2015 Stoic Commencement Address


In this post, someone asked what a Stoic commencement address would look like.  I thought this would be an interesting thought experiment in couching Stoic lessons in that format without the technical jargon that often features in our discussions.

To the graduating class of 2015:

Congratulations on your achievement, and I wish you excellence in your coming endeavors whatever they may be.  Some will enter the workforce immediately, others will commit themselves to some form of national service like the armed forces, and some will go on to college or university.  You are preparing yourselves, regardless, for big changes, new adventures, and exciting challenges.

High school, however, is a microcosm of the larger world.  For instance, while all of you here have made this achievement, your paths have been very different.  Some of you struggled and fought to make Bs, others acquired As easily.  Some maybe skated by, “D is for diploma,” right?  Classes varied from remedial, grade level, to honors and Advanced Placement.  You each took a different journey.  The same will be true in your coming fields.

I have something uncomfortable to tell you.  Soon, this achievement will fall by the wayside.  Enjoy today, but tomorrow, this will be in the past.  Once you’re in college your high school GPA is of little importance.  The same for the workforce or military.  Once you take the next step, the previous one matters less.  Each new challenge becomes the focus, and previous victories will become smaller in comparison.

For those going on to higher education, once you leave those institutions and enter the workforce your college GPA will become less important.  At your first ten year work anniversary, no one will say “Remember when she got a 4.0 four semesters in a row?”  It will fade.

But one thing, however, will not fade.  One thing is far more permanent.  The character you build in yourself while working hard for a B, or cruising easily in a cake class for an A will stick around.  You will, day by day, step by step, build and create the person you will be for the rest of your life.  Character.  Character development is not something that happens in the future.  It is not an activity one takes up once “things are settled.”  Character development happens regardless, the only question is, will you do it consciously or accidentally?

Many of us have a person, maybe a grandparent, neighbor, or family friend.  Some good, older person.  We admire their character and think, “I’d like to be like that one day.” If we want that, the time is now, because if we wait until the future to work on that, it will be too late.

Character is like a boat or a ship.  We take the rude and rough materials that we are presented with.  We start with a tree, which is felled and carried to the worksite.  Once we begin to examine and work with the tree, we find defects, burls, gnarls, and knots.  These are not up to us, we don’t chose them.  Maybe someone or something else had, but that is not important.  We have what we’re given.  Ours is to make the best of it.

So we take out our tools and begin to work the tree, ripping planks and boards from its trunk.  These planks are rough, splintery, and not too pretty to look at.  This is where we are now.  You’ve made choices, built habits with new and green wood, still wet from the earth.

Next, we begin to plane down the planks, smoothing the surface, taking off the rough parts, and producing a useful plank.  This is a lot of work.  Based on the grain, the shape, the bend, the flexibility of this plank we choose to use it for the hull, or decking, or a decorative handrail artfully carved.  Each one, its natural character determining its use can be taken and fitted to our ship.  And when it’s finished, we have one plank, with many more to go.  Each of these choices, these planks helps build our ship.  But if done haphazardly, what kind of vessel will we have?  It is only by conscious, focused, and neutral judgement that each part can be fitted to its appropriate use.

A shoddy ship might float in the harbor, where it is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for.  We must take it out into the wild and fierce waves, test it against the untamed seas of real life.

When you go into the world, as a worker, manager, teacher, or other role:  you will find folks doing the minimum, doing less than, and other yet excelling.  It is not yours to compete with them but to compete with yourself.  To quietly, doggedly, and determinedly do better tomorrow than you did today.  You might end up with the same salary, the same awards, and the same qualifications of these others, but those things are temporary and transient.  They will pass.

But that character you build in the process is yours for the rest of your life.  Did you do your work with honor?  Did you do it with determination and discipline?  Did you do it with kindness, lend a helping hand?  Did you cheat?  Did you lie?  Did you steal?  Which ship are you building?

You have a short period of time where it is slightly easier to change course, the degree of change is small here, but further into the journey it will be many and many miles to correct your course.  If you’re headed in a rough direction, change now, at the beginning.  Suit your ship for the seas ahead, build it well, and track your right course.

I leave you with this, congratulations on this achievement, and there is the possibility for glory on the horizon for you.  Your ship stands in the yards, not yet complete, but its shape is beginning to become visible.  Which one will you build?

A refutation of an Epicurean “argument.”


