from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book
by Zachary G. Augustine
Editor’s Note: The book is freely available to download at philosophyforanylife.com.
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.
All is a matter of perspective. Or, “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”[ii] Good or bad, you live inside your mind, so you make it so. You must make it good.
Every day you will be confronted with things outside of your control. This is not bad. The things themselves cannot harm you. Rather, you harm yourself when you judge these accidental facts as bad. And so things outside of your control are nothing to regret, or worry about, or fear. When you are faced with something like this, tell yourself: I am freed from the burden of trying to control this.[iii]
It is not enough merely to endure these things outside of your control; you must actively deny their importance. They are not relevant; they are indifferent. In a perfect world, you would be indifferent to indifferent things. But you are so used to calling them bad that your mind is often tossed around by things you can’t control. So you must, instead, reject these external things. To fail to deny them is to tacitly submit to things outside of your power. To remain neutral in the face of indifferent things is to behave in bad faith.[iv] You must, in a way, be active in your denial. Not that they happen – for every day you will face matters you cannot control – but rather, it is the meaning of indifferent things that you must reject, that they hold any sway over you and your actions. And your actions are the only thing you can control entirely.
—Surely you admit that much in life is outside of your control.
Yes, of course.
—Then why do you resist those things?
On the contrary, I neither resist nor welcome things I cannot control. I am indifferent to what I can’t control. Instead, I reject their importance. To welcome them is to excuse yourself for your own failures. This reinforces the pleasant illusion that you are not in control of your own life, replacing it instead with a comfortable falsehood that you’re ‘doing the best you can’, that external factors entirely govern your being. But you are in control, you just refuse to accept it. And to resist them is to delude yourself in a different way, that you can change the will of others, control chance, or refuse the falling rain. This you will never be able to entirely control, and you must accept it, or you will grow frustrated. Instead, you must learn an accurate and precise perception of the world. You must be honest with yourself about this appraisal. Only then, will action become easy, and you will know the answer in every case: if you can change it, do so. If you can’t, you must accept it.
—Even if I do accept that, won’t that just lead me to become complacent – to stop trying to control what I can?
You already know the answer to your question – you said it already. The first step, more important than any other, is recognizing what is within your power. You don’t need to deal with all of those other things right now. In this moment, your only focus is to internalize what we have just discussed. You don’t need to have all the answers, you only need to try to tell the difference between what you can affect and what you can’t. It is so obviously true that there will be things outside of your control, yet constantly we frustrate ourselves instead of accepting them. Watch yourself for this habit, and break yourself of it. Try to recognize this fundamental distinction first, and the motivation to affect what you can will follow, you’ll see. Now, all you need is the desire to get better, and the resolve to put in the effort when it matters.
—Don’t you think that attitude is kind of defeatist? You really believe that you can be happy by giving up control over external things? I think when the time comes, you need your health and your family to be happy. You could lose these at any moment.
You again – don’t you have anything better to do than to doubt yourself? Do you never tire of thinking of the worst outcome? To think that my conscience is such a downer. I swear, you are like a doubting little demon, sitting on my shoulder and questioning my every effort! You’re getting ahead of yourself. You’re missing the point of what we’re working on right now. We’ll deal with all of that later, and you’ll see that it’s not quite as it appears. It’s not as if I can ‘give up’ control over something that was never within my control to begin with. It’s just a matter of perspective, and that’s what you have confused here. It’s only natural, you probably have some mistaken beliefs of your own; I know I probably do.
As for health and family, they are outside of your control, but only in part. You can work on both. But part of this work is recognizing that you might lose them. This is nothing to be afraid of, it’s just a fact. And you should be prepared. In fact, you’re obligated to call it like it is and not pretend that they’ll be around forever. And this fact of impermanence shouldn’t cheapen their value in your mind; it makes your time with them all the sweeter.
I’ll deal with your doubts like I deal with anything else. First, I recognize that I can’t control when your objections appear, or even what they are. It’s natural for you to be a pessimist; I feel that same strain in myself often. In certain situations it may even help me to listen to your caution, as having an active conscience is not a bad thing.
But you can get carried away. So, second, I choose to reject your doubts. Now is not the time and you know it; now is the time to learn, and to do that we have to suspend doubt for a moment and actually try. It’s like anything in life – like a lost set of keys or a broken car – you can’t help when it happens or that it does. But it is absolutely essential to choose how to respond, in every case. It won’t help you to get angry that your car is broken. Worse, it’s counterproductive to get angry: that you couldn’t see it coming, that it’s in the past, that anger won’t fix your car, and that you’re already wasting time getting it fixed and moving on in life. The latter reason, you know, is the only thing that is truly within your control: your response to the perception of a broken car. The ability to choose your response is one of your greatest gifts – it very well may be the secret to happiness. It’s so obvious it hardly needs stating, yet just watch your thoughts. How many times do you make yourself angry through choosing a counterproductive response? You know this to be true. So then you also realize how important it is to spend time on this, even though it’s obvious.
