Occasional reflections on the wisdom of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. More atpatreon.com/FigsInWinter. Please consider supporting Stoic Meditations. (cover art by Marek Škrabák; original music by Ian Jolin-Rasmussen, www.jolinras.info).
This episode features our first discussion of Cicero. While not a Stoic (he considered himself an Academic Skeptic), he was sympathetic to Stoic philosophy, and frequently borrowed from it to create his own eclectic blend of moral philosophy.
Seneca, building on the Stoic concept of universal causation, reminds us that we don't get to say how the universe works. Our only choices are to accept it (and work within it), or take "the open door," as Epictetus puts it.
Seneca reminds us that although some people are naturally more virtuous than others, and that much depends on our family upbringing, we are capable of making rational decisions as adults. So make the decision to practice every day to become a better human being.
In a rather forceful passage Seneca makes a strong political statement, referring to Roman imperialism as "sacrilege on a grand scale." Unfortunately, two millennia later, we still honor that sort of sacrilege, which flies in the face of the virtue of justice and the concept of cosmopolitanism.
Seneca says that his life's journey taught him that much of what we possess is superfluous, and indeed positively gets in the way of living a good life. He ought to know, as we discuss in this episode.
Marcus Aurelius reminds us that all too often we care far too much about the opinions of people we do not actually hold in high esteem. If they judge us badly according to mistaken values, the problem is theirs, not ours.
Seneca brings up a parallel between the life of virtue and the art of a sculptor like Phidias. Just like a good sculptor will make the best art that the materials at his disposal permit, so we can be good human beings regardless of the specific circumstances of our lives.
Seneca directly takes on the Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle, and criticizes their notion that virtue always lies in the middle. Some things, like insanity, or anger, are not good even in small quantities.
Seneca suggests that we should alternate between reading and writing in order to truly understand and internalize new concepts. Which, of course, is yet another way to achieve a major goal of Stoic training: arrive at better and better judgments.
We take a look at one of the most famous metaphors in Stoicism, the notion put forth by Marcus Aurelius that life is a bit like wrestling: we need to be prepared and alert, because the next move may be unexpected.
Seneca reminds us that we should interpret other people's actions and words in a generous manner, instead of conjuring the worst possible scenario. It is, after all, the way we would like to be treated.
A contemporary theory of consciousness, proposed by philosopher Jesse Prinz, recalls Seneca's treatment of the emotions, and teaches us how to avert painful thoughts by focusing on the good things that happen to us.
Epictetus reminds us that the only things that are truly good or bad for us are our judgments, which are under our control. It follows that "happiness," in the sense of a life worth living, is also under our control.
Seneca reminds us that those who study philosophy are human beings, subject to the physiological responses and emotions of the case. The difference is in how they reflect on and react to circumstances.
Seneca tells us that virtue can be present at all levels, from nations to individuals, and in all circumstances, from wealth to poverty. Let's find out what, precisely, the Stoics meant by virtue and why it's so important.
Seneca gives a splendidly clear and cogent description of the Stoic concept of preferred "indifferents," external things that are not under our complete control, and which Fortuna can take away at any moment.
Seneca conjures a vivid image of the goddess Fortuna showering mortals with gifts, which are ruined by the eager crowd, or badly used, and that at any rate do not produce happiness. That's because people lack wisdom, necessary to truly enjoy Fortuna's gifts.
Seneca explains that if our happiness depends on externals, like fame or money, we are in the hands of Fortuna, who could take those things away at any moment. But if we are happy because we are good, then Fortuna is powerless.
Seneca states very clearly that wealth is an indifferent, in Stoic terms. It can be pursued if it allows us to do good, but it should be avoided if it corrupts our moral fiber, making us greedy toward luxury and power.
Seneca advises us to be careful how we spend our time, and especially how we respond to other people's demands for it. Life is short, surely you won't regret, on your deathbed, not having attended one more useless office meeting...
Seneca says that people are like dogs who eagerly await the next tasty morsel from Fortuna, swallow it quickly, then eagerly await the next one. Don't be like a dog, that way lies perennial dissatisfaction with life.
