Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Ten: Physical Exercises

"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...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."

That line was from Musonius Rufus, once the head of the Stoic school. We might assume that an ancient philosophy school would of consist of a bunch of pampered rich kids endlessly attempting to show off their smarts by winning debates and making ridiculously pedantic points in general conversation. Frankly, I think that was often the case because Musonius and later Epictetus both are recorded giving lecture based smack downs to students who thought knowing about Stoicism was the same as living Stoicism. From Musonius in particular it becomes obvious that the true Stoic progressor necessarily make strong logical arguments, instead they take strong actions. They live a life of effort, an effort that concerns not just the mind but the whole self. 

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune, in this episode we'll look into the physical practices of Stoicism. I'll be reading two different articles of mine, deep cuts from The first "Preparing for Life's Struggles," discusses the physicality of the Stoic school. Yes, philosophy concerns the life of the mind, but that mind is embodied, and we'll never flourish if we avoid aches and pains. The second article is "Pain Don't Hurt," in which I quote Patrick Swazye from Roadhouse and talk about what I learned in a birthing class.

Alright, let's get physical.

[Crow Caws]

Preparing for Life's Struggles

The ancient Stoics trained not just their minds, but also their bodies for the hard work of philosophy. The 'good flow of life' which they sought could not be grasped from books and lectures without additional toil. A simple lesson or a clever turn of phrase was never expected to overcome a lifetime of bad habits in the hearer. Stoic exercises, both mental and physical, were designed to take the lessons found on paper and write them into the life of the student. Because the universe will take things from us, the Stoics meditated on death and loss. Because life has lean times, they would eat plain foods or take no food at all. Stoics trained in order to be ready to meet the inevitable trials of life. We too must train if we want to be Stoic when it matters.

A clear expression of the physicality of the Stoic School can be found in the writings of Musonius Rufus. History leaves us very little of Musonius's words, but what we do have is illuminating. Unlike other Stoic texts, his give us insight into the daily practices at the Stoic school. For instance, he gives lessons on what foods Stoics should eat. He also gives job advice and lets loose some really horrible opinions concerning sexual relationships (always remember, we don't always have to pick up what ancient Greek guys are laying down). The ancient notes titled, By Musonius from the lecture on practicing philosophy, begin, " not just theoretical knowledge, it is also practical, like both medical and musical knowledge. The doctor and the musician must each not only learn the principles of their own skill but be trained to act according to those principles. Likewise, the person who wants to be good must not only learn the lessons which pertain to virtue but train themself to follow them eagerly and rigorously." Stoicism is meant to be used in the field. What's the point in claiming indifference to the things we don't control if we continuously get angry as slow traffic? Stoicism is only Stoic when it is enacted, and that requires disciplined practice.

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

— Musonius Rufus

Stoic physical training was focused both on testing students' beliefs and building their mental endurance. Musonius Rufus did not care if his Stoics were under ten percent body-fat or how much they could deadlift. He was concerned that when they came face to face with pain they might choose comfort over virtue. The hard work of Stoicism involves desiring only what is good and avoiding only what is bad. Pain, according to Stoicism, is not actually a bad thing, it's simply indifferent. That's an easy enough idea to pay lip service to, but when pain stands between us and virtue, will we go through that pain or avoid it? Better to test ourselves in a controlled setting. Musonius said it this way, "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...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."

So what exercises did the ancients use to become better Stoics? We don't really know. History has taken that from us. The glimpses that we do have fall into the category of 'voluntary discomfort.' For instance, Epictetus advised that a thirsty person could wet their mouth, but then spit out the water. Seneca would eat bland but nutritious foods for long stretches. It would be interesting to see exactly how the ancient Stoics exercised, but there's no secret sauce, we simply need to train ourselves to follow Stoicism eagerly and rigorously. It isn't difficult to devise voluntary discomforts; hard beds, cold showers, and fasting come to mind. I happen to use an ice based practice that I learned in a birthing class. The point is not to make ourselves uncomfortable for discomfort's sake. We are meant to uncover the ingrained mental habits that go against Stoic thought, experience through disciplined exercise that those thoughts are wrong, and learn to consistently choose the wiser course.

Again, here are Musonius' thoughts on the matter,

“Indeed, those of us who have taken part in philosophical discussion obviously have heard and been exposed to the ideas that pain, death, poverty, and other things which are free of wickedness are in no way evil and, in turn, that wealth, life, pleasure or other things that have no share in virtue are not good. Nevertheless, even though we have heard these ideas, because of the corruption which has been ingrained in us all the way from childhood and because of the wicked behavior caused by this corruption, we think it a bad thing when pain comes on us, and we think it a good thing when pleasure comes. 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 himself so that he won’t welcome pleasure and avoid pain, so that he won’t love living and fear death, and so that, in the case of money, he won’t honor receiving over giving.”

