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”

A Modern Stoic Reflection on Tradition and Identity

The more I read of ancient philosophy, the more impressed I become at the general tendency that societies have to make extended literary use of story, verse, and references to well-known aspects of their own culture’s literary canon.

  • Confucius, Mozi, and Xunzi never stop talking about the three sovereigns and five emperors of ancient Chinese mythology, and quoting poetry from the Odes and anecdotes from the Book of Documents.
  • Greek-speaking philosophers from Socrates to Marcus Aurelius constantly quote the verses Homer, Euripides, etc, and reference the famous heroes of Greek mythology.
  • Roman authors, not to be out-done, add reverent lines from Virgil and numerous anecdotes to semi-mythic heroes from their own city’s history.
  • Paul’s letters and Jesus’ sermons are peppered with quotes from the Psalms and prophets of the Hebrew canon, and references to Abraham and other characters.
  • Greek orthodox tradition doubtless treats the Greek fathers similarly, and north and south Indian literature each have their own canons, and so on.

The culture of reference has its obvious pros and cons, and every one of these cultures has simultaneously produced lovers and haters of their own canons. But there is something beautiful and powerful about these social behemoths, which I can’t quite put my finger on, but which never ceases to challenge my prejudices and show me that I have more to learn about the wonders of our human Cosmopolis!

Continue reading “A Modern Stoic Reflection on Tradition and Identity”

What does it mean to ‘Follow Nature?’

If you know three or four things about Stoicism, one of them might be that all of Stoic ethics is supposed to be summed up in a simple slogan: follow nature.

The obvious problem here is that “follow nature” is an incredibly vague maxim.   Ask a group of people what they think it means, and you’ll get a dizzying array of answers:  Are we talking about following divine Providence—a cosmic plan?  Or a Walden-like retreat into the forest?  Is “nature” here something like the pattern of Yin and Yang in Eastern Philosophy?  Or perhaps the “inaction” of Zhaungzi?  Or does “following nature” mean strict gender roles and conservative social institutions?  Or perhaps a heavy investment in the scientific method?

I want to propose to you that the Stoic answer is far more simple than any of that: following nature means loving fate and pursuing virtue.

Continue reading “What does it mean to ‘Follow Nature?’”

Fire in Tennessee, Fire in Lyons

My thoughts have been with the people of Eastern Tennessee this week, as they process the aftermath of the terrifying fire that tore through Gatlinburg.  You may have seen this horrifying video of two men who narrowly escaped the hellscape with their lives:


As often happens after disasters of this kind, some Tennessee natives appeared in the online Stoic community asking if the ancients might have had anything specific to say that could be helpful in times like this.  It just so turns out that they did:

Our friend Liberalis is now downcast; for he has just heard of the fire which has wiped out the colony of Lyons. Such a calamity might upset anyone at all, not to speak of a man who dearly loves his country. But this incident has served to make him inquire about the strength of his own character, which he has trained, I suppose, just to meet situations that he thought might cause him fear. I do not wonder, however, that he was free from apprehension touching an evil so unexpected and practically unheard of as this, since it is without precedent. For fire has damaged many a city, but has annihilated none. Even when fire has been hurled against the walls by the hand of a foe, the flame dies out in many places, and although continually renewed, rarely devours so wholly as to leave nothing for the sword. Even an earthquake has scarcely ever been so violent and destructive as to overthrow whole cities. Finally, no conflagration has ever before blazed forth so savagely in any town that nothing was left for a second. So many beautiful buildings, any single one of which would make a single town famous, were wrecked in one night. In time of such deep peace an event has taken place worse than men can possibly fear even in time of war. Who can believe it? When weapons are everywhere at rest and when peace prevails throughout the world, Lyons, the pride of Gaul, is missing!

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 91.

You can read the rest of the letter here.

A Quick Map of the Online Stoic Community

Sorry, the picture isn’t of real data.  C’mon—we’re not that advanced here…

Modern Stoicism is really a “Web 2.0” phenomenon.  Stoic online communities started forming almost as soon as the Internet was born (the New Stoa, for instance, dates to 1996)—finally, a rare breed of Stoic enthusiasts separated by vast geographic distances could start connecting with each other.  The potent combination of social media and a few highly publicized books and articles, however, has recently launched Stoicism on an exponential growth curve.

As Stoicon and Stoic MeetUp groups begin to become more popular, and as projects like the Stoic Fellowship start trying to facilitate a more solid structure that helps a confederation of local communities thrive in real life, it may be that modern Stoicism will evolve into a worldwide flesh-and-blood organization of loosely-coupled units.

Until then, however, the fact remains that 21st-century Stoicism is almost entirely an online phenomenon.  What follows is a brief sketch of the key landmarks in the landscape—I invite you to look into these groups, and see if you can’t make a new friend! Continue reading “A Quick Map of the Online Stoic Community”

Could Stoics Print a Bible?

It has often been observed that the way that contemporary Stoics study and quote from our ancient texts is somewhat similar to the way that members of Judeo-Christian faiths relate to their scriptures.

Now, some people are very uncomfortable with this analogy!  We live in an enlightened, free-thinking age, after all.  We moderns pride ourselves on our non-dogmatic, independent investigation, and we expect any philosophical conversation to flow freely under only the sacred auspices of free speech!  The very idea of a “canon” or of “orthodox texts” is itself heterodox to many of us.

However much value we find in the ancient Stoic authors, then, we hasten to qualify our love of philosophical texts: they are not scriptures!  we read them for their rational arguments, not their authority! there are many things I disagree with!  I’m not even sure I can call myself “a Stoic!” I retain the right to pick and choose! Continue reading “Could Stoics Print a Bible?”