On non-optional tests and trainings.

ER Room

ER Room

I spent several hours in the emergency room yesterday after a car accident.  I’ve injured my back somewhat, but the extent to which it’s injured won’t be clear for weeks or even months.  My vehicle is likely totaled.

This presents a slew of logistical issues relating to finances, commuting, work, and physical pain as well.  I did become mildly overwhelmed at one point, as I stood in the soaking rain with a hurting back, staring at a large and expensive car-shaped paperweight.

Not my vehicle, but a similar level of damage.

Not my vehicle, but a similar level of damage.

However, after some time, I was able to gain some ‘cognitive distance’ from the impressions of my situation.  I reminded myself that I’ve chosen to live in a city of seven million people.  People who own cars may find themselves in accidents.  Cars cost money… and at the end of the day, it’s just money and just cars.

While I might find myself in a bit of pain, mild constantly, a medium to high peaks, these too are simply impressions.  They have no moral connotations, they have no effect on my ability to exercises well “what’s up to me” unless I let them.  In fact, this particular instance gives me the opportunity to test my progress in new, and reality-based ways.

Physical pain, and carlessness are real constraints on the way most of us live.  Tweaking our diets, clothes, studies, etc.:  these are gym-trainings.  Physical pain, and the like are  different sort: we don’t chose them, we’re presented with them.  In this way, they seem to fall into a different class of trainings.

trainOf course, every discipline starts in the controlled rigor of the gym or dojo or school.  Yet, if the student is ever to progress beyond student, those skills must then be tested out and about it in the world.

So, my back pain and I are venturing out into the world.

A Reminder on Perspective.


θάλασσα ὕδωρ καθαρώτατον καὶ μιαρώτατον. ἰχθύσι μὲν πότιμον καὶ σωτήριον, ἀνθρώποις δὲ ἄποτον καὶ ὀλέθριον*.

“The sea is the purest and the impurest water. Fish can drink it, and it is good for them; to men it is undrinkable and destructive.”

— Heraclitus, Fragment 61**

Oftentimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the incredibly intellectual exercises of Stoic study.  Epictetus even had occasion many times to rebuke his students.  If all we are doing is handling syllogisms and parsing arguments, then we’re failing in the right work of philosophy.

[The student says to me]
– “Take the treatise on the active powers, and see how I have studied it.”

I reply,

– “Slave, I am not inquiring about this, but how you exercise pursuit and avoidance, desire and aversion, how your design and purpose and prepare yourself, whether conformably to nature or not.
– If conformably, give me evidence of it, and I will say that you are making progress: but if not conformably, be gone, and not only expound your books, but write such books yourself;
– and what will you gain by it?
– Do you not know that the whole book costs only five denarii?
– Does then the expounder seem to be worth more than five denarii?
Never, then, look for the matter itself in one place, and progress toward it in another.”

— Epictetus, Discourses I.4

Heraclitus and Epictetus are both giving us an opportunity to re-calibrate our perspective.  So often, we’re focused on the mundane trivialities of life.  But Heraclitus reminds us, what seems so to us may just be for us, and what’s true may be a think entirely different.  Now, this isn’t setting the stage for moral relativism, we’re still called to virtue, but our call is for ourselves.heraclitys

We get wrapped up in the Ps and Qs, and we can forget that virtue is our goal.  But when we see another “failing” we’re advised not to judge too harshly.  With ourselves, a firm hand is needed.

Heraclitus’s writings have a mystical quality, something almost Zen-like in their ability to realign the thinking process.  It’s good to have this change of pace, as Epictetus says, unless our studies are producing real and substantive changes in our lives, we’re just academics or worse, hobbyists.

Getting shocked out of the rut we might be building for ourselves in a primarily academic venture.  We began our studies here because we saw something of value in the way these philosophers lived their lives.  But simply learning about the things won’t produce in ourselves the needed change.  We must inculcate them in our lives if we wish to see the same effects as they got.

*  http://www.heraclitusfragments.com/  (An excellent resource)
**(h/t to one of my students in the MA School for reminding of this passage.)

On Musonius Rufus and law suits.


In Musonius’ Lecture X, he makes the claim that a good philosopher ought never to levy a civil suit against another for personal injury.  This is because all of the things which the civil authority might bring to a plaintiff are indifferents; and no accused person has it in their power to take anything good from nor foist anything evil on a philosopher.

This level of commitment to intellectual integrity is not often seen.  While the questions of society, the state, and communities are very close to Stoicism, this is a particular poignant recommendation.  But did Musonius live up to his own advice?

In the year 70 CE, Musonius went to court and assisted in the conviction of Publius Egnatius Celer, a fellow Stoic.  Celer has betrayed Barea Soranus to his death during the reign of Nero; one of the three so-called Stoic Martyrs.  court

Is this a problem for the unity of Musonius’ teachings?

No.  Musonius’ suggestions that a philosopher avoid suits of personal injury is well-grounded in Stoicism, but so too is his participation in the Celer’s trial.  Musonius was seeking justice to a man betrayed.  Justice, being one of the four constituent parts of Virtue; his endeavor was thus in accord with his own teaching.

