I thought that I would have made a follow up post to this much sooner than I did, and that I would be recounting the post diagnosis events in detail, so that I could look back on it at some point and re-read it all. But as I was writing those details out, it seemed more like I was just opening an old wound to see how much it hurt, and how much pain I could take. I wasn’t actually helping myself that way. I wasn’t reflecting, I was ruminating.
So I am going to try to take a different approach here and just summarize what happened:
Back in November of last year, I was diagnosed with Testicular cancer.
I made the decision to take care of it within a week of the diagnosis.
I had the testicle with the tumor in it surgically removed.
Nurses on the whole are pretty awesome.
Getting a catheter put in you is not super fun, but it is bearable.
My family and friends are pretty awesome.
I only had to take a week off from work to recover from surgery, and was back to feeling 100% within about a month and a half.
Turns out, I caught the cancer in the earliest stage possible, looks like it didn’t really have the chance to spread based on the biopsy.
I need to have periodic blood labs and CAT scans done for the next 2 years to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back, if it does I will need chemotherapy, but it is still very treatable, even in that situation.
I should be fine, but I still need to go to a sperm bank to have my fertility double checked.
Overall it was a difficult experience, but on the whole, I am proud of how I dealt with it. It is still somewhat difficult to think about and deal with at times, especially since there is still a degree of uncertainty left, but life is always full of uncertainty, that is just the way it is. My second blood lab to keep an eye on the cancer is tomorrow.
My studies in Stoic theory and practice continue as they always have, just with a little more perspective now. In the end, Marcus puts it best:
So henceforth, in the face of every difficulty that leads you to feel distress, remember to apply this principle: this is no misfortune, but to bear it with a noble spirit is good fortune. – Meditations, 4.49
This multi-part post is going to act as a catharsis for me more than anything, but I think there will still be some value in sharing it with others. Last November I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. In these next few posts I am going to attempt to document what I went through the past few months, along with how I used Stoicism to help and guide me through the ordeal.
This all started roughly in October, the week before Halloween. While I was washing myself in the shower I noticed that something felt strange. My right testicle felt harder than usual. It was fairly easy to tell something was off since I did indeed have two testicles to compare against. One testicle was squishy, the other was not so squishy anymore.
Now thankfully I had a pretty decent health class in high school where we talked about these kinds of things, so the idea of testicular cancer did flash into my mind for a moment. At that point though, I figured there was no reason to jump to conclusions right away. Perhaps I had somehow hurt myself while rolling around in my sleep or during some other activity. I was not in any real pain, so I decided that I would keep an eye on it for a week to see what happened and go from there.
After waiting for a week it had not gotten better. The hardness was still there, and now I was starting to get minor shooting pains in my testicles as well. At this point I had a bit of an internal struggle, a decision to make. Do I wait longer to see if this goes away on its own? Or do I go see a doctor? Going to see a doctor was not a very appealing option at the time. After moving the Brooklyn I had not found a new Primary Care Physician (PCP), and since I am relatively healthy, I had actually not been to the doctors once in over four years.
This meant that I would have to go through the process of finding a new doctor in NYC that accepted my insurance, he would have to check me out downstairs, and it would hopefully not be awful. I decided to ask the two people who I knew had a lot of experience with finding doctors, my parents. They were able to give me some good advice on where to look, and I was able to schedule an appointment for a physical.
Surprisingly enough, this was probably one of the most difficult and critical steps of the entire process. I could of very easily ignored what was going on, blown it off, and moved on. Health is a preferred indifferent after all right? It doesn’t really matter whether I get sick or not, I can still live a good life, at least, according to the Stoics. But I also remembered that while my health and my body are a preferred indifferent, the use of my body, and the choices I make about it are not an indifferent. How I use what I have is what matters, that is where virtue comes, from your choices. I figured the wise choice would be to get checked.
I am also fond of Immanuel Kant and some of his ideas. For those of you that are not familiar, Kant is all about Dentology (rules and duties). You have duties to others that you must morally fulfill, but, you also have duties to yourself as an individual. I felt that if I just ignored this issue, I would be neglecting a duty that I owed myself.
