Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Six: Handling Distressing News

The news. Whether it's delivered by a concerned friend, a gossiping co-worker, or a 24 hour television station, difficult news is never far away. Here in the United States, in a little over a week, we've seen murders, watched those deaths effect the beginnings of, at least symbolic, change. And as symbols of man's inhumanity to man come down off of flagpoles, we've also seen a real victory concerning equality under the law and human dignity. With all that going on we hear about more personal things, potential layoffs at our business, a friend who's seriously ill, your favorite player was traded to a different team.The news comes in fast and never seems to leave us alone. What's a Stoic to do?

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

How are Stoics meant to react to news, particularly the 'bad' kind?

Stoics use the term 'indifferent' a lot, what do you mean by that?

Is there anything I can do to feel more in control after receiving bad news?

[Crow Caws]

"Whenever some disturbing news is reported to you, you ought to have ready at hand the following principle: News, on any subject, never falls within the sphere of the moral purpose."

That line is from Epictetus, found in his third book of discourses, Chapter 28. I suppose I can end the episode now, since I've given you the answer. News, on any subject, never falls within the moral purpose. And our moral purpose is where Stoicism tells us to direct all our energy and action. So what do we do with that? Should we never be distressed by the cruelty of the world? Are we meant to shrug at others suffering and simply attend to ourselves? Of course not. But I think we need to unpack some stuff to see why not.

So first we'll allow Epictetus to expand on his own thoughts. After stating that news never falls within the sphere of the moral purpose, he continues, "Can anyone bring you word that you have been wrong in an assumption or in a desire? -By no means- But he can bring you word that someone is dead. Very well, what is that to you? That someone is speaking ill of you? Very well, what is that to you? That your father is making preparations? Against whom? Surely not against your moral purpose, is it? Why, how can he? But against your paltry body, against your paltry possessions; you are safe, it is not against you."

To understand this argument, we need to look at the Stoic concept of the self and also the preeminence of morality in their worldview. In Stoicism, you are very small and very powerful. What do I mean by that? Well, look at the Father in Epictetus' example. This hypothetical father is taking some sort of action against a Stoic student, perhaps disinheriting him. So this news is quite personal, it's not about a distant war or the misfortunes of a stranger, instead it's literally close to home. Yet the teacher Epictetus says, "what is that to you?" The news may concern your possessions, even your body, but it has nothing to do with YOU. This only makes sense if we understand that in Stoicism, the real you is the ability to choose.

I've avoided a lot of greek terms in these episodes, but today I'm breaking one out. Hegemonikon, the Ruling Faculty of the Mind. According to the ancient Stoics, the hegemonikon was where all higher cognitive functions and experiences happened. Most importantly, the hegemonikon is the part of us that makes decisions. Also important is that our hegemonikon is considered invincible. Not even Zeus, says Epictetus, can violate our moral will. In Stoicism, this mental complex, the part of us that allows for moral choice, is the real you, the important you, an oh so small aspect of your total humanity, but also the most preeminent and powerful aspect of yourself.

Now, I will take modern neuroscience over early Greek biology every time. The Stoics claimed the hegemonikon resides in the heart, for instance. Still, I think the concept of the hegemonikon, the ruling faculty, is still useful today. Because if you can agree with Stoicism that what really matters isn't what happens in the world, but how you respond to what happens to the world, then you can flourish personally and have a really good chance of helping the world around you flourish as well.

So look again at the student's 'bad' news concerning his father. Epictetus says, "your father is making preparations? Against whom? Surely not against your moral purpose, is it? Why, how can he? But against your paltry body, against your paltry possessions; you are safe, it is not against you." The teacher is saying, 'yes, something is happening and it could mean the loss of possessions, physical comfort, or even your health. What about this situation can force you to be less than your best? Nothing.

