Minimalists taking a cue from the Stoics?


“Quite often people will come up to us after our events and they will say it’s great to see a couple of guys out here spreading Jesus’ message or they’ll say it’s great to a couple of Buddhists out on the road sharing these Buddhist principles, or (the thinking of) stoic philosophers like Seneca or Marcus Aurelius,” says Joshua.

Interesting to see some classical Stoics mentioned casually in this context. Seems to be a sea-change in how Stoicism is viewed around the globe. Of course, minimalism for minimalism’s sake isn’t virtue, but anyway ….

The “here and now” and cell phone use.


Cell phones and the connectivity they provide are an amazingly powerful tool.  I did not have a cellphone until 2003-2004, my senior year in high school.  Back then, it was a flip phone, which could make calls, play the game Snake, send texts (with four pushes of the number 7 for an ‘S’, and text-only web-browsing which we did not pay for, and thus did not have.  Now many, if not most, phones can surf the internet, keep you plugged into social network with push-notifications, watch videos, find a partner or hook up, get directions with GPS guidance, and more besides.  You can even play GameBoy games in addition to Flappy Bird, Candy Crush, and Farmville.

Let’s not even touch the phenomenon of the “selfie.”

The tool is a powerful one, no question, and it’s one which has over the past decade taken an increasingly large share of our lives and attention.  This trend is one which caused me some concern, and I had the sneaking suspicions that something untoward was afoot.

My suspicion was that I was spending too much time on the device, and that this was pulling me away from my loved ones, my studies, and the people in my life.  Additionally, I had the suspicion that my cellphone was hampering my attention, my ability to concentrate, and was keeping me from focusing on the moment; the hic et nunc.  At any moment, we can pull out a device if we’re waiting, or sitting, or otherwise unoccupied.

For two weeks, I tracked my cell phone use.  I tracked the number of times I called the screen from off to on (Checky), and also the number of minutes spent using the device (QualityTime).  I tracked “checks” for longer than I did minutes, and for a portion of the “minutes” period, I was lacking a computer, so would have maybe watched a film or something, which you can see in the latter part of the week.   So, I tracked the number of checks, meaning the number of times per day I check the phone.  This could be to check the time, email, texts, SnapChat, Facebook, even WordPress for this blog.  All of which send me notifications.

Let me share with you the results, which are not flattering, but were eye-opening.

For checks per day, there appears to be a mediating effect of measuring the checks.  Each day, at noon, I would get a report from the previous day, which would also show me the current day’s checks.  There’s a pretty clear trend downwards.  The same trend is not present for minutes, although for the latter part of the week, I did not have access to a computer at all, which I suspect was a contributing factor.minutes_per_day

Overall, this exercise pointed out to me with glaring, flashing, neon lights that I am using devices, connectivity, and social media in way which is not conducive to Stoic philosophy.

More on this idea, about restricting technologies, which I’ve been pondering over the past few weeks, is here.

In the coming weeks and months, I will undertake to re-focus how I’m spending my time, and which technologies I will permit to enter my day.  I suspect that there are some pretty significant changes on the horizon for me, and those of philosophical relevance will be discussed here.

I’m wondering if readers have any similar thoughts or realizations.  Have any readers here undertaken similar experiments, and what were your thoughts afterwards?  If anyone is inspired to undertake a similar experiment, there are a variety of apps available to track these metrics.  I simply kept track of the results on a Google Drive spreadsheet, which I also used to produce the graphs.  Feel free to share your results in the comments.

Philosophy as a Way of Life and “Amistics.”


I recently finished a science-fiction slash speculative fiction book by the author Neal Stephenson called SevenEves.  One of the things that stuck out at me was a word he coined called “amistics.”  Amistics is the practice of intentionally selecting which technologies we allow into our lives.  The etymology of the word relates to the Amish, a group of Christian Anabaptists well known in the mid-Atlantic slash northern Appalachian region of Pennsylvania and Ohio, amongst other places.

The author’s contention, is that mostly this is an unconscious process in most human communities.  We’re not here discussing the anti-technology doctrines of Luddites or anarcho-primitivists, but something akin to what the Amish do.  The Amish have a process whereby they determine which technologies will be adopted into their communities wholesale, or even in particular cases.  A general prohibition on electrical grid connection and usage might be lifted for a community member who for health reasons requires refrigeration or something like that.  Roller skates might be allowed, but zippers not.  To hire a car for long distances might be allowed or might be disallowed depending on the community in question.  There is a wide range in Amish communities about such rules.

Another interesting point, in Pennsylvania Dutch, the word Rumspringa denotes a period of adolescence when Amish children may engage in otherwise prohibited activities as the rules of conduct are slightly relaxed, and rules less sever.  For those used to living near, or driving through Amish country, it’s not uncommon to see a horse and buggy on the road.  The men driving are usually in plain clothes, as are the women with their hair covered.  Occasionally one will see a teenager in jeans and a t-shirt listening to an iPod (very occasionally, for me, seen only once).  This period allows the burgeoning adult to experience what will intentional abstained from, and decide to keep their traditional prescriptions, or leave the community for the world of “Englishmen.”  Oftentimes, however, this period of life is misrepresented in popular culture, so beware that “stereotypes and misunderstandings abound.”

Thus: we arrive at Amistics.

What relevance does this have for a Stoic?  We are bombarded constantly with new devices, new technologies, new social networks, and the like.  Moore’s law has thus far proven that every two years we can expect major leaps in technological capability.  There is never ending parade of new things for us to buy, to do… to try and fill some hole inside.

But does it?

The collectivity informs and shapes your will to happiness (“have fun”) by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be: having fun that is so perfectly credible that it allows no interference of conscious doubt. In theory such a good time can be so convincing that you are no longer aware of even a remote possibility that it might change into something less satisfying. In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.

—CityDesert, The Hermit as Outlaw.

Stoics are clearly looking at and for a different stripe of happiness, for one similar to (albeit not nondifferent from) the sort that folks like the above are also looking.  The above piece is (clearly) couched in a Christian frame, and that is probably not perfectly suited to the Stoic outlook, but even if the why and the end conclusion are not for us, the process in the middle is relevant to our interests.  Despite the differences, I quite enjoy reading the above blog.

While we may not be retiring to a retreat or hermitage, we are often living in a way outside of what the average Westerner expects.  This seems to follow reasonably for someone living a philosophy as a way of life,  and the idea Amistics can help us be wary of a reactionary pull-back and make informed, rational decisions about the environment we create for ourselves.

“As we call a statue Phidiac which is fashioned according to the art of Phidias; so show me a man who is fashioned according to the doctrines which he utters. Show me a man who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him: I desire, by the gods, to see a Stoic. You cannot show me one fashioned so; but show me at least one who is forming, who has shown a tendency to be a Stoic.”

—Epictetus, Discourses II.19

One of the metaphors for making a virtuous life is akin to making a piece of fine art from stone.:  to remove what is superfluous, and allowing the shape underneath to take form and be visible.

One of the thing I’ve been chewing on lately, my use of social networking.  At one point, it was a significant contributor to my study of philosophy, but I think that time has passed.  I may be undertaking an experiment in Amistics here before too long, and removing large portions of my social media time, in part, to be able to focus more on the people around me, and my writing.

I’m interested in what sort of via negativa removals you may have exercised, and if that fits in with the above.