Category Archives: Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius On Getting Out Of Bed

(Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. The piazze was designed by Renaissance artist and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1536–1546.)

My brief summary of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was one of my most popular posts last year with over 30,000 views. While re-reading the actual text, I was struck by the relevance to modern life of the first paragraph of Book V. Here is my modern translation:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” — But it’s nicer here …

So were you born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? — But we have to sleep sometime… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that — as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There’s still more of that to do.

You don’t love yourself enough. For if you did, you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is not then your labor in the world just as worthy of respect and worth your effort? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

Brief Analysis – If we love life we will do what’s necessary to preserve our lives, and that includes working. This isn’t meant exclusively in the modern sense of going to a job—although that’s part of it. Rather it implies that living demands physical activity; if you slept all the time you wouldn’t be living. And if you resist activity you act contrary to your nature, which is to say you don’t love yourself. Moreover, if you work hard you will experience what modern psychology calls flow.

An immediate objection to Aurelius’ line of thinking is that some work is too demeaning, boring, or harmful to align with our natures or, to put it another way, it isn’t work that we were born for. It may be true to our modern ears that our jobs aren’t particularly satisfying, but I think Aurelius would consider almost any labor that enables our survival as aligning with our nature. Of course some work is so harmful to one’s self or society that he wouldn’t recommend it, but I think he would say that most labor qualifies as good enough. (I’ve written previously about the idea of doing what you love.) The key for him is that we work with others, as he writes later:

When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic — what defines a human being — is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one — more innate and more satisfying. (Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Another objection is that Aurelius’ advice doesn’t help, for example, the clinically depressed. I think this is a valid objection. If he is just saying ‘get up and get going,’ that is bad advice for those suffering from diseases of the brain and body. On the other hand, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once told me that people do better if they cease ruminating and do some work, engage in a hobby, etc., anything that focuses their mind is therapeutic. For some this may be impossible, but focusing on something other than introspection is a good strategy for fighting depression. I’m not saying it’s the best or the only strategy, but sometimes you might just be better off going to work.

And a final thought. Remember to get enough sleep too!

_________________________________________________________________________

(Translations by George Long, available online from the Internet Classics Archive of MIT. These would be closer to the original Greek.)

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

When thou risest from sleep with reluctance, remember that it is according to thy constitution and according to human nature to perform social acts, but sleeping is common also to irrational animals. But that which is according to each individual’s nature is also more peculiarly its own, and more suitable to its nature, and indeed also more agreeable. (from Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Critique of Epictetus and Stockdale

A line drawing of Epictetus writing at a table with a crutch draped across his lap and shoulder

I recently wrote about the story of James B. Stockdale, who survived as a prisoner of war with the help of the philosophy of Epictetus. Since writing that piece I came across a more negative view of Stoicism, particularly as it is embraced by the American military, in a New York Times piece, “A Crack in the Stoic’s Armor.” It was penned by Nancy  Sherman, University Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown and the first Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Sherman notes that “In the military, even those who have never laid eyes on a page of Epictetus, still live as if they have.” In other words, many military personnel embrace the Stoic doctrine of being undisturbed by external events. In short, they tough it out as best they can to deal with various stressors. But Sherman found, after interviewing soldiers, that many wished “to let go of the Stoic armor.” They were tired of sucking it up, and wanted to deal with “feelings blocked off by idealized notions of Stoic purity and strength that leave little room for moral conflict and its painful residue.”

Even Cicero, after losing his daughter in childbirth, said: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?” Many soldiers told Sherman the same thing about the experience of war. And I think many of us would benefit from removing our armor. Many tough it out until they break, trying to be good Stoics, but the strongest minds can be broken. At some point physiological change ensues, at which point more than willpower is necessary for psychological health.

It is one thing for Epictetus to say “he was never freer than when on the rack,” but that is a high standard for most of us to achieve.1 We shouldn’t consider ourselves failures if we don’t live up to such standards.

_________________________________________________________________________

1. Aristotle quotes this proverb, which is attributed to various authors, in the Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 7, 13. Aristotle rejects the proverb.