Okay, so this post was shared on one of the Facebook groups, I replied in a comment, but I thought a more in depth refutation would be useful.  The original post will be in plain text, with my in-line refutations in Bold and off-set.  Strap in.

Why do I speak harshly about “Stoicism”? Hopefully many of you don’t even know what Stoicism is, and consider it to be just another forgotten ancient philosophy.

An attempt to cast Stoicism in a negative light because it is pre-modern.  Fails, because the Epicurean school which he espouses is just as old, so if Stoicism is bad because it’s old, then Epicureanism must be also.

Unfortunately, that is not entirely the case. The essence of Stoicism is well summarized in the graphic which I will link below, and which started the recent exchange. You could substitute any number of other philosophies or religions as a similar target, but in truth the basic ideas of all of these get smashed together in a stew as “stoicism.”

Explicitly states that he will be arguing against some sort of synthetic mish-mash, not Stoicism-proper.  Prepare for the onslaught of Strawman Arguments! 

That stew represents the great majority of thought in both religion and secular philosophy in the modern world.

Oh?  Care to prove that? 

Epicurus spoke for the right of each individual to pursue pleasant living, but he was not so blind as to believe that every individual can achieve that. There are many obstacles to pleasant living. And what is the greatest obstacle?

I guess we have to figure that our for ourselves?

Viewpoints that allege that there is a “higher purpose” than to live pleasantly, and that seek to substitute their own view of what men should strive for in place of that which Nature provided when she gave us the faculty of happiness.

Incomplete sentence, I’m not sure what the author is alleging here.  I assume that it is the position that pleasure is the highest good.  This is the same axiomatic difference between the Schools… again.

Modern stoicism seeks to brush under the rug its soggy foundations, and to try to convince people that “virtue” is worth living for in and of itself.

This is an axiom of the Stoic school, and indeed most of the Socratic schools.  It’s an axiom, which means it either needs to be accepted or rejected.  Not proven.  What’s a soggy foundation and why does that matter for this discussion, even if it were a thing?

The modern stoics assure you that you can reject their “divine fire” origin of the universe, you can reject their Spock-like worship of “logic” over the facts of reality, and you can reject their praise of a life of anesthesia from all pain (AND joy) as the goal of living. You can reject all these, they say, because “our goal is happiness too!”

Some modern Stoics, typically the athiests, make this statement that you can rejected Stoic Phyiscs.  Not all do.  I see it as romantic and poetic language which bears shocking similarity to modern physics.

I assume ‘Spock-like worship’ is an ad hominem of sorts.  

There are eupathos or ‘healthy emotions’ like cheerfulness in Stoicism.   [LINK:  Donald Robert’s site].  The Epicurean is either ignorant of this or is ignoring it to score debate points.  Either way, no-go.

But what a perversion of a word! Modern Stoicism likes to talk about “happiness” without ever defining the term in recognizable ways.  But when you dig deep enough, you will always find that Stoic happiness has nothing to do with pleasure.

The term eudaimonia which is translated poorly in English by ‘happiness’ has very little to do with hedone or pleasure. This is an axiomatic difference between Epicureanism and Stoicism. Congrats! They’ve re-stated the 2,000 year old distinction between the schools. Again.  Well done.

Additionally, nearly every modern Stoic source devotes significant time (and early) to explaining the (admittedly) jargony way we use the word.  It’s an unfair characterization that we “hide” the meaning.  Stoicism does have a very particular and specific vocabulary, and this was used as a critique even during the early and middle Stoa.  It’s a fair point, but not enough to dismiss the School in its entirety.

Instead, you will find the stoics snuggling up to “pain” as if it is somehow valuable in itself.

Like the pain experienced when we exercise for health?  Some hardships are for a higher good than mere pleasure.   Methamphetamine intoxication might feel good, but destroys the body.  This is why pleasure cannot be a good nor an evil, it’s an indifferent. 

They have always done this and they always will. And that is because the essence of Stoicism is the rejection of the faculty of pleasure given us by nature.

I would say it’s the domestication of pleasure, not the rejection.  I suspect this is a distinction the author might not appreciate, however.

There were specific groups in the ancient world who were labeled “enemies of the human race” for their intolerant religious views.

Oh?  Which ones?  Is making “enemies of the human race” even advisable?  Seems kind of tyrannical… we’ll come back to that.

Well my friends the intolerance of the stoics for the pleasure of the ordinary man on the street beats far stronger in the heart of the establishment today than the irrationality of religion ever did.

