Just Now, the Door Is Closed by Betty Buehler

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Betty’s post!

 

“We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found.”

This Marcus Aurelius quote is now committed to memory — a faculty ailing as time passes — to be drawn out as needed. And that’s frequently. At age 58, a world of past pain lives in memory, coupled with thinning time for happiness. Marcus’s wise words remind me to appreciate that I am here, now, and to be mindful of how every precious day is spent, even if it’s light-years from what I envisioned 40 years ago.

When I was a teen, my mother — who died at 65, within a year after retiring — advised, “Do whatever makes you happy.” But what was that?

In that Girl-Most-Likely-to-Succeed high school era, the future was bright. I thought happiness might be a wonderful career traveling and writing as a journalist. If you had told me that I would become a stay-at-home mom living in Las Vegas, then a madly struggling divorcée-turned-middle-school-teacher, now facing old-age poverty, I would have thought you were a major asshole, and dismissed it. But the universe will have its way with us.

A hometown friend’s father, when I was in my early 40s and recently released from marriage, affirmed what I knew others were thinking when he point-blank stated, “You were a disappointment. We all thought you were going to go out there and set the world on fire.” And life was a disappointment to me, then and forward. Happiness has been only a fickle and elusive companion.

Fortune steered me to The Emperor’s Handbook (Hicks and Hicks’ translation of Marcus Aurelius) a few years ago, at a time when anger, centered around my job, was eating me alive. Marcus spoke to my trials with this deeply-rooted, negative emotion. I found tools I’d never held. I scoped out Stoicism online, and chipped away, if only amateurishly. I made progress. I accepted my place, and rejected anger.

The job was a link in a chain of events that had begun a few decades earlier. Stoicism has helped me stop blaming myself for everything that’s gone wrong, for things out of my control, thus helping to balance self-loathing and shame. I still do stupid things, and things for which I’m sorry, but now I try to analyze, detachedly, what caused them; to reflect on how to get a grip; to read my Stoic texts; to offer apologies and make amends as best I can. I try to keep things in perspective and be gentler to myself and others.

As I navigate the challenges and poignancy of being an old human, I will look to Stoicism as the counsel I didn’t have in my twenties when a permanent disease captured me, and in the subsequent decades that I spent kicking and screaming about it, while simultaneously blaming myself for failure. Instead of happiness, I seek relative peace in climbing this mountain toward the end, ultimately alone, and for acceptance that it will be a daily struggle, but one in which I may find, occasionally, jewels and delicacies to savor and share.

Happiness should be fleeting, as it is just an emotion like others. Now that I’ve found a philosophy that acknowledges that the door is open, I am no longer drawn to peeking into that door daily. It’s there if I need it in an extreme case, but it’s not where I want to go. I hope, instead, that the universe may grant me the wisdom to recognize and enjoy the wonder that is here now.

 

Betty Buehler finds it a work-in-progress to attempt to apply Stoic principles while teaching sixth-grade science outside of downtown Las Vegas, where she also lives. After giving up writing for some time, she’s back at it. Recently, two of her travel articles appeared at bootsnall.com. She is currently writing about an Italy trip, and friends and family in the Facebook age.     

Applying Stoicism: Stoicism in Retail by Travis Hume

All contemporary occupations can serve as a vehicle for self-improvement, and may be unique in the challenges and opportunities each provide. Among these, some roles involve selling products to others, convincing others of the “value” of those products, and entail regular evaluations by metrics bound to product sales. I aim to describe how those that practice the philosophy of Stoicism might approach these occupations. The demands of a retail position can seem prohibitive, even antithetical, to progress as a practicing Stoic; they are training themselves not to depend their peace of mind on external factors, nor place undue value on external things.

To elaborate, practicing Stoics train themselves to take nothing for granted, aiming to view Virtue alone as the sole good in life, and Vice as the sole evil. According to Stoic philosophy, fellow humans are meant to be seen as brothers and sisters, not by blood, but by the shared property of reason: the chief, defining quality of human beings. Stoics hold that the materials of daily life, external things, have no rightful bearing on one’s quality of life; that choices in light of those things are the only true resources to progress towards the ultimate goal: Eudaimonia, or self-actualization.  This mentality is carried into conventional occupations; the Stoic aims to use the occupation as material for practice, and as a vehicle to guide others directly (when and where appropriate) and indirectly (through leading by example), circumstances permitting; keeping in mind the clause that each individual is ultimately responsible for self-direction.

In light of these tenets, practicing Stoics should be continually mindful throughout their roles of the following:

1) The occupation in and of itself, including all conventional pros and cons, should always be thought of as instructional material to refine one’s Virtues and subdue Vices.

2) Fulfilling the duties and expectations of the career can be appropriately thought of as “playing a game,” wherein we should do our best to do well for the purposes of self-improvement and being an exemplar, but not to depend our peace of mind on the results.

3) “Breaking up the game,” (i.e. refusing a directive) is appropriate if a directive is received that will likely lead the Stoic to knowingly commit an unjust action.

The “world of retail” is one of many arenas in the modern world that the practicing Stoic is likely to find themselves in; one that affords them ample opportunity to achieve their philosophical goals. These goals include the dispelling of appearances of external things, assessing the judgments of others and themselves concerning those things, and refining Stoic principles on a moment-to-minute basis. The retail environment demands a great need for careful, sustained, philosophical self-care and self-management. This is due to daily management pressures to conventionally succeed, and regular exposure to behaviors commonly associated with a products and services atmosphere.

An individual in a customer-facing, customer-service, retail position in an active business may be exposed to very different treatment and challenges on a moment-to-moment basis. A sales associate is commonly expected to balance operational and sales demands with customer needs and service, the success of which is often affected by staffing levels and available tools. If the leadership of the retail organization changes priorities, the initiatives that follow may inadvertently drive these factors to compete with one another to the detriment of its workforce and its customers.

The initiatives may direct the associate to compete against the very metrics they are personally evaluated by on behalf of marginally improving the metrics of the company as a whole. An associate in such a position must then operate under the awareness that they may receive blame regardless of their personal performance due to forces outside their control. It may prompt the associate, their peers, immediate management, or above to manipulate or obfuscate in their work for the sake of results, or even the mere appearance of results. This manner of retail environment often results in very high turnover rate, as an associate no longer contends only with meeting metrics and fulfilling consumer demands, but also daily sentiments of fear, incoherence, and instability attributed to the organization.

The Stoic will find themselves uniquely positioned by their philosophy to resist the morale losses that often accompany a long-term situation like this, as illustrated by Seneca:

Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. Let him regulate his character so that he may in peace bring to perfection that spirit within him which feels neither loss nor gain and retains the same attitude no matter how things fall out. Such a spirit rises superior to wealth and is unimpaired by loss (Seneca, Bk.IV, Ep.XXXVI).

If the Stoic determines that they are better able to serve through their philosophy elsewhere, or can no longer reasonably serve in a position without compromising themselves, they will seek appropriate employment elsewhere. Until such a time however, there is much to learn from being in such a position for the practicing Stoic.

