Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode Twelve: Frightened of Change?

"Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What's closer to nature's heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can't you see? It's just the same with you - and just as vital to nature."

Meditations Book 7, Chapter 18

There's lots of talk about the unshakable mountain that is, "The Stoic." Yet change is closest to nature's heart, according both to Aurelius' line and to Stoic philosophy. And the Stoic, of course, follows nature. So how does one find solid ground in an ever-changing universe?

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. I'm glad to be back. Since podcasts don't have to be listened to the day they're available, let me explain that this is the first episode after almost five month long break and also the first episode of 2016. I am grateful for the many requests to get this podcast going again. It's gratifying to know your listening.

Spring is upon us so I thought it only natural to start by talking about death. Ha-ha. I think it's time. We Stoics are famous for a fixation on mortality and, in my opinion, avoiding our philosophy's teachings concerning death denies us a rich vein of practical wisdom. In fact, I've been unable to address a variety of requested topics because, to cover the various losses in life (relationships, jobs, dignity, etc...) I need to be able to point back towards the Stoic approach to the loss OF life. So Death is coming, in Episode 13. First we lay the groundwork. Because before we can wrestle with that great, final change, we have to understand that in the Stoic universe, change is accepted as a constant.

Today's questions:

  • Exactly how close to nature's heart is change?

  • So the ancient Stoics were really hung up on change, what's it matter?

  • What are the benefits of perceiving and accepting that the universe is ever-changing?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

Exactly how close to nature's heart is change?

In Book Seven of the Meditations, Aurelius reminds himself multiple times of the nature of the universe. In Chapter 23 he says,  "Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly. It does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart." Just two thoughts latter, in Chapter 25, he notes that, "Before long, nature, which controls it all, will alter everything you see and use it as material for something else - over and over again. So that the world is continually renewed."

I can't say why the Emperor was so fixated on transformation during this time, but in Book 7, Chapter 18, (the quote I opened with) he asks himself if he is frightened of change. It's a serious question for a Stoic. The school's founder, Zeno, asked us to "live according to nature." For a pious Stoic like Aurelius, nature was not only the right path, but his god, Zeus. And the god of the universe, the god that WAS the universe, was the one described by Heraclitus.

Have you heard that you can never step twice into the same stream? That was Heraclitus, as quoted by Plato. Heraclitus played a profound role in describing the Stoics' universe. He claimed that, "everything changes and nothing stands still," also translated, "everything flows and nothing remains." The Stoics adopted Heralitus' flux and his ever flowing universe is at the core of the Stoic perception of the world.

For instance, listen to Meditations Book 10, Chapter 7, where Aurelius ponders a variety of possible universes,

"The whole is compounded by nature of individual parts, whose destruction is inevitable ("destruction" here means transformation). If the process is harmful to the parts and unavoidable, then it's hard to see how the whole can run smoothly, with parts of it passing from one state to another, all of them built only to be destroyed in different ways. Does nature set out to cause its components harm, and make them vulnerable to it - indeed, predestined to it? Or is it oblivious to what goes on? Neither one seems very plausible.
But suppose we throw out "nature" and explain these things through inherent properties. It would still be absurd to say that the individual things in the world are inherently prone to change, and at the same time be astonished at it or complain - on the grounds that it was happening "contrary to nature." And least of all when things return to the state from which they came. Because our elements are simply dispersed, or are subject to a kind of gravitation - the solid portions being pulled toward earth, and what is ethereal drawn into the air, until they're absorbed into the universal logos - which is subject to periodic conflagrations, or renewed through continual change.
And don't imagine either that those elements - the solid and the ethereal - are with us from our birth. Their influx took place yesterday, or the day before - from the food we ate, the air we breathed.
And that's what changes - not the person your mother gave birth to..."

Here Marcus pits his favored view of the universe, as providential and purposeful, against a universe of unthinking atoms. It's a fascinating discussion, but what I want to point out is that the fundamental nature of both worldviews is change. Providence and atoms are contested, but the flow is not. For the Stoic, change is a given. And as such, it becomes unreasonable to complain about change as if it were unexpected. As the Emperor says elsewhere, "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life."

I also want to focus in on those final thoughts of Book 10 Chapter 7. "And don't imagine either that those elements - the solid and the ethereal - are with us from our birth. Their influx took place yesterday, or the day before - from the food we ate, the air we breathed. And that's what changes - not the person your mother gave birth to." Stoic change goes further than the eventual death of a horse, or felling of a tree. We are transformed daily. The child my mother gave birth to nearly forty years ago has already left the world, even though I happen to be here. Yes, Stoics are expecting and accepting the great changes of life, but our perception is supposed to go further; towards a realization that nothing is ever still. A certain stretch of river may be slow, but it's ever and always flowing.

[Raven Caw]

So the ancient Stoics were really hung up on change, what's it matter?