Later in Chapter 28, Epictetus says, "Your father has a certain function, and if he does not preform it, he has destroyed the father in him, the man who loves his offspring, the man of gentleness within him. Do not seek to make him lose anything else on this account. For it never happens that a man goes wrong in one thing, but is injured in another. Again, it is your function to defend yourself firmly, respectfully, without passion. Otherwise, you have destroyed within you the son, the respectful man, the man of honor." This part is important. The son, by Epictetus' logic, can not be harmed by his father's actions, but that does not leave him passive. It allows him to defend himself with a clear head. He remains respectful, does not get angry or depressed or seek revenge, but he does defend himself firmly.

Every episode I end with the Marcus Aurelius quote, "misfortune born nobly is good fortune." Whenever you receive distressing news, remember that line. Can you change what you just heard? No. Can you respond well, both emotionally and with action if possible? Absolutely. 

[Crow Caws]

So I just talked on and on about the Stoic concern with moral choice. Now I want to address Stoic indifference. Epictetus claims that, "all news, on any subject falls outside of the sphere of the moral purpose." In Stoic terminology, he just said that all news is indifferent. Indifference comes up a lot in Stoic writings. All those things we don't control, the things I mentioned in Episode 4, body, property, reputation, and so on...these are all indifferent. But as I say that, it's important to understand the Stoic context. Specifically, Stoic indifference means that an object or event does not affect our morality. It is not, is never, an emotional term. The unloving father in our example is morally indifferent in that nothing he does can force his son to act without virtue. Yet his son would not be acting stoically if he disengaged with his father, wrote him off, and cared nothing for him. As I already mentioned, Epictetus expects that the son will defend himself, but do so respectfully as a proper son, even though his father is not much of a father at all.

So don't fall into the trap of believing Stoic indifference has anything to do with your emotional attachment to or concern for the world at large. Lack of concern for the world is deeply unStoic. Marcus Aurelius said his only comfort was moving from one act of service for humanity to another. Epictetus defines right and good actions as those that are at the same time affectionate and consistent with reason. Stoic indifference is meant to free us for action. We can say, no matter what you do, world, I will respond through virtue; justly, wisely, with temperance and courage. No obstacle can keep me from being my best.

[Crow Caws]

Is there anything I can do to feel more in control after hearing bad news?

I often talk about Stoic engagement with the world, that we concentrate on what we control so that our actions are useful and powerful. So how are we supposed to 1. internalize the idea that news does not touch our moral center and 2. engage with that same world in a moral, community-centered way?

In Good Fortune, Episode 3, I spoke of a practice called Physical Definition. In this practice, we break down the object or situation that's vexing us into its constituent parts, until we can view it devoid of our preconceptions. Feel free to listen to or read the transcripts of that episode for more information. Today I want to suggest that we can use that same Physical Definition to view disturbing news from a Stoic perspective while also encouraging ourselves to act with purpose within our own sphere of influence.

I agree with the poet Emma Lazarus that "until we are all free, we are none of us free." And so learning of a white supremacist attack in a church, the suppression of peaceful protests in the streets of my country or any other, the denial of human dignity through the letter of the law; all of this weighs on me. It challenges my humanity and asks me 'what, Matt, are you  going to do about this?' In answer, I have to first ask, 'what CAN I do about it?' The simple answer to that question is often, 'very little.'

I usually can't fix what was broken. I can't heal the wounded or bring back the dead. I can, perhaps, rage against injustice, but I run the risk of believing my emotions are actions. They are not. I remember reading a psychological study back in college that found the simple act of washing hands could assuage guilt. Individuals can actually 'wash away' their sins. Of course, doing so does nothing to correct the damage that the guilty have done. It simply makes them feel better. Emotions can act like that washing of hands. Righteous indignation can feel important, but it very means little if it doesn't drive us to constructive, righteous actions. So what can we do?

In Marcus Aurelius' writings about Physical Definition, he says this, "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?" This is the part of the practice I think we should concentrate on. What qualities of ourselves should we bring to bear on the issue at hand? Have you learned of an injustice? What sort? What would be the proper response, if you had been part of the event? Then, is there a way, here, now, in my own town, my own sphere of influence, that I can work towards a similar justice? We can replace all our impotent despair, disgust, rage, and the like, with potent actions if we are willing to do the work of a virtuous life. So let's get to it.