As the only good and evil for a Stoic may be drawn from their handling of circumstances, they will at minimum find solace in having done all that may be reasonably done with the situation at hand in a philosophically consistent manner. Likewise, a Stoic will not permit themselves to be unduly influenced or behave in a philosophically inconsistent manner for the sake of external results, for an improved reputation within their company, or for fiscal benefits:

Never value anything as profitable to yourself which will compel you to break your promise, to lose your self respect, to hate a man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, or to desire what will not bear the light of day. He who prefers his own intelligence and daemon and its perfection acts no tragic part, nor groans, nor needs solitude or much company, … (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Bk.III, 7)

In place of compromising their own values, a Stoic will likely seek to convince those imposing the inappropriate expectations of their errors, or seek out alternative, appropriate, conventional methods to address the same; if such efforts fail, the Stoic will likely consider resignation.

In stable conditions, a Stoic’s consistent aims for self-improvement, leadership by example, and concern for the well-being of others are likely to bring about the same kinds of external results that typically accompany “high-performers” in retail spaces. These external results may include greater notoriety with their customer base and company, higher compensation (e.g. commission, bonuses, or raises), among other conventional advantages. These too represent challenges of a different kind, and demand equal philosophical vigilance on part of the Stoic: the benefits may go as quickly as they arrive, introduced and influenced as they are by any number of factors and forces.

While Stoicism does not prohibit enjoying these conventional benefits for the time they are present, the philosophy warns against a creeping dependence on them; a dependence that will very quickly lend itself to vices if not carefully managed. Whereas the discomforts, inconveniences, and obstacles that often accompany a retail position are often highly visible by their association with mental pangs, the benefits represent an opposite but equal, seemingly silent, pervasive, and beguiling danger:

Do not be carried along by the appearance of things, give help to all according to your ability and their fitness, and if you have sustained loss in things that are indifferent do not imagine this to be damage. Fortune is assigned to a man by himself, it consists of a good disposition of the soul, good emotions, good actions (Marcus Aurelius, Bk.V, 36).

The discomforts of a retail position may result in passions (errors in judgment) conducive to anger, resentment, and indignation, while the benefits of the position may result in envy, jealousy, greed, and the like. The Stoic must always be watchful for both kinds of passions:

You must learn to seek progress in your desires and aversions so that you will get what you want and avoid what you don’t want. … Never place your efforts in one place and hope for progress in another. You must learn that if you crave or shun things that are not in your control you can be neither faithful nor free, but must end by being subordinated to others who are able to procure or prevent those things. The man who practices his principles daily in everything he does is making progress (Epictetus, Discourses, Bk.I, Ch.4).

Depending on the nature of the retail environment, such as a customer solutions role, one may also expect to regularly face an angry, frustrated, contentious, or curt consumer base. This experience will entail behaving calmly and professionally under this treatment while resolving the concerns; some positions may require an associate to go beyond this, and upsell in addition. In all, a person working these roles will likely face myriad internal and external pressures on a moment-to-moment basis.  Even in the best case scenarios (e.g. adequate compensation, tools, staffing), one is still likely to be subject to common projections associated with the company and its services.

While in such an atmosphere, the Stoic seeks to continually, deliberately maintain presence of mind. In Stoic philosophy, the choices of every person are driven by what they hold to be good or evil, and none alive behave in any other way than what seems appropriate to them. Presuming that the Stoic associate properly sustains careful attention over their own thoughts, they will factor in this awareness ahead of their every spoken word or action. Likely, they will inwardly state to themselves a form of the following: “This person is behaving in the way that appears right to them; they may raise their voice, rebuke me, and possibly insult me, but this is because they see me as a means, impediment, or obstacle. I understood the likelihood that I would be approached in this way in this line of work, and so this situation is not surprising. I must speak to them as one human being to another. They are a friend to me, even if it doesn’t appear to them this is the case.”

Expressed differently, in the words of Marcus Aurelius:

Be like the promontory against which waves break. Am I unhappy because this happened – not a bit, rather happy am I though this has happened because I continue free from pain, neither crushed in the present nor fearing the future. Such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have continued free. There is no misfortune, only the course of nature and our adaptation. What event can prevent you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent, secure against opinions and falsehood? Remember when vexed that to bear misfortune nobly is good fortune (Marcus Aurelius, Bk.IV, 49).

This thought process renders ill treatment by others powerless.

A Stoic will find no shortage of opportunities to refine or make considerable gains in their practice in a retail environment. A service role serves well as material for this effort, as there is no shortage of changing conditions. Conventional gains and losses likewise come and go, providing material for the Stoic’s internal constancy. To be unyielding towards fortune and misfortune, to fundamentally care for others regardless of the circumstances, and to utilize each situation as material for practice applies everywhere.

 

Travis Hume is the creator, administrator, and writer of Applying Stoicism and its social media accounts. He writes daily on practicable applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, based upon first-hand real-world experiences.

I Have Writer’s Block So I Argue With Epictetus by Kathryn Koromilas.

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we will publish a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Kathyrn’s post!

 

Every decade or so, I stumble off the Stoic path, I lose my way, I meet with trouble. That’s when I crawl back, in utter wretchedness, and beg Epictetus for directions. In the past, it’s been emotional trouble like lost love. Today, it is creative trouble. I have writer’s block.

According to my website, “I am a writer.” This is the role I’ve been given and although writing’s never gifted me happy fame and fortune, it has gifted me purpose and meaning. This has been happiness enough for me.

For the most part, I have played my role well. I’ve “shown up.” And, at the first sign of slow down, or loss of faith, Epictetus has always been at hand with practical direction: If you wish to write, write.

But, lately, nothing. I can’t do it. I won’t even start.

Blocked writers are deeply unhappy people: we lack motivation and ambition and feel no joy in writing.

I’ve identified the unlikely cause of my creative block: I have become devastatingly afraid of death. I think about it. I shut down. I suffer.

The psychoanalyst who coined the term “Writer’s Block” thought we were all masochists.

Which might explain why I’ve started arguing with Epictetus.

I don’t want to die.

Well, that’s just stupid, Kathryn. Everyone’s gotta die. That’s for sure.

I know that. I just don’t like it.

You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to dislike it. All you have to do is accept it. Otherwise, you will be miserable.

I am miserable!

With that sort of an attitude, you can see why I’m in trouble.

I know that the daily contemplation of one’s death is supposed to fire up our motivation to act. I know about the positive impact of time (and other) constraints on creativity and what better constraint to work with than the natural and unavoidable one imposed by our very own mortality.

If I had a clearer idea of this constraint, say a “death deadline,” I’d be able to schedule and complete a project within that timeframe. As a writer, deadlines offer choice and control about future projects and I feel happy when I see them and meet them. But, for I all I know, I could set one now and die tomorrow. What would be the point of that?

You will have written.

Sure, but what if I am interrupted before I finish and all I leave behind is a crappy first draft? Humiliating!

You’re going to have to die anyway, so of course you’ll be interrupted in the middle of some activity. So, what would you like to be doing when death comes?

I’d like to be putting the finishing touches on a fabulously-crafted, deeply-felt, and intellectually-rigorous novel-of-ideas that will be worthy of my noble role as a writer and contribute to the common good.