Third and finally, I’ll press on in spite of your doubts. This is the response I choose, and it’s one of action. Changing my perceptions will take practice. But how much more peaceful to be concerned only with those things which I can actually affect.
Through drawing this division in my mind, I will separate the wheat from the chaff and safely discard that which I cannot control. With practice, I can train myself to recognize this more and more easily. Soon I will mold and temper my mind in such a way to accept the stresses and weights placed upon it. If I can make disciplining my judgement a habit, I will flex where previously I would have snapped. With practice, I will ride the waves of emotion that used to crash around me. I will forego uncertainty and excessive self-doubt for inner peace.
To domesticate your emotions, rather to be ruled by them – to stand up straight, not straightened – is to live in accordance with nature.[v] Only then can you respond properly to that which truly matters – matters of choice. Honest choice and just action are only possible with the clarity of a disciplined mind. So you must start at the beginning – which no one wants to do[vi] – with watching your thoughts and rejecting those judgements of indifferent things.[vii]
There is a fundamental distinction in every human life. Look at your hands holding this book, your body in a chair. Your body is the limit of your control. Outside of it, the world is subject to many other forces, mostly other people but also sickness and inclement weather and the passage of time. All of this cannot be changed. This essential distinction of control is the ultimate principle of Stoicism. It grounds all that is to follow.
Nothing outside of your control can be changed directly. But through memory and foresight, humans have a seemingly unique gift to alter the world now to better suit us in the future. While we can’t control the future, we can prepare ourselves, change our own minds and bodies, so that when the future inevitably but unknowingly comes, we are ready. You can ready yourself for the future, rather than wait for it to come.
At every moment, realize that the present – the remarkable ability to think this very thought – has suddenly passed. That thought in the line above is now more distant. And now, even further buried. But the past, regardless of how past it is, is always irrevocable by simple virtue of it having passed. That is, one minute ago may as well be one year ago, it makes no difference.
So at every moment divorce yourself entirely from the past. Free yourself from the responsibility of remembering it, for either: it doesn’t matter, or if it does matter, its use is separate from the negative feelings that accompany it.
Whenever you find yourself in the present moment – a snap of attention or focus or a simple awareness of the fact of life – look forward, for that present that was so clear a moment ago is already as distant as your childhood. Barrel ahead and make your future what you wish it already was.
To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea still falls around it.
You’re eating lunch with a friend, who refers to you as a stoic kind of person. What, exactly, do they mean? Cold, emotionless, or overly rational is a fair interpretation. (You would be justified in taking offense at this, which would serve the additional purpose of disproving yourself as emotionless. Although, you quickly realize, taking offense solves nothing.)
While commonplace, this use of the word could hardly be further from the truth. The Stoics were intense, but they were not emotionless. Even the English word ‘apathy’ is a mistranslation of a Stoic word (‘apatheia’), which translates literally as ‘without suffering’. If you are truly apathetic, you would be more properly understood as ‘invulnerable’, perhaps even ‘secure’ or ‘free’.
This misunderstanding is telling. In fact, it is illustrative of the true teaching of Stoicism, which feel at times like Buddhism. Mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “It is not always the pain per se but the way we see it and react to it that determines the degree of suffering we will experience. And it is the suffering that we fear the most, not the pain.”[ix] Too often, you think that emotions themselves cause problems. (If only you could be less angry, less jealous, more passionate, and so on.) Emotions are natural and cannot be denied or stopped. In themselves, feelings are not bad. It the anticipation and the fear that drives suffering. The mistaken belief that this feeling is bad, or harmful, or permanent. On the contrary, emotions are something to be enjoyed, and embraced, but not let grow out of hand. This is hardly a utilitarian desire to feel less pain – to feel in control is in itself a high form of pleasure. Emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, follow as a natural extension of life, as natural as the bones and muscles that make up our bodies. And all living things can be trained and strengthened.
This ideal state of apathy is available to all. Aurelius writes, “The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.”[x] Aurelius is establishing the second key tenant of Stoicism, that of indifference to indifferent things. Together these two principles of control and indifference inform three disciplines, or active practices, integral to a good life. The three disciplines of judgment, of assent, and of action, each concerned with a different scale and focus, each with their own strategies and mental imagery, but each relying on the distinction between what is within and without your control.
Zachary G. Augustine is a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.com. Zachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.
[i]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Jeremy Collier, 1701, III.9.
[ii]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays, Modern Library ed. (New York: Modern Library, 2002), IV.3.
[iii] This is no quote I’m aware of, but I would not be surprised if it exists in some Stoic text. I may have read it and forgotten where, which can be said about many of the maxims written here.
[iv] See: Jean-Paul Sartre. Thanks Bart Van Wassenhove for making this connection explicit.
[v] “Stoicism is about the domestication of emotions, not their elimination.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb and “To stand up straight – not straightened.” Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, III.5.