[Crow Caws]

Thank you for listening to episode six. It took forever to get this done. Sorry about that, I am very much enjoying my new job as an instructor for the American Red Cross, but those first few weeks demanded a lot of my time. 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. Thank you, those who have already written reviews.  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.

[Crow Caws]

Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Five: A Stoic End to the Day

So we wake up and begin the day as Stoics. We prepare ourselves for the inconveniences of life with a Morning Meditation, we strive to pay attention to our thoughts throughout the day and we divide events into those that we do and do not control...eventually, the sun sets, we get ready to sleep until another day begins. How did we do? Did we succeed at the day we just lived? Did we fail? Most likely we did a bit of both. Should we just go to sleep and leave the past in the past, or should we learn lessons from the day, celebrate our successes and admonish ourselves for our faults? How DOES a Stoic end the day?

Hi. I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions: Is there a Stoic way to go to sleep? And Is it possible to do Stoic exercises incorrectly? And finally, a bonus means of applying today's exercise, this one aimed at parents.

All right, let's get started.

[Crow Caws]

Is there a Stoic way to go to sleep?

Of course there is, those ancient Stoics had opinions about pretty much everything. In the case of preparing to sleep, Stoics call on a practice that predates Stoicism itself. This exercise is often called the Evening Meditation, though I prefer the term Retrospective Mediation. Variations of the Evening Meditation are found in Seneca's works AND in Epictetus's Discourses. In Discourses Book 3, Chapter 10, Line 3, we find Epictetus quoting a Pythagorean practice.

“Do not let sleep fall upon your soft eyes
Before you have gone over each act of your day three times:
Where have I failed? At what have I succeeded? What duty have I omitted?
Begin here , and continue the examination. After this
Find fault with what was badly done, and rejoice in what was good.”

The Retrospective Meditation is meant to assist us in LEARNING from the life we're living. No matter how well we prepare for the day, beginning our Morning with the View from Above and girding our minds like Aurelius recommends in his Mediations, we will stumble. We MAY notice that we've screwed up, but we may be oblivious to it. Perhaps the reason the meeting didn't go well is because I was the obstinate jerk, not my co-worker like I had convinced myself at the time. When do we take the time to learn from our mistakes? because moving on is not the same as learning. If I am put in the same situation again, will I fail again, or will I flourish?

We find Seneca's mention of Retrospective Meditation in his work titled On Anger. I'll quote from the translation used in Elen Buzare's excellent book Stoic Spiritual Exercises.

"[One's mind] should be summoned each day to give account of itself. Sextius used to do this. At the day's end, when he had retired for the night, he would interrogate his mind: 'What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?...

Could anything be finer than this habit of sifting through the whole day? Think of the sleep that follows the self-examination! How calm, deep, unimpeded it must be, when the mind has been praised or admonished and - its own sentinel and censor - has taken stock secretly of its own habits."

I like the promise of better sleep. I've had many an anxious night in my own life, so I appreciate the calm sleep that comes with being at peace with oneself. Now here's the part where I admit that I often skip my Evening Meditation. Which is ridiculous because I CAN attest to the fact that it is a powerful exercise that, at lest for me, truly delivers. It's purely a lack of discipline on my part that has kept me from practicing nightly. That said, working on this episode has gotten me back on track and I'm happy that it has.

In both Retrospective Meditations, we find a series of three questions.

In Epictetus: Where have I failed? At what have I succeeded? What duty have I omitted?

In Seneca: What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?

Each of these sets of questions requires radical honesty with ourselves if they're to be effective. I should hope we can all be bold enough to be that honest, after all, Seneca mentions that our mind takes stock SECRETLY of its own habits. There's no requirement to share anything with the world, other that more compassionate and rational actions as we improve ourselves.

[Crow Caws]

Is it possible to do the Stoic evening meditation, or really, any Stoic meditation, wrong?