If we never come to terms with change, we'll never gain the benefits that Stoicism can provide. Chapter 2 of the Enchiridion begins, "Remember that the promise of desire is the attainment of what you desire, that of aversion is not to fall into what is avoided, and that he who fails in his desire is unfortunate, while he who falls into what he would avoid experiences misfortune. If then, you avoid only what is unnatural among those things which are under your control, you will fall into none of the things which you avoid; but if you try to avoid disease, or death, or poverty, you will experience misfortune."

A similar sentiment is found in Chapter 31 of the Enchiridion, where Epictetus speaks of piety towards the gods.

Piety is a term you won't find me addressing very often. First, because I try to develop Good Fortune in a way that speaks to as diverse a group of listeners as possible. Second, because my personal approach to Stoicism is non-theistic in nature. However, Epictetus, Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, these were pious men; true followers of Zeus as they understood him. Their god was quite different than the sort of god I was raised with, and even different than many of their contemporaries might have accepted. As the ancient historian Diogenes Laertius put it, "They also say that God is an animal, immortal, rational, perfect in happiness, immune to all evil, providentially taking care of the world and of all that is in the world, but he is not of human shape. He is the creator of the universe, and as it were, the Father of all things in common, and that a part of him pervades everything, which is called by different names, according to its powers..." This Zeus, this animal that is the whole universe, is ever changing, growing, expressing new things. To live wisely, rationally, is to understand his self-expression and to accept it no matter what.

Enchiridion, Chapter 31: "In piety toward the gods, I would have you know, the chief element is this, to have right opinions about them - as existing and as administering the universe well and justly - and to have set yourself to obey them and submit to everything that happens, and to follow it voluntarily, in the belief that it is being fulfilled by the highest intelligence. For if you act in this way, you will never blame the gods, nor find fault with them for neglecting you. But this result cannot be secured in any other way than by withdrawing your idea of the good and evil from the things which are not under our control, and in placing it in those which are under our control, and in those alone. Because, if you think any of those former things to be good or evil, then, when you fail to get what you want and fall into what you do not want, it is altogether inevitable that you will blame and hate those who are responsible for the results. For this is the nature of every living creature, to flee from and turn aside from the things that appear harmful, and all that produces them. Therefore, it is impossible for a man who thinks he is being hurt to take pleasure in that which he thinks is hurting him, just as it is impossible to take pleasure in the hurt itself. Hence it follows that even a father is reviled by a son when he does not give his child some share in the things that seem to be good...That is why the farmer reviles the merchant, and those who have lost their wives and their children. For where a man's interest lies, there is also his piety..." 

Epictetus' claim is that the universe is guided by a great intelligence therefore to be angry at the unfolding of that universe is to be angry at the gods. My opinion is closer to Marcus Aurelius' second possible world from Book 10, Chapter 7, that if I accept that the universe is bound by its own laws to play out as it does, then it is irrational to be angry at the outcome. I can scold myself for stubbing my toe, but yelling at the chair is foolish.

Epictetus says that in order to gain anything from Stoicism we have to withdraw our conception of good and evil from the ever-changing world and root it in ourselves. The good is found in interacting wisely with the world as it is, the evil; in reacting poorly to that same world. Why does acceptance of change matter? Anything less cuts us off from Stoic serenity and joy.

[Raven Caw]

What are the benefits of perceiving and accepting that the universe is ever-changing?

"The wise will start each day with 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 have you given birth.

Reckon on everything, expect everything."

You may recognize Seneca's premeditation. I've mentioned it before. So Seneca backs up Aurelius and Epictetus. The wise will start each day dwelling on change. Why? To become fatalistic? Life will happen as life happens so accept it and carry on? NO. We acknowledge the instability of the world so that we remember to put our energy into building up what can be stable, the only thing that can be, ourselves.

I'm recording this episode while surrounded by favorite books, art pieces, and whiskey decanters. I'm very fortunate to be able to create a space that is particularly well suited to me. I'm amazingly fortunate to have a wife who encouraged me to do so! I can breath easy in this study. What if a thief breaks in tomorrow? What if a fire turns it all to ash? Would I still breath easy? Way back in episode two I shared a quote from Keith Seddon that I will repeat again, "We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings." I return to that quote regularly because it illuminates the heart of the Stoic worldview. The Stoic seeks to be virtuous no matter the circumstances of life. Just, always. Wise, always. Tempered, always. Courageous, always. The fruit of that virtue, serenity, is equally constant. In fact, Epictetus claims that, "no feature of serenity is so characteristic as continuity and freedom from hindrance." If we don't realize and internalize that the thing we're enjoying is impermanent by the very fact that it exists, then we will be disturbed the second it changes. I'm not trying to shame us because we aren't perfect unperturbed Sages. But if we seek our peace in the present environment instead of in spite of it, we're not even walking the Stoic path.

The benefit of orienting ourselves to the flux of the world is that we can learn to love it as it is. We can stop waiting for happiness in some imagined perfect future and start really living in this moment. How? Well, the ancient Stoics advised continuously wrestling with that most striking of changes, Death. But that's next episode.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode twelve of Good Fortune. This was just laying groundwork for Episode 13, so stay tuned, Death is right around the corner!

