As Marcus stood upon the Stoa Poikile, he would have gazed across the Agora where Socrates once discussed philosophy, and where he was later put on trial, imprisoned, and executed. Beyond the Agora, Marcus would have seen the Temple of Athena known as the Parthenon. At that time a colossal statue of the goddess of wisdom looked down on Athens, from atop the Acropolis. Most of the drama of Socrates’ life had unfolded within the bounds of the Agora, under the gaze of Athena.
~ Donald Robertson from, https://donaldrobertson.name/2022/06/27/marcus-aurelius-on-socrates-2/
My title is a reference to, The Great Conversation, a book I’ve recently started reading. I’m not particularly interested in learning all of Philosophy, but I am interested in how those threads in which I am interested weave together. I’ve always found interesting the little bits of Socrates and his ideas which I’ve come across. I’m clearly interested in Stoicism (and a few historical figures who were its ancient proponents.) Robertson’s article is a fun exploration of Aurelieus’s interest in Socrates—he just missed Epictetus, and Socrates was already a historical figure. All of history, and so also Philosophy, is a conversation woven together, layered, erased and re-woven, re-relayered, and erased.
And Stoicism, it could be said, is a philosophy about how to make better choices. This is what we see in a book like Meditations. We see Marcus Aurelius journaling, working to get better at choosing. Choosing the right things to value, the right things to think, the right things to focus on, the right response to a difficult situation.~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/8-choices-that-will-make-your-life-better/
One of the first things you learn about philosophy is that the word means “the love of truth.” It’s the sort of clever thing a much younger version of myself would have bludgeoned others with. “See me study philosophy!” I long ago learned to set aside such cleverness.
Fortunately I learned that philosophy—at least, the sort I’m interested in—is about self-improvement. The proof of my work shows in myself… in my actions and the way I think, and is noticeable to those who care to pay attention. (I’m not suggesting that everyone should pay attention to me.) Surprisingly, at the deeper level of self-improvement, reminding myself that “philosophy” means “the love of truth”, has returned to being a great thing to trot out regularly… as a reminder to myself.
Stoicism, in theory, is a philosophy. As a practice, it is a set of rules to live by. The Stoics believed that life was complicated—more importantly, that it was exhausting. So to create rules was to help ensure that we stay on the right path, that we don’t let the complexity and the nuance of each individual scenario allow us to compromise on the big, high standards we know we hold.~ Ryan Holiday from, https://dailystoic.com/12-rules-for-life/
This is an enormous post. Normally something of this size would be twelve, separate posts. It’s nice to be able to leisurely read through this. I’ve gotten enormous return on my investment of time from these rules. I often remind myself, however, that these are aspirational. These are the ideals for which I’m striving. They are not the reef upon which I’m planning on smashing the ship through strict adherence.
Accepting that “accidents happen” requires an acceptance of limitations to the control we have over our own lives. The philosopher Bernard Williams describes the hazy area between intention and outcome, where factors outside of one’s control can influence the course of events and our reactions to them: “anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not.” This thought may be unsettling, but constitutes the first step in letting go of guilt and moving forward along the path of healing, both for those who have caused unintentional harm and for any who are struggling with trauma.~ Peter Attia from, https://peterattiamd.com/how-do-you-move-forward-after-making-a-fatal-mistake/
I am lucky in that I do not have any self-assigned guilt of the magnitude Attia is describing in this article. (I was pleasantly surprised by this article, it being different than his usual hard medical science.) But I do have a life-crushing pile of self-assigned, paper-cut-sized guilt for countless things I see in hindsight that I could have done better: Why didn’t I learn some particular lesson sooner? How did I not see that situation as it was developing? What if I had let go of that thing sooner? Perhaps you have occasion to ask similar questions.
I’ve verified that there’s nothing I can do to change the past. (Perhaps you’ve also.) But I have learned to tack faster: I flippantly made a silly tall joke—”how’s the weather up there?”—to a very tall friend as we passed at a busy event. As the day, and the next day, wore on I realized I was repeatedly thinking that had been inappropriate. The next time I saw him, I told him so, “dude, my joke was inappropriate and I apologize.” Radical honesty, as it’s sometimes called.
And for the things which end up one way, for reasons beyond my control, I deploy one, two, or all three of: 50,000 years from now, what difference will it make? Did I do everything within my power, (aka the dichotomy of control.) Memento mori.
So begins her obsession with dominating the mind by dominating the body, which would follow her throughout her life in various guises — running, karate, yoga, cycling, skiing — always ambivalent and self-conscious, until it finally resolves into a glimpse of the larger truth beneath the mechanics of illusory perfectibility: that we exert ourselves so violently on keeping the package of the body intact in order to keep it from spilling its immaterial contents — the soul, the self — into oblivion.~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/01/the-secret-to-superhuman-strength-alison-bechdel/
Ah yes, “oblivion.” Good stuff. Popova is referring to a graphic artist, and midway through the article is an exquisite cartoon example; the author drawing, figuratively and literally, a metaphor for life involving a hill and a bicycle. Reading that cartoon brought to mind my beloved practice of meditating on death. (Try this explanation.) Closely related I often call to mind the impermanence of things. Sometimes I mix the two, thinking…
This is my last sip from this [my favorite, morning coffee] mug. (Knowing it will one day be broken.)