Epictetus and Admiral James Stockdale

                                             

Admiral James Stockdale                                                                               Epictetus

In the last few days I have written about each of the three major Stoic philosophers: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. The Stoics claim that their philosophy has practical applications, and the story of James Stockdale attests to its power. While a student at Stanford, Stockdale had studied Epictetus’ Enchiridion assiduously. He would soon find out the value of those studies.

James Bond Stockdale (1923 – 2005) was a United States Navy vice admiral and one of the most-highly decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Navy. His plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1965, and he was held as a prisoner of war for seven and a half years. During his captivity he spent more than four years in solitary confinement and was repeatedly tortured—his shoulders torn from their sockets, his back broken, his legs crushed. He walked with a limp and endured other pain for the rest of his life. Stockdale wrote multiple books about detailing how the philosophy of Epictetus was the key to his survival in captivity. Those works include:

Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior

A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years

What Stockdale learned from Epictetus was that happiness demands that we differentiate between what is, and is not within our control. Yes, we should try to influence fate, but we can’t control it. So when fate strikes, the measure of a person is their reaction to fate. (This is reminiscent of Victor Frankl‘s claim that we find meaning through our response to life—for more see Man’s Search for Meaning.) In short, we can either accept what we can’t change or be miserable. Epictetus, like Stockdale, tells us to do the former.

He also learned the importance of seeing bad things as providing a chance to act virtuously, instead of thinking of freedom and happiness as getting and doing whatever we want. As Epictetus says, “Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”

In 1993, in a speech delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College, London, Monday, Stockdale described his thoughts immediately after his plane was hit:

After ejection … I whispered to myself: I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus … as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that a re “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are “external,” beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.

Stockdale explained his “own good and your own evil” by quoting the Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in Soviet gulags. “It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart, through all human hearts.” As Stockdale puts it:

… good and evil are not just abstractions you kick around and give lectures about and attribute to this person and that. The only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your power, where it’s up to you. Enchiridion 32: “Things that are not within our own power, not without our Will, can by no means be either good or evil.” … In short, what the Stoics say is  “Work with what you have control of and you’ll have your hands full.”

Stockdale concluded his moving speech with a story about a note from a fellow prisoner that he received during his long ordeal.

 Back in my cell, after the guard locked the door, I sat on my toilet bucket–-–where I could stealthily jettison the note if the peephole cover moved–-–and unfolded Hatcher’s sheet of low-grade paper toweling on which, with a rat dropping, he had printed, without comment or signature, the last verse of Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Marcus Aurelius: A Brief Summary of The Meditations

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 19, 2016.)

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback.

Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180, and is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers. What today we call the Meditations take the form of a personal notebook; they weren’t intended for publication and he called them “Writings To Myself.” They were written in Greek, although his native tongue was Latin, and were probably composed while Marcus was on military campaigns in central Europe, c. AD 171-175. He died, most likely from the plague or cancer, on a military campaign in present day Austria. The work is divided into 12 short books.

In Book I Aurelius thanks those to whom he is indebted. He thanks his grandfather for teaching him to be candid, modest, and even-tempered; his father for teaching him to be humble, calm, and frugal; his mother for teaching him to be generous and non-materialistic; and his teachers who taught him the value of hard work, self-discipline, equanimity, rationality, humor, and tolerance. From his teachers he also learned to love practical philosophy, instead of metaphysics, logic and the vanity of the Sophists. He also thanks his wife for being affectionate.

In Book II Aurelius reminds us that each day we will meet some terrible people. But we have faults too, so we shouldn’t be angry with them. For we are all just bits of blood, bones and breath; our life is fleeting; our bodies will decay. As for death, it is nothing to fear; it can’t hurt us. But the most important part of us is our minds. We shouldn’t let them be slaves to selfish passions, quarrel with fate, or be anxious of the present or afraid of the future. We can’t guarantee fame or fortune, but we can keep our minds calm and free from injury, a state superior to both pleasure and pain. Freedom is the control of our minds.

