Philosophy and Will Power

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

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 31.4.

Will Power Volition Concept

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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Discussing Death with an Uber Driver

What is death?  A “tragic mask.” Turn it and examine it.  See, it does not bite.  The poor body must be separated from the spirit either now or later, as it was separated from it before.

—Epictetus, Discourses II.1, 2nd century C.E.

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Me: I’m going to pick up a rental car.

Driver: Ah, is your car in the shop?

Me: No, but my fiancée needs our car tomorrow, and I need to go out of town for a funeral.

Driver: Ohh…

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Holy Saturday — The Day Jesus went to Hell and Kicked A$@

Let’s be honest, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is the most boring part about Christianity’s most important holiday.  The whole Jesus narrative just kind of goes on pause at the end of Easter Week.

Yesterday we remembered the Crucifixion — a mad drama with unjust villains, angry crowds, torture, tears and forgiveness.  Oh, and don’t forget the earthquakes, thunder and zombies!

But today we’re all just kind of holding our breath, waiting for that moment when Christ bursts forth from the tomb like an unkillable badass and knocks out a bunch of Roman soldiers.

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Are you Team Brutus or Team Caesar?

2056 years ago on this day — the Ides of March — Julius Caesar was killed in full view of the Roman Senate by some two dozen conspirators.  Depending on who you ask, the killers were motivated either by jealousy, or by a patriotic desire to save the Republic from devolving into a tyrannical monarchy.

If you know anything about the Ides of March, you know that in Shakepseare’s telling of the story, Caesar called out to his friend “et tu, Brute?” before collapsing.  But the story of Caesar’s death was already a juicy, enthralling piece of drama before Shakespeare got to it.

Nearly all the crazy, inane sh!4 that goes down in Shakespeare’s play — from the fake letters Cassius leaves on Brutus’s chair to stroke his ego, to the portentous dream Caesar’s wife has the night before, to the conspirators’ strange fascination with making sure they all bathe their arms in Caesar’s blood, to the ghosts that haunt Brutus, to their dramatic suicides — is taken, unmodified, from Plutarch’s detailed Greek account written just a few generations after the event:

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