Marcus said “educate them or put up with them,”  that’s kind of the definition of ‘tolerance,’ no?  

There is also an argumentum ad populum.  At one point, most folks believed slavery was right.  They were wrong, and the popularization of this idea didn’t make it right.  The Stoics will not force you to stop chasing pleasure, the fickle thing it is, but we might try and suggest you re-think the choice.

Suddenly Stoics are the establishment?  I thought it was a dead and forgotten ancient philosophy?

In seeking to dowse the flames of what they call emotional turbulence, they are really dowsing the flame of ALL emotion, especially the joy and delight that they hate so much.

Asked and answered, see eupathos.  [LINK:  Donald Robert’s site]

And their views have gradually leached so deeply into society that otherwise well-meaning people can no longer interpret even Epicurus himself in any way other than consistently with their ascetic view of human life.

Unsubstantiated assertion.  Is Stoicism old and meaningless or so powerful to obliterate all other interpretations?  Which argument are we having?

Even here, we see loose talk of “painlessness” as the goal of life, and “tranquility” as the absence of all engagement with the world, as if that were possible for any but the dead (whom the stoics emulate as best they can).

Stoicism does not assume mere tranquility is good (Irvine is the exception, here), but ‘human excellence’ virtue or arete is.  If it were mere tranquility, we could all take opium every waking moment to achieve that.  Hey… that almost seems like an Epicurean option!  

Epicurean philosophy arose in a garden where people were truly devoted to pleasure – the alpha and omega of a blessed life.

This is assumed to be a ‘good’ but that is the point of contention between the two Schools.  Stating the axiom isn’t useful in the debate.

Asceticism and hatred of joy and delight were the furthest things from their minds.

Actually, Epicurus states one should live simply so that the pleasure taken in material things is more dear and sharper.  Eating simple foods allows you to enjoy the sweet all the more.  The author seems ignorant of *both* school in the discussion.  

A normal person can tell the difference between Epicureanism and Stoicism, you know, because of the spelling.

The Epicurean movement would never have prospered in the ancient world had it been

Is this true?  On what grounds?

— it would have been immediately recognized by all as the hypocrisy which does truly exist, in Stoicism.

Unsubstantiated  claim of hypocrisy.

Nietzche nailed this on the head far better than I can.

We actually agree on this point.

For those who have not seen this quote, it is one to read over and over again, and to internalize til the understanding behind it becomes second nature:

“You desire to LIVE “according to Nature”? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power–how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live–is not that just endeavoring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, “living according to Nature,” means actually the same as “living according to life”–how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature “according to the Stoa,” and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise– and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves–Stoicism is self-tyranny–Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature? . . . But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima.”

This person then has the rest of the argument backwards. Reasoning what is natural is not a prescription for nature to follow, it is for us to follow. They’ve read Nietzsche. Cool. Did they understand what they read? Probably not, since their interpretation of Stoicism is so far off.
Self-tyranny is a contradiction. That’s called “freedom of choice.” If one wants to be a mere pleasure seeking robot, one can do that. It’s not advisable from a Stoic perspective, however it’s possible. If I seek to regulate my behaviors and thinking, that’s my choice. There’s not external force involved, which a tyranny necessarily has. The term is totally irrelevant to the discussion.

There is one philosophy that does NOT become a system based on “logic” with true believers who think they can “reason” their way into telling Nature what to do.

Why is “not based on logic” something worth while?  Are we looking for divine revelation, or maybe something that just reinforces our biases?  Hang on, if ‘logic’ is such an evil, why make a (poorly formed) argument against the Stoics?  Isn’t that an exercise in logic?

There is one philosophy that does NOT seek to create the world in its own image, and to dowse the flame of joy and delight which is the motive power of every living thing.

Suggesting that folks live according to the world *as it is* is not trying to re-shape it to one’s own nature.  It’s a standard practice in debate to (in good faith), to portray your opponent’s positions accurately and well.  That’s not happening here.

There is one philosophy that does not rebel against, but indeed elevates to the center, the faculty that Nature gave us to live our lives.

I’m going to be honest, I don’t know what this means.  It’s probably not our ruling faculty, the hegemonikon of reason, though.

There is one philosophy that recognizes “Divine Pleasure, the Guide of Life” as the true “goddess of nature” for both men and all other living things, and yields to her the respect and gratitude to which she is entitled. And that is the philosophy of Epicurus.

