that we all will die then we have much to unlearn. We have to struggle to uncouple ourselves from the fear of inevitable change. It requires practice, daily practice, or we will never gain an honest perception of the world.  

There are plenty of materials available for the standard Stoic death meditations and practices. I'll link to them on ImmoderateStoic.com. I would like, instead, to look at a simple practice found in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Here is Book 10, Chapter 8 in full:

Epithets for yourself: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested.

Try not to exchange them for others.

And if you should forfeit them, set about getting them back.

Keep in mind that ‘sanity’ means understanding things - each individual thing - for what they are. And not losing the thread.

And ‘cooperation’ means accepting what nature assigns you - accepting it willingly.

And ‘disinterest’ means that the intelligence should rise above the movements of the flesh - the rough and the smooth alike. Should rise above fame, above death, and everything like them.

If you maintain your claim to these epithets - without caring if others apply them to you or not - you’ll become a new person, living a new life. To keep on being the person that you’ve been - to keep being mauled and degraded by the life you’re living - is to be devoid of sense and much too fond of life. Like those animal fighters at the games - torn half to pieces, covered in blood and gore, and still pleading to be held over until tomorrow...to be bitten and clawed again.

Set sail, then, with this handful of epithets to guide you. And steer a steady course if you can. Like an emigrant to the islands of the blessed. And if you feel yourself adrift - as if you’ve lost control - then hope for the best, and put in somewhere where you can regain it. Or leave life altogether, not in anger, but matter-of-factly, straightforwardly, without arrogance, in the knowledge that you’ve at least done that much with your life.

And as you try to keep these epithets in mind, it will help you a great deal to keep the gods in mind as well. What they want is not flattery, but for rational things to be like them. For figs to do what figs were meant to do - and dogs, and bees...and people.

Here the Emperor has chosen simple adjectives to describe his character. Where does he visualize these words? On his tomb. The Stoic Seneca once said, "if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable." Aurelius is setting his destination. A moral destination.

One of my favorite epitaphs can be found in the movie The Royal Tenenbaums. In it, the self-centered title character has these words carved on his headstone, "Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship." He did not die that way. He simply saw the same words on a different man's tomb and decided to plagiarize that life after death.

Aurelius' Stoic epithet isn't about specific actions or projects at all (real or aspirational). When choosing his destination, he doesn't aim at things he can't control. Expanding the empire further. Turning the citizens and slaves of Rome into Stoics. Outliving his children. He sets a moral destination. Upright. Modest. Cooperative. This is a destination he can reach if he so chooses. This is a destination that can't be taken from him even if the empire is wrested from his hand. On his last day, whenever and wherever that would be, he hoped that the course of his life would lead observers to chisel those words in granite. We can do this as well. We can describe the character we want and aim for it. We can work to live up to our death.

I would challenge us to write our own epithets. To pick a few words that describe our ideal character and meditate on them with mortality on the mind. What must I do in THIS moment to be THAT person. What projects should I begin to aim at the life Stoicism offers? What projects should I end?

We are mortal. Our pasts are already gone. Our future isn't promised. This moment is what we have to work with. As Aurelius admonished, stop arguing about what a good person is and be one.

[Raven caw]