Okay, but what if you can’t be caught doing anything as noble as that?

Then, I don’t want to die!

Well, that’s just stupid, Kathryn. Everyone’s gotta die. That’s for sure.

The thing about arguing with Epictetus is that it is plain and simple masochism. Sure, I could live on as the suffering artist. But being caught by death doing just that? No.

If your time to die is now, then you die. But, if your time to die is later, start writing now since you are at your desk and your schedule says that the time for writing is now. (Discourses, Book 4.10)

The time for writing is now.

And, even if I’m caught in the middle of it, I’ll die writing and happy.

 

Kathryn Koromilas spent seven years living in Preveza, Greece, not far from Epictetus’s old stomping ground, Nicopolis. She’s a writer and educator who is exploring the potential for using Stoic philosophy to live a happy writing life. She’s hoping to build a community of like-minded writers at The Stoic Writer

Stoic Happiness in this Fleeting Moment by Meredith Kunz

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we will publish a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Meredith’s post!

 

I’m sitting outside under the shade of a 200-year-old live oak. It’s a warm summer day. I’m watching my two daughters swim as I think about Stoicism and happiness. I hear their laughter and splashing, the leaves rustling, the whizzing of cars passing. 

I look around and know that I have much to be thankful for—my family, home, job, physical wellbeing, among other things. But before I began a Stoic practice I never really saw it that way. I only saw what was missing or lacking or not good enough.

I attribute the fact that I can stop and experience joy in this present moment—with the clear knowledge that it will pass like all others—to Stoic ideas.

It’s a hard-earned moment. Over the years, I have felt encumbered by anxieties and insecurities. Growing up, I was brainy and intellectual, which made me different from most other kids. I was driven to show my worth by being recognized as the best in academics. To motivate myself, I drew on the power of negative thinking. I worried about failure. A voice inside my head used harsh language to discipline me and drive me forward. 

It worked. I studied hard and proved I was capable. I kept achieving academically and earned degrees from top universities.

Did that achievement make me contented and satisfied—in other words, happy? Not exactly. I still felt worried and uncertain—about my choices and my inability to control many things in life that I thought I should be able to manage. These attitudes didn’t change until I began to study Stoic philosophy. 

The knowledge I gained from Stoicism that I can never control other people’s thoughts, emotions, or actions was immensely liberating. I no longer feel pressure to manage or manipulate these things, which greatly lessened a range of anxieties.

It affects me less when others judge me or behave in ways I dislike. People have their own agendas and issues. As Marcus Aurelius points out, many are separated from their faculty of reason and don’t know the difference between good and bad.

I rely on my own “ruling center” as much as I can to make decisions these days. I do what I think is right, and I try not to dwell on others’ judgments or to compare myself with everyone else. Most importantly, I don’t use other people’s praise (or criticism) as the wellspring of my own self-worth as a human being. And I experience much more contentment as a result.

“Will it make any difference to me if someone else criticizes me for actions which were just and right? It will make no difference at all,” Marcus reminds us. (Meditations 10, 13.)

I teach this approach to my children. I’ve made them aware of the “dichotomy of control.” I share ideas on making wise and courageous choices. I seek to demonstrate that humor and happiness can be found even in challenging circumstances.

Our existence in this vast universe is short. Stoic thinkers often remind us of that, too. Yet by drawing on the key principles of Stoicism, we can experience joy in this fleeting moment.

Meredith A. Kunz writes The Stoic Mom, a blog that focuses on how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent’s—or anyone’s—life. She is working on a longer project about women and Stoicism.  You can follow her on Twitter @thestoicwoman.

Did the Stoics Really Say That? By Thomas Colligan

There has been a great surge of interest in Stoicism over the past few years. This interest has manifested itself primarily in online communities. Many members new to these communities are very excited to learn more about and share their knowledge of Stoicism. One popular way to share wisdom on the Internet, is to take a quote that you like, slap it onto a landscape image, and then share it with everyone on Instagram.

In their excitement, many people new to Stoicism end up sharing these various quotes and phrases, thinking that the Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus have indeed said all of them. But very often, this is actually not the case. Many of these misattributed quotes seem fairly close to what these Stoics may have said at first glance, but they often do not hold up to closer scrutiny.

From what I have seen in my own participation within the online Stoic communities, Marcus Aurelius appears to be the poster child for misattributed quotes. Here, we are going to look at some of the most popular quotes that are typically misattributed to Marcus Aurelius, try to figure out where they may have come from, and determine how we might go about distinguishing real quotes from fake ones in the future.

Let’s take a look at the first one.

From what I have seen, this is by far the most prolific quote that is often misattributed to Marcus Aurelius. This quote appears to be denying that there is an objective reality, and is instead endorsing an anything goes subjective view of the world. Marcus and the Stoics certainly would not of endorsed this kind of view. But then, where could this quote have come from? If we look inside of Meditations, we can find some passages that have interesting parallels to the quote in question.

In Meditations 2.15 Marcus says the following:

Everything is what you suppose it to be. For the words that were addressed to the Cynic Monimus are clear enough, and clear too, the value of that saying, if one accepts its inner meaning, so far as it is true.

The first part of this passage, “Everything is what you suppose it to be” sounds an awful lot like the quote we were looking at originally which started off by saying “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.” However, there is a lot of extra context to our passage in Meditations. Who is the Cynic Monimus? This is why having a translation with good footnotes is often important.

In the Robin Hard translation, it notes that Monimus was a Cynic philosopher in the 4th Century BCE who is supposed to have originally said “Everything is what you suppose it to be”. These words were also retorted back to him to show that they are self refuting.

Back in Meditations, Marcus says that these words are “clear and valuable if you accept their inner meaning so far as they are true”. So Marcus is saying here to not take these words literally, but to take their inner meaning. What is this inner meaning? If we read through more of Meditations is starts to become clear.

Do away with the judgement, and the notion ‘I have been harmed’ is done away with; do away with that notion, and the harm itself is gone. – Meditations 4.7

If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your judgement about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgement at any moment. But if what distresses you is something that lies in your own disposition, who is to prevent you from correcting your way of thinking? – Meditations 8.47

From these two passages we can see what Marcus is really saying. That it is not things in themselves that cause us distress, but rather, our judgements that these things are bad which cause us distress. But we have control over our judgements, so we have control over what we consider to be harmful or not. It is in this way that “Everything is as you supposed it to be”.

But this is not to say that all judgements are equally valid, or that we should merely change all of our judgements so that we never think we are harmed by anything at all. This idea isn’t so clear from Meditations alone. We need to actually go to Epictetus, who Marcus Aurelius also drew many of his own thoughts from.

In Epictetus’s Discourses 2.11.13 it says:

Look now, this is the starting point of philosophy: the recognition that different people have conflicting opinions, the rejection of mere opinion so that it comes to be viewed with mistrust, and investigation of opinion to determine whether it is rightly held, and the discovery of a standard of judgment, comparable to the balance that we have devised for the determining of weights, or the carpenter’s rule for determining whether things are straight or crooked.

Epictetus here is explicitly saying that opinion and judgement can be rightly or wrongly held, so there is a correct standard by which to weigh these things. What is that standard by which we can weight these things? For the Stoics the standard is ‘reason’.

