Stoicism on Fire

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Stoicism on Fire Podcast.

If you enjoy the writing of Chris Fisher at TraditionalStoicism, I want to point you towards his podcast, which is now in its 14th episode.

I think you’ll find the quality and effort that goes into the writing and podcast sets Chris apart from many online commentators.  His posts usually have 15+ citations, and are always well researched.

Stoicism on Fire fills a needed niche in the Online Stoa, and I hope you’ll give it a listen.

Currently Reading: Ethical Roles in Epictetus (B.E. Johnson)

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Ethical Roles in Epictetus
by Brian Earl Johnson
In: Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy 16 (2):287-316 (2012)

Abstract

Epictetus holds that agents can determine what is appropriate relative to their roles in life. There has been only piecemeal work on this subject. Moreover, current scholarship on Epictetus’s role theory often employs Cicero’s narrow and highly schematic role theory as a template for reconstructing Epictetus’s theory. I argue against that approach and show that Epictetus’s theory is more open-ended and is best presented as a set of criteria that agents must reflect upon in order to discover their many roles: their capacities, their social relations, their wishes, and even divine signs. Epictetus in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy.

ISBN(s) 1085-1968
DOI 10.5840/epoche20121628


This is an interesting read, but it’s behind a paywall, so no link.
Check your local university or inter-library loan for a copy.

On other people’s evils

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I saw this post in a Facebook group today, and I replied to it in a short way. I suggested the author must have misunderstood the nature of Good and Evil in Stoicism. To be clear, I think that the person’s response is actually indicative of a compassionate nature. However, strictly within stoicism that response is incorrectly placed and speaks to incorrect beliefs about the nature of Good and Evil, and thus an incorrect judgment/emotion as a result.  If this were just a random post on Facebook, I would not think it was a place to expand on these ideas.  Since it is taking place in a group at least nominally dedicated to the topic of Stoicism, it seems useful and reasonable to discuss it within that context.

I think that the post above is referencing an incident in current events in which it appears that U.S. immigration officials have been separating parents from children after they have illegally crossed the U.S. border for some number of years. There have been questions about the quality of those detainments and the morality of doing it at all. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, this discussion is important for a nation and a people to have, especially knowing it has been going on for quite some time.  (Aside:  breaking news at the time of this writing, the White House has announced that this practice will be terminated).

I do not intend to weigh in on the topic at hand, since it is a little bit off topic for the blog, but I do want to reference how this sort of current event is viewed through a Stoic lens. It is also not my intention to call out the original poster for their post, which is why I have redacted their name profile picture. I really want to address the philosophical issue at hand and not muddy it in some other way, or imply some sort of ad hominem against the poster. So, with those caveats in place…


Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, ” I am handsome,” it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, ” I have a handsome horse,” know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 6.


In most people’s preliminary introduction into Stoicism, they read the Enchiridion in which we see the above quote. It is clear then from the beginning, that a Good must be solely up to us. However, the unspoken parallel there is that an Evil must also be only up to us.

We use these words, Good and Evil, casually in English and in everyday conversation but they both have clear and restricted definitions for the classical Stoics. Above all else (and I really mean all), Stoicism is concerned with virtue and an appropriately functioning προαίρεσις. There are two important axioms at play here which come to us from the ancients:

1. That virtue is the only good, and vice the only evil.

2. That the good and the evil have to be “up to us.” (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν).

The nature of Good and Evil in Stoicism runs counter to the average Westerner’s expectation. We are trained, compassionately, to see things in the world and say “what a tragedy, what an injustice!” These may very well be excellent avenues for us to form projects and attempt to influence the world for the betterment of our neighbors in the spirit of οἰκείωσις and cosmopolitanism.  But Evils, they are not.

Famine, war, disease, starvation, improper handling of criminals, and children whose parents move them from one place to another and are then mistreated: all of these things seem unfortunate to us, and present themselves as inustices, as evils.  Keeping in mind that we may still choose to act to influence them to some degree, they are not, however, actual Evils from the Stoic perspective.

This is the kind of statement that might make someone think “then the Stoics are wrong,” or “then this isn’t for me.” Either of which might be true, but let us look at the issue from that perspective first, and for the moment delay judgment (ἐποχή).

