Stoic Lessons: How To Act And How To View Death

What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others’ action or failure to act. Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. Now if there is nothing fearful for the elements themselves in their constant change of each into another, why should one look anxiously in prospect at the change and dissolution of them all? This is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature. (Marcus Aurelius)

According to Marcus Aurelius, philosophy, more specifically Stoic philosophy teaches two things in particular: How to act and How to view death.

Living requires a lot of decision making. So many decisions that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s even more challenging now than it was in the time Marcus Aurelius lived, for there is an abundance of choices in our current age. Far too many paths in life. Far too many ways to think, behave and act. It’s no wonder why the world is full of self-help gurus who instruct other people about how to live their lives.

Stoic philosophy simplifies action. “Doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity,” as Marcus Aurelius put it. Although a simple notion, this advice is difficult to follow because it requires self-reflection. To figure out your aim, your truth and your principles, you have to know yourself. You have to know that humans are part of nature, which means each individual had “divinity” inside them, according to the Stoics. This divinity means that you have to hold yourself up to a higher standard, to demand more out of yourself. To go beyond what is expected of you.

Part of acting also involves “accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin”. Meaning, the outcome is not in your control. All you have control over is your attitude and reaction. There is freedom in this understanding. Concentrate on what you can control.

The Stoic view of death is similar to that of fate: Acceptance. Death is a part of nature and so it must be accepted as such instead of fearing it. “And at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed”. Stoics often practiced an objective point of view.

For example Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that the food he was eating was simply a dead body of a fish of another animal.

How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig.

This was done in order to strip away the glamour and to get to the core of the matter because you can dress up the food however you like and add whatever spices you want but in reality what you are eating is just flesh and meat, carcass of something that will soon rot. Similarly, death can seem grand in our head but in reality its just a “dissolution of the elements”, a dissolution which “is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature.”

 

Stoic Lesson: The Importance of Journaling

Our current age is so fast-paced and there is so much information out there that it feels like you are just jumping from one thought to another without completely digesting the message. We get all this information which we never unpack and see if it’s useful or not.

For Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor and a Stoic philosopher, this unpacking of information was done through his writing. He kept a journal that we now know as his book ‘Meditations‘. The book is essentially comprised of personal notes, each one reminding him of something that he considered to be important, some principle to remember and live-by. Rather than adding information, Marcus Aurelius refined what he knew and tried to live by it.

Which is the point of philosophy. Philosophy isn’t simply to contemplate whether we exist or not or what logic means but rather, philosophy is about how one lives and for Aurelius, he was able to embody his philosophy by constantly reminding himself of what was important.

From the point of view of the imminence of death, one thing counts, and one alone: to strive always to have the essential rules of life present in one’s mind, and to keep placing oneself in the fundamental disposition of the philosopher, which consists essentially in controlling one’s inner discourse, in doing only that which is of benefit to the human community, and in accepting the events brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All. (Pierre Hadot)

The essential reason why Aurelius wrote was to control his inner discourse. By that, it is meant his thoughts. If you allow your mind to be completely free, it is likely to fill your head with anxiety and fears or, it’ll distract you from the right action by leading you towards some immediate gratification. But by repeatedly reading and writing the principles that you want to live by, you bring those ideals to the forefront of your mind and then your action follows.

It is not enough to reread what has already been written. Written pages are already dead, and the Meditations were not made to be reread. What counts is the reformulation: the act of writing or talking to oneself, right now, in the very moment when one needs to write. (Pierre Hadot)

This is an important thing to understand. If one reads the ‘Meditations’ what they will find is that Marcus Aurelius is basically repeating the same handful of principles over and over again. The reason for this is that the book was never meant for public eyes. Rather it was his personal journal. But what we can understand from this action is that we need reminders. We need to remember to stay on the right path. This is done through daily practice. Every day you have to hammer it into your mind what you want to be, how you want to act, how you want to represent yourself. Writing is one way to do this. Because the act of writing alone causes you to concentrate on the thoughts which are formulating into the words in front of you.

Marcus writes only in order to have the dogmas and rules of life always present to his mind. He is thus following the advice of Epictetus, who, after having set forth the distinction between what does and does not depend on us —- the fundamental dogma of Stocisim —- adds:

It is about this that philosophers ought to meditate; this is what they should write down every day, and it should be the subject of their exercises (I, I, 25).

You must have these principles at hand both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them (III, 24, 103). (Pierre Hadot).

These principles depend on the individual. For the Stoics, the main principles were to understand how little control we have in life, how we do have control over our reason and attitude, how death can approach at any moment and how we must align ourselves with the universal purpose.

This may not be how you wish to live. But whatever you consider to be important, whatever principles you wish to follow require constant attention. You just have to remember to reinforce these principles on a consistent basis.

