'The Overlooked Stoic – Musonius Rufus' by Steven Umbrello

The Overlooked Stoic – Musonius Rufus

Musonius Rufus

    Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. These are the most commonly cited Stoic philosophers for good reason. Unlike other Stoics of antiquity, their works survive in quantity.

     Other renowned Stoics like Zeno of Citium (332-262 BC), Chrysippus (280-204) and Posidonius of Apameia (c. 135 – 51 BC) have no surviving works. Everything that remains of their writings exists in fragments or quotations used by later authors, which is why so much emphasis is put on those philosophers whose work survives intact. However, I don’t believe that this discounts the value of the surviving fragments. Simply because they are fragments does not mean they lack the deep insight of Stoical philosophy. I want to take a closer look at a Stoic philosopher whom I believe is overlooked and whose works likewise exist in a fragmentary form.

      Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. 30 AD – c. 101/2 AD) was a Roman Stoic philosopher and a contemporary of both Epictetus and Seneca. He is most notably remembered for being the teacher of Epictetus, but also for being banished from Rome multiple times during the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. We can’t be sure whether Musonius Rufus wrote any books – if he did none survived – but his pupils and later authors preserved many of his sayings and discourses.

          Rufus was quite diverse in his discourses. His Stoic philosophy commented on typical Stoic topics such as virtue, hardship and indulgence; but also on more unconventional topics like the place of women in philosophy, what the Stoic diet is, and how a Stoic should cut their hair. The surviving discourses, which were compiled by the 5th century Macedonian scholar Stobaeus, shows Rufus to be a direct, clear and forceful speaker of the Stoic school.

       Rufus’ philosophical focus was on ethics and morality. He emphasizes right and wrong action and how we can attain virtue. For example, Rufus says that there is no shame or disgrace in enduring insults or assault, but that the shame comes from committing such actions (Stob, Disc. 10). Likewise, he held a very progressive stance on the education of women. He believed that children of both genders should be educated in the same way. This would ensure that both girls and boys learn to have “…understanding, and self control, and courage, and justice, the one no less than the other” (Stob, Disc. 4).

          We can see that Rufus held similar Stoic ideals of virtue as his contemporary philosophers. He prized the virtues of understanding, temperance (self-control), justice and courage. All of which he deemed necessary for attaining the virtuous life and all of which can be taught to individuals who lacked them.

        Although mostly ignored now, Musonius Rufus was quite a well-known philosopher and voice of Stoicism in the first century AD. Although only fragments of his sayings survive, we see that even up to the fifth century they greatly impacted the minds of scholars. It is simply because these writings have been lost that we emphasize other Stoics. However, this does not discount the power of the words that do remain, nor the sway that Rufus held over his pupils during his life. Musonius Rufus deserves the title that Cora Lutz gave him in her 1947 book titled, “Musonius Rufus: ‘The Roman Socrates’”.

References

Hornblower, Simon, Anthony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, ed. The Oxford Classical                               Dictionary. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Lutz, Cora Elizabeth. Musonius Rufus, “The Roman Socrates” Yale University Press, 1947.

Rufus, C., and J. Venhuizen Peerlkamp. C. Musonii Rufi Reliquiae Et Apophthegmata.                                    Kessinger Publishing, 1822.

Stobaeus, Discourses, 4, 10.

Steven Umbrello is an undergraduate student of philosophy of science at the University of Toronto, and has been a practicing Stoic for most of his young adult life.

A Buddhist & Stoic Meditation Exercise by Elen Buzaré

A Buddhist and Stoic Meditation Exercise – The “Scala Naturae” Exercise

Nature

Elen Buzaré

The following instructions will introduce you to a purely natural and therapeutic askêsis.

Ancient Hellenistic philosophers had introduced a very interesting theory about nature inner levels (scala naturae in latin) and divided the universe into four levels: hexis (stones), phusis (flowers, plants trees), psuchê (animals) and finally nous (a characteristic belonging only to human beings). However, human beings, the most complex creation of nature, are composed of all these four levels.

As individuals immerged day after days in contemporary buzzing industrial societies, we have often lost contact with the nature’s natural elements, which go together to form our microcosm. This may lead to all sorts of discomforts, emotional disturbances and sicknesses. The individual feels unwelcome, estranged from the world. That is why this askesis, according to the ancients, has as its first task, entering into contemplation and praise the entire universe.

Find an isolated peaceful place, where you are alone. You should feel good: it must be a place where you will be not exposed to the others. A special place in your home or flat, specially dedicated to this exercice, somber, with one single burning candle is usually considered as a useful help.

First of all, consider the idea that there are three things of which you are composed: body – that is hexis and phusis – breath and mind. Of these, the first two are your own in so far it is your duty to take care of them; but only the third is your own in the full sense.

(1)    Taking care of your body: the instructions about stability (hexis):

The first counsel to give anyone who wants to meditate is not on the spiritual level, but on the physical. Sit down. Sit down like a stone.

Sitting down like a stone means taking roots, putting on weight, going down. Meditation is finding out your earth, your roots, being here with all your weight, immobile.

The best is to have your pelvis higher that your knees. That is why you will find useful to use a round, thick enough, firm but not flabby cushion. This cushion will enable you, with crossed legs, to find a stable and firm base during long period (a Buddhist zafu cushion will do well).

Do not be mistaken, finding a good posture will require some experimentation. You may find useful to test traditional oriental positions such as the lotus or the semi-lotus ones. The important thing is that you are feeling comfortable and at your ease.

The goal of settling into a good posture is threefold:

–          It will procure you a stable sensation in your body and this will allow you to free your attention from balance problems and muscular fatigue and to focus, to be centred.

–          It will favour physical immobility which will be reflected by mind stability: the habits of the body condition those of the mind

–          It will enable you to remain sit during a long length of time without having to give way to the meditator enemies: pain, muscular tensions and drowsiness.

At another level meditating like a stone is also acquiring a sense of eternity. Nature lives with another rhythm. You have eternity behind you and ahead of you. If you are well-centred, you have eternity inside you.

