Transcript of Good Fortune: Episode 15

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

"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 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 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

"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 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 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]

Transcript of Good Fortune: Episode Twelve

"Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What's closer to nature's heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can't you see? It's just the same with you - and just as vital to nature."

Meditations Book 7, Chapter 18

There's lots of talk about the unshakable mountain that is, "The Stoic." Yet change is closest to nature's heart, according both to Aurelius' line and to Stoic philosophy. And the Stoic, of course, follows nature. So how does one find solid ground in an ever-changing universe?

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. I'm glad to be back. Since podcasts don't have to be listened to the day they're available, let me explain that this is the first episode after almost five month long break and also the first episode of 2016. I am grateful for the many requests to get this podcast going again. It's gratifying to know your listening.

Spring is upon us so I thought it only natural to start by talking about death. Ha-ha. I think it's time. We Stoics are famous for a fixation on mortality and, in my opinion, avoiding our philosophy's teachings concerning death denies us a rich vein of practical wisdom. In fact, I've been unable to address a variety of requested topics because, to cover the various losses in life (relationships, jobs, dignity, etc...) I need to be able to point back towards the Stoic approach to the loss OF life. So Death is coming, in Episode 13. First we lay the groundwork. Because before we can wrestle with that great, final change, we have to understand that in the Stoic universe, change is accepted as a constant.

Today's questions:

  • Exactly how close to nature's heart is change?
  • So the ancient Stoics were really hung up on change, what's it matter?
  • What are the benefits of perceiving and accepting that the universe is ever-changing?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

Exactly how close to nature's heart is change?

In Book Seven of the Meditations, Aurelius reminds himself multiple times of the nature of the universe. In Chapter 23 he says,  "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." Just two thoughts latter, in Chapter 25, he notes that, "Before long, nature, which controls it all, will alter everything you see and use it as material for something else - over and over again. So that the world is continually renewed."

I can't say why the Emperor was so fixated on transformation during this time, but in Book 7, Chapter 18, (the quote I opened with) he asks himself if he is frightened of change. It's a serious question for a Stoic. The school's founder, Zeno, asked us to "live according to nature." For a pious Stoic like Aurelius, nature was not only the right path, but his god, Zeus. And the god of the universe, the god that WAS the universe, was the one described by Heraclitus.

Have you heard that you can never step twice into the same stream? That was Heraclitus, as quoted by Plato. Heraclitus played a profound role in describing the Stoics' universe. He claimed that, "everything changes and nothing stands still," also translated, "everything flows and nothing remains." The Stoics adopted Heralitus' flux and his ever flowing universe is at the core of the Stoic perception of the world.

For instance, listen to Meditations Book 10, Chapter 7, where Aurelius ponders a variety of possible universes,

"The whole is compounded by nature of individual parts, whose destruction is inevitable ("destruction" here means transformation). If the process is harmful to the parts and unavoidable, then it's hard to see how the whole can run smoothly, with parts of it passing from one state to another, all of them built only to be destroyed in different ways. Does nature set out to cause its components harm, and make them vulnerable to it - indeed, predestined to it? Or is it oblivious to what goes on? Neither one seems very plausible.
But suppose we throw out "nature" and explain these things through inherent properties. It would still be absurd to say that the individual things in the world are inherently prone to change, and at the same time be astonished at it or complain - on the grounds that it was happening "contrary to nature." And least of all when things return to the state from which they came. Because our elements are simply dispersed, or are subject to a kind of gravitation - the solid portions being pulled toward earth, and what is ethereal drawn into the air, until they're absorbed into the universal logos - which is subject to periodic conflagrations, or renewed through continual change.
And don't imagine either that those elements - the solid and the ethereal - are with us from our birth. Their influx took place yesterday, or the day before - from the food we ate, the air we breathed.
And that's what changes - not the person your mother gave birth to..."

Here Marcus pits his favored view of the universe, as providential and purposeful, against a universe of unthinking atoms. It's a fascinating discussion, but what I want to point out is that the fundamental nature of both worldviews is change. Providence and atoms are contested, but the flow is not. For the Stoic, change is a given. And as such, it becomes unreasonable to complain about change as if it were unexpected. As the Emperor says elsewhere, "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life."

