How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy To Live A Modern Life
Massimo Picliucci

Suggested to me by Oliver Burkeman in Consumed by anxiety? Give it a day or two.

Chapter 14—Practical Spiritual Exercises…*

1. Examine Your Impressions. “So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression, ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control? And if it is not one of the things you can control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.'”

2. Remind Yourself of the impermanence of things. “In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, “I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.”

3. The Reserve Clause. “Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse—people splashing, pushing, yelling, and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ [that is, to apply reason to social living, MP]. Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep you will in line with nature—which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.'”

4. How can I use virtue here and now? “For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.”

No wonder Epictetus is often associated with the phrase bear and forebear or endure and renounce. But remember that the goal isn’t an unhappy and grim life. On the contrary, it is to achieve what the Stoics called apatheia, which, despite the obvious and unappealing English echo, we have seen means tranquility of mind, as well as equanimity toward whatever life happens to throw at us. p. 215

5. Pause and take a breath. “Remember , it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions: take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”

We need to resist the impulse to react immediately and instinctively to potentially problematic situations. Instead, me must pause, take a deep breath, perhaps go for a walk around the block, and only then consider the issue as dispassionately (in the sense of equanimity, not lack of care) as possible. p. 217

6. Other-ize. “We can familiarize ourselves with the will of nature by calling to mind our common experiences. When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ It’s only reasonable, then, that when a glass of your own breaks, to accept it in the same patient spirit.. Moving on to graver things: when somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others.

7. Speak little and well. “Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink—common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.”

8. Choose your company well. “Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers.*** If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.”

9. Respond to insults with humor. “If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.'”

10. Don’t speak too much about yourself. “In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that other derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.”

11. Speak without judging. “Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but the assenting to something different.”

12. Reflect on your day. “Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day—How have I erred, what was done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.”

*Taken from Epictetus’ Enchiridion.
** An impression is your reaction to an event, person or thought.
***Philosophers for Epictetus were interested in following virtue and cultivating their character.

Chapter 1—The Unstraightforward Path…

Stoicism is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions. …In practice, Stoicism involves a dynamic combination of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness and other spiritual exercises. p. 2-3

“Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” —Seneca. p. 12

The goal is to learn something about how to answer that most fundamental question: How ought we to live our lives? p. 15

Chapter 2—A Road Map For The Journey…

Eudaimonic: having the objective of figuring out the best way to live a human life. p. 19

The theoretical framework of Stoicism is the idea that in order to live a good (in the sense of eudaimonic) life one has to understand two things: the nature of the world (and by extension, one’s place in it) and the nature of human reasoning (including when it fails, as it so often does). p. 21

The Stoics held that people don’t really do evil but simply have misguided views of the world that sometimes lead them to do awful things… p. 25

Chapter 3—Some Things Are In Our Power, Others Are Not…

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor, are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.” —Epictetus. p. 31

Chapter 4—Living According To Nature…

The Stoics argue that the point of life for human beings is to use reason to build the best society that is humanly possible to build. p. 48

Chapter 5—Playing Ball With Socrates…

Indifferents are everything outside of an individuals excellence of character or virtue… p. 64

The Cynics [Cynic means ‘dog like,’ JH] went so far as to argue that earthly possessions positively get in the way of virtue: they develop in us as attachment to things that don’t matter, so we are better off without them. p. 73-4

For Stoics, health, wealth, education and good looks—among other things—are preferred indifferents, while their opposites—and a number of other things—are dispreferred indifferents. p. 75

“There is a great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. The former is according to nature, the latter contrary to it. So long as they are rated by this standard, there is a great gulf between; but when it comes to a question of virtue involved, the virtue in each case ins the same, whether it comes through joy or sorrow.” —Seneca. In other words, by all means go ahead and avoid pain and experience joy in your life—but not when doing so imperils your integrity. Better to endure pain in an honorable manner than to seek joy in a shameful one. p. 75

