The Modern Stoicism organization does quite a bit of work to promote understanding and application of Stoic practices and philosophy worldwide. In addition to the very blog you’re reading, Stoicism Today, we host International Stoic Week (including the free course and handbook), organize the annual Stoicon, support Stoicon-Xs, carry out and report on research on Stoicism, and a number of other things.
Initiatives of this sort inevitably require some expenses and outlay, so the Modern Stoicism team (who are all volunteers) has started engaging in some fundraising and crowdfunding to support the ongoing work we do. This includes a relatively new Patreon page, on which we have started hosting some exclusive content for monthly supporters.
Each month, we plan to publish a set of answers from a panel of experts on Stoicism to a given question, and we’re starting this month with responses to this one: “What’s the most valuable thing Stoicism teaches us about death?” Answers came in from Massimo Pigliucci, Donald Robertson, Tim LeBon, Piotr Stankiewicz, Gregory Lopez, and Chuck Chakrapani.
Here’s Massimo’s response to that first question:
“One of the things that has always struck me as interesting about the Stoic take on death is that it is essentially identical to the Epicurean one. Despite the manifest incompatibility of the two philosophies in other respects, Seneca here sounds very much like Epicurus:
Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause. (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)
Or, as the famous Epicurean epitaph goes:
I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.
While Seneca rightly says that death is the ultimate test of our character, he is also correct that in a sense we “die every day.” The question, then, is how to best live our life during this ongoing process. The Stoic answer is clear:
Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet. (Letters LXXVIII.14)”
In the Facebook Stoic Philosophy Group, Natasha Brown recently brought up an interesting issue that goes to the heart of matters central to Stoic philosophy and practice. Her post spurred some excellent and far-ranging discussion, and led me to set down some initial thoughts on the matter in an earlier post in my own main blog. Here’s what she wrote:
The Stoic virtue of self-control has been the one I’ve found consistently most difficult. Whether it’s continuing long-term exercise, eating healthily and so on.
I’m reading James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. He argues self-control isn’t sustainable, and rather we should seek to modify our environment to make it easier/more difficult to perform certain tasks. He says “make the cues of your good habits easier & the cues of your bad habits invisible,” thus, stimulating the desired behaviour. Thoughts?
I promised to discuss the issues involved in greater depth and detail in another post. Making use of my prerogative (and sometimes obligation) to regularly publish pieces here in Stoicism Today, that is what I intend to do in this post.
Natasha’s post also included a brief excerpt from Clear’s book:
Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the will-power to master your desires every time. Instead of mustering a new dose of will-power whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control.
Upon a first read, I imagine that at least for some, there are aspects or assumptions to Clear’s view that seem problematic. After all, are the challenges that we face either ones that we have to address once or twice, or those we would have to deal with endlessly, with nothing in between? Can’t we call to mind many examples where we may successfully choose over and over again to maintain a commitment, to resist a temptation, or to keep a potential frustration from upsetting us? Every time I work out at the gym, I exercise what Clear calls “will-power” far more than just twice! Most times I drive somewhere, that’s the case as well. Perhaps he’s just framing matters that way for rhetorical effect, though. Maybe he wants to stress our inability to muscle our way through every situation on sheer resoluteness of decision, or “will-power” alone.
One might also ask – and this gets us closer to why a Stoic might find his advice troubling – is it really such a stark choice we have to make between those two options? Either summon up a “new dose of will-power” each time, or instead “optimiz[e] your environment”?
What prevents us from doing both of these? There is no inherent contradiction between them. In fact, optimizing one’s environment itself requires that one exercise some “will-power”, or at least choose and act, so as to systematically change one’s surroundings.
Or perhaps there is a third option available as well? After all, when we act in accordance with a habit we have at least halfway established – a virtue, say – we have a kind of metaphorical inertia carrying us forwards. We don’t have to make a massive effort of willpower every single time, as if we were starting from the proverbial square one.
Is Environmental Optimizing Problematic?
There are a number of reasons why focusing upon improving one’s environment could seem problematic from a modern Stoic perspective.
A natural first place to focus would be on a distinction referenced in earlier Stoic (and other virtue ethics) thinkers, but which is made explicitly central by Epictetus. This is the famous “dichotomy of control,” which sets the things in our control or power, or “up to us” (ep’hemin) on one side, and the things not in our control or power (ouk ep’hemin). This is sometimes reinterpreted as a “trichotomy” by contemporary Stoics (and if you’d like to learn more about these distinctions, you might read this), but the same basic issue would arise from both distinctions.
Epictetus tells us in Enchiridion 1:
. . . in our power are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and in a word, those things that are our own doing. Those that are not under our control are the body, property or possessions, reputation, positions of authority, and in a word, such things that are not our own doing.