This person has systematically redefined words, then argued against these straw-definitions, and thinks they’ve done something worth while. They’re wrong, there, too.  By simply parroting the basic position of the school, while failing to support them, the author acts as if the argument is won, but it hasn’t even been argued in good faith.

Over all: congrats on the sophistry.

On ascetic practices in Stoicism

“Lo, God has sent you one who shall show indeed that it is possible. ‘Look at me, I have no house or city, property or slave: I sleep on the ground, I have no wife or children, no miserable palace, but only earth and sky and one poor cloak. Yet what do I lack? Am I not quit of pain and fear, am I not free? When has any of you ever seen me failing to get what I will to get, or falling into what I will to avoid? When did I blame God or man, when did I accuse any? Has any of you seen me with a gloomy face? How do I meet those of whom you stand in fear and awe? Do I not meet them as slaves? Who that sees me but thinks that he sees his king and master?’ There you have the true Cynic’s words…”
— Epictetus, Discourses III.22

The Stoics are descended from the Cynics, through Zeno of Citium who studied under Crates.  Indeed, Epictetus mentions in his Discourses Diogenes of Sinope more often than he does Zeno, the very founder of the Stoic School.  Both the Stoics and the Cynics hold that virtue is the only good, and the only thing necessary for eudaimonia.  On this, they agree.  On the matter of things indifferent (Gr: ἀδιάφορα), they differ heartily.

Desmond, in his book “Cynics, notes that Epictetus is one of the more Cynical of the Hellenic Stoics.  While this is true if you are comparing them to the Roman Stoics as a standard, it’s not true if you consider that we should be doing that comparison the other way ’round.  The Roman Stoics should be measured against their earlier Greek forebears.  The Romans, especially Seneca, Cato, and Marcus, had a level of material wealth and social role obligations that their Hellenic cousins simply never did.

The Romans took the tripartite study of philosophy, and discarded much of the things which did not mesh with their cultural norms.  The Cynic’s parrhesia (Gr: παρρησία), or freedom of speech, and their flouting of social norms were entirely contrary to the Roman values of decorum and social compliance.  From Cicero on, we have a trend of Romanizing the rough edges, the Cynic edges, off of Stoicism.  However, to ignore this lineage, and the Cynic-like tendencies of the early Stoa is a mistake.

So, the Cynic lives with his wallet or sack, worn-out cloak, and staff.  This is his uniform, and the extent of his worldly possessions.  The Cynics were practicing a voluntary austerity and asceticism which set them apart from the wider Hellenic culture.  They made plain their distaste for the material preoccupations of their day, and history is replete with annotations, aphorisms, and quotes holding up their mirror of non-conformity to the wider culture.

So, what sorts of ascetic practices, looking to our Cynic forebears for inspirations, might the aspiring Stoic adopt today?

  • Simple food:  The Cynics extolled the virtues of the lupin bean, and simple lentil soup, and crusty bread.  Lupins are expensive and hard to come by where I live, but lentils are cheap and readily available.  Zenonian Lentil soup might be a good start.
  • Simple drinks:  The Cynics praised the drinking of water over other choices, although Diogenes did say his favorite wine was “someone else’s.”  Note:  “The Water-Drinking Cynic” (Hydrokyon).
  • Simple clothes:  The Cynics had a uniform, and indeed many Stoics did, too.  The tribōn or philosopher’s cloak, minimalist protection from the environment.  The modern might reduce the wardrobe to a few identical pieces.  Jeans, a solid color t-shirt, and a light jacket, maybe?
  • Simple, natural grooming:  A simple, utilitarian hair cut, not for style but to remove what’s useless or in the way, and for men an uncut beard.
  • Simple shoes:  Barefoot if possible, for most of us it may not be, sandals might be a reasonable substitute.
  • Rough sleeping:  Avoid the soft beds, sleeping instead on the ground or a rough pallet, with naught but a simple blanket or cloak.
  • Walking:  Which errands could we rather walk for, instead of taking our vehicles or public transportation?

Ascetic training was a core part of ancient Stoic practice, and it has been sadly divorced in the modern times.  At minimum, if we will not practice these labors daily, once a month we should expose ourselves to some hardship so we might inure ourselves from the fickleness of Fate.

Is asceticism a part of your Stoic practice?  Why or why not?  Would you consider adding it to your practice?