[vi] “But it is not complicated. It is just a lot of it. And if you start at the beginning, which nobody wants to do – I mean, you come in to me now for an interview, and you ask me about the latest discoveries that are made. Nobody ever asks about a simple, ordinary phenomenon in the street. What about those colors? We could have a nice interview, and I could explain all about the colors, butterfly wings, the whole big deal. But you don’t care about that. You want the big final result, and it is going to be complicated because I am at the end of 400 years of a very effective method of finding things out about the world.” Richard P. Feynman, Take the world from another point of view, Television, 1973. quoted in Richard P. Feynman, Curiosity, Digital video, The Feynman Series, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmTmGLzPVyM.
[vii] These are the teachings of the Stoic school, particularly the primary sources of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The style of argumentation with your personal demons is a mixture of Aurelius’ Meditations and Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. The deconstruction of Stoic doctrine into three fundamental activities – disciplines of judgment, assent, and action – can be found in Hadot, The Inner Citadel. and the relevant sections on Stoicism in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life. I have attempted to mirror this theoretical structure throughout this book, drawing on Alan Stedall, Marcus Aurelius: The Dialogues (London: Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers, 2005). and Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2002) for inspiration in terms of style.
[viii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.49.
[ix]Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Delta trade pbk. reissue (New York, N.Y: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2005), 286.
[x]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.48.
Interview with Zachary
Stoicism Today: Can you say more about the ‘open-source’ element of this book?
I mean that the text is freely licensed and free to download. Why is a different story.
From the beginning, I wanted to write something that might help someone who may be struggling. When I was going through hard times, I found this relief in Marcus Aurelius. But I’m hardly a Roman Emperor, and getting your book into the hands of readers can be difficult for anyone. By giving it away, I could help more people and get more readers.
This is why I chose to license the book under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Such a license promotes what I think are positive uses — sharing, printing, remixing, classroom use, quoting in another work, and, hopefully, republishing — while snubbing any negative uses, such as reselling, unauthorized compilations, and piracy. The key aspect of the license is that it is ‘ShareAlike’, so any works based on mine need be licensed in a similar fashion. If a company wanted to take my book and resell it, they could, but they would need to say where they got it and make theirs This is what prevents commercial or otherwise unfair use.
Production-wise, the cover photo was public domain on Unsplash, and the fonts were all open-source projects, too. The result is that new ideas and technology allowed me to more easily present ancient philosophy to modern readers — at no cost to myself during production, or to my readers during distribution.
A final benefit is compatibility with the growing body of ‘open’ content. Copyright today wants to build each thing its own safe and isolated little pond, separate from everything else. But decades of this practice has dried up the ground between all the ponds, making it difficult for anything else to grow there. Those who are lucky or strong enough to build and maintain their own ponds are happy enough, but everyone else is miserable. So those who were left out got together and, little by little, built a tremendous reservoir with thousands of tributaries. Now, everyone who chooses to be a part of this new system benefits from everyone else. Their participation only improves the whole, too.
Stoicism Today: And what about the content of the book itself?
Augustine: Right–it relates somehow!
Just as the ideals of Creative Commons and open-source software purport an almost utopian vision of society, philosophy, too, idealizes its audience. It’s true that not everyone has access to the education, time, or money necessary to read. Despite this, perhaps because of it, philosophy has a long tradition of accessibility. This may seem a little counterintuitive when one considers ‘philosophy’ today. But the philosophy I know — and the philosophy that Stoicism Today also delivers — is by anyone and for everyone. This is what’s unique about Stoicism compared to other schools of thought: a notion that we are all students learning and practicing, however imperfectly, in an effort to better ourselves.
Like a student, a Stoic may revisit the same simple ideas many times in an effort to internalize them. Different than a student, however, a Stoic puts what they learn into action. What you learn changes you through the act of reflection. The philosopher wants to live a good life. In that sense, we are all already philosophers.
Practice becomes very important. One can always practice more to strengthen that most important of muscles: the mind. Thankfully, many Stoics practice by reading, and then rewriting what they found in their own words. This has led to a rich tradition of themes and images common to Stoic texts, a tradition I hope I have contributed to. The sense of practice, rephrasing, and repetition is lends Stoic texts an intensely personal flavour, and why the best of them — your Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Letters of Seneca, and Enchiridion of Epictetus — are actually personal writings. When these ancient authors sincerely express their vulnerability, the result is both empowering and humbling.
This is the experience that I wanted to give a modern reader, even if they hadn’t read a single word of philosophy beforehand. And for those who are more well-versed, I hope that the metaphors, quotes, stories, and historical allusions give philosophy that much more of a living character, and lend an impression more colourful than what a more academic text may offer. In my book, I try to make Stoicism come alive through stories, essays, dialogues, and letters in a conversational tone, just like the original Stoic texts that so many people find comfort in. Just as a Stoic sage might talk himself through a feeling anger welling in his gut, I tried to put this thought process down on paper to show philosophy in action, rather than simply talk about it. This kind of thought process was how Stoics used to practice, to cultivate a defence against all the negative emotions that tend to arise in every day life. And this is how many of them still do.