(2)    Taking care of your body: the instructions about orientation (phusis):

Meditation is first of all a posture, but meditation is also orientation. The most important is to settle down with a straight back. Your spine must be straight, with vertebras positioned as a pile of coins, one above the other. Your head must be aligned with the rest of your spine.

All of this must be achieved in a relaxed way. No rigidity: there must not be muscular tensions originating from the fact of keeping a straight back. You are not a soldier. Your spine should be like a poppy with a straight stem and the rest of your body is simply hanged to your spine.

All of this will require experimentation. Generally, our body is full of tensions and defensive postures when we walk or speak or find itself in indolent postures when we relax. None of them are good.

At another level, this meditation is also adopting a proper frame of mind, to orientate yourself toward the good (to kalon). The observation of plants, flowers and trees teaches us that they are all fragile, they blossom then fade. They give us a sense of time.

(3)    Taking care of your breath: The instructions about sensation or aisthêsis (psuchê)

Askêsis is posture, orientation, but also sensation. The term aisthêsis describe the intelligent breathes which carry information from your senses to your hegemonikon but in a more general way also mean “apperception by mean of the senses”.

You are noticing the close affinity in stoic philosophy between your thoughts and your breathing. Thus at this stage, you will learn to listen to be in tune with the subtle sensation of breathing, yet distinctive.

This observation will teach you that the taking care of yourself is also achieved through the vigilance of the senses, using breathing.

The first step in using breathing as object of askêsis is to find it. You are searching for the physical tactile sensation of the air going back and forth through your nostrils. Generally, you can find it just at the cutting edge of your nose. However, the precise location varies from one person to another.

To find your own point, take a deep quick breath and notice where the sensation is located. Now, expire and note the sensation in the very same place. This place will become you focus point in observing the inspiration and expirations natural waves.

You must not try to control your breathing: this is not a breathing exercise. Your breathing must remain spontaneous and natural, not amplified or adjusted: let the process ‘be’ according to its own rhythm.

Inhale…exhale …inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale during a few minutes until you think that you have succeeded in maintaining a certain concentration during a few minutes. You should feel relaxed, yet with a clear mind.

Now observe what is going on in your mind.

(4)    Taking care of your mind: the instructions about the logos (nous):

Imagine that your mind is like a vessel filled with water. Phantasiai (impressions) are like a ray of light that falls upon the water. If the water is disturbed, the ray will seem to be disturbed likewise, though in reality it is not.

The impact of the deep concentration is to slow down the mental process, thus making your mind like a vessel filled with still water and strengthening your observing consciousness. You will gain a greater capacity in examining the thought mechanism.

In the silent observation of breathing, there are two things to avoid: thinking and drowsiness.

There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. This is a very subtle difference which is well expressed in terms of sensation or texture. A thought you are simply attentive to is felt as being very light in its texture. There is a feeling of distance between this thought and the consciousness which perceive it. It appears and disappears without necessarily give birth to the next thought.

The normal conscious thought is of a much heavier texture: it aspires you and takes control of your consciousness. By its very nature, it is obsessional and directly conducts to the next thought in the chain and it usually take the form of:

(1)    all that others do or say

(2)    all that you yourself have done or said

(3)    all that troubles you with regard to the future

(4)    all that belonging to the body which envelops you and the breath conjoined with it

(5)    all that is the vortex whirling around outside you sweeps in its wake, so that the power of your mind

You will soon realise that your mind will constantly try to escape, to go in every directions. Do not worry, this phenomenon is well known and every prokopton has to overcome it. When this happens, simply note that you were thinking or dreaming and go back to the observation of your breathing with the help of your focus point, without judging yourself.

Drowsiness is almost the contrary: it denotes a loosening of the attention. It is a hole, an emptiness, a grey mental zone. Avoid it. This askêsis is here to help you to develop a strong and energetic concentration, a clear and distinct vigilance, focused on one single point. If you realise that you are drowsy, simply note it and go back to the observation of your breathing.

The essence of this askêsis is learning to “put away from yourself” these always and extremely agitated ordinary thoughts and be able to remain in a state of listening, of openness in every circumstances. You will soon realise that a phantasia may it be a thought, a physical sensation or an outside noise, rises then disappears and that you have no need to get involved into it. If you are able of maintaining this observing consciousness for a while, you may succeed in making yourself ‘a well rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it’ that is the very famous Empedocles’ Sphairos.

The Sphairos is a powerful image, profoundly Hellenistic. Understanding what the Sphairos is will require from you to get rid of your natural tendency to geometric and spatial vision. Roundness is a metaphor for perfection: for ancient Greeks, the sphere is an expression of the divine for it has neither beginning nor end and can be travelled infinitively in both directions. It expresses the most beautiful, the most sublime, the most accomplished and this accomplishment is the kosmos itself, everlasting and flourishing. In the perfection of the sphere, there is neither love nor hatred, neither attachment nor detachment, neither knowledge nor ignorance, neither vertu nor vice, neither a word nor silence: all of our categories scatter. The solitude reflects the unicity of the kosmos: there is only one universe, and this universe is the whole (to pan). The kosmos is solitude and perfection.

Retired in your dwelling of knowledge, you give yourself over to the mindful perception. This askêsis is about listening and contemplation, which implies the absence of direction, thus abandoning your ‘human all too human’ self-centred point of view. You are then able to pass at least the time that is left to you until you die in calm and kindliness, and as one who is at peace with the daîmon that dwells within you. An oriented listening, to the contrary, is a listening of the known, of the ordinary though, of memory, of habit, of all of our packet of memories or scar tissues.

Nothing belongs to us, but everything belongs to Nature, to the logos. Genuine eternity is not a determination of time but mindfulness, the nous realising by itself the perfection of sphairos.

The sphairos is the sage.