It seems that we can infer a difference in his thinking between the personal injury claims of civil or equity law; and the laws of the state (malum in se, if not malum prohibitum) and criminal law.

Granted, this is an interpretation between what we have of his teaching and the way he lived his life.  We have it from our sources that The Roman Socrates was especially known for practicing what he preached.  It is reasonable, then, I think, to infer this dichotomy between the civil and criminal law.

What are your thoughts?
– Is Musonius suggestions that philosophers expressly avoid personal injury suits relevant to our modern times; or is this a core aspect of how our society now dispenses justice?
– Do you think this dichotomy between civil and criminal law is well grounded, or is it splitting fine hairs?

On the Stoic Dichotomy… or is it Trichotomy?


The Enchiridion begins with this line:

τῶν ὄντων τὰ μέν ἐστιν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, τὰ δὲ οὐκ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν.

Long translates this as:

“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.”

Higginson translates it as:

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.”

Carter as:

“Some things are in our control and others not.”

White as:

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.”

The Koine ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν translates literally as “on us,”  and thus the variety of interpretations in English.  In modern English we’re apt to say, “No, that’s ‘on you,‘ meaning it’s your responsibility or prerogative.

In modern Stoicism there is a trend, which if I recall correctly goes back to Irvine, to set-up a Trichotomy of Control, which is: things which are up to us, things which are up to us somewhat but not entirely, and things which are not up to us.

Strictly, under the Dichotomy of Control, the only things which are up to us are opinion,  movement towards a thing or impulse, desire, and aversion.  Basically, our intent and moral will.  And that hard line with which we circumscribe these very small number of things necessarily excludes all else.  This is the traditional, orthodox position.

Irvine’s heterodox interpretation seems to me to stem from the experiential observation that while we cannot guarantee how are our actions will end in the world, we can influence some part of it, more or less.  I can intend to help someone out, and I can influence someone to do so with me.  Although their choice is not up to me, I can plant the seed, and arrange the environment in such a way as to be conducive to that end.  Seems reasonable.

Philosophy comes to bloom in Ethics.  It was the primary focus of the Roman Stoics, and it is often the sole focus of the modern practitioners.  The ethics and the teleology matter, no question there.  I suspect that this is crux of the issue with the Trichotomy.

For the traditional Stoic, she can rest content knowing her actions had a virtuous intent even if they fall short of “doing good” from an outside perspective.  This seems to be a generally distasteful position for the modern Westerner.

We see this a lot in social situations, especially in instances of perceived power and perceived oppression:  “I don’t care what you meant, I care what you did.”  This post-modern perspective holds each person’s opinion and emotional response up as a rule for other folks’ actions… something which the traditional Stoic would likely deride.

I suspect that this move to a Trichotomy is a reasonable attempt at divorcing traditional Stoicism from its theological and teleological bent, and place it in a tract more conducive to modern atheistic Stoicism.  While we are all endeavoring to transplant a 2000 year old philosophy into the modern world without 2000 years of tradition and development; we must be cautious in what and how much we change.  At some point, if we change enough things, intellectual integrity should require that we change the title of thing.  You might not be wrong to change it, but is it still Stoicism after the change?

Irvine’s position allows for the perspective that doing external actions will take a place equal to keeping our own moral will in line with the Logos and laws of reason.  It represents a core and significant change to traditional Stoic doctrine… which Epictetus himself called “δόγματα/dogmata,”  the basic tenets of our school.

While it is observably true that this seems to be the case, is it a good mental model for the practicing Stoic?  Is it a good doctrinal position?  Let’s examine that.  If there is this third class of things, and the Stoic is frustrated in their attempts there, have they lost a ‘good-per-se’?  This is the necessary and proper question to ask.  If we have an influence there, then this thing must necessarily influence our own virtue.  It must be treated to some degree as a good-in-and-of-itself.

Accepting the Trichotomy will have cascading tiers of effects within Stoic thought.  If it’s a good-per-se, and we fail in these endeavors, what does that say about our progress to virtue?  If we intended to good, but didn’t do enough ancillary things to bring it about, have we in fact done something anti-virtuous?  At this point, have we arrived at a conception of virtue which is closer to the Peripatetics and Academics than it is to the Stoics and Cynics?  A position which requires some material and external factor in Stoic virtue ethics?

I would argue, that indeed such is the case.  If we accept the Trichotomy of Control, we will necessarily shift our conceptions of virtue (if we’re to maintain intellectual integrity) to things which are outside of our control; and this is an unacceptable consequence when seen with the lens of the core tenets of Stoicism.  Therefore, the Trichotomy should be denied, and the traditional Dichotomy of Control as noted by Epictetus and others maintained.

Massimo aruges for the Trichotomy in his piece from March of this year.  In it, he quotes Irvine:

“Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner.”

However, there is an error here, a misreading.  What is being focused on is still the intent, what’s “up to us.”  To intend to be a good partner is up to us.  You might do things which you think will make your wife love you, but that’s actually a weird, economic position on love.  How many unrequited lovers in the ‘friend zone’ treated their would-be-partners as love-machines which convert kind acts to love?  The fact is, you can’t make your wife, or anyone, love you; and thus, reasonably, you must focus solely on the intent of being a good partner and/or friend… or at least a good person will do so.

