In these times exigent circumstances, where all sorts of unprecedented, “temporary” powers and authority are implemented: this.
Source: Margaret Graver, “Stoicism and Emotion,” p.49.
In these times exigent circumstances, where all sorts of unprecedented, “temporary” powers and authority are implemented: this.
Source: Margaret Graver, “Stoicism and Emotion,” p.49.
“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened!
How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?
You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so, look forward meanwhile to better things.”
— Seneca, Letter 13
I’ve been holding off writing about this topic, but today I decided it was time to set fingers to keyboard. Not because I have some revelation to share with you, but because I need to work through this linguistically. I need to think about it, rationally. I need to frame it appropriately to my nature, and I need the therapeutics which philosophy brings. Like many folks, I’ve been experiencing some anxiety due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. I have ameliorated that somewhat, and I’ll tell you how.
I realized I was checking in on the stats almost hourly. That might be a slight exaggeration, but it was at least a handful of times per day. I’m an analytical sort, and I like and work with data. So at first, I didn’t notice anything wrong with this behavior. However, in retrospect, I see it was a sort of compulsive behavior that wasn’t very helpful to me.
So the first thing that I did was reduce my information intake to once daily or less. I also restricted the amount of public official video I was watching: all of them for my country and state, to reading a short review of each of one to be generally apprised. I also (maybe unfairly) outsourced some of my information consumption to others who were not so affected: I asked them to give me short summaries when something interesting crossed their transom.
I noticed an immediate reduction in stress.
That being said, the situation is materially quite severe. While I myself am not in the highest-risk demographic, many others are. I’ve reframed my “social distancing” and “stay at home” behaviors as a function of my social roles, and also a way of extending Hierocles’ circles of affinity. I have also set plans to re-start my meditation practice, with some limited success, but I’m working on it.
Epictetus is very right when he says:
“When you relax your attention for a little, do not imagine that you will recover it wherever you wish, but bear this well in mind, that your error of to-day must of necessity put you in a worse position for other occasions.”
— Epictetus, Discourses 4:12.
Re-starting a philosophical practice of any sort is difficult. It is comforting, even if we’ve drifted away from our progress, to remember that the promises of philosophy are always there, and it is never too late to take up the old cloak and bag.
I tend to “fall off the wagon” during Stoic Week some time around Wednesday. I think in part that’s because I forget to print of a monitoring sheet, and it’s a bit of a pain to carry around. I’m doing some Stoic Week practices at the moment to reacquaint myself with our the practical aspects of our School that I have let slip. I still hate carrying around those sheets.
For another project a year ago, I started using a Google Form to keep track of hours spent on business venture. I made the form, organized it, ran it through several drafts, and them placed an icon-shortlink for it on my phone’s main screen. This made it easy to keep track of what I was doing, and easy to use it. I set it up for several people to use, to collect emails, and more.
I decided to do a similar thing for the Stoic Week monitoring sheet, and I’ve run this through several revisions, as well as added a few things. The version shown here is identical to the one I’m using, although this one is just an example so you can recreate it if you want. Feel free to take a look: Here’s the Example Stoic Week Monitoring Form.
I’m going to close this to results sometime soon, so I don’t get inundated with people testing, but I’ll leave it live for a short time if you want to duplicate it. If you decide to duplicate it, please let me know in the comments, as well if it’s helpful to you.
“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s,in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.”
— Marcus, Meditations, Book VII
This weekend I am headed to Philadelphia to compete in the US Amateur Nationals Competition in Japanese Sumo Wrestling. I have been training in Sumo for a short six months, and competed in two regional competitions so far. Sumo is a bit more complicated than the American stereotype: there are 82 different winning moves, and more than a handful of moves which cause you to immediately lose. It is the successor to a Shintō ritual, a cosmological archetype of law vs chaos. The Way of Salt, is quite a thing to become familiar with.
Many ancient philosophers participated in or used as reference combat sports. Plato was a boxer, the Cynics and Antisthenes literally began at a gym. Such activities are far from the academic philosophy of college departments the world over.
But there is a type of character which is forged under the iron of the weight room. A focus and intentionality that the boxer and wrestler must have in order to succeed.
I was listening to an audiobook of Seneca’s De Ira yesterday, and in part he writes that a judge or magistrate exercises punishment not for its own sake, but like a doctor used knives and blooding to bring about the best for a patient.
He discusses generals and soldiers in war, and how rightly they too should exercise their duties without the maddening component of anger. He even talks of the common man, who would avenge a familial killing not in rage, but because it is his duty.
The west has mostly lost the old “honor culture” aspects that readily accede to the former in most places, and these may seem to us be conflicting. But they are not.
In a recent Sumo training camp, I had an opponent who was quite a bit younger and fitter than I am. He favored a style which is currently in Vogue amongst the fans of Abi in Japan’s Pro Sumo. Repeated tsupari strikes, often to the chest, neck, and face. This is permitted in Sumo with some restrictions.