Please let me know if your favorite podcatcher is still not updating with new Good Fortune episodes. The rss feed issue has been maddening (I'm kidding, I'm totally Stoic about it) and I do want it resolved.

There was a minor change to I created a Good Fortune transcript page, so if you're looking to read the podcast instead of listen, look for that page instead of the basic Good Fortune audio page.

Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month, when possible. 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. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me from time to time 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.

[Raven Caw]

Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode Eleven: Uprooting Fear

"There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more in our imagination than in reality."

That's a line from Seneca's 13th letter to Lucilius. Titled, "on Groundless Fear," this letter delves into all the mental miscalculations that make us humans slaves to fear. Another line from the letter reminds us that, "Some things torment us more than they should; some torment us before they should; and some torment us when they should not torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow."

How can we stop doing this? How can we take control of our mind and make certain that fear can not take root there?

Today's questions:

  • What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?

  • The Stoics say that fear is all in my head but, if so, my head is really good at generating fear. What should I do about that?

  • Outside of reigning in my imagination, how can I Stoicially confront fear?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?

Stoicism and emotions. Not exactly the peanut butter and chocolate of conversational topics. But before we can discuss fear, it's important to set up a scaffolding of Stoic concepts to support the conversation. So shake off all those cultural ideas of Stoics purging their emotions, eschewing joy, or any of that misguided stuff and settle in for a quick and probably inadequate primer on the Stoic approach to emotions.

The first thing we need to do is drop the term emotion. It's too loaded...with meaning. If you made a Venn Diagram of the Stoic concepts we're going to be addressing and all those concepts contained in the word 'emotion' there would only be a sliver of overlap. The word I'm selecting to encompass the Stoic ideas of fear, anger, despair, etc...will be 'passion' or 'passions' as a plural. The expected benefit of using this somewhat archaic term is to arrest the listener. To cause us to stop and think about meaning, "why did he say passion instead of emotion?' Is there a difference?" Yes. There are many differences. For a much fuller understanding of those differences, I would direct you to a talk given by John Sellars during Stoic Week 2014, which I'll be certain to provide a link to on Immoderate Stoic. A quick quote from that talk, "the Stoics don't reject emotion, they reject passion, and that's quite a different thing." 

In his talk, John Sellars lists four categories that fall within the concept of emotion. Three of those categories are fully embraced by Stoicism, meaning they are accepted as a necessary part of a fully human life. Only one aspect of human emotion is meant to be overcome and cast aside. That would be the passions.

Here are Sellar's categories in short:

First, emotions of affinity: Stoicism assumes that we are predisposed to care for ourselves, our close relatives, and, if we mature, we'll care for all humankind. In Stoicism it is not possible to flourish in life and remain emotionally indifferent to the wellbeing of others.

Next, emotions of shock: Even the mythical perfect Sage will experience goosebumps, blush, or be startled by a loud noise. Stoicism considers these to be natural physiological responses. We refer to them as pre-passions or, more poetically, "first movements of the soul." There is nothing wrong with experiencing pre-passions, it's our reaction to those reactions that falls under Stoic scrutiny.

The third category is the one that Stoics seek to overcome. The Passions: A passion is an emotional response to an external state of affairs based on a mistaken value judgment. Passions stem from judgments, our judgments are of course, under our control (in Stoic psychology) and therefore here we can stand our ground. Here we can say, "I feel something, it's based on a mistaken belief, therefore I should change my belief which will change my feeling." It's not that our Stoic hearts are two sizes too small and therefore we turn our noses up at big bold feelings. It's that the passions are built on errors. Stoicism insists that if we allow ourselves to be driven by passions that are based on mistakes, we will live inconsistently and we will not thrive. The passion we'll be discussing, FEAR, is defined as an irrational aversion or avoidance of an expected danger. Fear tosses away our present contentment simply because something might take it away later! Which is fundamentally ridiculous. Mistakes like that are what Stoicism admonishes us to avoid.

The fourth category, by the way, are Good Passions: positive emotional responses based on correct value judgments. Not only does Stoicism admit that good, lovely, worthy emotions are possible, the expectation is that a Stoic life will necessarily include those passions. A healthy mind includes a healthy emotional life.

So remember, part and parcel of a healthy human life are care and concern for others, natural physiological responses to the events of life, and positive passions based on proper value judgments. 

So again: What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?

Passions are disorders of the soul. They are irrational responses to events. The direct products of faulty reasoning. Fear is an irrational aversion or avoidance of an expected danger. All fear, in the Stoic view, is groundless. So do Stoics experience it, of course! None of us are perfect. However, we do combat fear and NOT by simply suppressing it. Instead, we work to change the mistaken beliefs that generate and feed fear, so that it never takes root in the first place.

[Raven Caw]

The Stoics say that fear is all in my head but, if so, my head is really good at generating fear. What should I do?

"Cease to harass your soul!" That's another Seneca quote. If we accept that fear is generated by our own judgments, then the emotional distress that we are combating is self-inflicted. We simply need to stop harassing ourselves.

