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. 

Suppose there are two musicians.  One understands musical theory and talks about it most fluently, but is not able to sing or play the cithara or lyre.  The other is ignorant of theory, but plays the cithara and lyre well and can sing.  Which one would you want as a performer?…

Isn’t being self-controlled and prudent about all one’s actions much better than being able to say what is involved in prudence or self-mastery?…  Practice is more important than theory because it more effectively leads humans to actions than theory does.

—Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 5.3,4.

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.

Alternatively, writing philosophy is like being a student. Acquiring a degree, a framework, a basis in your profession—this is imperative! But one shouldn’t cocoon oneself in academia as a “professional student.” Living well is our primary occupation, and sooner or later we must attend to it vigorously.

`Doesn’t reading help to prepare us for life?’

But life is full of many other things apart from books. It is as if an athlete, on entering the stadium, should burst into tears because he is no longer able to carry on training outside.

—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.11.

Theory is fun, useful, and profound. And just like it is difficult to learn a foreign language without some contemplation of grammar, we can’t begin to follow the “good life” in a dedicated and meaningful way without creating models of the many issues that living raises. The philosophical life is nothing if it isn’t constantly engaged in self-examination and re-examination, and in finding better ways of tackling the objections of critics.

When it comes to flesh-and-blood practice of excellence, however, the role of theory seems to be limited. Native speakers of a language have little to no use for grammatical theory: they simply do. As such, Socrates claims in the Symposium that the gods have no use for philosophy, for they are already wise. We humans will always need philosophy, of course, because wisdom is not our first language. But I’m beginning to realize first-hand that there comes a point in which we at least temporarily have succeeded in acquiring a satisfactory model of the Good that we wish to abide by. At that point, the real work that is left no longer consists in finding better, more eloquent, or more unassailable defenses of our chosen ethical system: the work that remains is to transform ourselves into the ideal that we have described.

What is this notebook? This series of journals that I’ve been keeping for so long? What is the goal or telos of my practice of writing? Obviously there are many answers—a place for catharsis, an aid to memory, and, especially, a sourcebook to refer to while writing future essays presenting or defending various positions. But above all of this, my personal writing ought to be directed toward one ultimate purpose: to give me the conceptual framework I need to practice living an ethically competent life.

In my first electronic journal (c. 2014), I was still struggling to understand the value of ethical theory at all in a culture that has largely dismissed disciplined philosophies of life as superfluous. In my second (c. 2015) I was discovering Stoicism and virtue ethics, and diving into the modern literature I had finally found that captured the way I thought philosophy and life ought to relate to one another. Now, with the third volume, my identity as a blogger and active member of the online Stoic community is starting to take precedence—and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It puts an awful lot of emphasis on discourse as the center of my philosophical identity.

Where our enthusiasm lies, there also lies the obstacle.

—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.15.

The ancients warned us time and time again about the dangers of confusing discourse with practice. It is not enough to feel affection for one’s ethical system or to discuss it daily. I resonate strongly with a Epictetus’ hypothetical student who says that not only does he believe in the principles of Stoic ethics, but that “in point of fact, there is nothing that I’ve so approved of from the beginning, or that I’ve liked better, and these are the matters that I now spend my time reading about, and hearing about, and writing about.” He goes on: “I’m not satisfied merely to learn, but I turn the arguments that are presented to me round and round in my mind, and I put together new ones, and equivocal arguments too” (Discourses, 4.6.13, 15). All this thinking and organizing serves a valuable purpose, but it’s only the precursor to genuine philosophical practice.

There are some theoretical tasks I still want to see to. I still want to finish reading the surviving Stoic canon from start to finish—though perhaps I can be satisfied to do less writing and organizing alongside my reading, and simply enjoy the wisdom as it is offered (like a student who is content to learn a foreign language by open-ended immersion, without stopping at each second to make more flash cards and grammar notes). I’d still really like to complete a topical index of Stoic passages, which I started doing in sections scattered throughout Volume II of my journal. And I’ll still continue trying to understand the ingredients that go into effective, kind, and ethically principled dialogue—something I’ll always be deeply interested in, and which I think I can do some good by writing about at some point. Even without all this, at a minimum we always need models of morality, conflict, and motivation in order to resolve conflicts, share advice, be pro-active about learning, explain ourselves to others, navigate our relationship with a tradition or community, form effective critiques of other ideas, and to form collaborations and build institutions. Socrates was overzealous when he said that the gods and the wise have no use at all for philosophy—sometimes action requires us to do theoretical work as a means to an end (what else is rhetoric, anyway?).