However, this mad, crazed style, while a bit shocking and startling, fails when the opponent, in this case me, realizes that it’s not the worst thing be slapped in the face a few times.
Once I got over the initial physical shock or being struck a few times in the face and chest, I was able to formulate and execute a plan to move my opponent, and toss him from the ring.
This opponent actually gave me a great gift. He taught me an important lesson, in the dohyo and by extension (should I learn it), in life.
It’s not that bad to be hitnin the face a few times. But after that, get to work.
I may post a bit more from Sumo Nationals this weekend, and more than other combat sports, Sumo lends itself it such introspection.
When discussing Stoic practice, we often are at point of reconstruction. We have several words for these types of actions (meletáō) meaning contemplation or meditation, ἀσκέω (askeō) meaning practice or training, and more. We have lists from Philo of Alexandria and others as to the types of training, and they are expounded upon by Musonius and Epictetus. Hadot and Buzaré have written in some depth about these, and I have also contributed some work on new-old practices as well:
In that vein, I’ve been working on another tool to aid to the Stoic Toolkit:
I’ve had experience using several prayer/meditation aids in the past from several traditions, some I’ve studied as an adult and one was a core practice of my religious upbringing. It is interesting how it seems we often circle back to core parts of our early indoctrination, even if other core parts are set aside. I’ve had the opportunity to sit as a neutral observer in related services and religious functions, and I’m always struck by how far away my path has taken me from some of those concepts and beliefs, and how close others still are.
To that point, a few years ago I repurposed japa prayer beads as counters for a Stoic meditation of keeping certain precepts and phrases πρόχειρον (procheiron or ready to hand).
If you’re not familiar with japa beads or mala, they are a string of typically 108 beads traditionally made of rudraksha seeds or other materials and used in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Shintō as a meditation or prayer aid. I kept mine in a pouch into which I inserted my hand, and used it as a counter as I repeated certain phrases, like my personal Stoic Μνήμη (memory exercise or mnḗmē).
Regarding earthly things:
Nothing unexpected has happened,
Nothing evil has occurred, and
Nothing eternal has been lost.
However, even though the intent was similar, it felt a little strange to use a tool that’s decidedly formalized like this from another tradition wholesale. It felt a little disrespectful, and just “not quite right.” For instance, I don’t think I would have used a rosary this way.
At some point, after a month or two, I stopped using them, and as a result stopped using this practice.
It did seem helpful to me, however; and I have recently taken it back up. I previously came up with a counting method using the knuckles of my fingers. I would use my thumb of my right hand, and begin at the large middle knuckle for “1,” move to the small end knuckle for “2,” and the end of the finger for “3.” Once I had completed all of the knuckles of my fingers of my right hand in this fashion, being a count of 12, I would mark one knuckle of my left hand in the same fashion.
In this way, I would have a count of 144 with one full “round” of both hands, each knuckle of the left hand being a 12-count. This was good when I didn’t have a counter or a tool, and since it was a motor-function, and not a cognitive one per se, I could do it without thinking and focus on my meditation practice. It is nice to be able to do this with a tool, and you can do it practically anywhere and almost totally incognito.
However, I liked having the tool, as well.
Recently, I discovered a tool used to pass the time in Greece and Cyprus called κομπολόι (kompoloi). These are used in a “quiet” and “loud” fashion as a sort of “fidget-device” and are really devoid of any current meditative or religious practice.
Being a cultural practice of the inheritor of the culture from which our School originated, it feels “closer to home” as it were. I’ve been doing some reading, and it’s likely that japa and κομπολόι actually have a common ancestor tradition, which is interesting.
So, I have ordered a κομπολόι, with the intent of restarting my repetitive Stoic mantra or μνήμη practice. I am not quite sure if I will make use of either method, as it’s not quite conducive to the “counting” function that I’m doing. I may use them more like the japa beads above. I thought I would share this, as I haven’t seen many other using a similar meditation or spiritual exercise.
Neither 144, 108, or any of the variant numbers of κομπολόι have any particular meaning for Stoics that I can think of, and I do have a mind towards symbolism. So, I wish that we could devise a meaning full number-symbol for this use. If you have a similar practice, or use a similar set of tools, I’d be interested in learning about it. Feel free to discuss in the comments. If you have a suggestion for a number-symbol for the beads for a Stoic meditation practice, I am 100% open to hearing it.
Some time ago, I pre-ordered a reprinting of Musonius’ lectures and sayings, which is now available. The Cora Lutz translation is one of my favorites, and the versions available online are bi-lingual in Koine and English. I assumed that would be the case with this reprint, but I was quite disheartened to find it is English-language only. Lutz was a monster of 19th century translation work, and all modern Stoics are indebted to her.