So I went and got my physical. The doctor examined me and agreed that something felt off. He immediately mentioned that testicular cancer was a possibility, and if that was the case, that I would probably need my testicle removed. He said that I needed to get a sonogram of my testicles to check and make sure. He also made sure to mention that even if it was testicular cancer, that the vast majority of people went on to live normal lives afterwards. He recommended a couple of places where I could get a sonogram, and said that it wasn’t urgent, but that I should get one sooner rather then later.
At this point, I was just glad that I had made the right decision to get checked out, that something was indeed off as I had suspected. I told myself again, just like before, at this point it was too soon to say anything for sure, that there was no reason to freak out or think I had an issue yet.
I recalled a quote from Seneca
Yet what could be more senseless than suffering over what had not yet happened? Rather than awaiting future trials, you are summoning them to your side! Better you should delay them if you cannot dispel them altogether. – Seneca, Letter 74.33
Even though this was my primary mode of thought at the time, I knew it was important to not push testicular cancer off the table as an option entirely. If I rejected that as a possibility, if I said that there was no way it could happen to me, and then it did, I would be far worse off than if I accepted that fact that it was a real possibility.
Yield not to adversity, trust not to prosperity. Fix your eyes on fortune’s privilege, thinking that whatever can happen to you will indeed happen. What has been long expected is easier when it comes. – Seneca, Letter 78.28
You might feel like Seneca is contradicting himself in these two passages, but he isn’t really. In the first passage, he is saying that there is no point in suffering now over something that hasn’t happened yet, that it actually makes no sense because you just end up suffering twice. In the second passage he is suggesting that you do a premeditation of adversity. To realize that anything can happen to you, that nothing is truly off the table. And that when you accept this, then, if some trouble really does come your way, you will be better prepared for it.
Seneca combines these two ideas into one in a later letter:
Wisdom lies in combining the two: you should neither hope without doubting nor doubt without hoping. – Letter 104.12
This is some of the best advice out there in dealing with unknown events that may happen in the future. It helped me a great deal during these early stages.
So I scheduled my sonogram at a Radiology Clinic in Brooklyn for the next week. It was a bit of a trip to get there from my apartment. A 40 minute subway ride into a part of Brooklyn I had never visited before. Little did I realize that the clinic I had scheduled an appointment with was in one of the worst parts of Brooklyn. I realized as soon as I got out of the subway station that I stuck out like a sore thumb in that area.
My first reaction was “uh oh, maybe I shouldn’t be here”. But then I thought about it for a little and remembered that the Stoics always had a cosmopolitan outlook, that these were human beings just like me, and that at this moment, they didn’t deserve any of the judgement that I was about to pass on them.
If he did wrong, the ill lies with him; but perhaps he did not. – Meditations 9.38
The above passage is saying that if someone does wrong, that choice lies with them, but also, it is possible that they did not do anything wrong at all. It is difficult to know the actions, intentions, and circumstances of other people, so we should not be so quick to judge others.
Another relevant passage that came to mind is as follows:
But I, who have observed the nature of the good, and seen that it is right; and of the bad, and seen that it is wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that his nature is akin to my own – not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares as I do in mind and this in a portion of the divine – I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelid, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away form him is surely to work against him. – Meditations 2.1
One technique that I have picked up from these ideas, which has been suggested and mentioned elsewhere, is that in awkward situations like this, that we should call other people our “brothers and sisters” (internally in our heads at least, not out loud). It makes it much more difficult to have any sort of negative or apprehensive thoughts towards other people when you think of them in this way. It is also true in a sense like Marcus says, we may not be related by blood, but we still have a shared humanity with one another. As social animals we were made to work together, so, lets work together.
I made it to the radiology clinic without any issues, and, still sticking out like a sore thumb, filled out the required paperwork, waited, and was eventually called in for my sonogram. This, I can tell you, was probably one of the most awkward parts of the ordeal. I got to lay down in a chair with my testicles exposed, while a guy with a bunch of goopy gel and a plastic wand got to rub my testicles for 30 minutes in-order to scan them. I was periodically told to clench like I was going to the bathroom, probably so that the technician could get a better scan of the testicles in different raised and lowered states, but for the most part, I was just lying there still the whole time.
I don’t know if there are any Stoic exercises that apply to this situation in particular, but I can say that doing simple mindfulness meditation, and counting my breath, was very helpful. It allowed the time pass by more quickly and also kept me relatively relaxed.