After a Law degree in France and in Scotland as an Erasmus student, Elen Buzaré has been working in the insurance broking field for over 10 years now. She first encountered Stoicism when she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the age of 20 and since then, dedicated herself to the comprehension of the Stoic teaching, mostly as self learner. This led her a few years later to publish a little essay on Stoic spiritual exercises, a little book very much inspired by Stoic (in the light of the regretted Pierre Hadot’s work), Christian orthodox and Buddhist spiritualities. She is convinced that practising a form of mindfulness is central to Stoic practice in the sense that it develops  an acute awareness of phantasiai and hence the ability to suspend judgement to question them. She would also be happy to explore further the Stoic physics as she feels that ethics has no real sense without its foundations.

Death: For Future Use

Death: For Future Use

Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall

“None of us considers that at some time or other he
must leave this domicile. Just so do old inhabitants
stay in a place through nostalgia and habit, even
amidst bad conditions.”

Nemo nostrum cogitat quandoque sibi ex hoc domicilio exeundum; sic veteres inquilinos indulgentia loci et consuetudo etiam inter iniurias detinet. Seneca, Letter 70

I have the luxury of living in a house that my family purchased over fifty years ago.  The creak of every floor board is familiar.  The books that line the wall of my study smile at me like old friends.  I know the hiding places of obscure medicines, rarely used sets of dishes and the toys played with by several generations of children.  But as I sit basking in the cocoon of familiarity with which I have surrounded myself, I feel a chill.  Seneca’s disapproving glance confronts me.  Why, he wonders, should someone who has drunk from his well of Stoic wisdom stumble along a path of self delusion?  Why should I attach such importance to transitory things?

To complicate matters further, the “domicile” referred to in Letter 70 is the domicile of the body.  If I loathe the idea of leaving my beloved house and its comforts only to be spirited away to some “retirement community,” doesn’t that betoken the dread with which I anticipate leaving my dear body with all its imperfections, aches and pains?  After all, my body has served me pretty well for over seventy years.  And isn’t the fear of death a sure indication that the principles of living life as a Stoic haven’t been mastered?

“None of us” Seneca says in Letter 70 has faced the moment of death’s termination of all that is familiar.  “None of us” includes Seneca himself.  We may reflect on these matters in the comfort of our book-lined studies, but until we are face to face with the decisions they may entail (Seneca’s letter is actually about suicide), we cannot begin to put the fruits of our reflections into practice.  In anticipation of that moment, Seneca provides us with a well-furnished tool box labeled: FOR FUTURE USE.

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Alan Scribner has been a lifelong student of Ancient Rome since the age of 4 when, having recently learned to read, he was browsing through an encyclopedia and saw a picture of a man in a toga on the steps of a temple.  
     Later he attended the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, the University of Pennsylvaniaand Yale Law School.  He then became a public prosecutor in New York County and followed a career as an appellate lawyer.
     He is now retired and living in New Hampshire where he and Douglas Marshall started their own two person reading group in Latin and Greek that resulted in the writing and publication of Anni Ultimi.
     Alan Scribner also follows the prescription of Seneca for retirement by imbibing liberalia studia.  In this pursuit he studies astronomy and chess and continues to deepen his involvement with and knowledge of ancient Rome by writing the Judge Marcus Flavius Severus series of mysteries in ancient Rome, so far comprising Mars the Avenger, The Cyclops Case and Marcus Aurelius Betrayed.  

Douglas Marshall studied classics as an undergraduate at Princeton University and received a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Pennsylvania.  He has taught at St. Paul’s School, Oberlin College and Dartmouth College.  He has written numerous articles on Catullus, Julius Caesar and mediaeval vision literature. In retirement he authored a biography George Shattuck, a nineteenth century Boston physician and philanthropist.  
    Marshall’s weekly conversations with Alan Scribner began about twelve years ago.  In his letter to Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli famously recounts his evening visits to the “courts of the ancients.”  “[There I] am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.”
   Like Machiavelli, Alan and Douglas turned to the writers of classical antiquity for wisdom. Together they read a wide variety of Greek and Latin texts, but the appeal of Seneca’s gentle advice to two sixty something friends was irresistible.  Their hope of sharing with others Seneca’s advice about withdrawing from an active life, dealing with physical frailty and facing death led them to publish Anni Ultimi.

Anni Ultimi is available to buy on Amazon.

Old Age: Nothing is Better than Something

Old Age: Nothing Is Better Than Something

Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall

            Seneca’s Letter 12, dealing with old age, contains an idea that has always struck me as particularly insightful and valuable — a piece of ancient Stoic wisdom useful for modern living.  Seneca writes: “To want nothing takes the place of pleasure.  How sweet it is to have tired of wanting and to have left it behind.” (Aut hoc ipsum succedit in locum voluptatium, nullis egere.  Quam dulce est cupiditates fatigasse ac reliquisse).

Whenever I mention this thought, especially to senior citizens, and ask them whether they have ever aspired to want nothing, few have responded positively.  But when asked if they would like to aspire to this, many usually recognize a good idea and nod yes.

To want nothing, to find pleasure in wanting nothing rather than in wanting things, is almost a subversive thought in our modern consumer society.  It was probably subversive in Roman society as well.  Nowadays we are constantly told, indeed assaulted, with the notion that we should want more, acquire more, buy more, get more, spend more as a road to pleasure and satisfaction.  Seneca tells us this is all wrong; quite the opposite is true.

Seneca is drawing on the Stoic idea of frugality (frugalitas), which he identifies as one of his three main Stoic principles, his “way to the stars”, along with courage (fortitudo) and self-control (temperantia).  Frugality to Seneca excises what is unnecessary in life, the superfluous things.  This idea is easily understood by a mathematician who seeks a clear, elegant proof; by a writer, who abjures superfluous adjectives and repetitions; by a scientist who looks to Occam’s razor, as a way of finding truth through a form of simplification.

For Seneca, wanting nothing is a major goal in living a Stoic life.   And when he expresses this principle in terms of finding pleasure in wanting nothing, rather than wanting things, one can recognize immediately the value of the thought.  This principle can readily be applied to living in the modern world, a way to free the mind to transcend false values and unnecessary, burdensome complications.

