As I set pen to paper (as it were), it happens that it has been almost a year to the day since I wrote this. A few weeks after that posted however, not explicitly but functionally, I left the practice of philosophy as a way of life. The cosmos has a sense of humor, it seems, and sometimes it’s a little twisted
I fell away from philosophy for a variety of reasons, but all of them circled around one issue. I was frustrated with what seemed like a lack of progress. I looked back on earlier periods of my life when I was less occupied with the workings of the mind and soul, and with rose colored glasses, I lamented the loss of happier times. I remember fondly pleasures and simpler days.looked at the Stoic communities on the internet that had stagnated, some which had become toxic and pandering to the narcissistic. Others had withered or lost their way. I saw a slew of newcomers swayed by (to my mind) wrong interpretations, some intention biases, and people capitalizing not on providing accurate useful content but clicks, memes, bumpersticker philosophy, and branding.
I did not identify it at the time, but I had had a crisis of philosophy (of faith?). So I stopped, and I went another way.
Suffice it to say, the crops borne of these seeds of questioning have yielded a bitter harvest. Without focusing too much on the particulars, let us just say that the error of my thinking is now been made clear. A Facebook notification that my friend Yannos had made a post took to me a comment he wrote, and helped to cue me back towards our practices.
This got me thinking of why I unconsciously left philosophy, it was for this very reason. I didn’t win, or get the prize at the end. However, upon inspection, I had changed greatly, and for the better. The greater change, though, was a negative one; and it had occurred when I left. A slow but constantly slide downward. After a year, I am so far away from where I was, I feel like a different person, living a different life.
When I was a Stoic, or at least one who wishes to be a Stoic, I took responsibility for myself. I worked on things I could control. I was compassionate towards towards others. I had a mission of sorts, even if imperfectly formed.
When you have remitted your attention for a short time, do not imagine this, that you will recover it when you choose; but let this thought be present to you, that in consequence of the fault committed to-day your affairs must be in a worse condition for all that follows.
— Epictetus, Discourses IV.12
Boy, isn’t this the truth.
The biggest challenge is undoing the habits I’ve formed. I’ve lost the perception of that space where judgments are made between perception and emotion. I have to forcefully remind myself to keep our practices in mind and actually do them.
So, all that being said, here is the bullet point list of things I learned with a year away from philosophy:
- Whether or not the Stoic position of emotions being judgments or the result of judgments is true, it’s useful. This is especially noted in the absence of the practice.
- A rich inner life of questioning impressions provides a valuable strategy for managing those impressions. Failure to manage them puts you at their mercy, of which they seem to have none. For me, the Dichotomy of Control is the best model I have yet experienced for personal well being.
- A focus on externals puts your well being in the hands of things external, not your own. This is begging for trouble.
- Focusing on externals may not bring you the achievement of externals, but focusing on the προαίρεσις will bring about its proper function.
- A προαίρεσις will keep doing its job without explicit instructions, but you might not like the result.
- Whether or not you take the position that virtue is the only good as an axiom, as an existential choice, or an article of faith, it’s now clear to me that a focus on externals begs for unhappiness.
It may not be much, and the cost was high. But there is the product of my year as a Stoic Apostate. Now, we will see if I can regain what I lost. Hope to see you on the way there. I do not want to make any big pronouncements, or state grand goals. I want merely to set my feet back on the path.
Then show me one in the moulding, one who has set his feet on the path. Do me this kindness, do not grudge an old man like me a sight I never saw till now.”
— Epictetus, Discourses II.19
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