Seneca says that lacking wisdom is like being sick. Although we can imagine what it would be like to be perfectly healthy, in reality we can be happy if we manage to be less sick than before. That's progress, folks!
Epictetus reminds us that one does not become a good carpenter, or pilot, by simply studying the theory of carpentry or piloting. Mindful, repeated effort is needed to see results. The same goes with one's philosophy of life.
Seneca makes the startling claim that philosophy is a lifelong commitment that cannot be indulged only in our spare time. He doesn't mean academic studies, but rather practice, just like a Christian or Buddhist would do it.
Seneca says that he hasn't conquered any enemy but his own greed, ambition, and fear of death. If more people, especially the leaders of the world, were to take that attitude, perhaps there would be no need to conquer enemies.
The goal of Stoic training is to become a better person, not a perfect one. But the first step, as always in life, is to want to make progress. If you wish to better yourself, the game is afoot, you need to start now.
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself to be grateful for the things he has, which he would long for if he didn't have them. At the same time, everything is impermanent, so we should be prepared for our losses.
Seneca tells Lucilius that he himself is far from being a wise person, which is as rare as the mythical phoenix. Nevertheless, we can all be "proficientes," those who make progress. Which is the whole point of Stoic training.
We hear a lot of nonsense about Stoicism being tough and therefore only for men. But Seneca clearly explains that virtue doesn't make us invulnerable to pain and suffering, and that women are just as capable as men to become virtuous. Go figure.
Seneca gives us another Stoic "paradox": it may be better to be tortured than to sit at the dinner table. Well, not normally, but surely if you are being tortured to protect innocent lives, or sit at dinner with a tyrant. It all depends on context.
Epictetus explains why king Antigonus was anxious to meet Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and not vice versa. The king had not yet internalized the fundamental principle of the dichotomy of control: making a good impression on others is not up to us.
A quote from Seneca leads us into a discussion of the difference between Stoicism and modern philosophies of despair. For the Stoic, knowledge of the vastness of time and space is no excuse for nihilism, but simply a way to put things in perspective and get back to the task of living well.
Seneca tells Lucilius how Cato, after losing an election, went out to play; and how, before taking his own life, he retired to his room to read a book. Stoicism isn't just about enduring things, it's about achieving serenity in the face of ill fortune.
Seneca invites his friend Lucilius to consider that philosophy is too serious a business to be left only to professional philosophers, especially those who engage in clever wordplay and logic chopping just to show how smart they are.
Seneca continues his discussion of suicide with his friend Lucilius, arguing that maintaining agency and exercising our judgments are fundamental ingredients of a good life. It follows that we should be in charge of when and how to quit.
Seneca makes a point that is still controversial two millennia later. The important thing about life is not its length, but its quality. And it is up to the individual to judge the quality of her own life.
Seneca gives some very commonsensical advice, backed up by modern psychological research, on how to best avoid temptation. Which leads us to a discussion of what we should avoid, and what, by contrast, we should seek out in order to act virtuously.
Seneca says to his friend Lucilius that he is no wise man or doctor, but rather an unwise and sick person. Which brings us to a discussion of Stoic humility and how it is that we can all make progress toward wisdom.
Seneca argues that tranquillity of mind is the result of an active, but realistic, engagement with the problems posed by life. By contrast, refusing to rise up to challenges simply leads to a flat and meaningless calm.
Musonius Rufus advises us to follow a minimalist life style, closer to the so-called "Cynic" wing of the Stoic movement. Why is that? Because reducing temptations helps us practicing virtue, as we'll see by way of an example featuring gelato.
Epictetus says that a lyre player plays beautifully when he practices on his own. But gets very nervous in front of an audience. That's because he wants something that is not under his control. Learn and internalize this lesson and your life will be happy and serene.
Seneca argues that the four cardinal virtues are a tightly coordinated council, which makes the best possible decisions for us. In this episode we explore the Stoic concept of the unity of virtue, and make sense of it by analogy with going to the gym to improve our health.
Illness is not something to look forward to, as Stoics are not mad. But it is a fact of life, and so it becomes a question of how we deal with it: by kicking and screming, or as a test of our virtue of temperance?