Marcus Aurelius agreed with this line of reasoning and, thankfully, he wrote down advice concerning HOW to cease harassing our soul. We can find it in Book 7, Chapter 29 of his Meditations:

"Stop fantasizing! Cut the strings of desire that keep you dancing like a puppet. Draw a circle around the present moment. Recognize what is happening either to you or to someone else. Dissect everything into its causal and material elements. Ponder your final hour. Leave the wrong with the person who did it."

The Emperor doesn't want to waste his life working himself up over the unreal. To combat his wandering thoughts, he reminds himself of five stoic mental practices:

  • Attend to the present moment

  • Focus on what affects people here and now

  • Break things down until they are understandable and manageable

  • Remember that life is short

  • "Leave the wrong with the person who did it."

The Stoic mind is rooted in the present. Seneca put it this way, "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." If we focus on what we can do now, this minute, to make our lives better we can not only avoid ruminating on imagined future difficulties, we can know that we did our best to keep those difficulties from occurring. Aurelius reminds himself to open his eyes to the present environment, particularly concerning what is happening to himself and others.

I used to constantly worry about getting seated on time and and at the best possible table when going out to eat with friends. I can not tell you the number of pre-dinner conversations I failed to enjoy because I was busy worrying about whether the during-dinner conversations would happen on time. What a ridiculous but common way to approach life.

Aurelius also says to "break things down until they are understandable and manageable." So here we once again run into the Stoic practice of Physical Definition. A full explanation is found in Episode 3 of Good Fortune so I won't repeat myself here. Concerning fear, we can use Physical Definition to strip our imagined future down into parts and evaluate them from a Stoic perspective. In Letter 13 Seneca shares a series of questions developed for just that purpose.

"Put the question voluntarily to yourself: "Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?""

As was pointed out in the opening to this episode, we are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Just a few days into Stoic week 2015 I learned that I might not be able to purchase the house that I've spent the last month or so attempting to get. Some business about insurmountable permitting, zoning, blah blah blah issues. I've been a good Stoic during the entire home buying process so I haven't fully invested myself in the property and such, but still, when my loan guy called saying he thought the whole deal was dead, I got red in the face. Not anger or embarrassment, just a...I don't know, up-swelling of chemical "what the heck?!" A definite first movement of the soul. After that pre-passion I felt a few actual passions, no doubt. I was ok with losing the house, it wasn't even mine after all, but the idea of breaking the news to my wife and of going back into the house hunting process, now with significantly less time before our present lease was up...all of that was swimming in my head.

To ask myself Seneca's three questions: was I tormenting myself without reason? Well, nothing I felt was going to change my ability to purchase a house. Also, my family is in a good place in life. Not getting the house would be a setback but not deeply disruptive. Was I morose? Well, I hadn't had time to get into a funk concerning events, so no. And I can honestly report the same state today, by the way. Was I converting a non-evil into an evil? I was in danger of doing so. It did feel to me for a time that losing the house would be a bad thing. Which isn't true. After all, nothing about the house buying process has the ability to affect my virtue. I can thrive without any of it. So Stoically, I couldn't justify feeling fear, anger, or any other strong discontentment concerning the situation.

The process of stepping back and criticizing my initial judgments helped my find my footing. Continuing on and accepting my new judgments actually uprooted the passions that had begun to grow in my mind. And that is the Stoic goal. Never to suppress or ignore our fears, to uproot them completely through a radical change in perspective.

[Raven Caw]

Outside of reigning in my imagination, how can I Stoicially confront fear?

When we really begin to face fear as a Stoic, we'll begin to relish the obstacle that it represents.

Listen to how Seneca lays it out at the end of Letter 13. 

"But I am ashamed either to admonish you sternly or to try to beguile you with such mild remedies. Let another say. "Perhaps the worst will not happen." You yourself must say. "Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins! Perhaps it happens for my best interests; it may be that such a death will shed credit upon my life." Socrates was ennobled by the hemlock draught. Wrench from Cato's hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory."

Seneca is saying that the fear avoidance tactic of hoping for the best, of wishful thinking, is weak sauce. The Stoic tactic isn't wishful thinking, it's unshakable thinking.

When he opens Letter 13 he commends his friend for already displaying a Stoic pride in battling life's ups and downs.

"I know that you have plenty of spirit; for even before you began to equip yourself with maxims which were wholesome and potent to overcome obstacles, you were taking pride in your contest with Fortune; and this is all the more true, now that you have grappled with Fortune and tested your powers. For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves."

strictly speaking, if we were perfect Stoics, we would never battle fear because we would never experience it. But we do experience fear, so we have to choose how to combat it. Our first option is to avoid the thing we fear. That leaves our emotional state in the hands of fate, which is unacceptable. We could also avoid thinking about our fears, assuage them by thinking cheerful thoughts like, "what are the chances the worst possible thing will happen?" The Stoic option is to attack fear at the root. We change the very judgments that create the fear. We change what we control, ourselves, our own mind, and make it better suited for the world as it is.

Now, it may seem that we are leaving a void where our passions used to be. Fear can, after all, drive us to actions. The passion of anger is often pointed to as supposed fuel for meaningful change. Well, we Stoics live according to nature and nature abhors a vacuum. The space where the passion of fear once was is meant to be filled by a 'good passion' in this case the Stoic concept named Caution.

