On Greek Yogurt

As a practicing Stoic (or, if you like, a progressor—προκόπτων), I always smile when I come to the yogurt section of my local grocery store.

“Oikos” (ὁ οίκος) is the root of English words like “economics” and “ecology.” It means “house,” “home,” or “dwelling place,” and it is one of the first words students of Greek learn.

Οἰκος is also the root word in the core concept behind Stoic social ethics: “oikeiosis” (οἰκείωσις). It is translated with terms like “affinity,” “familiarization,” or “endearment,” and it is both the source of our natural affection toward humanity, and the justification for developing it.

But I always like to keep its root in mind: as if the word meant “making home-like” or “bringing into the family.” And what better way to symbolize family than with yogurt!


On Wasting too much Time with Stoic Theory

This blog has been on hiatus for about six months—and there’s a reason for that.  I decided that I was spending too much time thinking and writing about Stoicism, and not enough time practicing it. 

On 13 January, 2017, I wrote the following as a private journal entry to myself.  Then I virtually stopped long-form writing entirely, began focusing more on memorizing key passages from Stoic texts, and started keeping a much shorter-form journal, more in the style of Marcus Aurelius.  I think the effect on my practice has been quite positive!  I’ll write again more in the future, most definitely, but taking a step back from writing this year has been a good exercise that has helped me keep my priorities in perspective!

Writing about one’s philosophy is like owning a house. You tend to it, you maintain it, and there is always something you can do to organize it better, something to dust off or polish, or a new addition to build or design idea to implement. All together, it is supposed to give you a solid, clean platform for living your life: you take care of it specifically so you don’t have to worry about it while you attend to the things that matter. In the end, however, a house can easily come to own you, rather than the other way around. At my age I still just rent an apartment—but how many times have I used various chores and organizational tasks as a pretense that draws me away from the duties and joys of living? House work is important, but it needs to support flourishing, not take away from it. So it is with reading and writing. Continue reading “On Wasting too much Time with Stoic Theory”

Dear Sandy Grant: I’m a Stoic who Marched on Washington

I practice philosophy—and more specifically virtue ethics—as a way of life.  That means that I try and let moral excellence guide every aspect of my life, not just bits and pieces of it.  I don’t do it very well.  I fail frequently, and I might be a hypocrite sometimes.  But I don’t pretend that ethics is a hobby or a side-project: ethics is life, and it has to permeate every moment.  No topic or activity is outside its scope.  Certainly not politics.

A few days ago, philosopher Sandy Grant wrote a piece for Quartz that lambasts Stoicism for being at best politically ineffective, and at worst “an evasion that aims to keep both master and slave in their places.”  Stoicism, to her, is a philosophy of inaction and of suppressing the complaints of the marginalized.

I believe the opposite, of course: Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasizes action above all else, that takes injustice very seriously, and that is (or ought to be) sensitive to the complaints of the oppressed.

The good and evil of a rational, social animal consist in action and not in feeling, so it is not what they feel but what they do, which makes mankind either happy or miserable.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.16.

Continue reading “Dear Sandy Grant: I’m a Stoic who Marched on Washington”

What Board Games Teach us about the Stoic Life

Experienced ball players can also be seen to act in such a way.  None of them is concerned about whether the ball is good or bad, but solely about how to throw and catch it…

Now, Socrates certainly knew how to play ball.

—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.15,18.

Believe it or not, board games and real life share a great deal in common.  No no, stay with me: just think about it.

In a typical family-oriented strategy game, you have a little bit of choice over how you play (you have to at least try to be clever and competitive) but in the end, the outcome of the game is largely the result of chance.

As a result, even if one player is objectively more skilled than the other on average, it’s anyone’s guess who might win a particular game.  The outcome of the game is only loosely correlated with the player’s strategic skill.

Today, two things happened to me:

  • My part time job gave me a raise (hurrah!).
  • I learned how to play a table-top dice game called Qwixx.

Taken together, these two things drove home a point for me: career events pose very much the same sort of emotional challenge that playing a strategy game does.  Whether we consider a game of pure chance (like gambling) or of almost pure strategy (like chess), there is always a component of a given game that is outside of the player’s control (if only the decisions that other players make).

Continue reading “What Board Games Teach us about the Stoic Life”

“Arrival” and Cosmopolitan Movie Trailers

This guest post by my sister, Teryl Yogeeswaran, offers an interesting case study in cosmopolitan perspective.

I am a polyglot language teacher, and a total sci-fi nerd, so I was really looking forward to the film Arrival.  I’m also an ex-pat, and aware of the subtle differences between my view of America, and the view I might have had if I had remained with most of my friends and family within it’s borders.  I am absolutely fascinated by the different nuances between the American and the International trailers for this film. At least on Youtube one trailer is labeled “official” and one is labeled “International”. The clips they chose to include, and the order they chose to present them in, say loads about Hollywood’s sense of America as seen from within and from without.

Continue reading ““Arrival” and Cosmopolitan Movie Trailers”

A Modern Stoic Reflection on Tradition and Identity

The more I read of ancient philosophy, the more impressed I become at the general tendency that societies have to make extended literary use of story, verse, and references to well-known aspects of their own culture’s literary canon.

  • Confucius, Mozi, and Xunzi never stop talking about the three sovereigns and five emperors of ancient Chinese mythology, and quoting poetry from the Odes and anecdotes from the Book of Documents.
  • Greek-speaking philosophers from Socrates to Marcus Aurelius constantly quote the verses Homer, Euripides, etc, and reference the famous heroes of Greek mythology.
  • Roman authors, not to be out-done, add reverent lines from Virgil and numerous anecdotes to semi-mythic heroes from their own city’s history.
  • Paul’s letters and Jesus’ sermons are peppered with quotes from the Psalms and prophets of the Hebrew canon, and references to Abraham and other characters.
  • Greek orthodox tradition doubtless treats the Greek fathers similarly, and north and south Indian literature each have their own canons, and so on.

The culture of reference has its obvious pros and cons, and every one of these cultures has simultaneously produced lovers and haters of their own canons. But there is something beautiful and powerful about these social behemoths, which I can’t quite put my finger on, but which never ceases to challenge my prejudices and show me that I have more to learn about the wonders of our human Cosmopolis!

Continue reading “A Modern Stoic Reflection on Tradition and Identity”

What does it mean to ‘Follow Nature?’

If you know three or four things about Stoicism, one of them might be that all of Stoic ethics is supposed to be summed up in a simple slogan: follow nature.

The obvious problem here is that “follow nature” is an incredibly vague maxim.   Ask a group of people what they think it means, and you’ll get a dizzying array of answers:  Are we talking about following divine Providence—a cosmic plan?  Or a Walden-like retreat into the forest?  Is “nature” here something like the pattern of Yin and Yang in Eastern Philosophy?  Or perhaps the “inaction” of Zhaungzi?  Or does “following nature” mean strict gender roles and conservative social institutions?  Or perhaps a heavy investment in the scientific method?

I want to propose to you that the Stoic answer is far more simple than any of that: following nature means loving fate and pursuing virtue.

Continue reading “What does it mean to ‘Follow Nature?’”