Ultimi Anni Cover

Alan Scribner has been a lifelong student of Ancient Rome since the age of 4 when, having recently learned to read, he was browsing through an encyclopedia and saw a picture of a man in a toga on the steps of a temple.  
     Later he attended the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, the University of Pennsylvaniaand Yale Law School.  He then became a public prosecutor in New York County and followed a career as an appellate lawyer.
     He is now retired and living in New Hampshire where he and Douglas Marshall started their own two person reading group in Latin and Greek that resulted in the writing and publication of Anni Ultimi.
     Alan Scribner also follows the prescription of Seneca for retirement by imbibing liberalia studia.  In this pursuit he studies astronomy and chess and continues to deepen his involvement with and knowledge of ancient Rome by writing the Judge Marcus Flavius Severus series of mysteries in ancient Rome, so far comprising Mars the Avenger, The Cyclops Case and Marcus Aurelius Betrayed.  

Douglas Marshall studied classics as an undergraduate at Princeton University and received a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Pennsylvania.  He has taught at St. Paul’s School, Oberlin College and Dartmouth College.  He has written numerous articles on Catullus, Julius Caesar and mediaeval vision literature. In retirement he authored a biography George Shattuck, a nineteenth century Boston physician and philanthropist.  
    Marshall’s weekly conversations with Alan Scribner began about twelve years ago.  In his letter to Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli famously recounts his evening visits to the “courts of the ancients.”  “[There I] am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.”
   Like Machiavelli, Alan and Douglas turned to the writers of classical antiquity for wisdom. Together they read a wide variety of Greek and Latin texts, but the appeal of Seneca’s gentle advice to two sixty something friends was irresistible.  Their hope of sharing with others Seneca’s advice about withdrawing from an active life, dealing with physical frailty and facing death led them to publish Anni Ultimi.

Anni Ultimi is available to buy on Amazon.

Retirement – First of Three Reflections by Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall

Retirement: Winning the Game

Alan Scribner and Doug Marshall

“I think to myself, how many train their bodies, how few train their character.”
(Cogito mecum, quam multi corpora exerceant, ingenia quampauci.)

Seneca, Letter 80

            On the campus of the university that I attended there once was a statue named The Christian Athlete.  The statue portrayed a muscular young man with a football balanced on his left forearm.  In his right hand he clutched a bible.  The message was clear: physical vigor and spiritual vigor were two sides of the coin of moral rectitude.  The well-trained body betokened the well-trained soul.

            This quaint early twentieth century reinvention of the kaloskagathos Greek ideal still lingers.  We struggle to believe that a famous athlete could be guilty of assault, rape or even murder.  When actually found guilty, there is outrage and disappointment over his fall from grace

            To Seneca also the training of the body and the training of the soul were complementary undertakings. But this was not the view of the molesti whose cheers for the gladiators interrupted Seneca’s contemplations.  “How weak are the minds of those whose shoulders and biceps we admire” (Letter 80).  Gladiators were not expected to furnish patterns for moral living.  Yet in our world, the expectation persists. 

            As usual, Seneca is reassuring.  While the development of the body requires many externals, arduous and lengthy physical training, the development of the soul requires primarily the will to do it.

            Seneca recognizes also that in many cases something more than the will to do it is needed.  One often needs the time as well.  And where can this time be found?  It is in retirement or, to use Seneca’s word, otium.  A busy life, a life in pursuit of the ordinary goals of honor or money or glory “doesn’t allow peace and quiet,” as Seneca observes in Letter 19.  Therefore, Letter 19 continues, one should “withdraw his neck from the yoke” and retire.  Get out “any way you can.” “If you can’t draw yourself away from it, then tear yourself away.”  “Haven’t you risked a lot for money and power?  Retirement is worth the risk as well.” 

            It is retirement that provides the opportunity to devote oneself to the development of the soul.  This is no less true in modern times than it was for Stoics in ancient times.

Ultimi Anni Cover

Alan Scribner has been a lifelong student of Ancient Rome since the age of 4 when, having recently learned to read, he was browsing through an encyclopedia and saw a picture of a man in a toga on the steps of a temple.  
     Later he attended the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, the University of Pennsylvaniaand Yale Law School.  He then became a public prosecutor in New York County and followed a career as an appellate lawyer.
     He is now retired and living in New Hampshire where he and Douglas Marshall started their own two person reading group in Latin and Greek that resulted in the writing and publication of Anni Ultimi.
     Alan Scribner also follows the prescription of Seneca for retirement by imbibing liberalia studia.  In this pursuit he studies astronomy and chess and continues to deepen his involvement with and knowledge of ancient Rome by writing the Judge Marcus Flavius Severus series of mysteries in ancient Rome, so far comprising Mars the Avenger, The Cyclops Case and Marcus Aurelius Betrayed.  

Douglas Marshall studied classics as an undergraduate at Princeton University and received a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Pennsylvania.  He has taught at St. Paul’s School, Oberlin College and Dartmouth College.  He has written numerous articles on Catullus, Julius Caesar and mediaeval vision literature. In retirement he authored a biography George Shattuck, a nineteenth century Boston physician and philanthropist.  
    Marshall’s weekly conversations with Alan Scribner began about twelve years ago.  In his letter to Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli famously recounts his evening visits to the “courts of the ancients.”  “[There I] am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.”
   Like Machiavelli, Alan and Douglas turned to the writers of classical antiquity for wisdom. Together they read a wide variety of Greek and Latin texts, but the appeal of Seneca’s gentle advice to two sixty something friends was irresistible.  Their hope of sharing with others Seneca’s advice about withdrawing from an active life, dealing with physical frailty and facing death led them to publish Anni Ultimi.

Anni Ultimi is available to buy on Amazon.

'Without the Divine, there is no Stoicism': A Polemic by Nigel Glassborow

Nigel Glassborow

Can Stoicism really be called Stoicism, without divinity? My aim in this piece is to show why you can’t take the divine out of Stoicism. This is quite a challenge seeing as how the whole of the teachings are based on an understanding of the Divine Fire, or more correctly ‘Phusis’ – that is Nature seen as ‘intelligent’ and ‘purposeful’.  My apologies if I fall short of the task.