I also want to focus in on those final thoughts of Book 10 Chapter 7. "And don't imagine either that those elements - the solid and the ethereal - are with us from our birth. Their influx took place yesterday, or the day before - from the food we ate, the air we breathed. And that's what changes - not the person your mother gave birth to." Stoic change goes further than the eventual death of a horse, or felling of a tree. We are transformed daily. The child my mother gave birth to nearly forty years ago has already left the world, even though I happen to be here. Yes, Stoics are expecting and accepting the great changes of life, but our perception is supposed to go further; towards a realization that nothing is ever still. A certain stretch of river may be slow, but it's ever and always flowing.

[Raven Caw]

So the ancient Stoics were really hung up on change, what's it matter?

If we never come to terms with change, we'll never gain the benefits that Stoicism can provide. Chapter 2 of the Enchiridion begins, "Remember that the promise of desire is the attainment of what you desire, that of aversion is not to fall into what is avoided, and that he who fails in his desire is unfortunate, while he who falls into what he would avoid experiences misfortune. If then, you avoid only what is unnatural among those things which are under your control, you will fall into none of the things which you avoid; but if you try to avoid disease, or death, or poverty, you will experience misfortune."

A similar sentiment is found in Chapter 31 of the Enchiridion, where Epictetus speaks of piety towards the gods.

Piety is a term you won't find me addressing very often. First, because I try to develop Good Fortune in a way that speaks to as diverse a group of listeners as possible. Second, because my personal approach to Stoicism is non-theistic in nature. However, Epictetus, Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, these were pious men; true followers of Zeus as they understood him. Their god was quite different than the sort of god I was raised with, and even different than many of their contemporaries might have accepted. As the ancient historian Diogenes Laertius put it, "They also say that God is an animal, immortal, rational, perfect in happiness, immune to all evil, providentially taking care of the world and of all that is in the world, but he is not of human shape. He is the creator of the universe, and as it were, the Father of all things in common, and that a part of him pervades everything, which is called by different names, according to its powers..." This Zeus, this animal that is the whole universe, is ever changing, growing, expressing new things. To live wisely, rationally, is to understand his self-expression and to accept it no matter what.

Enchiridion, Chapter 31: "In piety toward the gods, I would have you know, the chief element is this, to have right opinions about them - as existing and as administering the universe well and justly - and to have set yourself to obey them and submit to everything that happens, and to follow it voluntarily, in the belief that it is being fulfilled by the highest intelligence. For if you act in this way, you will never blame the gods, nor find fault with them for neglecting you. But this result cannot be secured in any other way than by withdrawing your idea of the good and evil from the things which are not under our control, and in placing it in those which are under our control, and in those alone. Because, if you think any of those former things to be good or evil, then, when you fail to get what you want and fall into what you do not want, it is altogether inevitable that you will blame and hate those who are responsible for the results. For this is the nature of every living creature, to flee from and turn aside from the things that appear harmful, and all that produces them. Therefore, it is impossible for a man who thinks he is being hurt to take pleasure in that which he thinks is hurting him, just as it is impossible to take pleasure in the hurt itself. Hence it follows that even a father is reviled by a son when he does not give his child some share in the things that seem to be good...That is why the farmer reviles the merchant, and those who have lost their wives and their children. For where a man's interest lies, there is also his piety..." 

Epictetus' claim is that the universe is guided by a great intelligence therefore to be angry at the unfolding of that universe is to be angry at the gods. My opinion is closer to Marcus Aurelius' second possible world from Book 10, Chapter 7, that if I accept that the universe is bound by its own laws to play out as it does, then it is irrational to be angry at the outcome. I can scold myself for stubbing my toe, but yelling at the chair is foolish.

Epictetus says that in order to gain anything from Stoicism we have to withdraw our conception of good and evil from the ever-changing world and root it in ourselves. The good is found in interacting wisely with the world as it is, the evil; in reacting poorly to that same world. Why does acceptance of change matter? Anything less cuts us off from Stoic serenity and joy.

[Raven Caw]

What are the benefits of perceiving and accepting that the universe is ever-changing?

"The wise will start each day with thought;Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.

Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destines of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.

Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.

How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins?

We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.

Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.

Reckon on everything, expect everything."

You may recognize Seneca's premeditation. I've mentioned it before. So Seneca backs up Aurelius and Epictetus. The wise will start each day dwelling on change. Why? To become fatalistic? Life will happen as life happens so accept it and carry on? NO. We acknowledge the instability of the world so that we remember to put our energy into building up what can be stable, the only thing that can be, ourselves.