I am pleased to have this translation in print. The hardcover format is nice, as I tend to be a bit rough on books. They go many places, get tossed in bags, etc. My Loeb copy of Meditations has been in four countries, had flowers and leaves pressed between its pages, and been banged around quite a bit.
I suspect that Musonius will get a similar treatment.
The price has already been reduced from its pre-order and new-sale price, coming in at just under $20 USD. I would recommend this to you for no other reason than a physical version of Lutz’s work is nice to have, with the caveat that is English-only.
I had the opportunity to be a guest on a new Stoic podcast, and it has recently been released. Per, the author and host, submitted it to r/Stoicism, so I will link you to it to read about it in his own voice.
Thanks to the readers of this blog, since it is very likely without you I would not have been able to reach the point where I was included in Stoicism Today’s compendia, and from there to Wikipedia!
I remember some time back, Donald Robertson made a post in his Facebook group for a draft article for Wikipedia. I don’t recall seeing anything about it thereafter, but today while I was puttering around the intertubes, I saw that it indeed has been published.
Which, frankly, is pretty cool. So thanks again for helping to get me there.
I do note that the article doesn’t point back to this blog. If I recall correctly, Wikimedia has rules about editing things you’re involved in, so if someone wanted to link my name as an external link back to the blog’s main page, that would be much appreciated.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
— Meditations X.16
One of the things which often seems to be forgotten, is that the title which is traditionally given to what we call “Meditations” in English is Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν or “Things to one’s self” and sometimes just “To himself.” Marcus never intends his notes to be read by another, and certainly that matters when we’re interpreting his writings.
Below are a few reasons why the above passage (and others like it) likely don’t apply to the modern Stoic student.
1. Marcus was already firmly studied in Stoicism.
Marcus had several private tutors in philosophy from a young age. Whether it be Fronto or Rusticus, during the formative years of his life he had a solid philosophical influence. Most of us come to philosophy in adulthood, and we lack the decades of grounding that Marcus had. When he admonishes himself from study to action, he knows this. It simply doesn’t apply to the nascent προκόπτων in the same way. We ought to prefer practice to theory alone, but we do need the theory.
2. Marcus had training in Stoic moderation (ἄσκησις )
From an early age, Marcus was used to the Greek regimen of moderation and simplicity. Early on in the Meditations, he recounts how his mother and others would try and dissuade him from these practices. Most of the 21st century Stoic practitioners are not preforming the physical training that we see over and over in Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus. True Stoic moderation appears extreme to those of us steeped in a level of indulgence that would be staggering to the ancients. For this reason, Marcus was already practiced in the things which for most of us are mere theory, cold showers aside.
3. Marcus was in a particular and rare circumstance.
As the Emperor of a large empire, Marcus had external demands and duties which are radically different from ours. This is not to enter a value judgment about which are better, easier, or preferable, it’s a mere fact that they are different. The Roman Stoics had more of a focus on roles and duties than their predecessors; and Marcus would have felt this strongly. For him, his time is better spent in embodying the virtues he has already come to know than it would be in further study. We, however, have need to inculcate these points in our daily lives, and this requires study and learning.
4. Marcus had access to resources we do not (probably).
It is generally accepted that the works of Epictetus to which Marcus had been introduced was probably some version of Arrian’s notes: The Discourses. We also know that there were four additional Books which have been lost to time. It seems likely to me that Marcus had access to those lost books. Since we are working with only a fraction of the Stoic record, we have to work more intensely and diligently on them than those who had access to more. Marcus may admonish himself to have fewer books, but he had access to ones we do not.
5. Marcus was living and operating in a world where Stoicism was a major social influence.
Any educated Roman of Marcus’ time would have been familiar with Stoic philosophy, at least the broad strokes. Greek philosophy helped shape Rome in profound and serious ways. In may ways, Marcus practice while extraordinary for an Emperor, was relatively common in and of itself. We students of ancient philosophy, especially those of us seeking to make philosophy a way of life, are outliers. Rather than stepping into the well worn ruts of those who have gone before, we find ourselves forging new paths, and carving roads into a wilderness 2,000 years deep. This distance of time requires different strategies, tools, and work than Marcus himself needed.
It seems to me that there is much to gain from Marcus’ writings, but it is also important to take from them judiciously. I cannot help but see parallel struggles (and sometimes the exact same ones) in Marcus’ writings as I have in my own life. Yet some are unique to his time, others unique to his person. So when Marcus tells himself to pair down his bookshelf, waste no more time in contemplation, etc., these might not be true for us.
I certainly encourage frequent reading of the work, and a careful application of a critical rule which shifts what’s applicable to us and what is not. So before you set aside something which might seriously affect your training, consider whether that in fact applies to you.
A new fb group for Appalachian Stoics: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2415356041866522/
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