It cannot be enough to talk of virtue, striving for excellence and ethical theory. We need to see why we ought to choose the ‘life of good’ as is recommended by Stoicism together with all that implies.  And the start of understanding not only why we should live the ‘good life’ but also the nature of the ‘good life’ is first of all an understanding as to how the Divine Fire manifests the whole Cosmos as the Oneness that it is.

Stoicism uses many words to describe and explain the many aspects of the living conscious Cosmos – however there is no separation between the Divine Fire, Phusis etcetera.  The differing words are just human attempts to construct a framework of understanding – so if I shift between terminologies please follow Seneca’s advice and see past the words in order to see the whole picture.  Stoic teachings are not to be understood by examining the individual words or ideas in isolation.

While Stoicism encourages the individual to think for themselves, key to being a Stoic is acceptance of the guidance to ‘Live in accord with Phusis’.  The principle of the nature of the Divine Fire gives understanding as to Phusis being the intelligent and purposeful Whole of which we are a part – hence the idea that each individual is a ‘spark of the Divine Fire’.

Any attempt at a ‘therapeutic form’ of Stoicism will fall short of the mark if it ignores Stoicism proper and only looks to limiting itself to the range of Stoic practices that are meant to be used  as a means to train oneself to be able to ‘habitualise’ the Stoic life.  The practices were never meant to be used as a standalone ‘treatment’, and there certainly is no such thing as Stoic Mindfulness, this being an adoption from Buddhism and other life philosophy systems. (Although maybe I am being a little pedantic about the use of the word ‘mindfulness’.  So as to avoid the connotations of Buddhist meditation and other such ideas that come with the modern use of the word, it is more accurate to talk of Stoic Attentiveness.  Mindfulness has acquired connotations of looking into oneself, whereas, to my mind, attentiveness is more to do with looking outwards and seeing the bigger picture.)  The thing is that the Stoic ‘practices/exercises’, without the rest of the teachings, are just CBT under a different title with all the limitations of CBT.  It is known that CBT needs constant top-up sessions as its effects wane over time.  (A search of the web will bring up many learned papers and articles to this effect.)  This is because there is no ‘teaching’ as to one’s place within the Whole behind the practices being taught.

Many attempts to ‘restate’ Stoicism end up watering it down, especially where teachings that are contrary to atheistic ideas are ‘re-interpreted’ or omitted (presumably ‘in the interest of inclusivity’). It has been said to me that ‘people are free to incorporate theism into Stoicism if they wish to’.  The Stoic pantheism that is the understanding of the Divine Fire is a teaching to be seen through all of the Stoas, so it is already incorporated into Stoicism.  The Stoic theism where the Stoics of old recognised a ‘god’ is to be seen throughout the Classical writings – in fact part of what the Stoics of old were trying to do was to arrive at an understanding of man’s relationship to the ‘gods’.   So it is not the case that ‘people are free to incorporate theism’ but rather that they are free to delude themselves by omitting it, which raises the question as to if they can then still call what they then follow Stoicism or call themselves Stoic if they reject the Divine Fire.

Stoicism is a life philosophy that combines knowledge and faith in order that we have a better understanding as to how to make the most of the life we have been given.  It is ‘the philosophy of the sphere’.  The Stoics of old recognised the sphere as the shape achieved when all the inward and outward forces were in balance – and they state that the Stoic philosophy is just such a balance.  All the key teachings of Stoicism are needed if it is to continue to be ‘one of the loftiest and most sublime philosophies in the record of Western civilisation’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica).  And that includes the ideas about the ‘Divine Fire’.

So down to business.  Stoic ‘science’ is still valid in all of its key areas.  Such was based on the ‘common perceptions’ of the day, logic and an element of faith.  Compare this to today’s quantum science which is based on ‘imaginative’ mathematical equations, instruction to rewrite the rules of logic and an element of faith.

Modern science is looking to try to understand the construction and evolution of the Cosmos.  Stoicism looks to trying to understand how the Cosmos is manifested here and now.  In years gone by the Stoics saw the Cosmos as being manifested out of an ‘element’ they called the Divine Fire.  Bear in mind that what they called an ‘element’ we would today more likely call a ‘property’, ‘quality’ or ‘state’.

To explain how the Cosmos is manifested it is seen that the Divine Fire had two indivisible aspects.  There is the ‘passive principle’ that is matter without purpose – today this would more accurately be described as a sea of sub-atomic particles popping in and out of existence that are  bashing around and not forming any of the elements or forces that are necessary for all that exists today to actually exist.  In fact scientists are claiming that just such a state existed soon after the supposed ‘Big Bang’.

In order to explain how anything is manifested out of this sea of chaos, the Stoics talk of the ‘active principle’ – this is what causes the ‘passive principle’ to organise and manifest itself as all the individualisations within the Cosmos.  Scientists have glimpsed some of the workings of the ‘active principle’ and they call them the ‘laws of nature’ and ‘the laws of science’.  The scientists recognise the need for order, and in their descriptions of the quantum universe they are hard pushed to explain it without reference to what some of them call ‘the consciousness’.  The Stoics describe this ‘consciousness’ as the active principle – that is, ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’.

I would emphasise that the consciousness that permeates the whole of existence is not consciousness as we know it.  It is used by Stoics and scientists to describe something akin to human consciousness, but beyond full explanation.  It describes an essential aspect needed to explain how the Cosmos is manifested.

As we are part of this manifestation, as individualisations within the sea of subatomic particles, so we are part of the Whole.  As the Stoics of old describe it, we are each a ‘spark of the Divine Fire’, or as scientists poetically describe it, we ‘are made out of stardust’.

It is not a case of ‘why you can’t take the divinity out of Stoicism’; it is more a case of Stoicism being to some degree irrelevant, for we are ‘sparks’ of the living Cosmos whether we like it or not.  It is just that the Stoics had recognised the fact two millennia before it began to dawn on the scientists that there has to be an immanent ‘consciousness’ that permeates the whole of existence in order to explain how everything fits together.

