Why I Became a Modern Stoic

LOOKING FOR AN ETHICAL TRADITION

I came to Stoicism as an atheist and former Christian looking for a well-developed ethical system that could give me a way to “do work on myself” on a regular basis—or “spiritual exercise” (to use Pierre Hadot’s lovely term).

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

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.

I like the idea that personal growth can be a training process (askesis in Greek—the root of ascetic”), just as intentional and intense as athletic training. So I’m attracted to the idea of building self-discipline, studying practical inspirational texts, and trying to develop moral character through the steady accumulation of good habits.

(The Stoics often compared ethics to training for an olympic competition.)

Just like with physical exercise, though, it can be hard to develop focused goals, stay motivated, and make actual progress unless you have a personal trainer or follow a well-defined training program.

Continue reading “Why I Became a Modern Stoic”

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What is Stoic Logic?

And this is what the Stoics are like in logical matters, so they can maintain that the wise man is always a dialectician. For everything is seen through consideration of it in arguments: both what belongs to the topic of physics and again what belongs to ethics.

—From Diogenes Laertius, our major surviving source for Stoic logic.

Logic” for the ancients included anything that was remotely connected to rational thought. It was the huge, messy toolbox that allowed us to make progress in the the other two branches of philosophy—“physics” and “ethics.”

The Stoics famously compared logic to the wall that surrounds a field (ethics was the fruit, and physics was the land), or to the shell of an egg (with physics and ethics inside).

(Diagram by Massimo Pigliucci)

In its broad sense, then, ancient “logic” included all of what we now call rhetoric, grammar, semantics, logic proper, and epistemology. So Stoic logic involved quite a bit, some of which was extremely influential on later thinkers: Continue reading “What is Stoic Logic?”

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. 


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. 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”