Epictetus tells the story of when he first started preaching, instead of teaching, philosophy. It did not go well, and he got punched on the nose. He quickly learned the difference between preaching and teaching.
Seneca recounts the last, painful day, of the life of the rival philosopher Epicurus, who claimed that even that day he was happy. Which leads us into a discussion of what the Stoics and Epicureans meant by happiness.
Seneca states the fundamental Stoic principle that the measure of a person has nothing to do with externals like wealth, health or good looks. It depends on one thing and one thing only: goodness of character.
Marcus Aurelius says that other people do wrong out of lack of wisdom, and so do we, which means we should be forgiving toward others. Besides, life is short, and others can't harm the most important thing: our faculty of judgment.
Epictetus reminds us that Socrates made an effort to talk to people while avoiding rudeness and invectives. Imagine if we did the same today, instead of indulging in the current climate of acrimony about social and political issues.
Seneca says that one shouldn't love a person because they are rich, or strong, but because they are virtuous. Which gets us into a discussion of the meaning of the word "axia," referring to things that have value but are not crucial.
Seneca says that it is natural to seek joy and avoid pain. But the virtue involved in both cases is the same. In the quote we examine today, then, there are a lot of crucial Stoic concepts to be parsed out.
Seneca tells us that virtue lies in how you handle things, both good and bad. If you are sick, be gentle with those who are taking care of you. If you get a promotion, don't brag to your colleagues. It's the virtuous thing to do.
Stoicism is often accused of counseling to suppress emotions. This quote from Seneca clearly shows it doesn't. Then again, we don't want to wallow in grief and let it paralyze us, because we have duties toward the living.
Seneca clarifies one of the famous Stoic paradoxes: no, you shouldn't live every day as if it were your last. But you should live every day to the fullest because you don't know which one will be your last.
Seneca reminds Lucilius that a full human life is about being useful, and particularly about helping others. Sure, you can withdraw from the world and live in peace, but then you are arguably already dead.
Seneca is critical of the fact that many ships are required to convey the requisites for a single meal, bringing them from no single sea. Still today so many people indulge in pleasures that cost a lot and cause much environmental damage. Time to revise our priorities about where our food comes from?
Let's talk about the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna, or what the Greeks called Tyche, to whom Seneca often refers in his letters to Lucilius. Why does she play such an important role in Stoic philosophy?
Seneca claims that flattery is a subtle enemy of our work toward becoming better persons. Too readily we agree with those who tell us that we are good, sensible, holy even. What's a good attitude toward praise, then?
Seneca reminds Lucilius that we can't relegate our quest for becoming better persons to intervals between indulgences. It's like going to the gym: you have to do it regularly and often, or you won't get the benefits.
Seneca says that the wise person (and, by extension, the practitioner of Stoicism) will deal with poverty, sorrow, disgrace or pain, because she is alert and fortified, ready to treat adversity as a way to improve her character.
Seneca tells Lucilius that old age is natural and to be welcomed. So long as it maintains our mind in working order. If that's not the case, then the Stoics prefer to exit through the open door, as virtue itself becomes impossible to practice.
Seneca reminds us that we have some power to make our body last longer, by exercising temperance in our pleasures. Enjoy your next meal, just don't over do it. And remember, Stoics drink wine, but they don't get drunk.
According to Epictetus philosophy gets started when we are genuinely interested in why people disagree about things. Not in terms of factual matters, which empirical evidence can settle, but about values and how we should think about the world and therefore act in it.
Seneca tells Lucilius that he welcomes knowledge from all fields, not just philosophy. That's why he wrote books on natural questions, including on the nature of comets, earthquakes, thunderstorms, and the causes of the flooding of the Nile.
Seneca tells Lucilius that we need rest and relaxation, but we can exercise virtue even in our choice of how we relax and entertain ourselves. Consider how you refresh your mind, the next time you pick a movie or organize a vacation!
Seneca quotes the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus to the effect that everything changes all the time, panta rhei. It follows that it is futile to get attached to things, including our own bodies. Enjoy what you have, but consider it a temporary loan from the cosmos.
Marcus Aurelius talks about being helpful to society. And yet he was an emperor who waged war and presided over slavery. How do we reconcile his actions with his Stoicism? At least in three ways, explored in this episode.