After the scan was finished, I was told that they would send the results to their radiologist to be checked, and that I could get my own copy of the results on a CD, which I did. Their radiologist would call my doctor with the final results, which would happen within a few days.
That was all done on a Saturday. I figured it would take a little while to get the results, probably not till Wednesday. I ended up getting a phone call from my doctor that Monday morning while I was at work. I was busy at the time and didn’t have the doctor added as a contact, so he had left a message on my cell phone. The message went something like this “Hi, we got your results back. It isn’t very good news…but it could be worse…I guess…call me back when you have the chance”.
At that point my heart-rate skyrocketed and I probably went into high octane adrenaline mode for about 30 seconds. I thought to myself, ok, this is officially happening, I probably have cancer. After calming down a bit I called the doctor back, he wasn’t available and I was told he would call me back when he had a chance. Great, more waiting. I tried to go back to work and keep myself occupied for the meantime, probably not getting too much work done in the process.
I got a phone call back from the doctor withing an hour or so. He confirmed what I had thought. Yes, I had a tumor, it was most likely testicular cancer, I very likely needed to have my testicle removed, and I needed to schedule an appointment with a specialist now. Ok, time to get busy.
What should a philosopher say then, in the face of each of the hardships of life? ‘It is for this that I’ve been training myself; it is for this that I was practicing.’ – Epictetus, Discourses 3.10.7
I thought it would be interesting to compare translations so that people might have a better idea as to which translation suites their preferences the most. My personal favorite is Letters on Ethics, as the language is slightly more modern, it includes all of Seneca’s Letters instead of a few hand picked ones, and contains extensive footnotes.
An additional comment about the Letters from a Stoic edition, it lists the letters in Roman numeral format, so if I am looking for letter 88, hoping that it is in there (since the book only contains certain hand picked letters), I need to figure out what 88 is in Roman numerals (it is LXXXVIII), and the letters are not indexed in the book’s table of contents, so that is a slight annoyance. Hopefully these snippets will help you figure out which translation you might like more!
Letters from a Stoic
But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First , having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.
Letters on Ethics
Indeed, it is not poverty if it is cheerful: the pauper is not the person who has too little but the one who desires more. What does it matter how much is stashed away in his strongbox or his warehouses, how much he has in livestock or in the interest income, if he hands on another’s possessions, computing not what has been gained but what there is yet to gain? Do you ask what is the limit of wealth? Having what one needs, first of all; then, having enough. Farewell.
Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. Farewell.
Letters from a Stoic
It is clear to you, I know, Lucilius, that no none can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even t he beginnings of wisdom make life bearable. Yet this conviction, clear as it is, needs to be strengthened, and given deeper roots through daily reflection; making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already. You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good become a disposition to good.
Letters on Ethics
I’m sure you realize, Lucilius, that no one can live a truly happy life, or even a bearable life, without philosophy; also, that while it is complete wisdom that render a life happy, even to begin that study makes life bearable. But this realization must be confirmed and fixed more deeply through daily rehearsal. It is a more work to follow through on honorable aims than it is to conceive of them. One must persevere and add strength by constant study, until excellent intentions become excellence of mind.
It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun. This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.
Letters from a Stoic
‘It was Epicurus who said that,” you protest. “What business have you got with someone else’s property?’ Whatever is true is m y property. And I Shall persist in inflicting Epicurus on you, in order to bring it home to the people who take an oath of allegiance to someone and never afterwards consider what is being said but only who said it, that the things of greatest merit are common property.
Letters on Ethics
“Epicurus said that,” you say. “What business have you with another’s property?” Whatever is true is my own. I shall persist in showering you with Epicurus, for the benefit of those people who repeat their oaths verbatim and regard not what is being said but who says it. By this they may know that the best sayings are held in common. Farewell.
“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property. Farewell.
Me: Hey Cicero, I have been doing a lot of thinking lately on a topic that has been bothering me, and wanted to know if you could provide some insight on the matter?
Cicero: Surely, what is bothering you?
Me: Well, it seems that today many people are struggling with their lives because they feel directionless. A nihilistic world view with a hedonistic life style seems to be the default mode for many people. This doesn’t seem right to me though, that just seems empty. There must be something else, right?