In Book IIAurelius tells us to be mindful of little things like cracks in a loaf of bread, the texture of figs and olives, and the expressions of wild animals—everyday things have charm. But we shouldn’t gossip, or speculate about what others say or do. Instead, think and talk only of things you would not be ashamed if they were found out. Think and talk with sincerity and cheerfulness, and there will be a kind of divinity within you. There is nothing more valuable than a mind pursuing truth, justice, temperance, fortitude, rationality and the like. So be resolute in pursuit of the good.

In Book IV Aurelius tells us that we can always find solitude in our own minds. If our minds are serene, we will find peace and happiness there. As for how others view us, we have little control. But virtuous things are still virtuous whether or not they are praised. Remember our lives are ephemeral, one day we live, the next we are dead. So act virtuous, use your time well, and be cheerful. Then, when you drop from life’s tree, you will drop like a ripe fruit.

In Book V Aurelius says we should get up each morning and do good work. This includes acting naturally, unconcerned about the reproach of others, and contributing to society. And if you do good deeds don’t ask for payment or gratitude. Be satisfied with acting like a vine that bears good fruit.

In Book V Aurelius disavows revenge—better not to imitate injury. We should do our duty, act righteously and be not disturbed by the rest, for in the vastness of space and time we are insignificant. Think of good things and control your mind.

In Book VII Aurelius advocates patience and tolerance. Nature works like wax, continually transforming—so be patient. People will speak ill of you no matter what you do, but be tolerant. Evil people try our patience and tolerance, but we can remain happy by controlling our response to them.

In Book VIII Aurelius argues that being disconnected from humanity is like cutting off one of your own limbs. Instead, live connected to nature and other people. No matter what you encounter maintain a moderate and controlled mind. If you are cursed by others, don’t let it affect you anymore than your cursing the spring affects the springtime.

In Books IX, X and XI Aurelius argues that we should be moderate, sincere, honest, and calm. If someone reports that you are not virtuous, dispel such notions with your probity, and use  good humor to disarm the worst people.

In Books XII Aurelius asks why we love ourselves best, but so often value the opinion of others over our own. This is a mistake. Remember too that the destiny of the greatest and worst of human beings is the same—they all turn to ashes. Do not then be proud, but be humble. Die in serenity. As Aurelius wrote from his tent, far from home and never to return: “Life is warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after fame, oblivion.”

Reflections – I have more to learn about Stoicism, Buddhism and other practical philosophies. But I think there is a hunger today for practical philosophies of life, especially in a modern world where religious stories no longer provide comfort to so many. Tomorrow I’ll continue this investigation by talking about the point of philosophy. Shortly thereafter I’d like to discuss Admiral James Stockdale on how Epictetus helped him endure more than seven years as a prisoner of war.

Seneca On the Proper Use of Time

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 31, 2016.)

Yesterday I wrote about the impending death of the great neurologist and author Oliver  Sacks. I was particularly struck by this line from Sachs’ public goodbye: “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential.” This brought to mind the Stoic philosopher Seneca who touched on a similar theme in his short piece, On the Shortness of Life:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

Seneca believed that life is long enough, if we use it properly, but that we often squander our time, mistakenly believing we have plenty in reserve. We distract ourselves, we don’t immerse ourselves in the present, and we live for a future that never comes. At the end of our lives, even if we have lived long, we may not have lived wisely. We may have been obsessed with achievement and ambition rather than with living.

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.

To care for our time is to care for ourselves because how we spend our time is how we spend our lives. Our time is the most precious thing we have, and someday we’ll have no more of it.

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

There is much to recommend in Seneca, but I have always liked one particular piece of his advice. He says that we should seek the counsel of good mentors as substitutes for deficiencies in our education or upbringing. He makes this point in a moving passage:

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become.

We can all learn much from Buddha and Seneca and Epictetus and other sages. From Seneca we have learned: be mindful, live now, and keep good company. What wonderful advice from a Stoic sage.

Here’s a brief video about Stoicism in general. Its pretty good, but I disagree about its interpretation of the Stoics view of hope. The Stoics weren’t pessimists, they were realists. (In the next few days we’ll cover the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and a few days later we’ll cover Admiral James Stockdale on how the thoughts of Epictetus may have saved his life. Also there is an audiobook of On the Shortness of Life.)
)