A splendid example of Epictetus' sarcasm by way of a bit of dialogue with one of his students. In the course of which we learn about the virtue of practical wisdom, the discipline of desire, and the dichotomy of control.
Seneca nicely explains what a proto-emotion is, and we discuss how proto-emotions can then develop into fully formed healthy or unhealthy emotions. It all comes down to what cognitive judgment we apply to our initial response.
Seneca reminds us that real tranquillity comes from a relaxed mind with a clear conscience. Which is why Stoics engage in an evening meditation on the major events of the day, learning from their mistakes, and filing them away before going to sleep.
Seneca challenges the common assumption that someone is self-sufficient if he has enough money, a nice place to live, and so forth. True self-sufficiency requires serenity, which comes from inner strength, not from externals.
Seneca agrees with Epicurus: death is a state of non-existence, therefore we do not feel anything, and there is nothing to be afraid of. Moreover, it is no different from the aeons before we were born, and we don't regret those, do we?
Seneca tells us that philosophy, understood as a way of life, cannot be relegated to spare moments. Just like someone can't be a Christian only on Sunday mornings, so a Stoic applies her principles at every opportunity, big or small.
Seneca advices his friend Lucilius to pay attention to people who act right, not just talk right. When we pick a role model to improve our character, let's pick someone whose actions we want to imitate, they are a better guidance to virtue.
Seneca argues that we can force Fortuna, the goddess of luck, to deal with us on equal terms, by not being slaves to external things we cannot control. Cultivate equanimity, and Fortuna will play fair with you.
Epictetus reminds his students that engaging in a wrong act, even one done in response to an injustice, stains our own character, and therefore hurts us first and foremost. Stoics don't favor retributive justice systems.
Seneca reminds us of the distinction between unhealthy and healthy emotions: being overwhelmed by the first ones tears us apart internally, while cultivating the second ones brings harmony to our psyche.
Seneca gives rare advice on one's abode. It should be a place that does not get in the way of practicing virtue, which means neither too uncomfortable (if we can avoid it) nor too luxurious or distracting.
Seneca disagrees with Epictetus: the first says that philosophy is a pleasant medicine, the second that it is a painful one. And yet they agree that it is a remedy that, taken regularly, makes for a wholesome life.
Seneca says that more often than we realize we blame our problems on the time and place we live in, without understanding that the fault may be with us, and that we should work on ourselves, instead of finding excuses.
Epictetus introduced a major innovation in Stoic ethics with his theory of roles. We are first and foremost members of the human cosmopolis. But also fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, colleagues. How do we balance the conflicting demands of such diverse roles in life?
Epictetus advises us to forgo issues of material resources and remember that family relationships in great part define who we are. After all, if we can't practice virtue with our brothers, sisters, and parents, with whom can we practice it?
Seneca says that if we are going after the satisfaction of lust, greed, ambition, and so forth, we make ourselves slaves to fortune. Not so if we regard what we have as loans from the universe, which the universe can take back at any moment, by any means.
Seneca reminds his contemporaries that slaves are human beings like everyone else. In this episode, we talk about slavery in the ancient world, what the Stoics thought about it, and what follows from their philosophy.
Seneca says that Stoic mindfulness is about paying attention to what is happening to us. We need to keep charting and re-charting our way forward, as our mind needs to be prepared for the vagaries of Fortune.
Seneca says that Fortune may take just as much, and as suddenly, as she can give. But we can work on improving our character so that we can accept with equanimity both the good and the bad stuff in life.
Marcus Aurelius suggests some simple therapy for our troubled souls: pause and observe some good things done by people around you. Appreciate what they are doing. And use it as an inspiration for becoming better yourself.
Marcus Aurelius reminds us that Stoicism is both self forgiving and forgiving of others, and that while we should take the path of truth and justice, we should also be tolerant of people who are even further from wisdom and are gooing the wrong way.
Epictetus reminds us that education, which involves the ability to shape our moral values, is the only ticket to achieving freedom. Something to remember, in these days in which people freely elect tyrants and autocracts.