This becomes even more clear in one of Seneca’s letters where he says:

Reason then, is the arbiter of what is good and bad, and reason holds cheap whatever is external and not its own. Those things which are neither good nor bad are in its judgement very small and trivial additions; for as far as reason is concerned, every good is in the mind. – Letters to Lucilius 66.35

So reason allows us to form correct judgements about what is good or bad. Whatever is external to us for the Stoics, can neither be good nor bad. Our judgements may tell us that external things are good or bad, but these are incorrect judgements that need to be corrected. We often think we are harmed when actually we are not.

So, if we go back to the original quote we were looking at: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

We can see that:

1. Taken literally, as it often is, this is a self refuting statement, much like that statement that was said by Monimus the Cynic and mentioned by Marcus in Meditations.

2. It conflicts with the idea that the Stoics had, that reason can objectively decide whether an opinion or judgement is correct or not. Based on all of this, I think it is safe to say that this quote is now fully debunked.

Let’s take a look at another one.

The first thing that is interesting to note here is that this is not a picture of Marcus Aurelius, or at least, not the Marcus Aurelius that wrote Meditations. This is an image of Emperor Caracalla who ruled about 20 years after Marcus Aurelius did. Interestingly enough, Caracalla was just his nickname, his full name was originally Lucius Septimius Bassianus, but he was actually renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus at the age of seven as part of his father’s attempt at union with the families of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. So the mistake here actually makes some sense. Whoever created this image just got their Marcuses mixed up.

The quote itself is very agnostic or atheistic in its overall tone. It admits that if the gods exist they may or may not be unjust towards humans, and also admits that they may not exist at all. It seems to hold all potential options as equal in probability and to be of equal weight. However, in general this is not in line with ancient Stoic thinking. The vast majority of ancient Stoics were very pious, believing that the Universe itself was equivalent to God.

If we look through Meditations, we can find a passage, 2.11 that on the surface, appears to be very similar to the quote in question, but at a deeper level, it is very different.

Let your every action, word, and thought be those of one who could depart from life at any moment. But taking your leave of the human race is nothing to be feared, if the gods exist; for they would not involve you in anything bad. If, on the other hand, they do not exist, or if they do not concern themselves with human affairs, why should I care to go on living in a world devoid of gods or devoid of providence?

But they do exist, and they do show concern for human affairs, and they have placed it wholly within the power of human beings never to fall into genuine evils; and besides, if anything were bad for us, they would have taken measures too to ensure that everyone would have it in his power not to fall victim to it.

Here Marcus gives us a very different perspective from our aforementioned quote. Marcus is saying that if the gods do exist, they would care for us and not involve us in anything bad, and if they do not exist we should question whether or not it is even worth living in a world that is devoid of them and providence. Marcus then affirms that the gods do in fact exist, and that they have given us the tools to not fall victim to true evils.

Now in other parts of the Meditations, Marcus does bring up the question of if the Gods exist or whether the universe is just atoms swerving randomly in the void as the Epicureans believed, but Marcus always comes back to the point that either way, whatever is true, it should not change how you behave, that you should be virtuous regardless for it’s own sake.

The last part of our quote in question is actually the most uncharacteristic portion where it says: “If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Marcus frequently rejects the idea that living on in the memories of others is a valid basis for ethical action.

Close is the time when you will forget all things; and close, too, the time when all will forget you. – Meditations, 7.21

Turn it inside out, and see what sort of thing it is, and what becomes of it when it grows old, or falls sick or into distress. Short is the life of both praiser and praised, and of the one who remembers and the one who is remembered; and this comes about in just a corner of one region of the world, and not even there are all in accord, nor indeed is anyone in accord with himself, and the earth as a whole is but a point in the universe. – Meditations, 8.21

One who feels a passionate desire for posthumous fame fails to recognize that everyone who remembers him will die very swiftly in his turn, and then again the one who takes over from him, until all memory is utterly extinguished as it passes from one person to another and each in succession is lit and then snuffed out. And supposing for the sake of argument that those who will remember are indeed immortal, and the remembrance is immortal, what is that to you? I hardly need say that praise means nothing to the dead; but what does it mean to the living, unless, perhaps, it serves some secondary purpose? For you are rejecting inopportunely the gift that nature grants to you in the present, and are setting your mind on what others may say of you. – Meditations, 4.19

So from this, we can seem that Marcus deemed fame, praise, and the memory of others as an insignificant and trifling thing. We have again shown how this quote is an incorrect interpretation of what Marcus Aurelius actually said and thought.

There is one last quote often attributed to Marcus that I would like to cover, and it is this one.

First off, for anyone who is familiar with the content of Marcus’s Meditations, they can almost immediately tell that this is certainly far too positive a statement for Marcus to of written. The tone here should make you suspicious right away. Marcus is much more at home saying things such as:

You are a little soul carrying a corpse around, as Epictetus used to say. – Meditations, 4.41

Or:

When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. – Meditations 6.13

The most similar passage to our new quote in question is from 5.1:

Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ’I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for?

After a little bit of digging online, you can actually find that our quote is first attributed to Marcus Aurelius in a journal from 1913 called The Fra: For Philistines and Roycrofters, Volume 12, which is full of positive affirmations from various sources. The quote is not properly cited in that text, so at this point it is pretty safe to say that Marcus Aurelius did not say this quote either.

Finally to summarize, based on what we have learned, here are five rules of thumb you can use the next time you find a quote posted on the Internet that is attributed to a famous Stoic philosopher.

1. If there is no citation in the quote of where it specifically came from, be suspicious.

2. If it sounds like it endorses full blown relativism, be suspicious.

3. If it contains the image of a character that you do not recognize, be suspicious.

4. If it sounds very agnostic or atheistic in tone, be suspicious.

5. If it sounds like modern day positive thinking, be suspicious.

But does any of this even matter? Why should we care about whether these quotes that are often attributed to Marcus Aurelius are accurate or not?

Well on the one hand, these quotes do not correctly portray what Marcus and the Stoics thought in general. People who are just getting into and learning about Stoicism for the first time will take these as accurate representations, and attain an inaccurate image of what the Stoics were trying to say.

The Stoics were very concerned with understanding what was true, as they believed that knowing what was true or correct was crucial in order for one to live a good life. So it seems only fair that we try and represent their opinions as accurately as possible.

On the other hand, just because the Stoics did not say these things does not mean that these quotes are not valuable, or helpful. Perhaps these quotes in question even contain some truth of their own.

One of Seneca’s more popular sayings highlights this point well:

What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover. – Letters to Lucilius, 33.10

The source of these quotes does not matter as much as whether they are true or not, as the truth is what can help us to live a better life.

Thomas Colligan is a Software Engineer and a practicing Stoic living in NYC. His interests include technology, philosophy, and finding wisdom wherever he can. He was also inspired by Cicero’s archer metaphor in De Finibus to practice archery, and may even pretend he is good at it sometimes.

Stoicism and Happiness by Massimo Pigliucci

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we will publish a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Massimo’s post!