When the scientists eventually overcome their problems of marrying ‘matter’ and ‘forces’ with ‘the consciousness’ there might be less antagonism towards the teachings of Stoicism in this area.   Some are ahead of the game.  Sir James Jeans [11 September 1877 – 16 September 1946, an English physicist and astronomer] on talking about Quantum Theory stated ‘The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.’

So we come to that little word that causes so much controversy – God.  No, it is not a swear word as many seem to treat it.  It is all a matter of definition, usage and baggage

As a result of the study of Quantum Theory, Martin Rees [Astronomer Royal] said:  ‘The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it.

No longer is it a case that ‘believers’ are allowed to have ‘the God of the gaps in the knowledge of science’ with the idea that even these gaps would be closed in time so eliminating God.  It is now becoming apparent in scientific circles that God, the consciousness, is a prerequisite for a full understanding of all that is around us and for it to be made manifest.  God does not just fit in the ‘gaps’.  God/Phusis/the Divine Fire/the consciousness permeates the whole of existence.

We Stoics, as the Stoics of old did, look to the ‘common perceptions’ and to personal experience.  Throughout the ages there have been many differing attempts to describe ‘the consciousness’ that is involved in the manifestation of the Cosmos.  Stoics look to this and see a common theme running through all such attempts.

In the Judaic/ Christian/Islamic traditions and many others there is talk of the One God.  Other traditions talk of many gods and others talk of some form of ‘state of being’.

We Stoics recognise that the Cosmos is a living conscious singular state.  For want of a better word the English word ‘God’ is as good a word as any other to describe and recognise that Phusis, that is Nature as a living conscious purposeful entity, operates on a rather larger scale than we do.  It also recognises that we ought to show it some respect.  All of this is why we are advised to live in accord with Nature (Phusis, God, the Logos or whatever you want to call it).

By Stoic teachings, ‘God’ is immanent for the Divine Fire manifests us through the quantum world moment by moment and so permeates our very being.  And knowing this, that we are ‘sparks of the Divine Fire’, gives us cause to study and take on board the Stoic teachings in order that we may better harmonise with the Whole.

However coming back to the issue of ‘common perceptions’, it is recognised that the Wisdom of the Ages (to be found as a common theme throughout most faiths) encourages us to live a life of good rather than a life of selfish self-interest.  We are expected to even rise above the drive of ‘the selfish gene’ and to see the imperatives of the ‘God’, the Whole, as our imperatives – we are asked to live in accord with Nature ‘so doing none of those things which the common law of mankind is in the habit of forbidding’ while striving to fulfil our rolls in life to the best of our abilities.

Why?  Because we are one with the Whole, so what harm we do to the whole we do to ourselves and what harm we do to ourselves we do to the whole.  We may view in isolation what we see as our interests, but to do so is to bring about disharmony.  We Stoics are taught that our interests have to harmonise with the interests of the Whole.  Not just that of our family, our tribe, our society etcetera, but that of the whole Cosmos at all of its levels.  Stoics are taught to be selfish through selflessness.  If it is in the interests of the Whole then it is in our interest. Even to the point that we must be prepared to sacrifice ourselves if necessary.

From the understanding of the Divine Fire comes the rest of the teachings to help the Stoic through the good times and the tough times.  Stoicism will offer little help if it is treated as a coat that one can put on and take off as needed.  Unlike CBT which aims to make a person ‘feel better’ about themselves at a particular time and place, Stoicism helps the Stoic all of the time to be as contented as possible with whatever is thrown at them for they will be looking to the bigger picture.

Stoicism is a philosophy for life (and death).   It teaches an understanding of our place within the Whole.  It teaches about human nature and ethics.  It teaches us about our relationship to the One God, the manifestor and sustainer of existence.  It then offers some practices/exercises so as to enable the habitualisation of the thought processes needed to enable the living of a contented life while also living an honourable life in harmony with the Whole.

So it is that the Divine Fire is the starting point for understanding all of the teachings.  Until one understands the very foundation of the Stoic framework one cannot start to understand one’s place in life. And it is through understanding one’s place in life that a life of contentment (eudaimonia) can be achieved.

About the author: At 68 years old I have been a Stoic philosopher for the last 25 years, having discovered that I had been a Stoic long before I ever read about Stoicism.  Instead of trying to ‘modernise’ and dumb down the Stoic teachings I have tried to look to the original intent of the teachings and to compare this with what present day science is leading us towards and have found no real conflict.  I follow Seneca’s advice not to get hung up on the individual words but to look to the teachings as a whole and as such hold to the fact that Stoicism is theistic in nature and would be incomplete if it is stripped down to satisfy the atheistic fad of the modern age. 

‘Stoicism for Passionate People’ by Lindsay Varnum

Stoicism for Passionate People’ by Lindsay Varnum

I cry when I’m ecstatically happy. I cry when a friend or family member or sometimes even a stranger cries. I cry when I’m angry or when something’s not fair. I cry at orchestra concerts. I occasionally cry at museums if I’m seeing for the first time a work of art that touches me deeply. I admit to having more than once cried in the middle of sex just because I was having such a good time.

It seems I was always like this. My father’s nickname for me was Little Feist. My constant crying as an infant and violent temper tantrums as a young child were scary and overwhelming for my mother, who just wanted to make it all stop. Luckily for her, my more tranquil and easy-going siblings soon came along, providing her with amiable distraction from her first child’s baffling intensity. If my strong feelings were difficult for my mother to deal with, they were much more so for me. Even as a young child I was able to perceive that I was more sensitive than most people. Unfortunately I only saw the negative aspects of this and how it made me a challenge for my family, teachers, and peers. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to see the positive side of being passionate. As a child I didn’t want to be seen as the difficult, oversensitive one and these strong feelings scared me and made me feel out of control. I spent all of my childhood and young adulthood at best trying to hide my emotions and at worst suppressing them entirely.

