The Phoenix Cycle: Stoicism in Sci-Fi

By Bob Collopy

The Phoenix Cycle

I am in the midst of writing a sci-fi dystopian book. What makes my book different is that many of the main characters are actually powerful philosophers. Philosophers like Plato, Nietzsche, Camus, Aristotle. One of my characters, Johnny, is a stoic philosopher.

The aim of my book is to help make philosophy cool, thereby encouraging people to learn more about philosophy.

The following is an excerpt from my soon to be published book, “The Phoenix Cycle: Part 1.”

In this excerpt, Johnny goes over some of the basics of Stoicism. The General (actually The Marquis de Sade) challenges his beliefs. See if you can catch it!

Please be advised that this content is PG-13 due to some cursing and graphic content. 

The Phoenix Cycle

The General walked over to Johnny and held out a glass for Johnny to take. “Oh, of course!” The General set the wine glasses on the arms of his

wooden chair and came back to untie Johnny’s arm. Johnny continued to gaze into the fire, hypnotized as the young girl slowly blew away into the setting sky.

“So let me guess.” said The General as he began loosening the rope that had curled itself into a tense knot around Johnny’s right wrist. “She was the girl next door. You grew up seeing her on the other side of your window…

Occasionally, you could muster the strength to ‘run into’ her when you were taking out the trash.” The General raised an eyebrow and begrudgingly changed his tone as he continued his hypothesis.

“When you saw she had brought other boys home, you found that time had halted while you laid in your bed…the only sensation you got from your evening dinner was from its steam, which fumigated your face.” The General droned on. “But when the boy had gone you were first in line to offer a shoulder. You became her friend.” The General glanced up and cringed. “You were, ‘nice.’”

The General returned his attention to the knot. “But somehow, someway, you bridged that friendship gap, didn’t you.

How nice.

And she was amazing wasn’t she. Ohh, she wasn’t perfect but her imperfections made her all the more real. Which is exactly what you wanted. She had become more than an image on the other side of the window. She became yours. “

The knot around Johnny’s wrist melted and slid off.

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Mindfulness and Mindlessness: Epictetus and Buddhism

Aditya Nain, who teaches philosophy in Pune, India, argues for a central difference between how the Buddhist and how the Stoic approaches thoughts. The former, in vipassana meditation, observes them and lets them be, whilst the latter aims more to ‘counter’ impressions (or thoughts) as they arise….

Do you practise Buddhist meditation, or other forms of mindfulness? What do you think of the problem Aditya highlights below?

 Mindfulness and Mindlessness:

Epictetus and Buddhism

I’d like to share what might be called a difficulty I face in my attempts to cultivate Stoic dispositions, or to live everyday life according to the guidelines offered by Epictetus. Epictetus and Buddhism share a lot in common and since I have some experience with Buddhist meditation and have been familiar with Buddhism longer that I have with Epictetus, I tend to compare them, often without realising it. As these comparisons continued to crop us every now and then, I realised some fundamental differences in practice. These dIfferences are as glaring as the similarities. Today, I am going to focus on one of these differences.

Buddhist vipassana, translated these days as mindfulness, is more accurately, ‘mindlessness’. Stoic practice, on the other hand, is truly mindful, and therefore can be characterised as mindfulness. For a practitioner, this is an enormous difference that strikes at the heart of Buddhist or Stoic practice and results in practical difficulties. In fact the difference is so glaring as to seem irreconcilable. The difference is as follows. Epictetus asks one always to keep one’s mind ready to counter any impressions that may arise or one may be presented with. ‘To counter’ here is key, since it involves a head on collision of the mind with the impression. In Buddhist practice on the other hand, impressions (if we can use the same concept at all) are never ‘countered’. The aim is not to counter one thought (‘I have been robbed’) with another (‘Material possessions are externals and therefore none of my concern’). It is simply to observe the phenomena and ride the wave of sensation until it subsides.

This difference between the two is extremely important because for a vipassana practitioner, to counter one impression with another, is an act of suppression and will lead to the emergence of the impression at another point and possibly in another form. My key concern in practicing Stoicism is just this. Both schools accept a real difference between a phenomena, its subjective experience and judgments arising as a result of it. They part ways when it comes to dealing with, for instance, pain. Epictetus asks you to keep handy a reflection that would immediately counter the experience ­as­ pain. For instance that ‘pain belongs to the body and the body is an external’. On the other hand, buddhist vipassana (mindfulness) asks you not to form a judgment at all, because that would merely add another layer to the problem. The aim is to realise the difference between the experience and the experience ­as­pain. The answer would be to observe the experience­ as ­pain with complete awareness in order to transcend the pain­ aspect of the experience.

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'The Art of Acquiescence' by Ryan Holiday

Today we feature our final extract from Ryan Holiday‘s new book, The Obstacle is the Way, which draws on Marcus Aurelius’ idea that “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”, and shows how you can turn obstacles into opportunities and how this has been done throughout history, from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs. In this extract, Ryan focusses on the art of acquiescence and the strength one can take from this art….