This [regularly scheduled weekly] conversation with this person is our last one. (Imagining when priorities change and we’re no longer working together.)
This conversation I’m recording for a podcast is my last one. (Because I will die.)
This dinner with this person [my mom, my spouse, etc] is my last one. (Because one of us will die first.)
The goal is not to be morbid and depressed; The goal is to maintain a realistic perspective to enable wringing the absolute maximum enjoyment and appreciation from every single waking moment.
It’s easy to think negative thoughts and to get stuck into a pattern with them. But forcing myself to take the time not only to think about something good, but write that thought down longhand was a kind of rewiring of my own opinions. It became easier to see that while there certainly was plenty to be upset about, there was also plenty to be thankful for. Epictetus said that every situation has two handles; which was I going to decide to hold onto? The anger, or the appreciation?~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/gratitude-is-a-daily-practice/
The idea that there are two handles to every impression is a blazing reminder that impressions are neither inherently good nor bad. It is our own reasoned choice which adds that evaluation.
Most things in life aren’t black and white. Overly dualistic thinking isn’t true to reality. Life is full of nuance. A goal can be worth pursuing even if it doesn’t garner the highest success; there are worthwhile things in both flawed people and flawed philosophies.~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/the-11-cognitive-distortions-that-are-making-you-a-miserable-sob/
I’m not even sure how to classify this article for you. It’s short enough that you can just go glance at it. You’ll either shrug it off as simplistic (or possibly even offensive), or you’ll find the list of common cognitive mistakes useful. My pull-quote is indicative of the mistake of “splitting” thinking explained, not of the article overall. This mistake was—is still?—my biggest problem.
On the topics of depression and cognitive mistakes, from personal experience I recommend as useful Stoicism in general, and the more modern, (than the one McKay is referencing in the article above,) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. To be fair, David Burns, the author of the book McKay is summarizing, was instrumental in bringing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy into the mainstream.
There was, or will be, a last time for everything you do, from climbing a tree to changing a diaper, and living with a practiced awareness of that fact can make even the most routine day feel like it’s bursting with blessings. Of all the lasting takeaways from my periodic dives into Stoicism, this is the one that has enhanced my life the most.~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2021/09/the-last-time-always-happens-now/
This is by far the most important thing I’ve learned in my several decades. I’ve written about this previously, try my “perspective” tag for some tastes, but this item bears endless repeating. Do it as if it is the last time. Think of it, in the moment, as if it is the last time. And for a bonus multiplier—but don’t do this too often or you get disappointed too—think about that thing you’re about to do, the same way. Tomorrow, when I ____ , that will be the last time I get to _____ .
We have far more control in our lives than many embrace. We create or co-create our experiences in life, and each day is a new opportunity to be fully engaged in the present moment. It’s the present moment where glimpses of our potential are revealed and expressed. A living masterpiece is not drawn on a canvas or etched in stone or inked by pen. It’s the pursuit and expresssion of applied insight and wisdom.~ Michael Gervais
I disagree with, “[w]e have far more control…” because clearly we actually have no—absolutely no—control. If that strikes you, I suggest you pause. Imagine something you have control of. Now imagine the scenario where your control is taken away. I’m not trying to scare you; there’s nothing here you don’t already know. All of the “control” is fleeting; that’s not actually control. That an illusion of control.
If I could change that quote I’d just quibble with that first, “control,” and suggest it be changed to “choice.” Because the rest of that quote is frickin’ powerful. Literally every person has choices. For me, my “worst case” choices are quite rosy. (“First World Problems” is the meme.) There are certainly people who are literally only able to choose among various evils.
The illusion of control is toxic. But the reality of choice is empowering.
I had a nice dinner conversation the other day wherein someone asked me to send them more information about Stoicism. I went looking for the perfect blog post to share, and couldn’t find one. So this is now it. ;)
There’s like a thousand things I could share. Don’t get snowed under by this stuff; Don’t try to read/do all of this…
The book I suggest starting with is The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday. This is a good book to just pick up each morning, spend 2 minutes reading, and move on.
If you want to read something which specifically explains Stoicism, I recommend A Guide to the Good Life: The ancient art of Stoic joy by W Irvine. This is an easy read that covers what the ancient Stoics wrote, and how their philosophy can be adapted to modern times.
There’s a good podcast interview with Irvine on a podcast called Philosophy Bites. It’s short episodes (~half hour) where the host and a guest talk about one topic in Philosophy. (There are ~500 episodes.) Irvine’s episode is a great introduction to what is Stoicism.
If you want to read blog posts, my site has a tag for Stoicism. The posts are going to be widely varied, and have lots of links to other things, (as well as all my posts being tagged to lead to other things within my blog.)
You can also dive into some people who sometimes write explicitly about Stoicism but whose work is just generally good to read. Here are links to the corresponding tags on my web site. You can skim/scroll/page through my blog posts to find an interesting place to jump into these other spaces…
David Cain writes a web site, Raptitude.
Leo Babauta writes a web site, Zen Habits.