Happiness is a strange word. It’s first use in the English language goes back to the 15th century, and in Shakespeare’s time it meant something different from what it means today: good fortune, in the sense of prosperity. Nowadays it refers to a pleasurable state of well-being and contentment, but even there it may indicate an in-the-moment feeling (“this gelato makes me happy!”) or a long term evaluation of one’s life (“I’m happy with my relationship”). Indeed, psychological research shows that these latter two senses are often at odds: people who have children, for instance, tend to be rather unhappy on a moment-to-moment basis, but often report a high degree of satisfaction when it comes to the meaningfulness of their existence.

It is for this reason that modern positive psychologists (i.e., the psychologists who work on normal aspects of human life, not just the pathologies) have dropped the word altogether. Instead, they have adopted the Greek term, eudaimonia, untranslated. This is an improvement, except that even the ancient Greeks meant different things when using the word.

For instance, the Aristotelians did mean something close to another popular translation of the term, “flourishing,” since they thought that a eudaimonic life requires not just the practice of virtue, but also a certain degree of externals, like health, education, wealth, and even good looks.

By contrast, the Stoics famously said that the sage is “happy” even on the rack, i.e., when tortured. That cannot possibly mean that the sage is flourishing, unless one is willing to deploy a very twisted sense of that term. What the Stoics meant was that — so long as the sage is virtuous (and she is, otherwise she wouldn’t be a sage) — her life was worth living, though very obviously not pleasurable.

Other Greco-Roman schools had their own account of what makes one eudaimon: for the Skeptics it was the suspension of judgment about things, which leads to non-attachment; for the Cyrenaics it was (moderate) physical pleasure; for the Epicureans it was (virtuous) absence of pain. And so forth. Indeed, an appreciation of the differences in how they cashed out eudaimonia is an excellent key to understand the panoply of philosophical approaches within the broad family of virtue ethics.

Within Stoic circles, the major source on happiness is of course Seneca, who wrote a whole book about it. From that book, we can extract what I occasionally call Seneca’s seven commandments, though wise suggestions would be a better way to put it (On the Happy Life, XX, commentary here):

I) I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.

II) I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not.

III) I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.

IV) Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.

V) I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.

VI) I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half-way.

VII) Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits.

I wager that this would be a far better world if we all strove to match our behavior to Seneca’s advice.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He is the author of several books, including How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He produces the almost daily Stoic Meditations podcast and blogs at Footnotes To Plato.

Stoicism and the Family by Liz Gloyn

The following is a summary of the presentation Dr. Liz Gloyn provided at Stoicon-X London in 2017.  Dr. Gloyn will also be presenting at Stoicon 2018 next month.

Stoicism argues that we are each responsible for our moral disposition and thus are fully in control of our own journey towards virtue. It is very much up to us to look at our failings and to seek to improve them by correcting any misunderstandings we might have about what virtue actually consists of; as such, a lot of Stoic activity involves frank introspection and asking ourselves hard questions about whether our conceits and affronts are in fact justified. That doesn’t mean that Stoicism never talks about how we, as individuals, should engage with other people. The Stoics have a lot to say about how the good Stoic disciple should be an active and engaged citizen, and also about how he should interact with other sages, or with non-sages whom he encounters. Yet one aspect of Stoic thought which tends to get overlooked is how the Stoic should interact with his family.

Much of the approach the Stoics advocate is based on their theory of oikeiōsis. The Stoics used this term to refer to two distinct processes which were clearly related to each other, but no surviving text explains the link. The first phase, what has been labelled personal oikeiōsis, happens when we are infants, and is when a child realises that the pink waving thing in front of her face is actually her hand. The second phase occurs once we have reached the age of reason – presumably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen – when we are able to start thinking about the relationship between us and other people.

To explain this process, the Stoic Hierocles used an image of concentric circles. He wrote that the smallest circle is the one that includes the individual and the individual alone; the second circle, which surrounds the first, contains immediate blood relatives; the third circle contains more distant relations, like grandparents, uncles and aunts; the fourth circle contains any remaining relatives. The circles continue, gradually expanding to include neighbours, then members of the same tribe, then inhabitants of the same city, until finally the circles encompass the whole human race.

The process of oikeiōsis is the way in which the aspiring Stoic begins to brings the interests of the people in each of the circles into the circle which contains the self, until ultimately the perfect sage thinks of the interests of all of humanity as being her own. Hierocles talks about the early stages of this process as being firmly rooted in the family. Indeed, the bond between a mother and her baby was often used to illustrate oikeiōsis at work, both in animals and in humans; the way that a mother immediately protects its offspring, often in self-sacrificing ways, was taken as evidence of stepping out of that first circle of the self, into the circle that includes children, and considering someone else’s best interests to be your own.

Hierocles constructs a very different model for understanding ancient family relationships to the conventional ones we might be more familiar with. The normal structure of the ancient Roman family was very strongly hierarchical. At the top of the structure was the paterfamilias, the oldest male in the bloodline; that could be your father, grandfather, uncle or great-uncle, or perhaps even your older brother. The paterfamilias had absolute authority, including the right of life and death, over everyone in his familia, which included everyone related by paternal bloodline, as well as any wives who had married into the familia and any slaves belonging to the household.

Hierocles’ model breaks that hierarchical structure down completely. The first circle beyond the self includes parents, siblings, your spouse and your children, in a subtle significant rearrangement of relationships. First of all, the father is taken down from his pedestal and put on the same level as the mother. Second, rather than simply reproducing the hierarchy with one’s parents at the top of the pile, the model completely abandons a top-down approach, and sees parents as standing in the same relation to us as our siblings, spouse and children. We might have seen our siblings and spouse as being vaguely equal, as they are more likely to belong to our age cohort, but Stoic theory challenges us to move away from thinking about our other family relationships in a vertical way.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about how this model changes our relationship to the family comes from thinking about the role that they are supposed to play in our lives, not just as authoritarian disciplinarians, but as ethical role models. The Romans generally expected fathers to be the benchmark by which their sons would measure themselves, and that mothers would police their sons’ more outrageous behaviour, but saw ethics as a fundamentally civil activity, concerned with producing good citizens, in contrast to the internal focus that Stoicism encourages in its adherents.

Marcus Aurelius puts the various qualities he’s inherited from his family at the front of the Meditations:

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. (Meditations 1, trans. George Long)

That he chooses to open the work with a list of these moral legacies, rather than with (for instance) a family biography, signals that the influence of the family on his moral development has been significant and deserves to have pride of place in the story that he wants the Meditations to tell. If you only read the first page of the Meditations, you will know that he feels debts of gratitude not only to his grandfather and great-grandfather, and indirectly his father, but also to his mother.

Indeed, he says that his mother taught him by her example about not only avoiding evil deeds but even contemplating them – such things simply did not occur to her. To be so in tune with virtue that the opportunity for vicious behaviour never comes to mind is surely what the Stoics would consider one mark of the perfect sage. Equally, simplicity in living is another mark of sage-like behaviour, not to be too attached to the trappings of wealth – although Marcus Aurelius’ definition of a modest lifestyle might not have matched up to the modest lifestyles of his citizens.

