Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Two: A Stoic Start to the Day

Before you can have a Stoic day you need to wake up. And no, I'm not talking about enlightenment. I'm talking about rolling out of bed, preferably on the right side of it.

[Opening Music]

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions: Why shouldn't I sleep the day away? How do Stoics prepare for the inevitable frustrations of the day? And finally,  I have some extra time in the morning, are there any Stoic practices that can help me start the day right?
Alright, let's get started...

[Crow Caws]

Are you a morning person? I imagine that's helpful, easily waking up during the hours that society prefers you be active. I wouldn't really know. I was a United States Marine and even then I never took to a morning schedule. I just learned that the human brain does not have to be fully awake while running through the desert wearing a heavy pack.

Emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, may not have been much of a morning person himself. I come to this conclusion because he takes the time to write to himself about Stoic reasons for not sleeping the day away.

In his Meditations Book 5, Chapter 1, Aurelius says, "At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself; 'I have to go to work, as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I'm going to do what I was born for -- the things I was brought into this world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?--but it's nicer here? So you were born to feel 'nice'? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?"

Aurelius continues, and I suggest reading the whole chapter, but I think from the opening lines we can get the gist. The comfort and pleasure of oversleeping isn't really enriching our lives. There's work to be done. The work of human beings. At the end of Chapter 5, the Emperor talks about people who love their work, the artist or writer who forgets to eat because their so wrapped up in their art. As Stoics we should strive to love the work of the human being, the very act of living well, as much as the starving artist loves their art. We should want to wake up.

[Crow Caws]

So we get out of bed and prepare for the day. Maybe you shower, eat breakfast, brush your teeth. Perhaps you have to pack some books for school or a briefcase for work. What do you do to prepare your mind? You're going to get stuck in traffic, deal with a less than pleasant person, get dragged into an hour long meeting that should have been an email. Have you prepared for that?

Stoic writings provide us with a variety of practices that aim to prepare the mind for the day ahead. One such method is premeditation.

You may already know about the Stoic premeditation of evils. Stoics quite famously take time to dwell on difficult things, the lose of a job, the death of a loved one, the Stoic's own death. I am NOT recommending that you start your day thinking about death and destruction. I'll cover that in a future episode.

The premeditations I would like to focus on are more general in nature. A series of Stoic maxims that, if repeated in the morning, can prepare us to react stoically to unfortunate events.

In Meditations Book 2 Chapter 1, Aurelius reminds himself how to begin the day.

"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own -- not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together, like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions."

Sometimes, in discussions of Stoic premeditation, you'll find people who believe the practice is about steeling yourself against the world. They'll read Marcus's words and say, "yep, people are jerks, defend yourself, shields up!" That response is decidedly unstoic. Aurelius does begin by reminding himself that people are going to be people and that people are often less than at their best. He then reminds himself of a Stoic belief; that bad actions come from bad thinking or, as he puts it, "they can't tell what is good and what is evil." Stoicism claims that every person is doing the best they can with the information they have. That knowledge is meant to allow a Stoic to accept others despite their faults, because they literally don't know better. Aurelius continues that line of reasoning by reminding himself of the Stoic insistence that all human beings are our family and meant to be treated as such. In addition, Aurelius points out that Stoics can not be harmed by the ill actions of others, in that another person's mistake can not cause us to act inappropriately. Others may be, meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly, but what of it? We can respond well. The only real harm is being less than our best, that is what keeps us from flourishing, and that harm can't be done to us, it's done by us, to ourselves. After all, if a Stoic uses another person's un-stoic actions as an excuse to act un-stoicially...well, that would be ridiculous. Aurelius finishes with two thoughts, first, that humans are born to work together. Stoicism defines humans not only as rational beings but as social ones. A large part of the Stoic virtue --COURAGE-- is practiced by being radically humane in the face of an inhumane world. And so the Emperor's final thought is this, "To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions." This last line is not a final shot at the misguided people Aurelius expects to meet during his day, it's an admonition directed towards himself. A reminder to never be an obstruction to others. No matter how many people try to trip a Stoic up, we prepare ourselves to help them on their way.

There is also a premeditation compiled from the work of Seneca. I believe I first came across it in The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot. Originally I thought Seneca composed this premeditation, but I haven't been able to find it in his writings. However, I have found every line of the meditation in various places within Seneca's works, so I believe this has been cobbled together later to remind Stoics of some important truths. Again, truths best remembered in the morning.

"The wise will start each day with the 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 you have given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything."

Here we concentrate, not only on people, but on the whims of Fortune. Seneca reminds us that life does not come with guarantees and EVErYTHING will come to an end.  In Stoicism, change is a universal constant. To expect permanence in an ever-changing world is to court disappointment AT BEST. In the Enchiridion, Chapter 11, the Stoic teacher Epictetus reminds his students to "never say of anything, "I have lost it" but--"I have returned it." He advises us to take care of whatever we possess, but not to view it as our own, but as a traveler views a hotel." To begin the day as a Stoic, preparing ourselves to embrace the world as it truly is, so that we can act meaningfully within it. We can remind ourselves that people may act poorly and events may change our fortunes abruptly, but those challenges can not keep us from being our best selves.

As a modern Stoic teacher, Keith Seddon, once wrote, "We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings."

[Crow Caws]

Final question, "are there any Stoic practices that can help me start my day right?"

I have a favorite visualization technique that has helped me when I've woken up anxious. It's called the View from Above, and I find that it helps put life into a universal context, thereby shrinking my problems down to size. If you have ten...twenty minutes to set aside in the morning, this practice might be for you.

The View from Above, in short consists in mentally placing yourself high above the earth, a literal view from above, so as to gaze down on the works of humankind and say, hm...that's all, what am i so worried about?

In her book, Stoic Spiritual Exercises, Elene Buzare tells us that,

"This exercise is a good one to learn for situating things within the immensity of the Universe and the totality of Nature, without the false prestige lent to them by our human passions and conventions...The 'view from above' should change our judgments on things concerning luxury, power, war, borders and the worries of everyday life, whether these occur within our families, at work or elsewhere, by re-situating them within the immensity of the cosmos and the vastness of human experience.

Indeed, when we look at things from the perspective of the Cosmos, those things which do not depend on us, and which Stoics call 'indifferents', are brought back to their true proportions...This exercise, then, should also help us contemplate how foolish most of our actions are, and remind us of the imminence of death...and the urgency of our practice!"

The modern Stoic writer Donald Robertson shares a wonderful version of this practice on his website, which I will link to in the show notes. So as not to repeat him, I will share a similar meditation, one written by Carl Sagan when he wrote about a picture of the Earth taken from 4 billion miles away, where our Earth is just a pixel of blue.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Carl Sagan was not, to my knowledge, a practicing Stoic, but he certainly had a universal perspective. If you have some time in the morning, take the time to remind yourself that you and none of the things around you are the center of the universe, but you are a part of it.

[Crow Caws]

Alright, that's Good Fortune episode two. Please visit me at, tweet to me @goodfortunecast, follow the Immoderate Stoic facebook page, or go to and listen to my other Stoic podcast, Painted Porch. Again I thank Tryad for the musical lead in off 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.

[Crow Caws]