Yes. Stoic exercises can be done incorrectly. Improper Stoic practices stem from a Chicken and the Egg problem. In order to exercise Stoicism properly, we have to understand the Stoic worldview, but taking in that worldview requires the practice...and so on and so forth. Many of the ancient Stoics had the benifit of instruction from teachers. Teachers who could check their mental form the same way a trainer can correct the form of an athlete. Modern Stoics have it harder. Many of us pick up a practice here and there, and don't get to see how the practice fits into the whole of Stoic teaching until much later in our journey. This is one of the reasons I harp on the expected outcomes of a Stoic life. Quotes like this one from Seneca,

"No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular."

or definitions like this one from Marcus Aurelius:

"Nothing should be called good that fails to enlarge our humanity."

If we see clearly what the Stoic life is said to be, but can find no way that a certain practice could lead to that place, then either the Stoics are simply wrong, or our thinking is wrong concerning that Stoic practice.

The primary pitfall concerning the Evening or Retrospective Meditation is this: believing that clearly seeing and admonishing ourselves for our failures is the same thing as wallowing in those failures. Stoicism never recommends beating ourselves up for our faults. Stoics seek to overcome our weaknesses, not dwell on them forever.

I will be linking to a Stoicism Today article by Donald Robertson titled "The Evening Meditation: Some Reflections." I recommend reviewing it for more about the Retrospective Meditation. At one point Donald says,

"Seneca describes his self-examination as if it were analogous to a defendant appearing in court.  It’s important not to allow this to turn into a kind of morbid rumination or worry.  I think there’s perhaps just a knack to keeping it constructive that comes with experience.  Another observation I’d make that might help Stoics manage this is that, of course, the events being reviewed, as they are in the past, are all in the domain of things outside of your control and therefore, I assume, “indifferent” in the Stoic sense of the word.  Hence, there’s not much point worrying about them.  The most we can do is learn from them."

He is exactly right. We can't repair our mistakes, but we can fix what ails us so that we don't make that mistake again.

Donald Robertson's quote mentions Seneca's courtroom version of the Evening Meditation. I think it's worth looking at as an example of how to practice this discipline.

"Every day I plead my cause before the bar of myself. When the light has been removed from sight, and my wife, long aware of my habit, has become silent, I scan the whole of my day and retrace all my deeds and words. I conceal nothing from myself, I omit nothing. For why should I shrink from any of my mistakes, when I may commune thus with myself? 'See that you never do that again. I will pardon you this time. In that dispute, you spoke too offensively; after this don't have encounters with ignorant people; those who have never learned do not want to learn. You reproved that man more frankly than you ought, and consequently you have not so much mended him as offended him. In the future, consider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speaking can endure the truth. A good man accepts reproof gladly, the worse a man is the more bitterly he resents it."

[Crow Caws]

That's all I have to share concerning the standard use of the Retrospective Meditation, but I want to present an alternative use that I wrote about on some time back.

A few years ago I came across an article on how to properly praise children. The article sited actual child development research it wasn't simply a blog post concerning a parent's gut feelings. I related the research, done by a Professor Dweck, to a variety of Stoic beliefs and at the end I found that the Retrospective Meditation actually paired well with the Professor's recommendations. In the article I read, Professor Dweck said she, "believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all."

As Stoic parents, we can practice this idea and grow in our philosophy while doing so. I suggest that as we gather our family around a meal, where we probably already ask, "what did you do today?" we add the questions, "What did you succeed at and struggle with today?" and "What needs to be done tomorrow?" We can share in the triumphs of our children's day. We can share our own challenges so that our children understand that struggle is to be expected. We can plan together, as a family, our strategies to overcome obstacles big and small. In doing so, we build an understanding of, and appreciation for, the process of learning in our children (and ourselves) and they will be stronger for it. Like the ancient Stoics, we can choose to praise those things that lead to wisdom and, in doing so, we will help our children thrive.

[Crow Caws]

Thank you for listening to episode five. 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. Thank you, those of you who already have given reviews.  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.