The left chart (click to embiggenate) shows the world divided by a couple of rules. Roughly speaking, they are things which are in accordance with nature and those not in accordance with nature, and things which are up to us and things which are not up to us. It is a bit more complicated than that, but if you will permit me to use some license here and overly simplify it, it will make it easier to highlight the substance of the division that were talking about.  Most folks will draw parallels to “positive things” and “negative things,” and that might be okay for this instance, but is still a little squishy.

With that in mind, an Evil has to be both against the nature of things, and up to us. Nature is also a difficult topic in Stoicism, but in this case we are talking specifically about humankind’s social nature.  So let’s shelve that issue for later, and focus on this social component.  Furthermore, according to this taxonomy when we see a “negative” thing if it is done by others it is an external and therefore a dispreferred indifferent (ἀπροηγμένα), and when done by us is a moral evil. The very same action has two different moral classifications and philosophical classifications depending on the agent or actor.  If we take the size of the various circles as indicative of frequency of occurrence, we see that these moral questions, while at the core and thus most important, are not the majority of impressions.

This seems nitpicky, and in a sense it is. However, when we as προκόπτωντες are attempting to make progress in our practice so philosophy, it behooves us to think of them correctly within the school that we have subscribed to.

Again, to reiterate, this does not imply passivity or that we must simply allow those things to go on as they are. If we feel a moral imperative to get involved and change the state of things, that is a prohairetic action (προαιρετικός) which contains a moral component and this is a valid avenue for us to act.  “It’s wrong for me to do nothing about this.”  This is fine, as long as you realize that your ability to influence it lies solely in the motivation and intent aspects.  You may well be thwarted along the way, and fail.  This is why the Dichotomy of Control is still a better Stoic position than the so-called Trichotomy.

Despite that, the thing which occurs is not Evil from a Stoic perspective. It could be, if and only if, you were the one making the plan/program or actively doing the thing which is repulsive to your conscience. It may be, that your action or inaction in this case, has a moral component for you. To choose a project one way of the other would have moral effects on you. In which case it would be to your own Good or Evil to act in accordance with that.

The Stoic lens can seem to be a strange one, distorting more than it focuses.  But for the practiced user, its ability to finely focus a narrow field is invaluable.  Part of using it appropriately and correctly is using the proper terms and connotations of the things we are observing.  It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to test impressions well if the measure is skewed by incorrect labels and markings.  The Good and the Evil need to be accurately calibrated, and that is the point of this of discussion.  In keeping those marks firm and accurate, we have benchmarks as moral actors for our intent.

What I learned from a year without Stoicism.

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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

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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


Licenses and accreditations

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I hope Epictetus and Seneca had all their paperwork in order…

Socratic meditation

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After a post in Donald Robertson’s facebook group on meditation sucked me into a comment thread, I noted a statement by my friend Yannos that piqued my interest.  In discussing the topic, I had mentioned that there’s no account of sitting or breathing meditation in the Stoic corpus, like we see in Buddhism, for example.  Yannos commented something like, “No, they were standing.”  I had not heard anything like this before.

In speaking with him privately, he gave me some reading homework to do.  In Plato’s Symposium there are two accounts of instances in which Socrates in engaged in a behavior which seems to be a meditation or a trance of some sort, and in both he’s standing still.  It’s also clear that he’s not praying, as in the one account he prays afterwards.  I tend to go to Xenophon for my Socrates-reading, and (perhaps embarrassingly) haven’t read too much of Plato.

Time to correct that, it seems.

The two passages in question are: 174d175c and 220c-d.  I will briefly paraphrase them here.

Plat. Sym. 174d175c

Socrates invites his friend Aristodemus to a dinner party which is hosted by Agathon.  Along the way, Socrates begins to lag behind, and he waves his friend onward.  Upon arriving to the house, he takes up a post at the neighbor’s porch, and stands meditating.  Aristodemus enters the house, and Agathon asks where Socrates is, and sends a servant to collect the man.  When asked by the servant to come in, he refuses.   When the servant reports the happening, Agathon orders him to continue to pester Socrates until he comes in, at which point Aristodemus intervenes and asks the host to let Socrates be, as this is a habit of his which he does frequently, regardless of time and place; and that he will be along shortly.  Agathon agrees to do this.  A short time later, proving Aristodemus correct, Socrates enters.  The mark of wisdom is clearly visible to Agathon, who asks Socrates to share it with him.  Socrates declines, and says that if such a thing were possible, to shift wisdom from one to another as a wick will move a liquid, he would.  But alas, it is not so.