The practical nature of stoicism is one of the reasons why this philosophy is still relevant. It acknowledges how easy it is to be overwhelmed or to stray off the path but it also provides a solution in the form of journaling. Simply by writing for ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and maybe even in the afternoon, it can act as a reminder and help you to carry yourself with grace, to think of the right things and to act in the correct manner. The repetition of such can then slowly transform your character to the point that you begin to embody the philosophy by the way you live as it did for Marcus Aurelius.

Book referenced: The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot


Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth

Stoic Lesson: How To Keep Yourself Accountable

Stoic Lesson: The Right Mindset For A Happy Life

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

Stoic Lesson: Epictetus On Progress

Stoic Lesson: An Exercise In Being Grateful


Youtube: Learned Living

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/learned_living/

Poem: The Old Rebel

Article: Montaigne On How To Be A Well-Rounded Thinker

Short Story: The Bus

 

Reflection: The Importance of Internal Dialogue

I have often wondered how it is that everyone loves himself more than anyone else, but rates his own judgment of himself below that of others. Anyway, if a god or some wise tutor appeared at his side and told him to entertain no internal thought or intention which he won’t immediately broadcast outside, he would not tolerate this regime for a single day. So it is that we have more respect for what our neighbors will think of us than we have for ourselves. (Marcus Aurelius – Meditations)

The only person that can ever know you completely is yourself, your own mind. Your mind knows all that you wish to be, all that you want from life and all that you are afraid of. In doing so, it becomes both, your greatest ally and your greatest enemy. A negative mindset will keep you cemented at the start line. It will fill your head with thoughts of anxiety, fear, failure, humiliation, embarrassment and stop you from attempting anything.

But that’s not all. When you don’t have control of your mind it will reign free which often means that it’s lead by the ego. It’s concerned about how we are perceived by others. What our image is like. In this manner, our mind is free but we aren’t because we get shackled and chained by the thoughts of other people. How would so-so think of us if we act on this feeling? How would so-so react if we were to follow this thought?

If we were to broadcast our thoughts they would be conformed to the group, to the mob, to other people. All because of the mind which doesn’t want to stand out. It wants to blend in and shield itself from judgment. Or because we believe that our own thoughts aren’t important, intelligent or worthwhile.

This conformist way of living then creates a paradox like the one Marcus Aurelius mentions where we love ourself but we rate the judgment of others more highly than our own.

What requires an alignment is the mind. In order to align the love you have for yourself and to respect our own decisions/feelings/thoughts more than of our neighbors, we need to change the mindset from a negative one to a more positive one.

The reason for this is because a positive mindset can keep you going, it can help you overcome obstacles and hardships and it can make you grow into the person that you wish to be.

With positivity comes respect, patience, and forgiveness. We come to respect ourselves and show patience towards our slow progress and growth and forgive ourselves when we do make mistakes.

This requires practice. This requires reigning in the mind and setting boundaries for what kind of thoughts it’s allowed to follow and unpack. The negative ones push you down and raise the stranger up while the positive thoughts put you and the stranger on equal plains. So, the practice needs to be one of where you recognize when negativity arises in your mind and either change it or let it fuel you towards a positive direction.

In this manner, not only is your self-love expanded but also the respect you have for yourself.

Stoic Lesson: The Right Mindset For A Happy Life

There is a constant struggle between our wants and the disregard that life has for our wants. Constantly throughout life we are met with disappointments, humiliations, failed expectations, failed hopes and dreams and yet, somehow, through all of this, we are meant to still be happy.

How can that be?

For Seneca, such happiness could be achieved through self-contentment.

The wise man is content with himself […] We must be quite clear about the meaning of this sentence and just how much it claims to say. It applies to him so far as happiness in life is concerned: for this, all he needs is a rational and elevated spirit that treats fortune with disdain; for the actual business of living he needs a great number of things.

Seneca put forth the notion that our happiness depends on our attitude rather than our circumstances and that the wise man understands this. The attitude is that whatever we have, is enough. That we must find happiness within ourself. Seneca understood how little control we have in life. Much of life is random or uncertain, at any moment the absurdity of it can strike and shift our life to a new direction. If our happiness is rooted in our lifestyle and if that lifestyle is disrupted then so is our happiness.

Which is why the wise man has disdain for fortune for he knows how fickle it can be.

The wise man needs hands and eyes and a great number of things that are required for the purposes of day-to-day life; but he lacks nothing, for lacking something implies that it is a necessity and nothing, to the wise man, is a necessity.

This is a mindset that needs to be practiced. An attitude that needs to be nurtured where one is able to detach themselves from things that can be changed by fortune.

One of the ways this detachment can be practiced is by keeping a journal like Marcus Aurelius did. The Roman Emperor constantly reminded himself how easily fortune changes, how quickly death can come and how little control he had over his life. Through repetition, Marcus Aurelius was able to keep in mind the kind of attitude that was required to be happy.

Another way detachment could be practiced was how Seneca lived.