Caution is the rational avoidance of an expected danger. Caution recognizes that there are things we can reasonably prefer to avoid as long as avoiding them doesn't lead to lack of virtue. In a previous episode I quoted Book 6 Chapter 20 of the Meditations, "In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don't denounce them for it or get upset with them or regard them from then on as violent types. We just keep an eye on them after that. Not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance." That friendly distance is Caution; a simple, prudent step in keeping with wisdom. Notice that Caution doesn't cause us to get out of the ring. It's simply an adjustment of our stance as we happily continue to wrestle.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to Good Fortune Episode 11. It's taken awhile to get here. As I mention on the blog, FB, and Twitter, I've had a lot going on that has to take precedent over writing and recording. With various holiday's arriving, I can't expect things to get smoother so I believe the rest of this year's episodes will be released a bit haphazardly. Starting next year the standard schedule will be 1st and 3rd FRIDAYS.

I hope you participated in Stoic Week and found it useful. I know I quite enjoyed it and am looking forward to reviewing the videos that come out of Stoicon. Speaking of the Stoicon gathering, Stoicon 2016 is going to be held in New York City. I'm already saving up for my ticket.  

Beginning in January, Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month. 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. 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.

[Raven Caw]

Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Ten: Physical Exercises

"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...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."

That line was from Musonius Rufus, once the head of the Stoic school. We might assume that an ancient philosophy school would of consist of a bunch of pampered rich kids endlessly attempting to show off their smarts by winning debates and making ridiculously pedantic points in general conversation. Frankly, I think that was often the case because Musonius and later Epictetus both are recorded giving lecture based smack downs to students who thought knowing about Stoicism was the same as living Stoicism. From Musonius in particular it becomes obvious that the true Stoic progressor necessarily make strong logical arguments, instead they take strong actions. They live a life of effort, an effort that concerns not just the mind but the whole self. 

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune, in this episode we'll look into the physical practices of Stoicism. I'll be reading two different articles of mine, deep cuts from The first "Preparing for Life's Struggles," discusses the physicality of the Stoic school. Yes, philosophy concerns the life of the mind, but that mind is embodied, and we'll never flourish if we avoid aches and pains. The second article is "Pain Don't Hurt," in which I quote Patrick Swazye from Roadhouse and talk about what I learned in a birthing class.

Alright, let's get physical.

[Crow Caws]

Preparing for Life's Struggles

The ancient Stoics trained not just their minds, but also their bodies for the hard work of philosophy. The 'good flow of life' which they sought could not be grasped from books and lectures without additional toil. A simple lesson or a clever turn of phrase was never expected to overcome a lifetime of bad habits in the hearer. Stoic exercises, both mental and physical, were designed to take the lessons found on paper and write them into the life of the student. Because the universe will take things from us, the Stoics meditated on death and loss. Because life has lean times, they would eat plain foods or take no food at all. Stoics trained in order to be ready to meet the inevitable trials of life. We too must train if we want to be Stoic when it matters.

A clear expression of the physicality of the Stoic School can be found in the writings of Musonius Rufus. History leaves us very little of Musonius's words, but what we do have is illuminating. Unlike other Stoic texts, his give us insight into the daily practices at the Stoic school. For instance, he gives lessons on what foods Stoics should eat. He also gives job advice and lets loose some really horrible opinions concerning sexual relationships (always remember, we don't always have to pick up what ancient Greek guys are laying down). The ancient notes titled, By Musonius from the lecture on practicing philosophy, begin, " not just theoretical knowledge, it is also practical, like both medical and musical knowledge. The doctor and the musician must each not only learn the principles of their own skill but be trained to act according to those principles. Likewise, the person who wants to be good must not only learn the lessons which pertain to virtue but train themself to follow them eagerly and rigorously." Stoicism is meant to be used in the field. What's the point in claiming indifference to the things we don't control if we continuously get angry as slow traffic? Stoicism is only Stoic when it is enacted, and that requires disciplined practice.

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

— Musonius Rufus

Stoic physical training was focused both on testing students' beliefs and building their mental endurance. Musonius Rufus did not care if his Stoics were under ten percent body-fat or how much they could deadlift. He was concerned that when they came face to face with pain they might choose comfort over virtue. The hard work of Stoicism involves desiring only what is good and avoiding only what is bad. Pain, according to Stoicism, is not actually a bad thing, it's simply indifferent. That's an easy enough idea to pay lip service to, but when pain stands between us and virtue, will we go through that pain or avoid it? Better to test ourselves in a controlled setting. Musonius said it this way, "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...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."

