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


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Poem: The Old Rebel

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

Short Story: The Bus

 

Albert Einstein On The Ideals Of Life

My grandfather happens to be a great admirer of Albert Einstein, as many people are, and I had a conversation with him about Einstein and I learned many things about the man, Einstein and not just the scientist. I was surprised to hear about how much Einstein wrote on subject matter like tolerance, kindness and the importance of art.

This got me curious to learn about this important figure in human history. I wished to learn more about Einstein the man, what his thoughts were, what did he like, what did he believe in, his dislikes and worldviews.

And to my great pleasure, I came upon a book that was conveniently called Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein. The book is a compilation of his essays, letters, and speeches which range from topics of politics, science, religion, the meaning of life, education, friends and many more. The contextual thought that I found interesting was that many of these letters, essays and speeches were written between post World War I and post World War II. I am sure the experience of that horrific time period played a role in what I wish to quote in this post. The section in the book is called “The World As I See It” in which Albert Einstein discusses the ideals of his life.

To inquire after the meaning or object of one’s own existence or that of all creatures has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view. And yet everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavors and his judgements. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves — this ethical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed to me empty. The trite objects of human efforts – possessions, outward success, luxury – have always seemed to me contemptible.

These three ideals seem to be lacking in the public at the moment. Constantly we see how volatile social media can be, how easy it is to spread hate and leave hateful comments. Truth itself is a virtue that isn’t respected much. People fake their own images and lives in order to garner some type of following or blatantly spread lies in order to push their own agenda. Beauty, on the other hand, seems to go unnoticed as in the arts, whatever makes money is pushed forth rather than true beauty and in life, people rarely acknowledge or attempt to see the beauty that surrounds us.

One reason why such ideals developed in the mind of a young Einstein was due to a quote from Schopenhauer.

Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. Schopenhauer’s saying “A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants,” has been a very real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing well-spring of tolerance. This realization mercifully mitigates the easily paralyzing sense of responsibility and prevents us from taking ourselves and other people all too seriously; it is conducive to a view of life which, in particular, gives humor its due.

Free to do what we want but not free to want what we want. That’s a conundrum. So, I suppose one should be tolerant towards others because there is a certain restriction in people’s movements and decisions. Recognize the limitations of man and be patient. See the humor in the ridiculousness of life and try to achieve more than just immediate satisfaction. That seem to be three practical ways to behave. It does not seem too absurd to live by ideals of kindness, beauty, and truth. It seems definitely better than the alternative.


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Poem: The Many Yous

Article: Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth

Short Story: Everything Work’s Itself Out

Pessimism: Understanding Life, Yourself and Your Fellow Man

Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the most influential German philosophers. He wrote widely on topics such as metaphysics, ethics, morality, and psychology. His idea of the ‘will to live’ touches upon the subconscious drivers that are present in our psyche. This Will is the need that everyone has to stay alive and reproduce, whether your conscious of it or not.

Additionally, Schopenhauer is known for his pessimistic philosophy. This was perhaps developed due to his own failures in life much of which he spent on the outskirts of the intellectual circles and universities while his own deepest desires were to be part of such circles.

The pessimistic view can turn some people off. No one really wants to hear about how horrible and depressing life can be. People are aware of such a fact through their own existence and they rather escape this than be reminded of it. However, by truly understanding the pessimistic approach, you can gain a new perspective on life, on your own behavior and how you interact with others.

Every individual is embodied will, and the nature of will is to strive to live — will is ‘will to live’. This means that fundamentally every individual is an ego whose interest in staying alive overrides every other, including of course the life-interest of every other individual. The outcome is universal conflict. The suffering engendered by this conflict is the normal and inescapable condition of life, and happiness means merely the dimuition of suffering, i.e, happiness is negative.

It was Schopenhauer’s belief that we are only really aware of the negative. ‘The little place where the shoe pinches,’ as he says which means that your whole body might be in great physical condition and everything is good but your mind is focused on the little annoyance you feel in your foot.

The positive things are like a stream that isn’t obstructed, it just flows, unconsciously, but it’s the obstructions that draw our attention. The obstruction is the thing that comes in the way of something we desire. So, this negative thing makes us experience, it makes us conscious. All desires come with obstacles. So, if we desire something, we need to be willing to suffer.

The only way to not suffer is through the abolition of desires or by ending your own life but that contradicts the will to live, the reproductive will that we all have which forces us to keep living and hence keep suffering.

For the world is hell, and men are on one hand the tormented souls and on the other the devils in it.

It was Schopenhauer’s understanding that much of man’s suffering came from his own hands. The reason for this is because man has knowledge. An animal doesn’t compare himself to another animal and get filled with envy, sadness or regret. While, man is constantly bombarded by negative feelings which consume his thoughts. The ability to reflect and ponder can bring about disappointments and humiliations which add to the suffering.

