The Roman Golden Rule

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The famous “Equestrian Statue” of Marcus Aurelius was originally covered in gold.

The Golden Rule is fantastic.  All the world’s major literary cultures—Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, ancient Egyptians, and, especially, Confucians—have at some point recognized that, if you had to choose just one short proverb to live your life by, “treat others the way we want to be treated” is pretty much the best you can do.

The Golden Rule is powerful because it is universal: it captures most of morality in just a single sentence.

I think that a good piece of philosophy, however, has to be more than broad-reaching.  A good proverb has to jump out at you with specifics.  It needs to immediately suggest to you the ways that you can take action to improve your adherence to virtue—not just in some hypothetical scenario in the distance future, but right now.

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In its common, general form, the Golden Rule doesn’t really meet this criterion.  For the Golden Rule to be useful as a philosophy—as a self-monitoring tool, as a meditation practice, as a way of life—it needs to be operationalized.

This is why I love the post that Rob Thompson wrote this weekend over at Prokopton.com: Why Stoics should Love the Golden Rule.  Rob collects no less than 7 variations of the Golden Rule from ancient Stoic literature—and the interesting thing about them is that they are all situation-specific.

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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”

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.

Philosophy and Will Power

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

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 31.4.

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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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Zeus for Atheists

If you’ve studied cosmology, you know that, the weakness and overconfidence of many popular “fine-tuning” arguments notwithstanding, there are amazing, unanswered questions about the origin of order in physics, the “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics,” etc.

The ancient Stoics believed there was a rational order (logos) to the universe. They called this order or purpose “God.” The Stoics were naturalists and materialists who claimed no divine revelation—but they were also pantheists who believed that physics has a lot to say about ethics.

Most modern Stoics are atheists—they discard or reinterpret the Stoic idea of an ordered, semi-conscious universe.  The modern Stoic philosopher Lawrence Becker, for instance (whom Massimo Pigliucci has just finished posting a number of interviews with), is very frank about his atheistic cosmology:

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