So what exercises did the ancients use to become better Stoics? We don't really know. History has taken that from us. The glimpses that we do have fall into the category of 'voluntary discomfort.' For instance, Epictetus advised that a thirsty person could wet their mouth, but then spit out the water. Seneca would eat bland but nutritious foods for long stretches. It would be interesting to see exactly how the ancient Stoics exercised, but there's no secret sauce, we simply need to train ourselves to follow Stoicism eagerly and rigorously. It isn't difficult to devise voluntary discomforts; hard beds, cold showers, and fasting come to mind. I happen to use an ice based practice that I learned in a birthing class. The point is not to make ourselves uncomfortable for discomfort's sake. We are meant to uncover the ingrained mental habits that go against Stoic thought, experience through disciplined exercise that those thoughts are wrong, and learn to consistently choose the wiser course.

Again, here are Musonius' thoughts on the matter,

“Indeed, those of us who have taken part in philosophical discussion obviously have heard and been exposed to the ideas that pain, death, poverty, and other things which are free of wickedness are in no way evil and, in turn, that wealth, life, pleasure or other things that have no share in virtue are not good. Nevertheless, even though we have heard these ideas, because of the corruption which has been ingrained in us all the way from childhood and because of the wicked behavior caused by this corruption, we think it a bad thing when pain comes on us, and we think it a good thing when pleasure comes. 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 himself so that he won’t welcome pleasure and avoid pain, so that he won’t love living and fear death, and so that, in the case of money, he won’t honor receiving over giving.”

— Musonius Rufus

As modern Stoics, we seek to conquer the obstacles that come our way. We've turned to the words of an ancient school of thought and found, through practice, that Stoicism is replete with practical wisdom. It is the practice that proves the words. We are doing ourselves a disservice if we do not routinely exercise our philosophy. If we don't pack on some Stoic muscle, how will we be strong when real obstacles rise up before us? Be certain to not simply read the Stoics, participate along with them. Train yourself in the hard work of philosophy. The Stoic who pursues wisdom eagerly and rigorously is the one who obtains the good flow of life.

I believe in building up the will through physical effort. It's all well and good to hope that Stoicism can bring me through hard times, but I've seen my virtue derailed by a blood sugar crash due to skipping lunch! Am I going to choose the good when pain, physical or social, gets in the way? Stoic Week is coming up in November. I'll talk more about that later. Every year I like to choose a basic deprivation exercise to remind myself that whatever it is I'm giving up, I'm not actually deprived at all. This year I'm eating no food. Instead I'll be drinking the nutritional slurry known as Soylent. This week long abstinence from flavor should give my reason to meditate on my relationship to food. Do I spend too much effort chasing after novel experiences (I do like eating out) rather than simple, healthy food? Do I snack to cover up boredom or negative feelings? Who knows? Perhaps the break from routine will give me some answers.

In the following article, I talk about a practice I've adapted from a class about childbirth. 

Pain Don't Hurt

Pain don't hurt.  -Patrick Swazye (Road House)

My wife and I are taking a birthing class in preparation for our daughter's arrival. The class presents a wide variety of methods to cope with stress and pain, so that both the pregnant woman and her partner can have as comfortable an experience as possible. In order to practice the breathing and mindfulness techniques against actual discomfort, participants take part in an exercise that I'm thinking of adding to my Stoic practice.

In the class, participants are asked to take ice, hold it in their hands, and find ways to work through the building pain. I find this method brilliant in its simplicity. For the price of a few melting ice cubes, I get a truly distracting experience to test myself against.

When in pain remember that it brings no dishonor and that it does not weaken the governing intelligence. Pain is neither everlasting nor intolerable; it has its limits if you add nothing by imagination.

-Marcus Aurelius

In the class, the ice exercise is used with a variety of methods. Sometimes we concentrate on our breath. Sometimes we pay attention to the sensation itself. Sometimes we visualize a scene in our minds. I say we, because that's what the teachers ask us to do. I actually have been using the time to practice applicable Stoic techniques, primarily Recitation and The Discipline of Assent.

Recitation on Ice

Holding ice in my hand, I reflect on Stoic quotes that apply to pain.

For example,

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. -Aurelius

I hold the ice for at least one minute, then I rest the hand. I continue with the opposite hand.

Assenting to Swazye-ism

Holding ice in my hand, I agree that pain does not, in fact, hurt.

More seriously, I examine the impression that ice presents to my body. It is likely, as time goes on, that I will notice a judgement arising in my mind that pain is bad. Instead of assenting to this idea, I recognize that nothing outside of my volition is either good or bad, it is indifferent.

I hold the ice for at least one minute, then I rest the hand. I continue with the opposite hand.

The Effect

I'm not looking to be a Spartan. In general, I feel we should pay attention to physical pain, it's there to let us know we need to respond to something. However, pain (neither physical nor emotional) should not distract us from our goal of a good flow of life. I've found that the addition of ice has a similar effect in my mental workouts that adding ankle weights when running would have on my physical ones. In our first birthing class session, I actual found the ice very painful. On the second session (with no practice in between) I thought the teacher had halved the practice time. Nope, one minute each time. It went faster the second time because I regarded the sensations as indifferent.

Sometimes it's helpful to add potential discomfort to our routine in order to better practice our disciplines. Seneca said, "treat yourself harshly at times." Ice is a simple and effective way to do that. If you're looking for a means of putting your judgement to the test, I recommend filling an ice cube tray and getting to it.