I'm recording this episode while surrounded by favorite books, art pieces, and whiskey decanters. I'm very fortunate to be able to create a space that is particularly well suited to me. I'm amazingly fortunate to have a wife who encouraged me to do so! I can breath easy in this study. What if a thief breaks in tomorrow? What if a fire turns it all to ash? Would I still breath easy? Way back in episode two I shared a quote from Keith Seddon that I will repeat again, "We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings." I return to that quote regularly because it illuminates the heart of the Stoic worldview. The Stoic seeks to be virtuous no matter the circumstances of life. Just, always. Wise, always. Tempered, always. Courageous, always. The fruit of that virtue, serenity, is equally constant. In fact, Epictetus claims that, "no feature of serenity is so characteristic as continuity and freedom from hindrance." If we don't realize and internalize that the thing we're enjoying is impermanent by the very fact that it exists, then we will be disturbed the second it changes. I'm not trying to shame us because we aren't perfect unperturbed Sages. But if we seek our peace in the present environment instead of in spite of it, we're not even walking the Stoic path.

The benefit of orienting ourselves to the flux of the world is that we can learn to love it as it is. We can stop waiting for happiness in some imagined perfect future and start really living in this moment. How? Well, the ancient Stoics advised continuously wrestling with that most striking of changes, Death. But that's next episode.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode twelve of Good Fortune. This was just laying groundwork for Episode 13, so stay tuned, Death is right around the corner!

Please let me know if your favorite podcatcher is still not updating with new Good Fortune episodes. The rss feed issue has been maddening (I'm kidding, I'm totally Stoic about it) and I do want it resolved.

There was a minor change to I created a Good Fortune transcript page, so if you're looking to read the podcast instead of listen, look for that page instead of the basic Good Fortune audio page.

Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month, when possible. As always, visit for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you listen through iTunes I greatly appreciate reviews. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me from time to time on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at

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 Eleven

"There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more in our imagination than in reality."

That's a line from Seneca's 13th letter to Lucilius. Titled, "on Groundless Fear," this letter delves into all the mental miscalculations that make us humans slaves to fear. Another line from the letter reminds us that, "Some things torment us more than they should; some torment us before they should; and some torment us when they should not torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow."

How can we stop doing this? How can we take control of our mind and make certain that fear can not take root there?

Today's questions:

  • What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?
  • The Stoics say that fear is all in my head but, if so, my head is really good at generating fear. What should I do about that?
  • Outside of reigning in my imagination, how can I Stoicially confront fear?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?

Stoicism and emotions. Not exactly the peanut butter and chocolate of conversational topics. But before we can discuss fear, it's important to set up a scaffolding of Stoic concepts to support the conversation. So shake off all those cultural ideas of Stoics purging their emotions, eschewing joy, or any of that misguided stuff and settle in for a quick and probably inadequate primer on the Stoic approach to emotions.

The first thing we need to do is drop the term emotion. It's too loaded...with meaning. If you made a Venn Diagram of the Stoic concepts we're going to be addressing and all those concepts contained in the word 'emotion' there would only be a sliver of overlap. The word I'm selecting to encompass the Stoic ideas of fear, anger, despair, etc...will be 'passion' or 'passions' as a plural. The expected benefit of using this somewhat archaic term is to arrest the listener. To cause us to stop and think about meaning, "why did he say passion instead of emotion?' Is there a difference?" Yes. There are many differences. For a much fuller understanding of those differences, I would direct you to a talk given by John Sellars during Stoic Week 2014, which I'll be certain to provide a link to on Immoderate Stoic. A quick quote from that talk, "the Stoics don't reject emotion, they reject passion, and that's quite a different thing." 

In his talk, John Sellars lists four categories that fall within the concept of emotion. Three of those categories are fully embraced by Stoicism, meaning they are accepted as a necessary part of a fully human life. Only one aspect of human emotion is meant to be overcome and cast aside. That would be the passions.

Here are Sellar's categories in short:

First, emotions of affinity: Stoicism assumes that we are predisposed to care for ourselves, our close relatives, and, if we mature, we'll care for all humankind. In Stoicism it is not possible to flourish in life and remain emotionally indifferent to the wellbeing of others.