Cicero: Well lets start with this, what do you think, in general, all people want for their lives in the end?
Me: Well I think that the vast majority of us would agree that we want to live a good life, a fulfilled life. A life that we can look back on and say ‘Yes, that was a good life, I am happy with what I accomplished. I can leave now without any regrets’.
Cicero: Yes indeed, so there it is. That is your end goal, that is the direction in which you should head.
Me: Sure, but that is easier said than done. The problem is, many of us disagree on what exactly a ‘good life’ consists of. Some people think that simply means experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain. In fact the default view promoted to most Americans is that we should seek pleasure, fame, money, love, and that when we have all these things, we will be happy.
Cicero: I see, well lets take a look at money and fame. Can you think of anyone who is very wealthy or famous, in the past or present, and yet is miserable?
Me: Well yes, I can think of many people such as famous celebrities or historical figures who were wealthy or famous, and yet very unhappy with their lives.
Cicero: From this example I think we can say then that money and fame, by themselves and even together, are not sufficient for a good life.
Me: Sure but those things aren’t typically sought out as intrinsic goods. Money can only be used as a means to get you other things. Sure some people might think fame is intrinsically good, but others would question that, and only see it as a means to some other end as well. Pleasure on the other hand, is sought out for its own sake.
Cicero: Let us take a look at pleasure then. Can you think of people who simply sought lives of pleasure, and have reported that at the end of that path there is nothing but a hollow emptiness?
Me: Yes, I can think of a few people like that. But couldn’t we say that those people simply sought out too much pleasure to the detriment of other things? That they were excessive?
Cicero: Yes indeed, but what would tell them that they are slipping into excess? Pleasure itself would not be able to tell them. Would it not be wisdom that tells them when they have gone too far?
Me: Ok, I think I see your point there. But what about love? Some people would contest that all you actually need in life is love, that love conquers all, etc…
Cicero: This case is no different from the rest. Can you not imagine a case where two individuals lost themselves in mutual love for each other? Do you not recall instances where it is said that people are ‘madly’ in love with one another, or that love has blinded them? Do you not recall the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet? Do you not think that some additional wisdom on their part would of produced a better outcome in the end for the both of them?
Me: Hmmm ok, then your point here is that everything we do, if we wish to do it correctly, is beholden to wisdom?
Cicero: Yes that is quite my point. Wisdom itself is necessary for happiness, for a good life. Wisdom is useful wherever you are, no matter what situation you find yourself in. The same cannot be said for the rest of these things.
Me: But what do you really mean by wisdom? And how does one become wise? Talking about wisdom like this seems all well and good, but this is all so very abstract. I still have no clue as to what I am actually supposed to do!
Cicero: Your concerns are valid, I will refer you to my friend, Epictetus. He is known for his ideas on practical wisdom, and will be able to answer your questions about this matter more effectively than I could.
While reading through a new copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius today, I ran into a passage where Marcus actually talks a little bit about politics, along with some other interesting ideas.
I thought the passage had a lot of good stuff in it, so I decided to try and do a break down of what it says. The passage is packed with a variety topics and ideas, so I decided to compare a few different translations that I own to help me understand what Marcus might actually be saying here. These are simply my own thoughts on the matter, I am no expert.
Meditations 9.29 translated by George Long
The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it. But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.
Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.
For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?
Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.
Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.
Meditations 9.29 translated by Robin Hard
The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream. How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!
Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.
For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?
Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.
The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.
Meditations 9.29 translated by Gregory Hays
The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it. The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.
-Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.
Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?
Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.
The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.
I am going to try to break down each part and summarize what I think Marucs is saying to himself here. The following marks will be used to indicate which translation came from which author.
GL – George Long | RH – Robin Hard | GH – Gregory Hays
GL: The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it.
RH: The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream.
GH: The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it.
The universe is ruled by causality. Just as a rushing river or flood picks everything up and carries all away with it, so does the universe pick us up and carry us away with it, inside the never ending chain of cause and effect.
GL: But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.
RH: How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!
GH: The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.
These politicians, who are engaged in affairs of the state simply pretend to be philosophers themselves (back then philosophy was considered to be a way of living, not necessarily an academic pursuit, as many philosophies at that time considered virtue to be a key component of a good life).