So that's Episode 10. Thank you for listening. I mentioned that Stoic Week is coming up. Stoic Week is a yearly online and international event hosted by the University of Exeter. This year Stoic Week runs from the November 2nd to 8th. If you are still wondering about the basics of Stoicism or are a practitioner who just wants to shake up your routine, I advise heading over to the Stoicism Today blog and signing up. I always enriched by it. Also, if you can get to London on November 7th there is a one day conference that you can attend. Get your tickets now.

Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month. 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. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at Speaking of twitter, a local stoic introduced herself to me and that got me wondering how many Portland, Oregon Stoics are out there. Let me know if you're in the area, I'd love to meet you.

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 Caws]

Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Nine: Resources

Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Eight: When We Stumble

Are you a Stoic Sage yet? Hahaha...I'm kidding, of course. You're not. I'm not. No one is. We're loaded with all the inconsistencies that make us human. We're petty, needy, dismissive, cruel, thoughtless, perhaps all these things within a single hour! So how do we start over? How do we reset, knowing that we were so embarrassingly wrong a minute ago, or yesterday, or for entire years of our life? How do we press on knowing we'll probably screw up again tomorrow? What do we do when we stumble?

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

  • How am I supposed to react when I screw up?

  • How can I stop blaming myself (should I stop blaming myself?) when the fact is I really did do something wrong?

  • And finally, what exercise can get me back into my Stoic practice?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caws]

How am I supposed to react when I screw up?

Let's begin with a mindset to aim towards. Here's the beginning of Meditations 5:9:

"Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human --however imperfectly-- and fully embrace the pursuit you've embarked on."

That sounds healthy, right? Pick yourself up, dust off, and get going again. Yet I've been in places where my shame cuts deep. Where I can't forsee others ever forgiving me and I don't really think I deserve to forgive myself. What then?

If you are living out Stoicism, however imperfectly, you are a prokopton. Prokopton is a Greek word that's applied to Stoic students, though prokopton does not mean 'student.' It means, a 'person who is progressing.' So we are progressors pursuing moral progress; which is a very difficult task. We're likely to loose ground from time to time, take a step forward and then two back. This is natural, unfortunate, but natural. Of course, bad fortune born nobly is good fortune, so with that in mind, we have to begin viewing our failings as lessons and use what we learn about ourselves to readjust and carry on.

In the Discourses Book 3, Chapter 25, lines 1-4, Epictetus has this to say about our personal failures:

"Of the things that you initially proposed for yourself, consider which you have achieved and which you haven’t, and how it gives you joy to recall some of them and pain to recall others, and, if possible, try to recover even those that have slipped from your grasp. For those who are engaged in the greatest of contests shouldn’t flinch, but must be prepared also to take blows. For the contest that lies in front of us is not in wrestling or the pancration, in which, whether or not one meets with success, it is possible for one to be of the highest worth or of little, and by Zeus, to be most happy or most miserable; no, this is a contest for good fortune and happiness itself. What follows, then? In this contest, even if we should falter for a while, no one can prevent us from resuming the fight, nor is it necessary to wait another four years for the next Olympic Games to come around, but as soon as one has recovered and regained one’s strength, and can muster the same zeal as before, one can enter the fight; and if one should fail again, one can enter once again, and if one should carry off the victory one fine day, it will be as if one had never given in."

We are in a contest for the best things, the things that will allow us to flourish. And this is a contest that we can reenter whenever we're ready. Best yet, if we finally win, our past record gets wiped away. Meaning that true contentment banishes the ghosts of past failures. Not because we pretend we didn't harm others but because we can look the facts in the eyes and simply choose to do better. It's the hurting person, the one that can't overcome past mistakes who hides from the truth of who they've been and therefore continues to make the same mistakes. The flourishing individual is able to take up the hard work of facing others, acknowledge our mistakes, and repair the damage if possible. We need to follow Epictetus' advice, recover, regain our strength, muster our zeal, and begin again.

[Raven Caws]

How can I stop blaming myself (should I stop blaming myself) when the fact is I really did do something wrong?

Before we learn to stop blaming ourselves, let's recall why Stoics don't blame others. Here's the end of Chapter 5 of the Enchiridion:

"...whenever we are hindered or troubled or distressed, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our own judgments. The uneducated person blames others for their failures; those who have just begun to be instructed blame themselves; those whose learning is complete blame neither others nor themselves."

It's not that other people don't do wrong, it's that they can't make us do wrong. It's our own actions that we control, so that's where we place our energy. The devil did not make me do it, I failed myself. So Epictetus says the uneducated blame others, we progressors blame ourselves, but the ones who really get it blame neither themselves nor others. What does he mean by that?

Some have interpreted Epictetus' final remark to be speaking of the perfect Stoic Sage, a mythic figure who never is at fault and therefore can not be blamed. I would like to propose a different and, I believe, more practical reading. In my view the still imperfect, but fully educated Stoic has realized and internalized that the same Stoic understanding which allows us to accept and pity the errors of other people can also and should also be applied to ourselves.

