Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 16: Progress

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[Raven Caw]

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

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

  • How do Stoics define Progress?

  • How does a Stoic practice the philosophy?

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

[Raven Caw]

How do Stoics define Progress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And where is that progress found? Again:

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

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

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

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

[Raven Caw]

How does a Stoic practice the philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Raven Caw]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Raven Caw]

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

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

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

[Raven Caw]