[Crow Caws]

Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Four: What We Control

"Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control," That is the famous first line from the Enchiridion of Epictetus.  It clearly lays out the dichotomy of control, a core means of thinking as a Stoic.  Before we can act well, it's important to understand what we can effect, otherwise we may spin our wheels but go nowhere. So what is under our control? And what are the benefits of focusing our energies entirely on those things?

Hi. I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions: How can I become invincible? How can we internalize what is under our control? And finally, If Stoic invincibility is achievable, what would that life look like?

All right, let's get started.

[Crow Caws]

How can I become invincible?

That's an odd starting question, right? How did I get from what is or is not under our control to the concept of invincibility? Well, that's epicetus's fault. Not too far from line one of the Enchiridion, in the same chapter in fact, Epictetus says this,

"but if you suppose only to be your own that which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one and accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed. "

The first chapter of the Enchiridion is bold. Just a few lines in, and the head of the Stoic school is claiming that his philosophy can make a person invincible. If I were handed a pamphlet that explained some random group's belief system and paragraph one said, "Follow these teachings and you will have no enemies and will not be harmed," I would stay far away from that group. So assuming Epic isn't a crazy cult leader what could he possibly mean?

Let's return to line one, now with line two for some context. 

"Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing."

Everything Epictetus lists as under our control is mental. and he doesn't even include ALL of our mental life. for instance, you may notice that emotions aren't mentioned. OUTSIDE of our control are a much wider variety of things, our property, our reputation, our station in life. All of these things include our participation, of course, but our control of outcomes is limited. Did you notice what I just left off the not-under-our-control list? The BODY. Epictetus lists our own body as outside of our control. His list leads with the body and he almost doesn't need to follow up with property, reputation, and so forth. If my arm is not under my control,  Stoically speaking, I'm guessing anything at an arm's length is even less in my sphere of influence. So, I find that Epictetus effectively gets across the idea that Stoicism considers only the mental life, our opinions, choices, desires, and aversions, to be under our complete control. What does that mean?
Are we to draw so completely into ourselves that nothing outside of our own thoughts matters? Surely not. Stoics have always been active individuals, often real political animals.

No. We ARE supposed to engage with the world, but we are meant to do so effectively. You've probably heard the phrase, "Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die"? Focusing our mental energy on things outside of our control tends to be ineffective in just this way. 

The Stoic claim is that if we focus on holding intelligent opinions, making wise choices, desiring worthy things, and avoiding, not externals, like struggle, pain, and other uncomfortable situations, but instead avoid ONLY those things that make us less virtuous, IF we do that, our every action will be victorious because, even if the outcome is less than perfect, we will still have won because we obtained our goal; that of taking the best action possible while remaining true to our humanity.

[Crow Caws]

How can we internalize what is under our control?

Understanding that our opinions, choices, desires, and aversions are under our control does not automatically make those things healthy. We have to learn what to choose, what to desire, but before all THAT, we have to learn how to examine our mind and challenge the unhealthy thoughts that reside there.

In Stoicism, there is a practice called suspension of judgement. this is a constant practice, a way of thinking, NOT just something we are to do at the end of the day. The basic idea is to pause and examine our thoughts to see if they are true. Some thoughts are more worthy of examination than others, of course. Let's say we're traveling by plane and have hit some severe turbulence. The thought, "I am on a plane," doesn't really require examination. Nor does the thought, "the plane is experiencing turbulence." But what if you think, "We're all going to die?" THAT is quite an opinion, one that may elicit strong emotions and irrational is worth examining. If a thought like that bubbles up. Stop. Acknowledge it. It has already happened, after all. NO need to suppress it. Instead challenge it. Realize that thinking something isn't the same as approving of it. In Stoicism we call this 'withholding assent.' 