Mothers might act not just as models for their sons, but also as companions along the moral journey, further illustrating the Stoic challenge to the assumption of hierarchy in family relationships. In his Consolation to Helvia, Seneca writes a short speech that he imagines his mother Helvia saying as she grieves over his absence in exile, outlining the various elements of their relationship that she misses:

Therefore I am without the embrace of my most dear son; I cannot enjoy the sight of him or his conversation. Where is he, at whose appearance I relaxed my sad face, in whom I lay all my worries down? Where are the conversations which I could not have enough of? Where are the studies in which I took part more happily than a woman, more intimately than a mother? Where is that encounter? Where is that always boyish cheerfulness at seeing his mother? (Consolation to Helvia 15.1, trans. Liz Gloyn)

Alongside missing his smile and his delight in seeing her, Helvia also misses her son’s conversation and their shared studies. As the rest of Seneca’s advice to Helvia makes clear, the subject in question is philosophical – he encourages her to continue with her study of philosophy in order to give her true comfort in her situation. The implication is that Seneca and his mother have been working together on reading and talking about Stoicism, as a shared and mutually enjoyable endeavour. Rather than the parent funnelling down moral knowledge to the child, in a supposedly infallible way, Helvia and Seneca have been partners in the question of ethical exploration; the rigid hierarchy of a relationship based on age has been abandoned.

In part, this is because of Seneca’s own maturation as a rational adult – I am not suggesting the Stoics think this is an appropriate way to parent an eight year old. But the challenge to unquestioned parental authority, and the call to operate through mutual enquiry, seems to be the underlying premise of the relationship here.

These are just snippets of the things that the Stoics have to say about the family. The issue is that the family can often get eclipsed by other things – by the focus on the individual, or by other theories and ideas. But if a Stoic disciple is serious about living a life which is fully consistent with Stoic principles, then she must always apply them consistently – and that includes in her dealings with her family.

Liz Gloyn is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. You can find her blog at Classically Inclined

Dear Seneca, Thanks for the Gratitude by Kevin Vost

Among the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention, excellent Liberalis, is more disgraceful than the fact the we do not know how either to give or to receive benefits…Nor is it surprising that among all our many and great vices, none is so common as ingratitude. – Seneca, On Benefits[1]

Dear Seneca

Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) is among the Stoic authors I hold most dear. I love to read him over and over and particularly enjoy alternating immersion in his world of elegant style and pithy bon mots, with that of the gruff and earthy no-nonsense Epictetus in his Discourses, and the somber profundities of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  Seneca’s extant philosophical writings consist mostly of a series of what are termed “Moral Essays,” in the Harvard’s Loeb Library edition, as well as his 124 Letters to his friend Lucilius. Seneca wrote on a vast number of interesting and important topics and here I’ll zoom in on his most noble musings on gratitude.

Seneca’s work De Beneficiis (On Benefits) is the longest of his moral essays, with 525 pages of text in Loeb’s Latin & English edition. Therein, he looks at the nature of and perfection of both giving and receiving, of the virtues of generosity and of gratitude. His Letter 81, “On Benefits,” summarizes the gist of his writing on gratitude in under a dozen pages.

Among the things for which I’m most grateful to Seneca is the way he so freely and frequently borrows from the sayings of other thinkers of other philosophical schools whenever he thought they spoke important truths about leading a virtuous life. I’ve also been a student of St. Thomas Aquinas for many years, and he was also famous for embracing truth wherever it might be found.  He would write in his famous little Letter of Saint Thomas to Brother John on how to study: “Do not place value on who says what, but rather, commit to your memory whatever true things are said.” (Though Thomas, like Seneca, was also very good about giving credit where credit was due, citing the sources for the truths he passed on to others.)

So, getting down to business, the little essay that follows is an excerpt from Unearthing Your Ten Talents, a book I wrote about Thomas Aquinas’s approach to ten virtues (the classical intellectual virtues of science, understanding, and wisdom; the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; and the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.) It is within his treatment of the virtue of justice, of “giving each person their rightful due,” that St. Thomas expounds on the related virtue of gratitude that helps perfect the virtue of justice.

It is also here, among a few other places in his Summa Theologica, that he freely and frequently makes use of the wisdom of Seneca. In the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, Questions 106 and 107, (ST, II-II, Qs.106 & 107) Thomas includes ten articles  addressing various aspects of the virtue of gratitude and the vice of ingratitude.

A quick perusing by eyeball yields at least 23 direct citations from Seneca along with their locations within his On Benefits. Indeed, he cites Seneca far more often than he does “The Philosopher” Aristotle on this topic. I’ve included some of these citations below. For readers who might like to track some of them down, the Summa Theologica is free and easily searchable online and it will provide the sources. (I am thankful to find that Seneca’s Letters and his On Benefits are also freely accessible online – though I cannot imagine not owning hard copies!)

Anyway, what follows is my excerpt from my Unearthing Your Ten Talents summarizing what Aquinas had to say about gratitude – and how thankful he was to Seneca for paving the way![2]  I think there are still lessons in there of use to all of us today.

 Thanks for the Gratitude

The individual with the talent for justice seeks to repay debts, debts to God through the virtue of religion, debts to parents and country through piety, debts to those excelling in dignity through observance, and debts to benefactors, to those who grant  particular and private favors or benefits, through the virtue of thankfulness or gratiarum actio – gratitude.  St. Thomas tells us that Cicero rightly placed gratitude as one of the virtues annexed to justice.

It was another ancient Roman philosopher, Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), who literally wrote the book on gratitude (De Beneficiis – On Benefits). St. Thomas shares liberally from Seneca’s sliver-tongued words of counsel when analyzing this virtue.  I can barely do it justice here, but I’ll try to show a little gratitude for what these great men have shared on this subject by introducing some highlights and praying that you will seek out more, both in the Summa and in the writings of Seneca.

“Give thanks in all circumstances” counsels St. Paul (1 Thess. 5:18). Let us consider the ways to give these thanks.  First of all, note that we are to give thanks “in all circumstances.” Are you ever tempted to disregard a favor from someone?“Well, she was just nice because she wanted something.” “His wife told him he should do it.” “He didn’t really want to do it for me, but he felt pressure from the boss, his co-workers, or friends.” “He just gave them to me because he didn’t want them himself. (Why, everybody knows he can’t stand black jelly beans!)”  “He gave me the money. So what? He’s rich and it was nothing to him.”  “Sure he put in a good word to get me that promotion, but he just wanted to show his clout.”  (Again I’m reminded of Aristotle’s comment on virtue and how there are so many ways to miss the bull’s eye.)

Let’s hear Seneca on this one:

It is the height of malevolence to refuse to recognize a kindness, unless the giver has been the loser thereby.

And St. Thomas chimes in with his trademark profundity of wisdom and kindness:

It is the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil. Wherefore, if someone has conferred a favor not as he ought have conferred it, the recipient should not for that reason withhold his thanks.

How then, do we show our gratitude to our benefactors in all circumstances?  Seneca says “Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it graciously.” Even if we are benefited by someone so rich or powerful that we can never repay him in kind, we can still repay by our attitude, our facial expression, our words, and our deeds, or as Seneca notes with “good advice, frequent fellowship, affable and pleasant conversation without flattery.”