In this episode we discuss a quote from Seneca which, together with several other passages in other authors, clearly points to the conclusion that the Stoics were in favor of suicide in the case of disease and frailty in old age. Which does not mean they took suicide lightly at all.
Epictetus defends the apparently strange notion that philosophy, like mathematics (or science, or lots of other things) is a profession, requiring expertise. He is not being elitist, he's just being reasonable.
Marcus Aurelius reflects on what happens to us when we die: either we are absorbed in the seminal principle of the universe, or we become atoms scattered in the void. Either way, we still need to behave decently toward other human beings.
Seneca tells Lucilius that moving to the other end of the world will not be helpful if his troubles are generated by his own attitudes, because he will carry the same person around the globe, if he doesn't address the real issue.
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself of something that modern politicians need to pay attention to: if someone shows you that you are in error, the right thing to do is to admit it and learn from the other.
Epictetus says that the way we improve our character is by paying attention and making good judgments, while if we keep making bad ones we make our character worse. So today reflect carefully on your decisions, and ask yourself what would Epictetus do.
Seneca lists the worst things that could happen to him, and that we all fear, and reminds himself that the only truly terrible thing is being a bad person who holds to bad values and makes bad decisions.
Marcus Aurelius observes that some people are obsessed with what posterity will think of them, even though they have no idea what sort of individuals will make that judgment. Meanwhile, how about taking care of those we know here and now?
Seneca reminds Lucilius that we ought to hope for justice, but brace ourselves for injustice. This is just the way the world works, which doesn't absolve us from our responsibility to do something about it.
Epictetus says that people cannot assent to what they think is false. We always want to be right, but we are often not, which is why we rationalize things. That's why we need to improve our ability to arrive at correct judgments about things.
Epictetus has a little bit of fun with the Skeptics, who denied the possibility of human knowledge. If that's the case, he says, how is it that you reliably go to the thermal baths when you want to relax, and to the mill when you want bread?
Epictetus counsels us to react to insults as if we were a rock, that is, by ignoring them. An insult is only effective if you let it be, and that power resides exclusively in your own faculty of judgment.
Rather unusual advise from Seneca to his friend Lucilius: learn how to feel joy. Which doesn't sound Stoic only if one buys into the incorrect stereotype of Stoicism as a practice to suppress emotions. Let's learn how to feel joy, then.
Tough topic for this episode: what is known as Epictetus' open door policy, that is, the Stoic idea that suicide is permissible, under certain circumstances. And indeed, that it is its possibility that gives us freedom and courage to fight on.
Seneca explains that one doesn't have to be an Epicurean in order to find value in the words of Epicurus. It's like in the Senate: you vote for the parts of a motion you approve of, and reject the rest.
Marcus Aurelius reminds us that justice is a crucial virtue in Stoicism, and we need to constantly keep it at the forefront. He also says that we need to evaluate our impressions of things, before acting. Don't just do it, stop and think about it first!
Musonius Rufus tells us that it isn't enough to know that we should be virtuous, we need to constantly practice virtue. Stoicism is not a magic wand, but it will change your life, and is well worth the effort.
Seneca tells Lucilius that it is crucial, from time to time, to engage in exercises of self deprivation, so to prepare ourselves for whenever luck will turn, and also to be grateful and appreciative of what we normally have and may take for granted.
On the day of Marcus Aurelius' birthday, April 26, let's reflect on a simple Stoic precept: good or bad lie in actions, thoughts, and words, not in the praise or blame that those things get from others.
Epictetus clearly states one of the fundamental principles of Stoicism: the dichotomy of control. Once we realize that some things are up to us and other things aren't, it follows that we should focus on the first ones and cultivate equanimity toward the latter ones.
Seneca explains the Stoic practice of eating poor and scant food, and going outside dressed with old clothes, in order to remind ourselves that we can cope with difficult situations, and to appreciate anew what we have.
Epictetus advises us to start practicing with small things. The next time you are sick, try not to curse or complain. You'll discover in you the power of endurance, and you'll be far less annoying to other people...
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that he can always retreat into what Pierre Hadot famously referred to as the Inner Citadel, our own mind, where we can pay attention to and refine our faculty of judgment.