How a Stoic can Ally with Angry Birds

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When you study ancient Stoicism, you can’t help but start to see all manner of cultural conversations differently than you did before.

I’m finding this especially true of movies (and I’m not alone—Massimo Pigliucci has felt compelled to write  a number of Stoic movie reviews this year), but boy oh boy is it true of Angry Birdswhich premiered this weekend in the US.

In many ways it’s your standard film about a charming, imperfect, and all-too-relatable hero. Angry Birds is a delightful story about an awkward denizen of Bird Island who has an anger problem.  The film tracks his progress from a dysfunctional member of the avian Utopia who is ordered by a judge to anger management class to the role of a hero: his anger turns out to be the critical tool that the birds need to protect themselves against the eggsistential threat of the big bad pigs!

At the story’s hinge moment, the entire bird community realizes that they are in over their head—and they turn to the outcast students of the anger management class (of all people!) as their teachers.  In order to fight for justice, the birds want to be taught anger.

 

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“This is not the time to be calm and detached!” announce the heroes, as a giant red bird with a violent past too horrible to describe points to a chalk board, showing the innocent birds how to be angry.  This is the time to be non-calm, this is a time to care.  By the end of the story, the birds have absorbed the film’s moral lesson into their mythology: a group of chicks sing a minstrel song about their hero, listing his virtues: “Bravery, humility, an-gaa-ry!”

The film is charming and heart-warming—by now you have seen many cartoons like it.  I never knew there were so many ways to make anger look so cute and harmless!

At the same time, however, as a Stoic, I fundamentally disagree with the film’s moral premise: that if we care, if we want to fight for justice, we must be angry.

Continue reading “How a Stoic can Ally with Angry Birds”

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Stoic Memory Verses

Anna over at A Stoic Remedy has written a lovely post on habits and practices that newcomers to Stoicism can engage in—like reading the ancient texts, looking back over passages that you’ve highlighted as powerful to you, and finding a meaningful method of meditation.

I want to add just one idea to her list: memory verses.  I’ve already written about how I find certain passages from Seneca and Epictetus helpful for battling procrastination and self-doubt.  I’ve recently taken this a step further, by starting to memorize passages that I find morally powerful, as a kind of (secular) spiritual exercise.

Exercise (askesis) is more than a metaphor in ancient philosophy—we form the soul into something good in much the same way that we strengthen the body.

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I like to do both at once: exercise the body while meditating on virtue.  The two kinds of exercise reinforce each other.

Memorizing sacred texts is something most of us left behind with our religious youth groups—but memorization need not be a strictly religious activity.  Memorization can in some way be more powerful than other kinds of study and meditation.

The ancients took memorizing maxims very seriously: it was viewed as a first-rate spiritual exercise for moving principles into one’s character.  The Epicureans, for instance, boiled down their entire philosophy into the famous fourfold remedy, which students could easily recall whenever they were faced with difficult situations:

The gods are not to be feared,
Death is not to be dreaded,
What is good is easy to acquire,
What is bad is easy to bear.

Now that I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading Stoic books, I’ve decided that memorizing a few encouraging maxims is the best way for me to take my practice to the next level.  Because mindfulness and virtuous action are the most interesting parts of Stoicism to me personally, here’s the one I’ve chosen to get started:

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.

 

A text like this, I think, is especially powerful as a morning meditation: it’s motivational, it inspires me to think about what virtues I will need to practice today, and to throw myself into them full force.

It’s also a great one to recite out loud while exercising physically!  It spurs me to action, but also turns physical exercise into a symbolic ritual: I should attend to my mind and character in the same way that I attend to my body.