There's a good chance that you've seen at least one of the Marvel movies that have TOny Stark, a.k.a Iron Man in them. If TOny Stark is in a movie, it's inevitable that he will interact with a hologram. Usually he's looking at the schematics of some sort of machine. He'll reach into the hologram and pluck out a piece of it to examine more closely. It's a cool effect and it's my personal visual when I examine my thoughts. I pick the thought in question out of my head and strip it into its parts. Am I on a plane. YES. Is there turbulence. That checks out too. Am I going to die? How could I possibly know that? I may feel that I'm going to die, but that state of mind is built on imagination, not truth. I refuse to assent to it. No seal of approval for you thought!

There's another aspect of the thought I need to evaluate. Even if it were true, does it concern me? Meaning: is the thought about something I control? Well, I have pretty much zero effect on whether or not a plane I'm on is going to crash. I can fasten a seat belt, put up my tray, and place my seat in an upright position, but none of that keeps a plane in the sky.

Back to the idea behind "resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die." What am I getting out of fretting over the state of the airplane? Not peace of mind. So am I trading that peace of mind in exchange for something more desirable? Does my fretting KEEP the plane in the sky? That would be great, but that's not how the universe works. So I'm getting nothing out of the deal. All I AM doing is making myself useless TO myself, and also to others if there were an ACTUAL crisis.

So how should I think, if I could be the best Stoic I could possible be?

One more Epictetus quote:

"I will show the nerves of a philosopher. "What nerves are these?" A desire never disappointed, an aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid, a proper pursuit, a diligent purpose, an assent which is not rash. These you shall see."

A desire never disappointed: If my desire is based on never experiencing crisis, or never dying, I'm going to be disappointed constantly and then, in my last moments, disappointed finally. If I desire to live well, in the present moment, and thrive up until my final moment? That's possible, but I have to stop investing in things I don't control.

An aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid: Again, seeking to avoid struggle, crisis, or death is a fools errand. Seeking to avoid our worst selves, that's possible if we dig in and do the work.

A proper pursuit, a diligent purpose, an assent which is not rash. Aim for these outcomes and our mind will become a tool for change in the world.

So, since I just had us falling out of the sky for 5 minutes, a recap.
Suspend you judgement
Pause and examine your thoughts
Is it provably true and, even if it is,
Is it within your control?
However it all plays out, show the nerves of a philosopher.

[Crow Caws]

If invincibility were possible, what would that life look like?

I saved this for last because I don't want anyone to leave with the idea that advocating for a Stoically self-controlled mind is a call to live a self-centered life.

Chapter 1 of the Enchiridion lays out the dichotomy of control as a concept. But what does the life of a Stoic PRACTICING that dichotomy look like? For that, we can turn to Marcus Aurelius. In Book 12 of his Meditations, Chapter 3 says this:

"Your three components: body, breath, mind. Two are yours in trust; to the third alone you have clear title.

If you can cut yourself - your mind - free of what other people do and say, of what you've said or done, of the things that you are afraid will happen,  the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance - doing what's right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth-
If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past - can make yourself, as Empedocles says, "a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness,' and concentrate on living what CAN be lived (which means the present)...then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you."

Here we find a Stoic reminding himself to put his energies into what he can control. What is he "cutting away'? what other people do and say, what HE has said and done in the past, FEAR of the future, weaknesses of the body, and the whirling chaos that sweeps in from outside. What does he expect to get from this? Personal happiness despite the world's pain? No. NO.

the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity to live life on its own recognizance which means and again I quote "doing what is right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth."

If you care that other people oppose you. If you bend to your own past failures or cringe from imaginary thoughts about the future you will not live a life of justice, or of courage and you certainly won't thrive. You will stumble, bend, and break under the pressure of the world. Or worse, retire from the world to build yourself a cocoon of safety without real regard for others. Stoicism wants to free us to be an unstoppable force, immovable object be damned. We can do what is right, accept the consequences, and continue speaking the truth. We can have the nerves of a philosopher.

[Crow Caws]

Thank you for listening to episode four. Next episode I'll try to talk about something simpler, less about changing the foundations of how you think, a quick exercise to do in the evening perhaps? 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. 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.

[Crow Caws]

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...

[Crow Caws]

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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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...

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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