More closely considered, what happens is this: he deliberately intensifies his needs, which are originally scarcely harder to satisfy than those of the animal, so as to intensify his pleasure: hence luxury, confectionery, tobacco, opium, alcoholic drinks, finery and all that pertains to them. To these is then added, also as a result of reflection, a source of pleasure, and consequently of suffering, available to him alone and one which preoccupies him beyond all measure, indeed more than all the rest put together.

The more we want, the more we desire, the more things we find pleasure from, the greater our troubles get because when we don’t get these things it brings about pain and suffering. Much of this is added baggage, things that we don’t necessarily need in order to survive but because we have to occupy time, to escape reality, to get out of our own head, we cling to such things.

In reality, the basic needs are easy to fulfill but such fulfillment doesn’t provide the individual with pleasure and happiness because we have the habit of dwelling on things that we don’t have or some future trouble that isn’t real.

In this manner, misfortune becomes the general rule as Schopenhauer believed.

However, in the pessimism, in the suffering, in the misfortune is an optimistic outlook. By accepting life as Schopenhauer saw it, we can also see what our fellow man is. He is you. The same sufferings, negativity, hardships you are going through are the same ones your neighbor is as well. This calls for understanding when dealing with other people because you know that they are suffering as well. Through comradery we may be able to ease the burden of life. With a helping hand, we may be able to make someone else’s time on this planet less troublesome.

From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the cause, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

Or at the very least, we can be less judgemental and aggressive towards the fellow man for he is just like you, trying to make it through life.

Why Read Philosophy

First of all, without it we can make no sense of the world in which we live. Philosophy is the best training for living, better even than history and the human sciences. Why? Quite simply because virtually all of our thoughts, convictions and values exist and have meaning — whether or not we are conscious of it — within models of the world that have been developed over the course of intellectual history. We must understand these models in order to grasp their reach, their logic and their consequences. (Luc Ferry)

The way we live, the way we function and interact with others, the values and beliefs we have are all knowingly or unknowingly influenced by the society and culture we live in. When you begin to explore why you believe in the things you do or harbor the opinions you have or consider some values to be greater than other, you come to realize how much of it is just preconceived notions passed down to you which you have accepted without really examining them.

There is a realization that your personal views, your political views, your religious views, your societal views are not yours. They are the views of others. However, there is a logic behind these views which stems from generations of thoughts and of trial and errors of the different modes and systems which have come before you. But simply accepting them without adding your own reason and logic to it does a disservice to the intellectual history which you are a part of because you are simply following the herd instead of coming to your own understanding.

The issue is that to think for oneself is difficult. It’s much easier to accept what others say. The parroting culture is quite evident on social media. But in order to lead your own life, to find your own mode of living which will provide you with happiness and fulfillment, you can’t simply rely on other peoples words. You have to discover for yourself what is meaningful.

All you have to do is see all the miserable people who followed the words of other people and ended with degrees they don’t like, jobs they hate, a life which brings them minimal pleasure to understand why it’s important to find your own path.

Philosophy acts as a guide in this discovery. It can teach you how to think, how to apply reason and logic, how to formulate your own thoughts, how to pick apart your beliefs and in doing so create more solid ones with a better foundation. Philosophers like Socrates, Montaigne, and Nietzsche come to mind.

Another benefit of philosophy is that:

Many individuals spend a considerable part of their lives anticipating misfortune and preparing for catastrophe — loss of work, accident, illness, death of loved ones, and so on. Others, on the contrary, appear to live in a state of utter indifference, regarding such fears as morbid and having no place in everyday life. Do they realize, both of these character-types, that their attitudes have already been pondered with matchless profundity by the philosophers of ancient Greece? (Luc Ferry)

Simply put, for centuries people have been thinking and studying the problems that trouble you. From the Ancient Greeks to now, man hasn’t changed much. We all still have the same problems more or less. The concerns over our mortality, failure in love, the disappointment of passionate work, struggle to find a purpose or meaning, dealing with the ups and downs of life. You aren’t the first person to feel these things and you won’t be the last. By delving into philosophy, you can discover the best thinkers mankind has produced and see what they had to say on these topics.

This is personally why I read philosophy. I don’t care much about metaphysics or whether or not this life is real or if I exist and so on, such things have given philosophy a bad rep. Instead, I rather read about Marcus Aurelius and find some comfort in the idea that this individual, the Roman Emperor, the most influential person of his time, still had to remind himself to be good, that life is short, to concentrate on what he can control like his own attitude. Or read about Ralph Waldo Emerson and his ideas of how in order to be an individual we cannot give into conformity which plagues society. Everywhere you look you see people giving up their own thoughts and opinions and following the lead of someone else. That’s not how you become an individual.

