Connecting Philosophy to Real Life

I recently saw someone ask for specific examples of ways that philosophy has impacted people’s real-world ethical behavior.

In thinking about how I would answer that question from my own experience, I settled on two concepts that I’ve found especially powerful:

  1. Death meditation (no, really!)
  2. Mindfulness

A few years ago, I was reading a book by the philosopher William Irvine that aims to introduce readers to philosophy as a “way of life,” and specifically to ancient Stoicism:

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While I now know that the details of Irvine’s interpretation of Stoicism are hotly debated in the modern Stoic community, he makes a great presentation of how philosophy—as understood by the ancient Greeks—is meant to help us orient our lives with practical spiritual exercises. This idea was best developed by the French scholar Pierre Hadot, and it represents a dramatic departure from our usual view of philosophy as a relatively dry and academic exercise. Without a “philosophy of life,” says Irvine, there is a danger that you will “mislive.”

So anyway, when I reached Irvine’s coverage of the ancient Stoic exercise of negative visualization, something clicked. I already knew about the practice—you just imagine unpleasant events (such as your own death) in a sort of meditation, to prepare yourself for anything that might happen.

What I hadn’t realized is that ancient Greek death meditation was about more than emotional resilience and psychotherapy: it actually has a strong moral component. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live: while you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good” (emphasis mine).

This revelation launched a string of new attempts at habit formation for me. Suddenly I had a way of connecting my moral aspirations with concrete, daily practices in a clear way that Utilitarianism—God bless its ambitions—never really offered me. Within a year of studying this 2,000-year-old philosophy, I had

  • made a monthly goal to call my grandparents
  • started planning ahead and sending birthday cards to friends and family
  • gotten a Bullet Journal and started using an elaborate to-do list scheme to track my private and professional obligations

Often, these actions are trivially tiny. But part of the point of virtue ethics, of which Stoicism is one variety, is that moral progress extends from the tiniest parts of our life up into the biggest and most monumental issues (like political polarization!)

Life is short, so live well: be a good son, husband, employee, etc. This single idea has done more to change my actual behavior than all the hours I’ve spent wading through Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Lyotard combined.


Now, needless to say, I don’t live up to this ideal consistently.

Practical philosophy is a strange struggle—it’s less about organizing your cognitive beliefs, and more about trying to discipline your habits of attention. The aim is to try and get this wonderful, chaotic, complex dynamical system of ours that we call “agency” or our “faculty of choice” (ἡγεμονικόν, in Stoic terms) to sit still long enough to actually follow through on our potential for excellence. Moving philosophical ideas about things like courage, duty, or φιλοστοργία (“heartfelt love”) from our intellectual center down into our actual character is a very special and tricky process!

The concept of attention or mindfulness (προσοχή, in its Stoic incarnation) is probably the second big idea from my study of philosophy that has tangibly impacted my ethical behavior.

One of the ideas that you’ll encounter in mindfulness meditation courses is that such practices can knock us off of autopilot, and help us create a sort of space between an impression and our choices. Having practice with this makes it a bit easier to remember to “pop into” a slightly detached state when we need it most. From a Stoic perspective, when (and only when) I am on top of my mindfulness game, that’s when I have the most ability to move principles into actions.

When I’m paying attention, I can actively remind myself to live up to my best principles (“don’t guzzle that soda,” “be attentive to your wife,” “do something nice for your family,” “stop procrastinating,” “go learn something new”).

Of course, usually I’m out of the mindful habit, and I go through life as a sort of consumerist automaton. But as the Stoics would say, our goal is progress, not perfection!

When the Stoics Make a Bad First Impression

Despite all the glowingly positive things I have to say about Stoic philosophy on this blog, the truth is that Stoicism made a really bad first impression with me. It’s been a lesson to me in the dangers of judging a philosophy too quickly!

Like perhaps most people, my early exposure to the Stoic writers left me with the impression that they were a pretty cheerless, risk-averse bunch who suppressed their emotions and had strangely stiff notions of what “appropriate” behavior ought to be.

They struck me as obsessed with eliminating uncomfortable emotions, and as indifferent to the events around them. Epictetus’ Enchiridion 1, probably the most famous summary of Stoic practice, did nothing for me at all. I didn’t see the big deal about the dichotomy of control (what is so great about cutting yourself off from the outside world?). And when I got to Enchiridion 33, where he basically straight-up recommends that we be no fun at parties and enjoins us not to “laugh much, or at many things, or without restraint,” I had had enough.

Continue reading “When the Stoics Make a Bad First Impression”

Introducing “Stoics in Action”

We are excited to introduce http://www.stoicsinaction.org as the new extended home of the Stoics for Justice group!  I will continue posting here on Euthyphroria with personal reflections on Stoic practice from time to time, but I expect that I’ll be doing more writing at Stoics in Action from now on.