The Art of Acquiescence

The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them. —CLEANTHES

Thomas Jefferson: born quiet, contemplative, and reserved—purportedly with a speech impediment. Compared to the great orators of his time—Patrick Henry, John Wesley, Edmund Burke—he was a terrible public speaker.

His heart set on politics, he had two options: Fight against this sentence, or accept it.

He chose the latter, channeling the energy into his writing, which others put into oratory instead. There he found his medium. He found he could express himself clearly. Writing was his strength. Jefferson was the one the founding fathers turned to when they needed the Declaration of Independence. He wrote one of the most important documents in history, in a single draft.

Jefferson just wasn’t a public speaker—that doesn’t make him less of a man for acknowledging it and acting accordingly. Same goes for Edison, who, as most people have no idea, was almost completely deaf. Or Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind. For both, it was the deprivation of these senses—and acceptance rather than resentment of that fact—that allowed them to develop different, but acutely powerful, senses to adjust to their reality.

It doesn’t always feel that way but constraints in life are a good thing. Especially if we can accept them and let them direct us. They push us to places and to develop skills that we’d otherwise never have pursued. Would we rather have everything? Sure, but that isn’t up to us.

“True genius,” as the infamous Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “is a mind of large general powers accidentally deter- mined in some particular direction.”

That channeling requires consent. It requires acceptance. We have to allow some accidents to us.

I can’t just give up! I want to fight!

You know you’re not the only one who has to accept things you don’t necessarily like, right? It’s part of the human con- dition.

If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane.

Yet this is exactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. Or that some intersection is blocked or that a particular road has been rerouted through an inconvenient detour. We can’t argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it.

That is not to say we allow it to prevent us from reaching our ultimate destination. But it does change the way we travel to get there and the duration of the trip.

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News: Update on Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training

News: Update on Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training

Quick update on Modern Stoicism: we now have 50+ people enrolled on new Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course and about 500 registered users on website.

Modern Stoicism

Enrolment proper starts tomorrow, 12th May, and the course begins the following Monday (19th May).

'Do Your Job, Do It Right' by Ryan Holiday

Today we feature our second extract from Ryan Holiday‘s new book, The Obstacle is the Way, which draws on Marcus Aurelius’ idea that “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”, and shows how you can turn obstacles into opportunities and how this has been done throughout history, from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs. In this extract, Ryan focusses on giving your job the respect it deserves…

 Do Your Job, Do It Right

Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble. (Quidvis recte factum quamvis humile praeclarum.)—SIR HENRY ROYCE

Long past his humble beginnings, President Andrew Johnson would speak proudly of his career as a tailor before he entered politics. “My garments never ripped or gave way,” he would say.

On the campaign trail, a heckler once tried to embarrass him by shouting about his working-class credentials. John- son replied without breaking stride: “That does not disconcert me in the least; for when I used to be a tailor I had the reputation of being a good one, and making close fits, always punctual with my customers, and always did good work.”

Another president, James Garfield, paid his way through college in 1851 by persuading his school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. He did the job every day smiling and without a hint of shame. Each morning, he’d ring the university’s bell tower to start the classes—his day already having long begun—and stomp to class with cheer and eagerness.

Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor—teaching a full course load in addition to his studies. By his twenty-sixth birthday he was the dean.

This is what happens when you do your job—whatever it is—and do it well.

These men went from humble poverty to power by always doing what they were asked to do—and doing it right and with real pride. And doing it better than anyone else. In fact, doing it well because no one else wanted to do it.

Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.

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The Epictetus Club: Part Four

In our final extract from Jeff Traylor’s book, the inmates explore the art of good mental boxing, or how you can make a productive ‘counter-punch’ to negative thoughts….

“The prison had been abuzz for days about the escape. Rumors abounded on the grapevine about how Crime Wave had gotten out. One story had him tunneling under the wall, another had him carving a hole through the wall, and another had him climbing over the wall. The most likely method was that he had managed to hide himself in a garbage truck that left the prison earlier that evening, avoiding a search by stashing himself in the garbage bin of the truck. However he did it, the prison would probably be closed by the time the answers would be found. Anyway, it was old news by the time the next Epictetus Club meeting rolled around. Zeno had stayed focused that week and had hung a new frame on the wall that I especially liked:

Round Four

The Prayer of Epictetus

Lead me, Zeus and Destiny, whithersoever I am appointed to go. I will follow without wavering; even though I turn coward and shrink, I shall follow all the same.

The meeting came to order promptly at seven, with Zeno welcoming the members and then moving on to the night’s topic. “A half-hearted spirit has no power, according to Epictetus. And power is a very important part of change. We can have good intentions, but without any

power to carry out our plans we will not succeed. Mike, what is the main way that your stock car might lose serious power?” asked Zeno of one of the men.