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

Not only do we come to practice what we fear such as a shift in our living conditions, but we also come to strengthen our attitude that even if a shift unexpectedly occurs, we can get through it, our attitude doesn’t have to change.

But the important point of these examples is that they are practices which we must do on a consistent basis to keep the right mindset. There is no magic trick to snap the mind in place once and then that’s it. Instead, the mind requires regular reminders, constant repetition, the same way we formulate habits is the same way we develop the right attitude towards life.

This can be a difficult process because of the daily grind. But nothing good comes easy anyways. Any change made without effort is unlikely to stick.

At the end of the day, you can be happy with nothing and you can be unhappy with everything. Both of these spectrums exist. Stable happiness won’t be found in things that are outside of your control.

As the Stoics say:

A man is unhappy, though he reigns the world over, if he does not consider himself supremely happy.

 

Stoic Lesson: An Exercise In Being Grateful

Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome and he is considered one of the most influential Stoics in history. During his reign as an emperor, he had to deal with enemies in the East, several Germanic tribes in Central Europe, famines, natural disasters, plagues and not to mention personal tragedies such as his step brother’s death and the death of eight children.

On the other hand, being an Emperor of Rome essentially meant that he was the most powerful individual of his known world. This kind of power comes with the usual temptations like corruption, an indulgence of pleasure, giving into the immediate gratification, sexual deviancy, and failure of work ethic. A normal individual suffers from these as well but to a lesser degree, however, when you combine these temptations with the Emperorship of Rome, then, these temptations are taken to another degree because one is able to indulge in them all any time they want to.

With all of this bearing down upon his character, Marcus Aurelius did not give in, instead, he turned to a life of a Stoic and used the Stoic philosophy to help guide him through the ups and downs of life. Constantly reaffirming the kind of individual he wished to be, working on his character and staying clear of his temptations.

All of this is outlined in his journal, Meditations, which was not supposed to be public knowledge and yet, to the benefit of those who came after him, the journal was made public.

The practical application of Stoicism has been its major attraction to me. In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius begins the book by thanking family and friends for instilling in him certain characteristics and virtues. Being grateful for those who had impacted his life. Keeping his perspective grounded for by acknowledging the help of others, one is able to keep their own ego at bay and keep the mind clear of thoughts of grandeur.

From my grandfather Versus: Decency and a mild temper.

From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrongdoing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich.

From my tutor: to work with my own hands and mind my own business; to be deaf to malicious gossip.

From Diognentus: To avoid empty enthusiasms.

From my [adoptive] father: Gentleness and an immovable adherence to decisions made after full consideration. Never satisfied with first impressions and leaving a question prematurely. The acts of a man with an eye for precisely what needs to be done, not the glory of its doing.

I have often taken many things for granted. Too many people have impacted my life without me being completely grateful to their help. These are family members, friends but also writers that I admire, individuals whose character I look up to and work habits of some that have shaped my own. Small character changes or large changes, it doesn’t matter, I have a lot to be grateful for.

Through this exercise, you can reflect upon the lessons they have learned and be thankful to those who have taught them. One thing about Marcus Aurelius was that he attempted to keep a good perspective about him and not allow negatives of the outside world to infect him internally. By practicing gratefulness you are able to improve upon the positives of your thoughts and actions for you are forced to put aside your ego and reflect upon others.

And if you find it hard to come up with a list of individuals that you are grateful for, well then that is something to reflect upon as well.

Reflections: On Reminders

One of my favorite books is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius is considered one of the three pillars of Stoic philosophy and his book, Meditations, is a war journal in which he wrote down his thoughts and ideas. I’m sure I will make posts directly from this wonderful book and get deep into Aurelius’ ideas at some point but the reason for this post is due to one of the messages I took from the overall concept of the text.

I need constant reminders. In Meditations, you see Aurelius essentially repeating a handful of topics over and over again. The reason for this is that the war journal was never meant for publication so, the texts were messages to himself, constantly reminding himself to be fair, to be a good person, to keep his emotions under control, to look at things from other peoples perspective, to understand that time is finite and soon he will be dead and this theme goes on. The theme of reminding himself how he should behave and what he should do.

I used to think there was a problem with my thought process when I didn’t understand something right away. I believed I was insufficient in some way and I probably am but through Meditation I saw that there was at least one other like myself, who too required reminders, who also forgets every now and then what matters and what to do and who uses his writing to keep his mind focused on the good.

I am sure I will repeat certain topics on here. That I will come close to writing the same blog more than once. But it is more so because my mind needs repetition and constant flow of similar thought to grow, change and adapt. I need to remember, be told more than once or twice, to read over and over and so, my writing also mimics this procedure. My writing also acts as a way to understand the same topic over a span of time. I also feel that most people work this way. That if you constantly jump from one thing to another, one topic to the next, you don’t fully grasp and understand that topic or idea.

In order to change you need time. With time you adapt. Also, one needs time to remember.