Further, the grateful “outpourings of one’s heart” should be heard, not only within the benefactors’ earshot, but within the hearing of others, repaying the benefactor with well earned honor.  Aristotle has noted after all, that honor is virtue’s reward. The benefactor who receives some well-earned esteem may then be all the more inspired to seek new ways to continue to benefit others.

When benefits are to be repaid, we should do so promptly and gladly, but we should not be in such a hurry to repay that we inconvenience the giver, or make him feel we have been made uncomfortable by the very favor he conferred.  And what then is the height of ingratitude?  It is not to fail to repay the favor, because we may not always be able to repay, though we would dearly like to. The height of ingratitude is to forget the favor or ignore the debt through negligence.

Surely we’ve all sinned through ingratitude at one time or another.  But how should the person who displays the virtue of gratitude treat the person who does not? We learn from the gospel of Luke, “the beloved physician,” that Jesus told us “lend, expect nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35).  Quite fittingly, St. Thomas advises us that:

he that bestows a favor must not at once act the part of a punisher of ingratitude, but rather that of a kindly physician, by healing the ingratitude with repeated favors.

To conclude in the words of old Seneca himself:

Is a man ungrateful for one benefit? Perhaps he will not be so for a second. Has he forgotten two benefits? Perhaps a third will recall to memory the others that have dropped from his mind…. In the presence of multiplied benefits the ingrate will not dare to lift his eyes: wherever he turns, fleeing his memory of them, there let him see you – encircle him with your benefits.[3]

[1] John W. Basore, trans., Seneca, Moral Essays, vol. iii, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001 [1938]), 8. (Seneca addressed this work to Aebutius Liberalis of Lyons, not to be confused with Lucilius, the close friend to whom Seneca addressed his Letters, Natural Questions, and On Providence.)

[2] The only thing not present in the original is the concluding quotation from Seneca.

[3] Ibid, 13.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D, is the author of eighteen books, including Unearthing Your Ten Talents: A Thomistic Approach to Spiritual Growth through the Virtues and the Gifts (Sophia Institute Press, 2009) and The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).

Seneca’s Smartphone: Stoic Principles for Managing Digital Distraction by Jack Reeves

I hope this isn’t a spoiler alert: Lucius Annaeus Seneca did not have a smartphone.

Marcus Aurelius didn’t wear an Apple Watch; Musonius didn’t take selfies; Epictetus, not  once, to my knowledge, fired off a gChat. Stoicism’s architects lived before any of these modern day ubiquities.

But what if they hadn’t?

Stoicism is, in many ways, a product of its time, but it’s also a universal and timeless philosophy that can be adapted to the challenges of today. No Stoic is better suited to this adaption than Seneca, whose work often mines the mundanities of everyday life (exercise, parties, going to bed) for insights on the construction of the virtuous soul.

No, Seneca never explicitly tells us to take fewer selfies. But with a little tweaking, Seneca’s wisdom can be used to forge a healthier relationship with our digital devices.

I speak from experience. Seneca helped me grapple with a digital distraction crisis of my own. His practical advice on dealing with distraction, over-information, and mob mentality, among other hazards made me rethink how I used my technology. It enabled me to negotiate a healthier, more purposeful relationship with my digital devices.

All it took was imagining Seneca’s smartphone.

What is digital distraction?

I gave a version of this talk at Stoicon X 2017 in Toronto. I started by asking a few questions:

  1. How many people here own a smartphone? (Every hand went up).
  2. How many people take their smartphones with them everywhere except the shower? (Every hand stayed up).
  3. How many of you take it in the shower, too? (Some laughter — but hands still stayed up!)

A roomful of people with smartphones isn’t out of the ordinary today, but it’s remarkable how quickly the technology has proliferated. Mere decades ago, few people owned a cell phone. Today, over 80% of Americans carry these palm-sized supercomputers, which deliver gobs of information, entertainment and stimulation 24/7.

Smartphone saturation is only one aspect of a broader information revolution that is transforming life as we know it. The internet, computers, smartphones, wearables, public WiFi, and a proliferation of new media, social networks, streaming services and the like have radically changed how humans engage with their world.

Walk into a coffee shop, public park, boardroom, airport, classroom, museum or subway car. Or just examine yourself. You’ll find a species fascinated by glass screens. We hunch over our computers and crane our necks down at our smartphones. We don’t even bother to put them away on the sidewalk or in the bathroom. Why bother?  There’s a whole universe of stimulation behind those screens — and it’s faster and more enticing than the reality around us.

To be clear, I’m in no position to judge. I own (and use) a smartphone, a tablet, and even an Apple Watch. (Yes — I’m one of those guys). But in recent years, I’ve managed to reshape my my relationship with digital devices to be ordered and purposeful, not mindless.

What changed? I found Stoicism — and then I consciously applied its lessons to my digital habits.

How Seneca helped me beat digital distraction

I used to be a hardcore digital junkie. I toggled continually between inboxes, social media channels and news sites, gorging myself on information, overloading my brain with stimulus. I spent each day in a frenzy of buzzes, chimes and notifications.

  • If something happened in the world, I knew about it first (and probably hit the comments section to make sure everyone knew how I felt).
  • If I had a thought, quip, or pleasant/unpleasant experience of any kind, I immediately fed it into social media for immediate validation.
  • If I had a spare moment, I filled it by reaching for my phone and hunting through texts, email, and social media, until some pleasant little morsel provided a hit of reward.

I lived in a state that I now realize was digital distraction. It was a “love of bustle,” as Seneca writes, that wasn’t industry—it was “the restlessness of a hunted mind.” (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr 3 (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Digital distraction is everywhere, but the symptoms are easily recognizable. When we find ourselves staying up at night compulsively surfing social media, or peeking at our phones during quality time with loved ones, or getting overwhelmingly distraught over the latest news headline that popped up on our home screens—that’s digital distraction.

Seneca, while never dealing with digital distraction, tackled the challenge of leading a virtuous and productive life while dealing with temptations and adversaries both internally (ego, avarice, hatred) and externally (fate and the amoral universe).

With that in mind, I ran a thought experiment: what might Seneca think about the smartphone? (Ignore, for a moment, that he’s been dead for two millenia). After all, much of his work touches on the same issues that lie at the root of digital distraction.

Seneca devotes considerable ink to things like money, socializing, and food, which are both necessary to life, and yet equally capable of causing great amounts of suffering. I suspect he would view digital tools in a similar light. The line between use and distraction is not always clear. We must, therefore, employ philosophy to guide us.

Seneca is also interested in cultivating a well-ordered mind. He continually explores the relentless tug of distraction, egoism and vanity, among other influences—and he gives us plenty of advice on how to deal with them. If the smartphone offers powerful distraction and egoism, then Seneca’s wisdom will help us manage it.

Challenges & Adjustments

Below are four guiding principles, drawn from Seneca’s writings, that I have used to negotiate healthier relationship with my digital devices.

To help organize things, each principle has a challenge—how digital distraction can make things difficult. And then, I’ll suggest adjustments—tactics that I’ve used to troubleshoot the distraction.