There’s nothing here which extends to an intermediary state of intent, so while arguing for the third, heterodox category, the example given still falls within the traditional Dichotomy.  In every instance of focusing on the intermediary state of intent, the proponent of the Trichotomy points to something which rightly falls under the Dichotomy.  As such, the Trichotomy is an illusion which only points to something in the Dichotomy.

How we set about to fulfill our obligations and roles under the paradigm of οἰκείωσις/oikeiôsis is an internal action.  It is a question of intent and moral will.  To suggest that since most of the classical Stoics we know about were “men of action” shows that they valued these external things is also an error.

First, we are likely only to know about those who had great effects, public renown, and/or elicited strong emotions from their contemporaries.  Second, these folks believed they had roles and obligations to their peoples.  Whether one succeeds at those roles is not however necessarily of consequence to the philosopher.

Now, many folks who are ‘men of action’ do value those external things.  But we’re not talking about those men, we’re talking about philosophers.  It is simply a necessary step that a philosopher whose intent is to execute an obligation will try to do it excellently, even if they fail.  In the instance in which it doesn’t fail, they are then perceived by the wider and untrained people as men of action, which does not refute the traditional position.

The Trichotomy is untenable in Stoic though under these two conditions, both unacceptable consequence to virtue, and the fact that it still points to intent under the Dichotomy.

On Ritualized Daily Stoic Practice


My academic background is anthropology and linguistics.  Although my current job is pretty far from these, that perspective is still one lens through which I view culture and societies.  To my knowledge, no culture exists without rituals.

For most folks, the term ritual evokes the image of religion (which is a borderline four-letter word on some sites and blogs these days).  While it’s true that religions generally have rituals, we have many secular ones as well.  Getting a driver’s license tends to have ritual significance as a coming of age rite, graduations are heavily and careful prescribed activities (even with ritual garments, gestures, talismans, and music).  Weddings, even at the court house, and on and on.  The story of human life is punctuated with ritual.

There are several reasons why a modern Stoic should consider ritualizing his or her practice.  Ritual and symbolism speak to the human mind in a way that overt, language-based impressions do not.  Rituals build a sense of seriousness and solemnity to activities; like the Japanese Tea Ceremony.  Rituals help make sure that we are doing complex things in a prescribed manner.  How many of us learned to tie our shoes and cross the street with ritualistic formalism?   Maybe even a parable about a rabbit?

When we undertake certain things with a ritual mindset, we learn it in a way that fossilizes the thing acquired.  In doing “philosophy as a way of life” we are endeavoring to untrain and retrain certain reactions which we have spent decades reinforcing.  No small thing, that.

Ritualizing our daily practices will build regularity, seriousness, and competence in our chosen endeavors.  Just like we train in a gym or a dojo in a specific manner before we’re expected to use those skills in a more serious context, rituals will help us prepare in the relative security of the philosophical school before we go out into the world to test what we’ve learned.

If we want to learn to box, we start in a gym; we don’t go pick a fight with Ronda Rousey.

Epictetus advises us to “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake in little things, and thence proceed to greater.

Ritualizing our practice is one way to do that.

It’s not my intent to lay out an entire scheme of things to ritualize, that’s the kind of nitty-gritty work most folks would rather do on their own.  But everything from clothing, meals, scholarly activities, etc. can be imbued with that special quality and signification of the ritual.

One of the biggest challenges for me, is figuring out how to inculcate Stoic practice, and effectively “automate” their use.  When it occurs to me use a Stoic technique, I’m pretty successful at using it.  The hard part, is gaining that little bit of time to remember to do the thing!  Ritual helps with that.

Musonius was big on habits.  It’s fair to say that Musonius believe that building good habits was the foundation of virtuous living.  While the classical Stoics all agreed that virtue was a sort of episteme or knowledge; building that justified belief into real actions is also important.  For Musonius, that was habits, hands down.

Ritualizing our practice builds habits.

As many a coach has said, “perfect practice makes perfect, practice just makes permanent.”  By building specific and prescribed rituals we will be doing the former, and hopefully the latter.

Do you already have something akin to “Stoic rituals” in your daily practice?  If so, what are they?  If not, what are some fertile grounds for that particular seed?

Internet detritus.


So, it’s very common to see these infographics (I won’t call this one a meme) with pseudo-deep, intellectual sounding life advise.  Generally, it’s harmless crap.  Occasionally, it offers (from a Stoic perspective) really bad advice.  I came across one such piece of digital flotsam, and decided to correct it.


On Cato, a philosopher’s uniform, and training.


“Seeing the lightest and gayest purple was then most in fashion, he would always wear that which was the nearest black; and he would often go out of doors, after his morning meal, without either shoes or tunic; not that he sought vain-glory from such novelties, but he would accustom himself to be ashamed only of what deserves shame, and to despise all other sorts of disgrace.”

— Plutarch, The Life of Cato the Younger.