Next, emotions of shock: Even the mythical perfect Sage will experience goosebumps, blush, or be startled by a loud noise. Stoicism considers these to be natural physiological responses. We refer to them as pre-passions or, more poetically, "first movements of the soul." There is nothing wrong with experiencing pre-passions, it's our reaction to those reactions that falls under Stoic scrutiny.

The third category is the one that Stoics seek to overcome. The Passions: A passion is an emotional response to an external state of affairs based on a mistaken value judgment. Passions stem from judgments, our judgments are of course, under our control (in Stoic psychology) and therefore here we can stand our ground. Here we can say, "I feel something, it's based on a mistaken belief, therefore I should change my belief which will change my feeling." It's not that our Stoic hearts are two sizes too small and therefore we turn our noses up at big bold feelings. It's that the passions are built on errors. Stoicism insists that if we allow ourselves to be driven by passions that are based on mistakes, we will live inconsistently and we will not thrive. The passion we'll be discussing, FEAR, is defined as an irrational aversion or avoidance of an expected danger. Fear tosses away our present contentment simply because something might take it away later! Which is fundamentally ridiculous. Mistakes like that are what Stoicism admonishes us to avoid.

The fourth category, by the way, are Good Passions: positive emotional responses based on correct value judgments. Not only does Stoicism admit that good, lovely, worthy emotions are possible, the expectation is that a Stoic life will necessarily include those passions. A healthy mind includes a healthy emotional life.

So remember, part and parcel of a healthy human life are care and concern for others, natural physiological responses to the events of life, and positive passions based on proper value judgments. 

So again: What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?

Passions are disorders of the soul. They are irrational responses to events. The direct products of faulty reasoning. Fear is an irrational aversion or avoidance of an expected danger. All fear, in the Stoic view, is groundless. So do Stoics experience it, of course! None of us are perfect. However, we do combat fear and NOT by simply suppressing it. Instead, we work to change the mistaken beliefs that generate and feed fear, so that it never takes root in the first place.

[Raven Caw]

The Stoics say that fear is all in my head but, if so, my head is really good at generating fear. What should I do?

"Cease to harass your soul!" That's another Seneca quote. If we accept that fear is generated by our own judgments, then the emotional distress that we are combating is self-inflicted. We simply need to stop harassing ourselves.

Marcus Aurelius agreed with this line of reasoning and, thankfully, he wrote down advice concerning HOW to cease harassing our soul. We can find it in Book 7, Chapter 29 of his Meditations:

"Stop fantasizing! Cut the strings of desire that keep you dancing like a puppet. Draw a circle around the present moment. Recognize what is happening either to you or to someone else. Dissect everything into its causal and material elements. Ponder your final hour. Leave the wrong with the person who did it."

The Emperor doesn't want to waste his life working himself up over the unreal. To combat his wandering thoughts, he reminds himself of five stoic mental practices:

  • Attend to the present moment
  • Focus on what affects people here and now
  • Break things down until they are understandable and manageable
  • Remember that life is short
  • "Leave the wrong with the person who did it."

The Stoic mind is rooted in the present. Seneca put it this way, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet." If we focus on what we can do now, this minute, to make our lives better we can not only avoid ruminating on imagined future difficulties, we can know that we did our best to keep those difficulties from occurring. Aurelius reminds himself to open his eyes to the present environment, particularly concerning what is happening to himself and others.

I used to constantly worry about getting seated on time and and at the best possible table when going out to eat with friends. I can not tell you the number of pre-dinner conversations I failed to enjoy because I was busy worrying about whether the during-dinner conversations would happen on time. What a ridiculous but common way to approach life.

Aurelius also says to "break things down until they are understandable and manageable." So here we once again run into the Stoic practice of Physical Definition. A full explanation is found in Episode 3 of Good Fortune so I won't repeat myself here. Concerning fear, we can use Physical Definition to strip our imagined future down into parts and evaluate them from a Stoic perspective. In Letter 13 Seneca shares a series of questions developed for just that purpose.

"Put the question voluntarily to yourself: "Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?""

As was pointed out in the opening to this episode, we are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Just a few days into Stoic week 2015 I learned that I might not be able to purchase the house that I've spent the last month or so attempting to get. Some business about insurmountable permitting, zoning, blah blah blah issues. I've been a good Stoic during the entire home buying process so I haven't fully invested myself in the property and such, but still, when my loan guy called saying he thought the whole deal was dead, I got red in the face. Not anger or embarrassment, just a...I don't know, up-swelling of chemical "what the heck?!" A definite first movement of the soul. After that pre-passion I felt a few actual passions, no doubt. I was ok with losing the house, it wasn't even mine after all, but the idea of breaking the news to my wife and of going back into the house hunting process, now with significantly less time before our present lease was up...all of that was swimming in my head.

