Philosophy and Will Power

Work is not a good.  So what is?  Not minding the work.

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 31.4.

Will Power Volition Concept

Just how much will power is it reasonable to expect of myself?

Since discovering Stoicism at the beginning of this year, I am finding something extremely powerful in Stoic mindfulness.

At its most basic level, philosophy calls me to think about very good ways to spend my life.  This is what it means to live as if you could die tomorrow.  “Pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension,” says Massimo Pigliucci in his New York Times piece on his modern Stoic practice, “and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness.”

For me, this has meant that I have consciously identified several areas of my life where I would like to function more reliably:

  • Call my parents and grandparents more regularly.
  • Send birthday cards to my friends and family (on time!).
  • Do nice things for my fiancée spontaneously.
  • Work diligently every day.
  • Respond to emails quickly.
  • Be reliable for others: Be punctual, and get tasks done early—especially those little ones that are easy to put off!
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After 2,500 years, the most sophisticated lesson of philosophy is still: “Spend your time on what matters.”

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Triage for Self-Doubt

rejection-cartoonI found out today that I’ve been passed over for a couple of jobs that I thought I was really well qualified for.  I didn’t even get an interview.

Rejection is always deflating, especially when you expected to be very competitive!  More generally, any time we are suddenly confronted with our own inadequacy can be very emotionally jarring.  This happens all the time to us graduate students—I don’t know about you, but I start to question myself every time I have a conversation with somebody that I realize knows way more than me about a field I thought I was well versed in.  Even people with a lot of self-confidence, I think, feel occasional pangs of imposter syndrome.

Whatever triggers my self doubt, these scenarios are absolutely a time for exercising the classical virtue of fortitude.

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Stoic Philosophy in a 5-Bullet Nutshell

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The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is the most famous Stoic.  He is depicted here with kind eyes that convey the Stoic ideal of unconditional love.

So you’ve heard people talking a lot about Stoicism recently—an ancient Roman philosophy that supposedly has astonishingly relevant and well-developed advice to offer us today in the 21st century.

You’re not sure what all the fuss is about, but you’re skeptical.  You just want to learn a little more—quickly.  Why waste time on a set of 2,300-year-old Greco-Roman ideas if they’re just going to turn out to be weird and irrelevant?

Maybe you heard a really powerful quote attributed to an ancient Stoic teacher, or maybe you read about Stoicism’s modern revival in The Economist‘s new offshoot magazine or Massimo Pigliucci’s lovely New York Times op-ed, or maybe you came across Stoic Week on social media—an annual event where scientists at the University of Exeter teach people all over the world to practice Stoic mindfulness, and then analyze the impact that it has on their lives.  You’ve heard people calling Stoicism the Western counterpart to Buddhism, and saying it has all the same great ideas without the weird metaphysical baggage.

Somewhere in all of this, has something caught your attention?

Then without further ado, here are the five main pieces of Stoic philosophy.*

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