Learning to live; learning to fear no longer the various faces of death; or, more simply, learning to conquer the banality of everyday life — boredom, the sense of time slipping by: these were already the primary motivations of the schools of ancient Greece. (Luc Ferry)

Philosophy is rich in such ideas and others like it. It can help you simplify your life. To get rid of the clutter that infests the mind of most people who are overly concerned about things which are out of their control. It can center your thought and show you the mistakes you made in your reasoning. Philosophy can bring to the forefront the simple principles of life which can result in your personal growth, improvement in relationships and overall fulfillment and happiness.

Book referenced: A Brief History of Thought

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

In the course of our life, we face many obstacles. Financial hardships, relationship problems, disruptions in our plans, moments of weakness, environmental barriers, cultural barriers and many more.

To Epictetus, almost all of these disruptions fall into the realm of things that are out of our control. Except for moments of weakness. We have influence over such a thing because Epictetus believed that we have the power to control our positive and negative impulses. The power to make good use of impressions. Impressions being things that have an effect on the mind.

The ability to reason allows us to controls these impressions. With reason comes judgment about what is good for us and what is bad for us. Reason allows us to plan a course of action that is the most beneficial for us. Reason can also halt any negative temptations, for we always know what the right thing to do is, while the right action is what can be troublesome and can cause moments of weakness because the right action can be difficult. However, reason can show us that it is the correct path.

Reason is twofold: It can analyze other objects but it can also analyze itself and see whether or not we are applying the correct reason or if decisions and actions based on reason are correct. Because reason can correct itself, it is considered to be one of Man’s greatest gifts. For Epictetus, the ability to reason is superior to other abilities like writing or music for example, because words cannot tell you if it is a good thing to write them or music cannot tell you when is the proper time to play an instrument. Reason, on the other hand, can analyze itself and tell you what the proper use of itself is.

Rather than worrying about things we have no influence on, we must dedicate our thinking to what we can control, such as our ability to reason. Another thing under our control is our attitude.

Attitude towards the hardship one faces in life can be the difference between moving forward or allowing the hardship to break you. Death and your dying are not under your control but your attitude towards it is. We can face our mortality by either being weighed down by the inevitable or by making use of the limited time they have. It’s an attitude towards life and time that needs to be practiced.

Epictetus referred to this practice as the practice of what is necessary. What is necessary is the use of reason, control of one’s emotions and molding an attitude towards life. Practice is the key term here. By using such a word, Epictetus puts forth the notion that we need to develop, hone and enhance the things under our control. That you are not innately born with the ability to make use of what is in your control. We have to use life and the obstacles it presents as opportunities to improve upon our reason, attitude, and control.

An example of someone we can emulate is Agrippinus. He was well aware of the lack of control he had over his life and was not bothered by things which were out of his control. So much so, that he would often say that he did not add to his own troubles. Which is the right attitude. Life will add many troubles, it doesn’t need your assistance.

And so, one should learn from Agrippinus and try to emulate his reason and behavior for he had this to say of his exile and eventual death:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.

Socrates & How To Think For Oneself

To think for oneself can be a difficult process especially if you harbor self-doubt, as many people do. Self-doubt causes us to conform to the opinions of other people. When you are unsure about yourself and your own reasoning, you naturally flock to the group consensus. Such actions are even stronger when the group consensus is what is considered to be the norm or “common sense”. The sheer number of people supporting one argument is enough for you to doubt anything contrary.

However, if one is to have an “independence of mind” as Alain De Botton puts it, we cannot take what we are told without critically examining it. It is the reason behind a statement that is supreme and not the number of voices speaking. It is reason that allows us to oppose socially sanctioned practices and ideas.

Many people adopt the beliefs and opinions of others without reason.

Other people may be wrong, even when they are in important positions, even when they are espousing beliefs held for centuries by vast majorities. The reason for this simple: they have not examined their beliefs logically.

How does one examine beliefs logically?

The answer lies in the life of Socrates. He was an individual who used his love for wisdom, for philosophy, as his guide. Such love put reason at the center and not traditions, norms, opinions, popularity, etc. His process was simple but it required a disciplined individual to practice it on a daily basis, hence why so many people rather divert such responsibility and adopt other people’s beliefs. But in order to be an individual, one must examine life for him/herself and see what they believe to be right and what is true to them.

The following method is known as the Socratic method of thinking and it can help one to examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of their own but those of the society they are living in as well.

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

(The Consolations of Philosophy)

Often times the truth is discovered by finding out what something isn’t. What statements are not true, what beliefs have exceptions, what opinions are based on falsity and so on. Through such critical thinking, you begin to formulate your own thoughts and understandings and hence, begin to think for yourself.

 

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