Mike, an experienced stock car driver and mechanic, answered that one of the ways was by having a blown head gasket. “You can have all the horses in the world under your hood, but if you don’t have the compression, you don’t have the muscle. Some of your power is blowing out through the hole in the gasket instead of being directed toward powering your car toward the finish line.”

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The Epictetus Club: Part Three

 In our third excerpt from The Epictetus Club, the inmates’ discussion turns to how best to approach emotional and mental wounds from the past….

” At seven sharp the meeting began. Zeno again welcomed all of us and gave a quick review of our last meeting. “Who remembers what ‘fail’ means?” he asked.

Eddie spoke up. “Fear, Apathy, Inertia, Lack of Vision. These are the four walls that keep us in the box.”

“Right. Tonight we’re going to talk about getting past these walls – or to use Animal’s terms, to leave the well and go to the ocean. And we’ll start with a campfire by the water. I’m going to paint two scenarios for you and I would like for you to choose the one you would prefer. In the first scenario, you are walking by the campfire and you trip and fall and your hand goes into the fire. In the second scenario, you are walking by the campfire, you trip and fall, and your head hits a rock and knocks you out as your hand goes in the fire. Which of these two would you prefer?”

The men looked puzzled for a moment, then one of them said, “The first one.”

“Why?” asked Zeno.

“Because I could pull my hand out right away.” Some of the others nodded in agreement.

Another man said that he would prefer the second scenario “because I wouldn’t feel the pain if I was knocked out.” A few others shared his opinion.

The first man then said, “Just because you don’t feel the pain doesn’t mean that damage isn’t being done. What will happen to your hand if you don’t pull it out of the fire?”

The second man then admitted that it would probably burn off, and he asked if he could change his answer to the first scenario.

“Pain and consequences have a good purpose,” explained Zeno, “but only if we pay attention to them. They can motivate us to make changes, to pull our hand out of the fire, but only if we are aware of them. Consequences without awareness are ineffective.” By now everyone was agreeing that the first scenario would be the better choice – that it would be better to feel the pain for a moment to avoid long term damage.

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'The Obstacle is the Way', by Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday‘s new book, The Obstacle is the Way is launched today, and you can read an excerpt from Ryan’s book below, which focusses on controlling your emotions, no matter how difficult the circumstances. We’ll feature some more extracts in a couple of weeks (on May 10th and 17th). Ryan’s book draws on Marcus Aurelius’ idea that “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”. The book will show both how you can use this idea to obstacles into opportunities and how this has been done throughout history, from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs.

Control Your Emotions

by Ryan Holiday

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself. —PUBLIUS SYRUS

When America raced to send the first men into space, they trained the astronauts one skill more than in any other: the art of not panicking.

When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly. They just react—not to what they need to react to, but to the survival hormones that are coursing through their veins.

Welcome to the source of most of our problems down here on Earth. Everything is planned down to the letter, then something goes wrong and the first thing we do is trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out. Some of us almost crave sounding the alarm, because it’s easier than dealing with whatever is staring us in the face.

At 150 miles above Earth in a spaceship smaller than a VW, this is death. Panic is suicide.

So panic has to be trained out. And it does not go easily.

Before the first launch, NASA re-created the fateful day for the astronauts over and over, step by step, hundreds of times—from what they’d have for breakfast to the ride to the airfield. Slowly, in a graded series of “exposures,” the astronauts were introduced to every sight and sound of the experience of their firing into space. They did it so many times that it became as natural and familiar as breathing. They’d practice all the way through, holding nothing back but the liftoff itself, making sure to solve for every variable and remove all uncertainty.

Uncertainty and fear are relieved by authority. Training is authority. It’s a release valve. With enough exposure, you can adapt out those perfectly ordinary, even innate, fears that are bred mostly from unfamiliarity. Fortunately, unfamiliarity is simple to fix (again, not easy), which makes it possible to increase our tolerance for stress and uncertainty.

John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, spent nearly a day in space still keeping his heart rate under a hundred beats per minute. That’s a man not simply sitting at the controls but in control of his emotions. A man who had properly cultivated, what Tom Wolfe later called, “the Right Stuff.”

But you . . . confront a client or a stranger on the street and your heart is liable to burst out of your chest; or you are called on to address a crowd and your stomach crashes through the floor.

It’s time to realize that this is a luxury, an indulgence of our lesser self. In space, the difference between life and death lies in emotional regulation.

Hitting the wrong button, reading the instrument panels incorrectly, engaging a sequence too early—none of these could have been afforded on a successful Apollo mission— the consequences were too great.

Thus, the question for astronauts was not How skilled a pilot are you, but Can you keep an even strain? Can you fight the urge to panic and instead focus only on what you can change? On the task at hand?

Life is really no different. Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check—if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate.

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