In my thirties within a short period of time came a series of life changes that made it impossible for me to continue dealing with my feelings in the same way I always had. My father died young and unexpectedly, I experienced a crisis of faith, divorced, left my religious community, and suffered a large financial loss. I wanted to handle all of this with strength and dignity. I kept getting up in the morning and going through the motions of daily life. I could still laugh and give hugs and dance, so I thought I was doing ok. But then I would find myself in public places like the grocery store with tears streaming down my face for no apparent reason. I was not doing ok.

I discovered Stoicism and started practicing it because I wanted to silence the compulsive negative thoughts that were making me feel increasingly worse about myself. That was the emergency situation that had to be handled immediately. Once that was under control and I was feeling less anxious and depressed, I realized that in Stoicism I had found a methodical way to work on character development and living my values again. As a member of a strict religious faith I had been used to studying the scriptures every day and tracking my personal spiritual growth. Studying Stoicism, self-monitoring, and practicing meditation came easily to me after a lifetime of religious practice and helped somewhat fill the void left when I stopped practicing my religion.

I started learning about Stoicism less than six months ago and by no means do I have an extensive grasp of it. However, I can share my experience with Stoic practice and how it has helped me so far. One of the many positive effects Stoicism has had on my life is that it has helped me become an even more passionate person.

I know, that sounds like crazy talk. But before you dismiss this assertion, let me explain the three ways I believe that Stoicism can help the passionate person flourish. In this context I define the “passionate person” as one who is highly sensitive and experiences intense feelings.

1. Practicing Stoicism frees us of fear of our emotions.

Somehow in my childhood I internalized the belief that my emotions were bad and could be inconvenient to the people I cared about or lead to sinful behavior. Because I feared my emotions, I practiced stoicism with a small “s” by hiding or suppressing them. I needed to discard this belief, then replace it with the belief that my emotions are a positive part of who I am as long as they don’t keep me from living my values. Before discovering Stoicism I felt constant guilt and fear about how my emotions could affect others. All of that melted away once I really believed that I am responsible only for what I control, and that does not include other people’s feelings.

Also, I know that through the Stoic practice of creating distance between my feelings and myself I can moderate extreme emotions that could potentially send me out of control. I can nip unwanted anger in the bud and pull myself out of a paralyzing sadness. I can bring down into reality the unrealistic, over-exuberant flashes of “genius” that come to me in moments of outrageous happiness. It’s one thing to wake up one morning and say to yourself, “Ok, from now on, my feelings do not control me, I control them. Ta-da!” and an entirely different thing to actually have a system in place that makes it possible for you to do that. Stoic practice has provided that system for me. Experiencing intense emotions and expressing them with considerably less fear and guilt is new to me, and for now at least, it feels healthy and liberating.

2. Stoicism makes us more spontaneous.

Spontaneous people are easier to trust and more fun to be around than those who are on the more inhibited or calculating side. However, being spontaneous doesn’t come naturally to people who are extremely sensitive because we are constantly trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt. We tend to be oversensitive to criticism and the opinions of others. When I learned about Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the first damaging belief I tackled was this idea I had that other people’s opinions of me were of vital importance. That belief had to go because it was causing me serious harm. There were many people, including most of my friends and family, who were critical of me when I divorced and left my religious community. With effort, I have been able to stop caring so much what others think. I know this is true because now I so seldom wonder what someone’s opinion of me is. As Coco Chanel put it, “I don’t care what you think of me. I don’t think of you at all.” Once you don’t especially care what people think of you, you have removed a large impediment to being spontaneous.

When I stopped practicing religion I began to doubt some of my values and I didn’t always know where I stood. This made me constantly second guess throughout the day everything I thought, said, and did. Now I have a set time every morning to study and ponder the principles I want to live by, as well as inspire myself to live wisely throughout the day. I reserve judgment on how well I’ve done until nighttime when I review the day’s events. This setting aside of specific times for contemplation has effectively eliminated exhausting and pointless rumination from my life. Now I can just spontaneously live! And being more spontaneous makes me live more fully and in the moment, more passionately.

3. Practicing Stoicism helps us to become more humble and teachable.

Identifying too closely with our emotions and taking them too seriously shrinks our world and makes us more likely to be self-absorbed. It can be extra hard for passionate people to not get caught up in our emotions at the expense of other more important things, like cultivating virtue. When our feelings are stronger than other people’s, we can easily develop the mistaken idea that our feelings are more important than other people’s.

Stoicism trains us to become detached observers of our emotions, and the space that is thereby created between our feelings and who we really are is magical. All kinds of marvelous things can happen there. The Stoics want us to use that space to insert reason first and foremost so that we make wiser choices, but we can also bring in a sense of humor toward ourselves, one of the most attractive of qualities. It is that space that allows us to attain the perspective in which we recognize our place in the cosmos. It is in that space that we can become wise, humble, and open to change if we choose to do so.

Maybe at some point in life I will tire of being oversensitive, impulsive, mercurial, intense, and otherwise passionate. For now I would like to see how life plays out when I am the most sincere and transparent version possible of myself. I like to think that I can maintain these qualities I’ve had since childhood and at the same time cultivate virtue; that the one does not preclude the other. I like to believe that passion and eudemonia are not mutually exclusive. I feel like it is too early in my experiment to draw any definite conclusions, but so far, so good.

Lindsay Varnum is a graduate of Brigham Young University. A Maine native, she now lives in southern Spain, where she dances, laughs, and eats a lot. Lindsay blogs at www.philosofina.com

Stoic Week 2014: The Results!

Report on Exeter University “Stoic week” 2014

Tim LeBon

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PhotoFunia-10797f1b

Key findings

The participants who took part in Stoic Week 2014 exhibited on average

–          Significant improvements in well-being as evaluated by changes in well-being using three validated scales used.   A week’s participation in Stoic Week resulted in a 16% average increase in satisfaction with life, a 10% increase in flourishing, an 11% increase in positive emotions and a 16% reduction in negative emotions.

–          Significant increases in the presence of Stoic attitudes (12%) and behaviours (15%) as measured by the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS).

–          A significant positive relationship between Stoic attitudes and behaviours and each of the measures of well-being.