Using the concept of Lexicographical Preferences, virtue is in a category from that containing all preferred indifferents and there can be no trading between categories. p. 76

Chapter 7—It’s All About Character (And Virtue)…

The Stoics adopted Socrates’ classification of four aspects of virtue, which they thought of as four tightly interlinked character traits: (practical) wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Practical wisdom allows us to make decisions that improve our eudaimonia, the ethically good life. Courage can be physical, but more broadly refers to the moral aspect—for instance, the ability to act well under challenging circumstances. Temperance makes it possible for us to control our desires and actions so that we don’t yield to excesses. Justice refers not to an abstract theory of how society should be run, but rather to the practice of treating other human beings with dignity and fairness. p. 99

Chapter 8—A Very Crucial Word…

People don’t do evil on purpose, the do it out of ignorance. p. 113

Amathia, literally not learning, may be seen as intelligent stupidity, not an inability to understand, but a refusal to understand (a willful ignorance) that may not be reversed or healed rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of knowledge or through experiencing new and different feelings. Instead, intelligent stupidity is a spiritual sickness and in need of a spiritual cure. p. 116

Media is not evil, whatever that may mean, but a person lacking something important, like a lame person. Specifically, Medea lacks wisdom and is affected by amathia, the sort of dis-knowledge that brings ordinary people to make unreasonable judgments about certain situations that then lead them to what outsiders correctly perceive as horrible acts. p. 118

The uncomfortable truth is that people suffering from cognitive dissonance are neither stupid nor ignorant. I have encountered plenty of smart and well-educated individuals who nonetheless reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, one of the most firmly established scientific theories ever. The have to reject it, because it seems to them to be in irreconcilable conflict with the Bible, the reference point for their whole lives as devout Christians. p. 119

Chapter 9—The Role Of Role Models…

As the public philosopher, and my colleague, Nigel Warburton asked me during an interview, “What about ordinary life, where people hardly have to face such extreme situations [as James Stockdale or Cato the Younger] or display such levels of courage and endurance?”

It’s a good question, but the answer is simple enough: it is by hearing about great deeds that we not only become inspired by what human beings at their best can do, but also are implicitly reminded of just how much easier most of our lives actually are. That being the case, it shouldn’t really take a lot of courage to stand up to your boss when your co-worker is being treated badly, no? I mean, the worst that can happen is that you’ll be fired, not put in solitary confinement and tortured. How difficult is it, really, to behave honestly in the course of everyday life, since we are not risking military defeat and the prospect of suicide to save our honor? And yet, imagine how much better the world would be if we all did display just a little bit more courage, a slightly more acute sense of justice, more temperance, and more wisdom each day. The Stoic gamble was that hearing about people like Cato, Stockdale and the others we have encountered here help us pout things into perspective—that is, to become slightly better humans beings than we already are. p. 136-7

Chapter 11—On Death And Suicide…

I must die, must I? If at once, then I am dying: if soon, I dine now, as it’s time for dinner, and afterwards when the time comes I will die. —Epictetus, Discourses, I.i p. 157

Chapter 12—How To Deal With Anger, Anxiety and Loneliness…

I desire (not want or need [long for, JH]) a promotion, so I’m going to do my best to deserve it. Whether I actually get it or not is not under my control, because it depends on a number of factors external to my will. p. 177

Rather than reacting immediately to what another person is saying—which is never a good idea, as doing so will simply escalate a heated situation—we can slow down, rephrase what the other person is saying, take the time to analyze the possible underlying reasons, and only then respond. For example, you may interpret a request from your companion as an undue and irritating invasion of your personal space. But could it be that the request arises from your companion’s need for more attention and care, a need that could be accommodated in some other way that would not make you feel like you have entered a prison? p. 177-8

[Talk and pharmaceutical] therapies will accomplish the important, but insufficient, task of calming your mind to the point where you can be functional again. That by itself won’t do the thinking for you, and it is rethinking of a whole host of life’s situations that promises to provide a path to eudaimonia. p. 181

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