In general, however, I think it’s time that I acknowledge that theory has a cost, and that both my progress in virtue and my ability to effectively fulfill my duties would be furthered at this point if I invested less energy in writing about philosophical theory. As Cicero puts it, setting talk about philosophy aside requires “a restraint that it is not easy to practice. The study is one that when once taken up admits of no restriction or control” (De Finibus, 1.1). It would behoove me to make a conscious effort, then, to temperately move my writing habit away from attempts to articulate and grapple with ideas about living, and more toward a day-to-day process of character formation and spiritual discipline via a morning and evening meditation.

If we approached our reading in that spirit… we wouldn’t be reckoning things up as we’ve been accustomed to do up until now, `Today I’ve ready this many lines, and I’ve written this many,’ but would do so in this way instead, `Today I’ve formed my motives as the philosophers recommend, I haven’t exercised any desire, I’ve confined my aversions solely to things that lie within the sphere of choice, I haven’t allowed myself to be intimidated by So-and-so, or disconcerted by So-and-so, I’ve exercised my patience, my abstinence, my cooperativeness.’

—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.17–18.

I’ve built up quite a treasure trove of principles and guidelines for a life well-lived. It’s time that I put more focus on cashing out on them. Maybe it’s time to drop the long-form essay entirely, and to return to memory verses. For that matter, it’s a good time to construct my own mneme. There comes a point, after all, when Marcus’s famous conversation-stopper becomes the most valuable piece of wisdom one can take up:

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.16.

To do this, I need to put some dampers on my enthusiasm for crafting arguments, and really discipline myself to believe that ethical practice is more important than discourse.

5 thoughts on “On Wasting too much Time with Stoic Theory”

  1. I can relate. Those who dwell in the clouds have little intercourse with the lives lived on the ground. They exist. But only in the realm of the gods whose dwelling is not with men. Better to have lived well than to thought – and written – well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m enjoying exploring your blog, Siggy. It’s a haphazard exploration, however, since there’s no archive list or list of topics/categories. We have the “Recent Posts” list, but I can’t tell how many older entries there might be or how to access them. It’s entirely possible that I’m just missing the archive list somewhere, though. If that’s the case, can you please point me to it? If not, you might consider adding one. You write clearly and thoughtfully, and I’d like to be better able to explore everything that’s here.

    I hope your hiatus is going well. And for what it’s worth, I think your motivation for setting aside the blogging is sound. There’s a line from an old Captain Beefheart song that frequently comes to mind in this context: “Somebody’s had too much to think.” That rebuke pretty much sums up the story of my life. 🙂

    Thanks for the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dutch,

      Thanks for the positive feedback! I’ve added an “Archives” widget on the side for you. It’s not the easiest way to browse, I’m sure, but at least it gives you a sort of “histogram” of where the posts are.


  3. Your comparison to language learning is spot on. I am a trained linguist, and what I noticed in college and after is that the ones who did not obsess over theory and grammar were the ones that attained the highest levels of fluency. The more complex you build your models, the more difficult they are to live by. I fully believe that we must train our intuition, and your idea about using verses is very interesting.

    Most modern promoters of Stoicism are academics, who are used to a different way of thinking. Although their blogs are interesting, academics love long-fom and like to overstate their point in very complicated ways. They are needed, and many enjoy reading their posts, but it’s time modern Stoics stand up and start educating people on how one can live as a Stoic every day.

    In this way blogging can actually be a big help for both the reader and writer. If you limit yourself to the themes that you are working on in your life right now, your experience can be a way to organize your thoughts and help others get some interesting insights. You could also work out your journals and takes ideas from them to work into articles. This way you become more conscious of your Stoic practice and are forced to take a good look at where you want go next.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s