The above three findings taken together give us reason for cautious confidence for positing the existence of a causal link between adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours (“being more Stoic”) and improvements in well-being, although further research is required to confirm this.

–          In addition the analysis of Stoic attitudes and beliefs (SABS) enables us to discover which elements of Stoicism are most associated with well-being. The items with the highest associations with well-being were:-

–          When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent. (SABS item 19 “Upsetting thought just impression”)

–          I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions. (SABS Item 17 “Stoic Mindfulness”)

–          I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare. (SABS Item 11 “Humanity connected”)

–          It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing item (SABS item 2 “Doing right rather than pleasing people”)

–          I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life. (SABS Item 16 “Ideal Stoic Adviser”)

SABS Item 19 (“Upsetting thought just impression”) is most associated with positive emotion and satisfaction with life whereas SABS item 17 (“Stoic Mindfulness”) is the element of Stoicism most associated with flourishing.

–          There was almost double the percentage of people who completed Stoic week compared to last year (29% compared to 15% retention in 2013)

To read the report in full, click here

 

'On Stoic Etiquette' by Corey Anton

On Stoic Etiquette

Corey Anton

Contrary to some popular oversimplifications, the ancient stoics did not try to ignore, deny, or “bottle up” their emotions.  Nowhere, in fact, do we find Epictetus arguing that emotions are directly under our power.  More accurately stated, the stoics, in recognizing that persons within a passionate state of mind are easily out of control, accordingly procured a philosophy whereby the removal of false belief served as a form of preventative medicine.  They thus attempted, as Martha Nussbaum suggests, “to extirpate the passions,” precluding them through the precautionary measure of strict adherence to reason.  By exercising and disciplining their governing principle, that of dealing with impressions, the stoics aligned their will to get and their will to avoid to those things that are under their power while they also remained indifferent to all those things beyond it.  Passions diminished and dissipated largely as a consequence.

            It should come as no surprise, then, the stoics did not seek or require hermetic reclusion to practice their virtues nor did they value peace of mind at the price of worldly renunciation.  They managed to integrate a reasonable emotional life with the demands of public action and even political service.  Said simply, they understood that eventual outcomes and the opinions of others are beyond control but none of this gives license for dereliction of duty to the larger world.

            Regarding appropriate behavior at public gatherings and in social life, Epictetus offers abundant guidance for any would-be stoic.  I quote at length the advice given in entry #33 of The Handbook.

“Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what is necessary and in a few words.  Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things—of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or of meats or drinks—these are topics that arise everywhere—but above all do not talk about men in blame or compliment or comparison…For your body take just so much as your bare needs require, such as food, drink, clothing, house, servants, but cut down all that tends to luxury and outward show.  Avoid impurity to the utmost of your power before marriage, and if you indulge your passion, let it be done lawfully. Do not be offensive or censorious to those who indulge it, and do not be always bringing up your own chastity.…In your conversations avoid frequent and disproportionate mention of your own doings or adventures; for other people do not take the same pleasure in hearing what has happened to you as you take in recounting your adventures.” (1940, pp. 478-479)

Within this detailed and nuanced description of idealized Stoic manner, we find suggestions regarding demeanor and interpersonal competencies.  We come across advice for concerning oneself with others’ well being while also respecting their privacy, and we gain instruction regarding appropriate abstention from personal posturing and pretentiousness.  Stoicism admonishes against ostentation and self-aggrandizing social behavior, because (a), the opinions of others are beyond one’s control, and (b), people have duties to the larger communities in which they are imbedded.  Such counsel fundamentally stresses that people know their place in the larger social world and that they concern themselves with only what is properly under their jurisdiction.  Here “jurisdiction” means both one’s inward governing principle and well as one’s actions in the wider social world.

            Stoic etiquette outlines how the will to get and/or the will to avoid occur in particular cases, situations most often involving others on social occasions.  The stoic demand is to respect all people regardless of office, social status, sex, or nationality.  Paying respect to another out of mere social grace is one thing (and may beappropriate), but to place others on a pedestal (or to belittle them) due to their station in life is quite another.  The key issue, perhaps obviously, is not a blind obedience to social convention nor is it a dogmatic compliance to custom. It is how well one’s governing principle can be integrated into the demands of social life.

            In The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum writes, “For Stoicism, getting it right is not simply a matter of getting the general content of an act right.  Right content by itself makes only a kathekon, or acceptable act.  To become katorthoma, or fully virtuous act, an action must be done as the wise person would do it, with the thoughts and feelings appropriate to virtue” (1994, p. 339).  The mere outward appearance of fitting in with propriety does not pass the test for stoic virtue.  Virtuous action, more than doing what is socially appropriate, necessarily includes, and is guided by, reason.  The right act, in order to be right, needs to be commissioned by right-minded thought about the issues at hand.  And this insight, properly understood, helps to clarify how “dealing with impressions” informs and undergirds social interaction and public life in the ancient stoic world.

More about CoreyCorey Anton (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1998) is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University.  With wide research interests in communication theory, phenomenology, semiotics, media ecology, communicology, and stoicism, Anton is author of Selfhood and Authenticity (SUNY Press, 2001);Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (Duquesne University Press, 2010); Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology (IGS Press, 2011); and editor of Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals, and Laws (Hampton Press, 2010), and co-editor, along with Lance Strate, of Korzybski And… (IGS Press, 2012).  A Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, he currently serves as the Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics and as the President of the Media Ecology Association.

Corey has a great series of Youtube videos exploring Stoic philosophy too. You can see them here.

‘On Stoic Etiquette’ is adapted from “Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism” (2010) by Corey Anton, copyright (©) Duquesne University Press. 

New Video: Angie Hobbs on Why We Need Greek Wisdom Today (Stoic Week London Day)

Why We Need Greek Wisdom Today

In this engaging talk, Angie Hobbs rounds off the event with a critical discussion of Stoicism, its strengths and weaknesses, with more general reflections on the value of ancient Greek wisdom to modern life.

Angie Hobbs is the professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Click here to see her website.