Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Three: Attention is Fundamental

Yesterday I was crossing the Ross Island Bridge and the person ahead of me was driving like a real idiot. I spent a few moments remarking on this fact, to myself, when I was reminded of Marcus Aurelius's premeditation, the one I mentioned just last episode. I had neglected to start my day by reminding myself that people were going to act selfishly, rudely, etcetera. It took the mornings first act of ACTUAL rudeness to bring my thoughts back into focus. I am happy to report that that sudden irritation was soothed by Stoic thoughts but, of course, that is not the ideal. I should have begun my day by composing my thoughts. Or even better, my mind should be so rooted in a Stoic orientation that I would never think to BE annoyed by something as small as a sudden lane change or whatever. But how can I think Stoically with that level of consistency?

Hi. I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions: How hard is it to think like a Stoic? How do we develop a consistent Stoic orientation towards the world? And finally, What sort of practice can help us keep a constant Stoic attitude in life? Alright, let's get started...

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How hard is it to think like a Stoic?

I'm going to let the ancient teacher Musonius Rufus address this point. Musonius was the head of the Stoic school in his day. We don't have access to much of Musonius's teachings, history has erased all but a few of his works, but what we do have is interesting and enlightening.

For example, his thoughts on Stoic practice,

"Therefore practicing each virtue always must follow learning the lessons appropriate to it, or it is pointless for us to learn about it. The person who claims to be studying philosophy must practice it even more diligently than the person who aspires to the art of medicine or some similar skill, inasmuch as philosophy is more important and harder to grasp than any other pursuit. People who study skills other than philosophy have not been previously corrupted in their souls by learning things contrary to what they are about to learn, but people who attempt to study philosophy, since they have been already in the midst of much corruption and are filled with evil, pursue virtue in such a condition that they need even more practice in it."

We can hope that a woman training to become a surgeon has not been performing amateur surgeries on the side prior to attending medical school. Instead, she gets to start her schooling using the proper tools to learn the most appropriate technique until she has mastered the skills necessary to practice medicine. The school of philosophy is meant to give us the skill to see the world clearly but we have all been taking in and judging the events of life since drawing our first breath. We have already spent decades as untrained amateurs; patching our faults up with duct tape and using a wrench to pound in nails. Stoicism provides us with new tools and techniques for shaping our thoughts and actions but we humans are very attached to our old ways. So learning to live stoically is as hard as breaking a habit... or beginning a better one. Except we're attempting to break every bad habit, including those we don't yet recognize in ourselves. If we're going to have any hope of real progress towards Stoic goals, if we're going to train ourselves to think differently, we're going to have to learn to pay attention.

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How do we develop a consistent Stoic orientation to the world? We begin by paying attention.

Pierre Hadot, in his book The Inner Citadel, says this:

"Attention is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully."

I agree with Hadot that attention is foundational to the Stoic mind. Attention paid, not simply to the world around us, but even more importantly to OUR OWN thoughts and feelings. The Stoic aim is to lead a flourishing life. We do this by dismantling any mental habits that lead us astray and replacing them with a more effective understanding of the world; one that leads to virtuous, and therefore powerful, actions.

I am often drawn to Hadot's phrase, "a constant tension of the spirit." It sounds exhausting, doesn't it? Well, that shouldn't surprise us. The Stoic philosophy is not complete on the page, it only exists in practice. And exercise is always strenuous if it's at all useful.

Or to return to Musonius's love of medical examples, "The philosopher's school is a doctor's office, you must leave not pleased but pained." If we are going to flourish in life, we have to cut out the bad and build up the good.

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What sort of  philosophical practice can help us keep a constant Stoic attitude in life?

The short answer is all of them. Look at any of the exercises we've already covered and it's obvious that attention underlies them all. Before we can remind ourselves that we are at a festival, instead of stuck in a crowd, we have to have the presence of mind to realize the need for that mental realignment. Before I can stay calm and relaxed in traffic, I have to be conscious enough of my own thoughts to realize that I'm losing myself in petty mental bickering.

The Stoic mindset, what Hadot calls the "Stoic spiritual attitude," is explained in Book 9 Chapter 6 of the Meditations where Marcus Aurelius says,

"Here is what is enough for you:
1. the judgement you are bringing to bear at this moment upon reality, as long as it is objective.
2. the action you are carrying out at this moment, as long as it is accomplished in the service of the human community; and
3. the inner disposition in which you find yourself at this moment, as long as it is a disposition of joy in the face of the conjunction of events caused by extraneous causality.”

We pay attention to our own responses to the present moment, because the present is all we have. The present moment is the only place that we can effect change in our lives or in the world.

As the Roman Stoic Seneca said it, "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."

So yes, every Stoic practice requires and bolsters our attention but of course, I am not going to leave you without a particular Stoic discipline for the week. Marcus Aurelius writes of a method that can serve us well, this exercise, sometimes referred to as PHYSICAL DEFINITION, requires us to pay attention to both the external world and our inner judgments concerning the world.

He expresses the art of PHYSICAL DEFINITION most clearly in the beginning of Meditations 3:11;

"To the stand-bys above, add this one: always to define whatever it is that we perceive -- to trace its outline -- so that we can see what it really is, its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name --the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return. Nothing is so conductive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. To look at it in such a way that we understand what need it fulfills, and in what kind of world. And its value to the world as a whole and to man in particular...

What is it -- this thing that now forces itself on my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it -- tranquility, courage, honesty, trustworthiness, straightforwardness, independence or what?"

Here we try to see whatever concerns us as it truly is. Now, I don't want to stumble into neverending debates concerning objectivity/subjectivity and the like. Here, we can say that seeing something as it truly is entails observing its value in terms of promoting a flourishing world and then deciding what actions we must take in light of that value.

In another chapter of the meditations, Emperor Aurelius reminds himself that the meal he is eating is simply a dead fish. Why would he bother? Well, we can find examples within Stoic works, Epictetus' in particular, that speak about putting our social duties during a feast above our basic bodily needs and desires. Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in his world. I'm guessing his kitchen staff was pretty talented. Picture this man watching a plate of his favorite herbed fish as it is brought to him so that he can have the first serving before it continues around the banquet. He wants to be a gracious host and he also desires the tasty tasty fish. He could view the meal in terms of misguided values, "it's the best tasting thing in Rome, (I must taste it) the spice mix is worth more that most people's homes, (I deserve it) or I'm the Emperor and I can show my power by eating the whole thing while everyone else salivates."Instead he steps back mentally and says, "this is simply a dead fish, burnt over a flame, with some leaves and twigs thrown on for flavor, am I seriously allowing a dead fish to stand in the way of my better self?"

We can do the same as Emperor Aurelius, step back and give our better nature a fighting chance against the storm of desires that rise up so unthinkingly in the day to day.

The goal of Physical Definition is to develop a healthy perspective of the world.  Really, that's the goal of all Stoic practice; to make our minds sharp, strong, and effective, so that we can live well and help others as we do so.

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Thank you for listening to episode three. 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 do listen through iTunes I would greatly appreciate a review. Reviews are the single most important factor in Apple's decision to share the podcast with a wider audience. 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.

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