To ask myself Seneca's three questions: was I tormenting myself without reason? Well, nothing I felt was going to change my ability to purchase a house. Also, my family is in a good place in life. Not getting the house would be a setback but not deeply disruptive. Was I morose? Well, I hadn't had time to get into a funk concerning events, so no. And I can honestly report the same state today, by the way. Was I converting a non-evil into an evil? I was in danger of doing so. It did feel to me for a time that losing the house would be a bad thing. Which isn't true. After all, nothing about the house buying process has the ability to affect my virtue. I can thrive without any of it. So Stoically, I couldn't justify feeling fear, anger, or any other strong discontentment concerning the situation.

The process of stepping back and criticizing my initial judgments helped my find my footing. Continuing on and accepting my new judgments actually uprooted the passions that had begun to grow in my mind. And that is the Stoic goal. Never to suppress or ignore our fears, to uproot them completely through a radical change in perspective.

[Raven Caw]

Outside of reigning in my imagination, how can I Stoicially confront fear?

When we really begin to face fear as a Stoic, we'll begin to relish the obstacle that it represents.

Listen to how Seneca lays it out at the end of Letter 13. 

"But I am ashamed either to admonish you sternly or to try to beguile you with such mild remedies. Let another say. "Perhaps the worst will not happen." You yourself must say. "Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins! Perhaps it happens for my best interests; it may be that such a death will shed credit upon my life." Socrates was ennobled by the hemlock draught. Wrench from Cato's hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory."

Seneca is saying that the fear avoidance tactic of hoping for the best, of wishful thinking, is weak sauce. The Stoic tactic isn't wishful thinking, it's unshakable thinking.

When he opens Letter 13 he commends his friend for already displaying a Stoic pride in battling life's ups and downs.

"I know that you have plenty of spirit; for even before you began to equip yourself with maxims which were wholesome and potent to overcome obstacles, you were taking pride in your contest with Fortune; and this is all the more true, now that you have grappled with Fortune and tested your powers. For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves."

strictly speaking, if we were perfect Stoics, we would never battle fear because we would never experience it. But we do experience fear, so we have to choose how to combat it. Our first option is to avoid the thing we fear. That leaves our emotional state in the hands of fate, which is unacceptable. We could also avoid thinking about our fears, assuage them by thinking cheerful thoughts like, "what are the chances the worst possible thing will happen?" The Stoic option is to attack fear at the root. We change the very judgments that create the fear. We change what we control, ourselves, our own mind, and make it better suited for the world as it is.

Now, it may seem that we are leaving a void where our passions used to be. Fear can, after all, drive us to actions. The passion of anger is often pointed to as supposed fuel for meaningful change. Well, we Stoics live according to nature and nature abhors a vacuum. The space where the passion of fear once was is meant to be filled by a 'good passion' in this case the Stoic concept named Caution.

Caution is the rational avoidance of an expected danger. Caution recognizes that there are things we can reasonably prefer to avoid as long as avoiding them doesn't lead to lack of virtue. In a previous episode I quoted Book 6 Chapter 20 of the Meditations, "In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don't denounce them for it or get upset with them or regard them from then on as violent types. We just keep an eye on them after that. Not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance." That friendly distance is Caution; a simple, prudent step in keeping with wisdom. Notice that Caution doesn't cause us to get out of the ring. It's simply an adjustment of our stance as we happily continue to wrestle.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to Good Fortune Episode 11. It's taken awhile to get here. As I mention on the blog, FB, and Twitter, I've had a lot going on that has to take precedent over writing and recording. With various holiday's arriving, I can't expect things to get smoother so I believe the rest of this year's episodes will be released a bit haphazardly. Starting next year the standard schedule will be 1st and 3rd FRIDAYS.

I hope you participated in Stoic Week and found it useful. I know I quite enjoyed it and am looking forward to reviewing the videos that come out of Stoicon. Speaking of the Stoicon gathering, Stoicon 2016 is going to be held in New York City. I'm already saving up for my ticket.  

Beginning in January, Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month. As always, visit for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you listen through iTunes I greatly appreciate reviews. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at

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]