Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 15: Stoic Self-Care

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: Self-Restraint

"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]