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Stoics in Action is devoted to promoting and developing socially-engaged Stoicism as a vibrant way of life. We have three basic aims:

  1. To show the world by example that—contrary to popular belief—Stoicism is an active, affectionate, philanthropic, and politically engaged way of life.
  2. To provide a forum for contemporary Stoics to develop and refine their approach to social life in six key domains: family, career, service, politics, the environment, and intersectional identities.
  3. To provide a nexus for Stoics to organize joint philanthropic projects, and/or to share tips and resources on how to get involved with service.

Read more in the introductory post: Introducing “Stoics in Action”!

Beyond the Big Three: The Best 5 Stoic Texts not Written by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, or Epictetus

The so-called “Big Three Roman Stoics wrote some incredibly powerful and influential literature. Seneca, Epictetus, and of course the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius are by far the most popular authors among fans of Stoicism today, and modern Stoic practice would scarcely be possible without them!

But for all their hard-hitting advice and thematic consistency, the Big Three can sometimes be a frustratingly limited resource. As remarkable as they are for their artfully crafted window into Stoic practice, these texts were not meant for beginners. None of them really attempt to offer a survey or general explanation of the Stoic life and its aspirations: modern readers of these texts are just kind of left to pick it up as they go along. Because of this, the provocative ideas that are found in the Big Three often raise as many questions for modern readers as they answer. The big ideas that pull Stoicism together into a coherent and compelling philosophy of life tend to be hidden in the background, where they are only alluded to in a brief and piecemeal fashion.

Luckily, there is quite a bit more literature by and about Stoics that survives from the ancient world! This additional material is essential for anyone who is trying to really understand (much less live by) the moral and mindful life recommended by these ancient philosophers:

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My personal definition of the Stoic canon. All together, they contain roughly the same amount of text as the Christian Bible.

Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of this extended Stoic corpus. Continue reading “Beyond the Big Three: The Best 5 Stoic Texts not Written by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, or Epictetus”

What political ideas are supported by Stoic philosophy?

Becoming something of a majority leader, Cato pressed his conservative optimates to pass a resolution condemning Pompey’s attempt to change election law for his own interest…

The Stoic leading the statehouse thwarted the conqueror at every turn, using his now-perfected filibuster to kill the populist legislation. With little room to maneuver, Pompey would try a new approach.

—Pat McGeehan, Stoicism and the Statehouse (2017), p. 56–7.

This passage from West Virginia state delegate Pat McGeehan’s recent book illustrates one of many ways that today’s students of Stoic tradition have found it to be a rich resource for ongoing political inspiration.

While the idea of a “political stoic” personality may sound like an oxymoron to our modern ears, the Stoics were famous in the ancient world for being politically engaged.

Today we normally think of a “stoic” as a rather amoral person—obsessed with eliminating uncomfortable emotions, and indifferent to the events around them. But to the ancients, Stoicism was an extremely active and pro-social life stance that focused very much on finding ways to (materially!) serve and benefit the people around us. So much so, in fact, that a Stoic who wanted to withdraw from politics had a lot of explaining to do! Justice—and an especially broad and demanding understanding of Justice at that—is one of the four virtues that lie at the center of the Stoic life, and to be apolitical was tantamount to being un-Stoic.

Modern Stoics have recently dusted off this long-neglected and once-famous aspect of Stoic moral philosophy and begun to bring it back into fashion—McGeehan’s book being a case in point.

Continue reading “What political ideas are supported by Stoic philosophy?”

How can a Stoic Comfort Someone?

Even though Stoic literary tradition is virtually built around the concept of offering comfort and a “healing balm” to the emotionally “shipwrecked,” I think a lot of people find the idea of “Stoic consolation” a little odd.

In contemporary culture, the whole idea raises the image of a stern Spock-like figure trying to offer bumbling advice about human affairs that he neither understands nor really quite cares about.

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In actuality, however, the Stoics had a pretty solid handle on this whole “human” thing, and far from devaluing the important things that tend to get us so emotionally worked up, they weren’t afraid to jump in and get their hands dirty to help make the external world a better place.

Continue reading “How can a Stoic Comfort Someone?”

Stoicism and the Afterlife: You Only Live Once!

Life is like a play: it matters not how long the show goes on but by how well it is acted. It makes no difference where you stop. Stop wherever you please; just make the ending a good one.

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 77.20.

The ancient Stoics rejected a permanent afterlife, and were agnostic about even any kind of temporary afterlife. The afterlife did not play any role at all in their value system or the argument they made for their ethics.

In fact, the opposite is true: it is specifically because we will all die and we don’t know what happens after death that the Stoic life is so urgently needed.

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head. While you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.

Continue reading “Stoicism and the Afterlife: You Only Live Once!”