He tells us at multiple points that the things not in our control are externals (ta ekta) and indifferents (adiaphora). An intentional, disciplined, Stoic life requires withdrawing our desires and aversions from these matters. We ought to see that these things don’t – or at least shouldn’t – make any contribution to our happiness or misery, or any difference between an overall good moral condition or bad moral condition.
Attempting to modify one’s environment then seems like an unhealthy and ultimately unproductive preoccupation with things that shouldn’t really matter, with matters that are outside of our control. Instead of looking within ourselves, and fixing what is misoriented, damaged, or off-base there, we focus our attention on things without. And in doing so we reaffirm the mistaken perspective that those external things matter, that they determine how we think and feel. And so, we risk undoing whatever progress we are making along the Stoic path.
One could object, of course, that Epictetus didn’t tell us at all that we should totally withdraw from the world, or even our immediate surroundings, or treat external things with indifference. Instead, he wants us to place all things into their proper perspective. He tells us very explicitly that while external things might be indifferents, the ways in which we “use” or “deal with” (khresthai) those things is not indifferent, and actually matters a great deal. He also cautions against thinking that we are further along in our development than we are. So might it not be a good idea to minimize at least some of the temptations and frustrations that we might encounter?
Here is where the Stoic might shift to a different set of worries. Let’s say that one does thoughtfully examine and then make changes in one’s environment. Getting rid of desire-drawing snacks, candy, or other junk food when one has a track-record of abandoning resolves not to indulge – that might actually work. Minimizing encounters with people liable to be irritating, and eventually infuriating, so that one has fewer occasions for anger – that could help as well. Tidying up one’s domicile and decluttering so as to have a more comfortable place to live, eat, relax, and perhaps even work – that might prove calming to the passions.
But then, isn’t one taking the easy way? Isn’t there a risk of this strategy working too well? Instead of working on oneself, one invests the time, energy, and thought in altering as many other things around one as one can. Perhaps if one has money or other resources, one can actually engage others as substitutes to do that work for one. Insulating oneself away from things, persons, places, or processes likely to present challenges or obstacles seems like a kind of “cop-out”, doesn’t it?
Epictetus himself tends to speak less about the virtues and much more about the need to bring and maintain one’s “faculty of choice” (or “moral purpose”, or “will,” prohairesis) in accordance with nature (for more on that, you might read this). That faculty, which he views not only as self-determining and free, but as being at the core of who a person is (at one point he states “you are prohairesis“) is something in our control. In fact, it is how we exercise that very power.
We are supposed to be exercising it, strengthening it, reorienting it, so that we could get to the point where externals don’t upset us and don’t tempt us – or at least, if they do, we have and exercise the strength to not respond to their promptings. If we make our environment more amenable to ourselves, won’t that deprive us of occasions to develop our own capacities?
Other Stoics would frame this explicitly in terms of the virtues. Let’s clarify what is meant by “self-control”, when we are signifying a virtue by that word That’s a decent modern English translation of the Greek sophrosune, or the latin temperentia. You could also use the old-fashioned term “temperance,” or even more antiquated “continence”, or the term ” moderation” but they all name the same thing, a disposition towards controlling one’s desires, and towards feeling those desires in more measured and moderate manners.
How do we develop the virtues, and wean ourselves away from their opposites, the vices? Through the decisions we make, the actions we take, the practices and exercises we choose and commit to, the models and thought-processes we adopt. We acquire virtues by breaking habits and building new ones in their place. By shifting the focus towards our environment, and making matters easier on ourselves, we could prevent the development of the virtues.
Why develop self-control and deploy it against the temptation to indulge in late-night snacks (one of my own weaknesses, I’ll admit!), when you can simply get all of the possible snacks out of the house? Or at least make it tougher on yourself to get to them? Or whatever other environment-modifying tactic one adopts to reduce or resist the possible temptation? It seems then that this suggestion would be deeply at odds with the approach Stoics should take and apply.
Why A Stoic Should Consider Optimizing
I regularly read discussions in Stoicism-oriented social media, and I see a number of commonly recurring misunderstandings arising with great regularity. One broad class of these involves taking some Stoic doctrine or maxim, and pushing it to the point of generating confusions, precisely because the person doing so doesn’t set it within the larger context of Stoic philosophy. Seneca cautions against this:
you must give up hope that you will ever be able to take just a quick sampling from the works of the greatest men. You must read them as wholes, come to grips with them as wholes. The subject matter is treated along the lines that are proper to it, and an intellectual product is devised from which nothing can be removed.
While a person certainly can parse out little catch-phrases and sound-bites of Stoic philosophy, what they end up with is not Stoicism as the coherent system it is, but just fragments, liable to mislead. Or more correctly, liable to be used by the dabbler to mislead him or herself. So that’s one commonly arising issue.