Two things are worthy of note here, the first is that in this state, at least in the beginning, Socrates can and does interact with others.  He speaks to Aristodemus and to the servant of Agathon.  The second being that this occured frequently enough for others to know of it as a habit of his.  It is a practice or exercise which Socrates engages in often.

Plat. Sym. 220c

Alcibiades tells the dinner guests of another such time Socrates stood, but this was not short venture as the one of early this evening.  At Potidaea, in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates “joined his thoughts with himself” (συνεννοήσας), and stood still from morning, through lunch and the evening, and all through the night until the next morning.  Alcibiades states that we would not give up, suggesting a commitment to the process despite outside pressures.  It was such a sight, that others brought their bedrolls outside to watch.  In the morning, he greeted the sun with prayers for the new day.

In this instance, Socrates stood for 24 hours in this practice.  Most translations will say that Socrates was “thinking over some problem/issue,” but Yannos showed me that the word in question is συνεννοήσας, “συν+ ἐν + νοέω, from νοῦς” so I’ve used ‘joined his thoughts with himself.’  For folks interested, the other Greek words in question to discuss this activity in Plato are: συννενοέω, σκοπέω, φροντίζω τι, and προσέχω τὸν νοῦν.  As Yannos noted, “All this is done while standing and away from everybody else (ἀναχωρήσας).”

From the words above, we can look at some English words which help us see what Socrates is doing inside, he’s turning his thoughts inward, examining himself, contemplating, inspecting, looking out for something, etc.  His practice involves him standing, sometime shortly, other times for a very long time, and engaging in this work.  He stands away, so it’s personal, but he does it wherever he happens to be, so it’s not private, and it is without concern for time or the events of others, so it is not a public display. I hope this delimits the practice somewhat.  Additional, this Greek Word Study Tool is useful as you can look up words in their full, inflected form without knowing the nominative/dictionary form.

In the beginning, at least, Socrates can and does speak to others. Later he seems to ignore other people, but it’s unclear to me whether he cannot, or simply does not do so. In the Alcibiades passage, his commitment to seeing the practice through is evident. Alcibiades states that Socrates would not give up, and he stood there contemplating for a day and a night. Quite a mental and physical feat.

Neither passage tells us what Socrates has gained from the practice, we only see it through the eyes of others like the three mentioned before. I have not found much scholarly discussion on this topic. This paper, which is partially on topic for us and partially off, states that the event is a trance.  I’m not convinced this is the case.  It seems to me to be a meditative and contemplative exercise, but I could be misconstruing what’s meant by trance as the author uses it.  Also, in my preliminary readings, I came across a Google-scan of an old book which I cannot now find again, where the author laments that this passages is an example of many scholars cramming their own ideas into ancient texts, eisegisis (a word Chris Fisher recently taught me).  This book notes two sources, one who uses this passage to state that this is evidence Socrates was a Pythagorean mystic, and another who uses it to claim that Socrates was figure of Science (with a capital S, clearly).  It’s worth noting that this is a real and present risk in the kind of work we’re engaged in here, so the reminder is timely and helpful.

HadotIt does seem fair to me that this practice can be classed as a “spiritual exercise” as Hadot would label it, and that it could be a valid practice for contemporary Stoics of any stripe.  For me, this sort of evidence, while a bit thin, is an interesting line of investigation which I prefer to porting over a practice from some other school or religion.  I will be making use of it in the coming weeks and months, and will report back any findings of note.

Normally, I would detail a plan or instructions for others. But as I’m writing this before engaging in a long-term experiment with the practice, I think that such a thing will be a future post after some experimenting is done.  So, I apologize for the lack, mea culpa.  If you decided to add this Socratic Meditation to your practice of Stoicism, please report back in the comments.