— Musonius Rufus

As modern Stoics, we seek to conquer the obstacles that come our way. We've turned to the words of an ancient school of thought and found, through practice, that Stoicism is replete with practical wisdom. It is the practice that proves the words. We are doing ourselves a disservice if we do not routinely exercise our philosophy. If we don't pack on some Stoic muscle, how will we be strong when real obstacles rise up before us? Be certain to not simply read the Stoics, participate along with them. Train yourself in the hard work of philosophy. The Stoic who pursues wisdom eagerly and rigorously is the one who obtains the good flow of life.

I believe in building up the will through physical effort. It's all well and good to hope that Stoicism can bring me through hard times, but I've seen my virtue derailed by a blood sugar crash due to skipping lunch! Am I going to choose the good when pain, physical or social, gets in the way? Stoic Week is coming up in November. I'll talk more about that later. Every year I like to choose a basic deprivation exercise to remind myself that whatever it is I'm giving up, I'm not actually deprived at all. This year I'm eating no food. Instead I'll be drinking the nutritional slurry known as Soylent. This week long abstinence from flavor should give my reason to meditate on my relationship to food. Do I spend too much effort chasing after novel experiences (I do like eating out) rather than simple, healthy food? Do I snack to cover up boredom or negative feelings? Who knows? Perhaps the break from routine will give me some answers.

In the following article, I talk about a practice I've adapted from a class about childbirth. 

Pain Don't Hurt

Pain don't hurt.  -Patrick Swazye (Road House)

My wife and I are taking a birthing class in preparation for our daughter's arrival. The class presents a wide variety of methods to cope with stress and pain, so that both the pregnant woman and her partner can have as comfortable an experience as possible. In order to practice the breathing and mindfulness techniques against actual discomfort, participants take part in an exercise that I'm thinking of adding to my Stoic practice.

In the class, participants are asked to take ice, hold it in their hands, and find ways to work through the building pain. I find this method brilliant in its simplicity. For the price of a few melting ice cubes, I get a truly distracting experience to test myself against.

When in pain remember that it brings no dishonor and that it does not weaken the governing intelligence. Pain is neither everlasting nor intolerable; it has its limits if you add nothing by imagination.

-Marcus Aurelius

In the class, the ice exercise is used with a variety of methods. Sometimes we concentrate on our breath. Sometimes we pay attention to the sensation itself. Sometimes we visualize a scene in our minds. I say we, because that's what the teachers ask us to do. I actually have been using the time to practice applicable Stoic techniques, primarily Recitation and The Discipline of Assent.

Recitation on Ice

Holding ice in my hand, I reflect on Stoic quotes that apply to pain.

For example,

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. -Aurelius

I hold the ice for at least one minute, then I rest the hand. I continue with the opposite hand.

Assenting to Swazye-ism

Holding ice in my hand, I agree that pain does not, in fact, hurt.

More seriously, I examine the impression that ice presents to my body. It is likely, as time goes on, that I will notice a judgement arising in my mind that pain is bad. Instead of assenting to this idea, I recognize that nothing outside of my volition is either good or bad, it is indifferent.

I hold the ice for at least one minute, then I rest the hand. I continue with the opposite hand.

The Effect

I'm not looking to be a Spartan. In general, I feel we should pay attention to physical pain, it's there to let us know we need to respond to something. However, pain (neither physical nor emotional) should not distract us from our goal of a good flow of life. I've found that the addition of ice has a similar effect in my mental workouts that adding ankle weights when running would have on my physical ones. In our first birthing class session, I actual found the ice very painful. On the second session (with no practice in between) I thought the teacher had halved the practice time. Nope, one minute each time. It went faster the second time because I regarded the sensations as indifferent.

Sometimes it's helpful to add potential discomfort to our routine in order to better practice our disciplines. Seneca said, "treat yourself harshly at times." Ice is a simple and effective way to do that. If you're looking for a means of putting your judgement to the test, I recommend filling an ice cube tray and getting to it.

So that's Episode 10. Thank you for listening. I mentioned that Stoic Week is coming up. Stoic Week is a yearly online and international event hosted by the University of Exeter. This year Stoic Week runs from the November 2nd to 8th. If you are still wondering about the basics of Stoicism or are a practitioner who just wants to shake up your routine, I advise heading over to the Stoicism Today blog and signing up. I always enriched by it. Also, if you can get to London on November 7th there is a one day conference that you can attend. Get your tickets now.

Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Thursday 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 Speaking of twitter, a local stoic introduced herself to me and that got me wondering how many Portland, Oregon Stoics are out there. Let me know if you're in the area, I'd love to meet you.

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 Caws]