Another one stems from the assumption that Stoicism is something that one turns on or off like a light-switch. You’re either entirely Stoic, or you’re not Stoic at all. Quite a few people claiming to speak for Stoicism criticize others for not being Stoic enough, or not being real Stoics (I’ve seen poorly informed posters do this even with Donald Robertson in the very Facebook group Natasha’s post is in!)
Stoicism is not just for the legendary “sage” or ideally wise and virtuous person. It is for the prokopton, the person who is “making progress” – something that typically does not follow a nice, neat linear progression, but as Epictetus tells us, involves getting back up after we have been thrown down. Just reading around in the available classic Stoic literature, you’ll find plenty of advice and discussions about how to recover and learn from failure, to follow through on that difficult-to-sustain commitment to improve oneself, to steer oneself back into the right track.
Until we are sages, we will always have to struggle. In fact, there is a certain sort of foolishness – the opposite of prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis) involved in overestimating one’s own present capacities to live, think, and act like a Stoic. The same sort of foolishness underlies giving other people advice that takes no stock of the limited capacities they have for following the lines set out by Stoic philosophy.
It’s quite true to say, along with Epictetus, that “Socrates didn’t give in to X”, and to then draw a conclusions that I don’t have to either. We often labor under mistaken assumptions that we have to respond to things in certain ways, that they make us feel, think, choose, or act what we do. It is a powerful and liberatory insight to realize that by choosing – and then by making that choice repeatedly until it becomes a habit – we can do otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean that, in every single case, we really can in that moment not respond to externals in ways that are counterproductive. Don’t we experience a failure to follow through on our good intentions at some times? Don’t we manage to resist, to endure, to persevere, up to a point, and then you find ourselves with our reserves exhausted? Of course we do, and that’s precisely because we’re not entirely – perhaps not even half-way – where we ought to be. Recognizing that, rather than pretending it is not the case, is integral to making further progress!
So what do we do with that recognition? Here is where the would-be Stoic, the Stoic in-development, has the opportunity to further practice and develop prudence. When you join a gym, intending to get back into shape, and start lifting weights, it would be foolish to try to lift the same amount of weight as the people who have been lifting for years. You take stock of the body you have, you look at its weak points and any injuries, and you start out with the lighter weights. And then you keep at it. Eventually you can start to up the amount, of weight, of reps, or of sets. You can add new exercises. You can lengthen your workouts.
We should look at Stoic practice, at facing temptations, frustrations, and challenges, and at development of the virtues in a similar way. For the time being, for some of us, changing our environment in ways that allow us to start making fairly continual progress makes good sense. We have to start with the faculty of choice we actually possess – and it’s quite likely weaker and in worse condition than we’d like to admit – and use that very faculty to improve itself.
There is much more that could be said about this topic, but I’m going to bring this to a close with one final thought. For most of us, even if we do manage to minimize some of the aspects of our environment that make it more difficult for us to make the right choices and to follow through on commitments, it’s unlikely that we will have thereby deprived ourselves from opportunities to encounter difficulties and to deal with them using Stoic practices and insights. Precisely because the environment does remain outside our control, no attempts to fix it are going to permanently banish problems.
And if you find yourself actually yearning for more troubles to face down, more temptations to resist, more discomforts, more irritations – if you’ve made enough progress to feel like you can take on more figurative weight – then you can certainly choose to engage with them more. You won’t have far to go!
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects
My granddaughter, aged
8, is keen on chess. Maybe obsessed is a better word. She has beat her father a
couple of times, and challenges me to better focus when we play. Recently, we
were playing and she said, pointing, “I wish my queen was here rather than there.”
I start each day with a stoic aphorism. It’s something I reflect on throughout
the course of my day. When Margot said this, I reflexively paraphrased that
day’s adage, “It’s better to wish for what is, than hope for what is not.” Her
father turned, sporting a sly grin, and said, “The old philosopher has spoken!”
My granddaughter screwed up her face and gave me one of those looks. I’m sure
you can picture it.
I mention this because my response to her surprised many in the room, me most of all. I was, of course, paraphrasing Epictetus:
Don’t ask for things to happen as you would like them to, but wish them to happen as they actually do, and you will be all right.
How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Epictetus, Translated by A.A. Long (Princeton University Press, 2018) p. 17.
We have been working our way through the Enchiridion at our local stoa here in Baltimore and had recently discussed this teaching. Aside from being profound advice, the passage resonated with me for it’s literary brevity and poetic symmetry. I always respond with attention when ideas and words align in beautiful ways. But more to the point, my reflexive response to Margot suggested that my stoic studies were taking root, that the ideas had unpacked their bags and begun setting up house. They were becoming residents of my being–my philosophy was becoming a way of life.