Principle 1: Don’t Waste Time

Challenge:

One of digital distraction’s chief symptoms is wasting time on things that don’t matter. We let inbound emails and texts, gossip, inflammatory news stories and the latest social media outrage pull us off course. We spend hours browsing through social feeds or playing brainless tap-tap games.

Our time is precious. Seneca advises us:

In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most extravagant. De Brevitate Vitae, Ch. 3 (trans. Damian Stevenson)

We hand our time over to digital distraction because the distractions are enticing. Media companies use algorithms to find the most salacious headlines. Social media employs the same tactics as slot machines to keep us “pulling the lever” (swiping down our feeds) over and over, hunting for a payoff.

The result? We disregard Seneca’s advice; we sacrifice precious minutes and hours to a never-ending feed of nonsense designed to harvest our attention for ad revenue.

Adjustments:

  • Install a content filtering app on your digital devices. My personal favorite is Freedom. It lets you configure lists and allow access only at certain times.
  • When you need to do work, put your phone on silent and move it out of easy reach. Properly do the work you intend to do.
  • Purge your phone of the most distracting and time-wasting apps. I’ll play addicting games like Angry Birds for hours, so I just don’t allow them on my phone.

Principle 2: Don’t Drown in Information

The Challenge

The internet has dramatically increased the availability and volume of information, and accelerated the speed at which this information is delivered. Today it’s possible to wake up, grab your iPhone from your nightstand, and ingest more information in a few moments than our ancestors would have encountered in weeks. You don’t have to leave your bed to check your mail, read the news, or see what your friends got up to last night.

Our smartphones and wearables compound this condition by supplying a continual drip feed of alerts and notifications, buzzes and chimes. Breaking news headlines, texts from friends, work emails, IMs and more continually pepper our day with pinpricks of information.

Seneca warns us to avoid “discursiveness,” advising us instead to “linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works” if we want to enhance our personal wisdom. We should avoid restlessly jumping between information sources because:

everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr II (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Bear in mind that Seneca writes in a time when over-information meant reading too many books. The internet and smartphones have opened new frontiers in our ability to overindulge.

The Adjustment

  • Disable all notifications but the most important ones. On my phone, I only get texts and phone calls. Everything else (e.g. emails) is checked on my schedule. I have my computer in “Do Not Disturb” mode.
  • Favor “slow-release” media like books and print newspapers over their hyper-addicting digital alternatives.
  • Enforce phone-free times (the first hour of the day and final hour of the day, at minimum).

Principle 3: Don’t Engage With Crap

Challenge

The internet is full of crap. Mass media has never been a friend to reason, but for many years, human beings were at least running the zoo. Information, whether distributed in books and newspapers, over the radio or on cable TV, was editorially curated. A real person decided what to put out into the world. And it was (relatively) hard to get the word out there — one generally needed considerable resources to get published or to get something on television.

The internet flattened barriers to entry, making it easy for anyone and everyone to produce media capable of reaching millions of people in mere seconds. To manage this huge quantity of information, networks switched from editorial curation to algorithmic curation: non-human lines of code that cycled headlines and links based on clicks and views.

What effect did this have on the media? You’ve seen it:

  • The rise of click-hungry tabloids and content farms like Drudge Report and Huffington Post, which provide emotional roller coasters while purporting to provide “news.”
  • A host of independent blogs, digital “influencers,” and anonymous crowds—creating an outrage culture addicted to mob mentality and cyberbullying.
  • An overwhelming tend towards negativity, resentment, bitterness, complaining and gossip—after all, this is what gets the clicks!
  • Proliferation of clickbait headlines, each one competing to be the most sensational, scandalous or emotionally resonant.
  • Rampant circulation of misleading “fake news” (on BOTH sides of the political spectrum, mind).

Is it any wonder that higher social media usage correlates with a higher likelihood of depression in young adults?

Seneca recognized the alluring, but harmful, nature of crowd psychology. He warns:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith.

What are we to do? Choose our company carefully. In the same letter, Seneca advises:

Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr VII (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

We must be particularly mindful, in our climate of ready outrage, to avoid that which makes us angry. Seneca tells us that the wise, peace-seeking man will:

shun the company of all those he knows are likely to provoke his anger… [and] choose men who are honest, easygoing, and have self-control. De Ira (trans. Leighton D. Reyonlds).

Adjustments

  • Stop reading cheap, hastily-assembled clickbait crap. Don’t reward it with your attention or emotional investment. Reward high-quality media sources that report the facts.
  • When consuming digital media, ask: “Does this make me a better person?” If you find it stroking your ego, or bringing out the nasty little child inside of you, get out of there!

Principle 4: Use technology purposefully

Challenge

Digital distraction persists because technology is woven into the fabric of our lives.

You might try to look at your phone less, but you get important emails for work. Or, you go for a hike and take your phone for safety — and wind up looking at Facebook when you should be enjoying the view.

Remember, smartphones are powerful stimulants for the reward center. Dopamine, the brain’s feel-good molecule, is released when we encounter (or anticipate encountering) novel data, social information, and emotionally stimulation. All smartphones do is make this reward center activation seamless, which is why we sit in front of them, pecking away like lab rats.

Seneca would advise us not to seek a never-ending source of rewarding pleasure on our phones, but to be satisfied with what we have in the moment. “Nature’s wants are slight,” he writes, “the demands of opinion are boundless.”

When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr XVI (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

If you’ve lost an hour (or three) to the rabbit hole of social media and online news, Seneca’s description of “limitless” wandering resonates.

Don’t wander. Be clear and purposeful about your intentions when using technology. Digital devices are tools to be used productively, not sources of infinite (but ultimately unsatisfying) pleasure.

Adjustments

  • Try this experiment on yourself: For a day, when you feel the need to take out your phone, make a mental note of why. No judgements—just self-study.
    • “I’m taking out my phone to check my work email.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone to see if my Instagram post got any likes.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone because I’m bored.”
  • When you catch yourself in a digital rabbit hole — simply stop. Put the phone down, and take a breath. Acknowledge the impulse to keep surfing, but don’t obey it.
  • Consider moving all of your apps off of your homescreen. This is my phone’s default setup. When I activate it, I’m looking at a blank screen with no information. It’s a reminder to pause and set my intention before using my phone.

Concluding Thoughts

If technology is so often the source of bad things, why do we continue to use it? Wouldn’t it be easier to toss our phones into a lake and move to the woods? Of course not. And this is why a Stoic framework for establishing healthy digital habits works beautifully.

Stoicism advocates being more effective in the world, not withdrawing from it. It takes more discipline, Seneca tells us, to mingle with the mob and preserve our virtue than to avoid the crowd entirely. Similarly, I believe it’s possible to construct a purposeful and virtuous life with technology as an aid, and not an obstacle.

But doing this takes work. The human brain did not evolve for a world in which hyper-palatable, hyper-stimulating distractions stalk us from our desktops, our pockets, our wrists. Leading the kind of life we desire necessitates taking a principled approach to our tools.

In this piece, I’ve given you a few helpful principles — but the true results, as always, come from what you do with them. Vale.

 

Jack Reeves is a strategy consultant and writer based out of New York City.  He writes at jackreeves.io