In Stoicism, moral failings are due to ignorance of a better way to act. All people honestly strive for what is expedient for them and if they choose wrongly, it's because they were ignorant of the better solution. To back this up we can again look to Epictetus.

Discourses Book 1, Chapter 18 is titled, 'That we ought not to be angry with the erring.' Here's the first few lines:

"If what the philosophers say is true, that in all people thought and action start from a single source, namely feeling--as in the case of assent the feeling that a thing is so, and in the case of dissent the feeling that it is not so, yes, and, by Zeus, in the case of suspended judgement the feeling that it is uncertain, so also in the case of impulse towards a thing, the feeling that it is expedient for me and that it is impossible to judge one thing expedient and yet desire another, and again, to judge one thing fitting, and yet to be impelled to another--if all this be true, why are we any longer angry with the multitude?--'They are thieves,' says someone, 'and robbers.'-- What do you mean by 'thieves and robbers?' They have simply gone astray in questions of good and evil. Ought we, therefore, to be angry with them, or rather pity them?"

Those opening lines concerning feeling, assent, dissent, judgement, and the like contain a quick rundown of Stoic psychology. So when Epictetus gets to "if all this be true, why are we any longer angry..." he's saying that accepting Stoicism's axioms concerning the human mind leaves no room for blame. We acknowledge that the offender could not have done any differently with the information and perspective that they had at the time. Instead of anger and offense, we are left with Stoic pity. It's an attitude that is free from anger and which is willing to engage with, and even assist the ignorant individual (through correction if possible, or simply through continued goodwill despite their offense). I suggest that it is essential that we apply that same Stoic pity towards our past selves.

You may be protesting that you can not pity your ignorance, because you knew better than to do what you did. And yes, in general, I suspect that all of us have the knowledge that rudeness, hatefulness, and bigotry are wrong. We understand that theft, and violence, and murder are bad. I have no doubt that most of us would accept these ideas. However, there is a difference between subscribing to a belief and embodying that belief. I used to shoplift as a young man. Not out of any need. Out of arrogance, for the sake of a thrill. I absolutely understood that theft was wrong. I was taught that, I could recite it, and I am certain that I would have protested if anything was taken from me. But in the end, I felt that taking something for myself was better than not doing so. My actions defined my true beliefs.

I'm not happy that I used to be that person, and it has been a very long time since I stole from another. Now I have a wider and deeper set of convictions, but I still dismiss them when it suits me. I've been bold enough to tell each of you to expect people to make mistakes and then let it go. But I still get angry at people from time to time. Why? Because I feel that acting on my anger will get me what I desire more quickly than acting Stoically would allow. I know better, but I don't believe better in that moment. In these moments I am displaying the same kind of ignorance that, hopefully, spurs me to be gracious to others. Those whose learning is complete blame neither themselves nor others. Can't we take pity on ourselves? Instead of lashing out with anger, or sulking in our disappointment, why not recognize that we are human and therefore fallible. Why not use our mistake as a lesson and instruct ourselves in better ways? Let's get back up when we fail, to celebrate behaving like a human --however imperfectly-- and fully embrace the pursuit we've embarked on.

[Raven Caws]

And finally, what exercise can get me back into my Stoic practice?

How do we rehabilitate our Stoicism? We write.

Writing was and is a Stoic philosophical exercise. Every line I read to you from Marcus Aurelius is part of a personal journal that he kept. It was never meant to be published. Each chapter was a reminder to himself of the wisdom he had learned from others. He was recalling these lessons to combat his own failings. When Marcus wrote about the need to be gracious to the jerks he met in court, he had just finished dealing with a bunch of jerks in court. The Meditations are not filled with original thoughts. The Emperor was recalling Stoic teachings in order to apply them to his own unique situation. We should all be doing this. We should be examining our failures, uncovering better ways to act, and reminding ourselves of those better ways daily. Writing provides a means of conversing with yourself, for both admonishment and praise.

I began in order to push myself to study and understand Stoicism. It is challenging to speak simply and clearly about a subject while still retaining the richness of the Stoic perspective. This constant practice of bringing old lessons back to mind and attempting to explain them has greatly enriched my life. Less publicly, I keep both a physical journal and a huge number of notes in the Evernote app. I keep the physical journal because the act of pen to paper writing commits thoughts to memory more readily than typing (that's just good science, look it up). I keep my Evernote journal because my phone is always with me, I can easily search through my notes, and I'd have to carry a library's worth of physical notebooks if I printed out all I had online.

Write about your philosophy. Recall your failures, find solutions, and commit both to paper. The next time you stumble you can look to see how you last recovered, and you can get over yourself that much quicker.

[Raven Caws]

Thank you for listening to episode eight and thank you for sending in episode ideas. I am definitely going to use many of them. Feel free to keep them coming, I have a special folder where I cut and paste every request so that I don't lose them.

Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month. 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. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at Speaking of twitter, a local stoic introduced herself to me and that got me wondering how many Portland, Oregon Stoics are out there. Let me know if you're in the area, I'd love to meet you.

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 Caws]