When I was practicing Zen Buddhism our teacher exhorted us to consider enlightenment with all seriousness. The wisdom of enlightenment was possible, he taught. We studied the lives and teachings of the ancient masters with a keen eye to the path. I bring that attitude to my stoic practice, and although I acknowledge that sagehood is an aspiration only, I’m nonetheless on the lookout for indicators that I’m moving in the right direction. Granted, perhaps spewing philosophical aphorisms points more to an annoying trait of character than wisdom taking hold; but I wish to believe that a subtle shift has occurred.
Further, it is not lost on me that my position on this speaks to the passage cited directly: Am I asking for a semblance of stoic wisdom because I would like it so, or am I wishing for the thing as it actually is? Regardless of that (somewhat) rhetorical question, I find encouragement in the writing of Pierre Hadot:
The goal is to reactualize, rekindle, and ceaselessly reawaken an inner state which is in constant danger of being numbed or extinguished. The task – ever renewed – is to bring back to order an inner discourse which becomes dispersed and diluted in the futility of routine.
The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press) p. 51.
I am aware that Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were personal exhortations to “reawaken an inner state.” My advice over the chess board to my granddaughter suggested that at that precise and present moment my inner state was awake. My personal capacity for “meditation” was functioning and seeking an opportunity be to exercised. I know this is a minor thing in the grand scheme, but I find it encouraging, nonetheless. A natural response without cogitation is a degree of flow, as it were, a state of being – or in stoic terms, a natural accordance with nature. I’m on the lookout for such little things. As Marcus wrote:
…reflect on the fact that what results from this tiny thing is no tiny thing at all!
My path to this place is, in my experience, somewhat unique. On my eighth birthday, while walking across backyards to my best friend’s house, a curious thought struck me: If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived or will it have been wasted? I have shared this story with many over the ensuing years, and more than a few have suggested that I was a curiously morbid little bugger. Such a thought at eight years old! Perhaps I was, but I don’t really think so.
Regardless, I’ve wondered many times over the years where that question –If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived or will it have been wasted? – came from? There was no trauma in my life, no death in the family. As best I can piece together, it was seeing images from Vietnam on the evening news. Young men at war. It was a frightening prospect, an existential awakening. Ever mindful of the tragic events of that period I am, nonetheless, forever grateful for what unwittingly I learned then. Life is not simple and possibly short, be mindful of it, pay attention to it. My eight year-old self had stumbled upon a theme that was to steer the course of my life. It was my childhood premeditatio malorum moment.
College found me
pursuing philosophy, but to the best of my recollection I took no classes that
introduced me directly to the stoics. Aside from the necessary introductory
requirements my interest lay largely in American philosophy, the
transcendentalists and the pragmatists specifically. Stoicism came up on my
radar many years later and I have Montaigne to thank for the introduction.
Montaigne to Epictetus is a circuitous path, aside from the great philosopher’s
quote the French master had inscribed above his writing desk, “That which worries men
are not things but that which they think about them.” Montaigne is forever
more the skeptic than the stoic, but still the influence is there and it caught
Yet, it wasn’t until Stoic Week 2016 that I made a conscious effort to learn more. As I page through my journal for that week, I smile at the now familiar themes: What is within our power? Self-discipline and Stoic simplicity; The Stoic Reserve Clause; Stoic Mindfulness; Stoic Philanthropy; The View From Above, and so on. These were fresh and new approaches just two years ago, but now the concepts seem like old friends. They have become, as I noted above, a part of my core being, a way of life.
My eight year-old self was challenged: If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived, or will it have been wasted? More than five decades later I would read a response in Marcus Aurelius (quoting Plato):
A real man should forget about living a certain number of years…and turn his attention to how he can best live the life before him.
I am fortunate that the kid back then didn’t wait around for an answer but went looking for it. My definition of how best to live took many forms over the ensuing years. However, I innately sensed that the answer was not to be found “out there.” My most important and insightful attempts to answer the question have always been internal. My youthful goal of a life of philosophical scholarship was derailed. Life and family obligations shifted my focus while simultaneously affording me other opportunities for reflection and growth. Regardless of the path, however, I chose to live as a philosopher, albeit unwittingly so most of the time. To quote Hadot again:
a philosopher in antiquity was not someone who wrote philosophical books, but someone who led a philosophical life.”
The Inner Citadel,p.61
To which I reply, this modern philosopher is happy to wish for what is, and is indifferent to all the rest, regardless of the path taken to this place.
Postscript: My granddaughter did not win the game I mention above. But she did put me in check before I gave her no escape, upon which she again, screwed up her face and gave this old philosopher the stink eye. Check mate.
Doug Brunsis a reader, writer, thinker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses to: having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; missing the summer lakes of his youth, and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. You can find more of his writing on Medium. His blog, “the house I live in” can be read here.