The politicians do not realize the true nature of the universe, that to flourish they must act with virtue, they are fools in this matter.
I think it is important to point out that Marucs is not saying that we should disengage from politics. Stoicism is largely a philosophy of action, and many Stoics in ancient time were indeed involved in politics, since it was through politics that they could make life better for themselves and others.
I think that Marcus is simply railing against these specific politicians that he has in mind who behave in this seemingly foolish way, pretending to be virtuous philosophers when they are not. Marcus himself probably had to deal with a lot of people like this as Emperor, which is why he is writing about it.
Do What You Can
GL: Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.
RH: Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.
GH: -Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.
Even if you must deal with politicians like that, you must do what nature demands of you (By nature Marcus means your best nature as a person, not your base animal nature. Your best nature is essentially acting with excellent character, or virtue).
You should act with virtue and do what is right, even if nobody is looking, even if you never get credit for it.
And do not be upset if your actions do not bring about Plato’s Republic (a Utopia), but be glad to even affect a small change in a positive direction. That positive action by itself is no small thing.
Focus on your actions, and not necessarily the final outcome, since what ends up happening is not fully within your control. All you can do it take what actions that you believe to be correct, with virtue as your guidepost.
Convictions of Others
GL: For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?
RH: For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?
GH: Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?
You cannot simply change the convictions and opinions of others. Only your actions are truly under your control, not the minds of other people.
And of those who act in opposition to their convictions, in obedience to another, there is only grumbling, slavery, and a surface showing of obedience. You should act according to your convictions not against them.
I think that Marcus again, is talking about the Politicians here, who simply make a show of obedience to him. I believe he is reminding himself that he cannot simply change their minds, but he should take what actions he believes to be right anyways.
Acting Like Others
GL: Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.
RH: Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.
GH: Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.
You can tell me all about other supposedly great leaders of the past, only they can truly know if they had virtue in mind and acted accordingly. However, if it is true that they only pretended to be this way, I am not forced to behave in the same way that they did, even if others believe that they were great. I can act in accordance with virtue myself regardless of what others do.
How to Live
GL: Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.
RH: The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.
GH: The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.
The task of philosophy it to teach us how to be virtuous life. It is a simple and modest way of life. There is no need for pride, laziness, or an excessive displays of wealth and luxury. This was probably a very important reminder for Marcus, considering he was Roman Emperor at the time.
A quick summary of what Marucs is saying overall in this passage would be:
Remember that the universe is change, and that we are a part of that change.
Regardless of who you have to deal with and what they think, act virtuously, do what is right. It does not matter if nobody sees you do it, or you receive no credit for it.
You will more than likely not be able to bring about a perfect outcome, but you must act anyways. Even a small change in the right direction is significant.
You do not have to act like your predecessors simply because others deem them to be great. Act with virtue regardless of what others have done or said before. If you do find a good role model though, you should follow that path as well.
The task of philosophy is to live a modest, straightforward, and virtuous life. Do not be tempted by pride, laziness, or excess. These things do not lead you to the good life.
I thought that overall this passage had much to say, and I found a lot of insightful ideas in it. Breaking it down, line by line like this, helped me to get a better understand of what Marcus was saying here, and forced me to think about how I might apply these ideas to my own life.
Hopefully you found that analysis of the passage insightful. If anything, maybe it helped you decide which translation of Meditations you would like to read most!
So last time we talked about Eudaimonia and how it essentially means having the best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. We also mentioned that the Stoics believe that the best way to obtain Eudaimonia was to be virtuous.
The Stoics believed that virtue was both necessary and sufficient for a life of Eudaimonia. This differentiated them from many other Greek philosophical schools at the time who believed that virtue was necessary for a life of Eudaimonia. Other schools, such as the Peripatetics, believed that virtue was necessary for a good life, but that you also needed other things as well, such as friends, family, money, good food, etc…
So what did the Stoics mean by virtue? And how could virtue alone be sufficient for a good life?
What the Stoics really meant by virtue, arete, was something like excellence of character. There were four cardinal virtues that were required for excellence of character. These virtues were temperance, courage, justice, and practical wisdom. These virtues are very broad, and encompass a variety of sub virtues. Here is a general break down of the four cardinal virtues.
Practical wisdom – Understanding how to act and feel correctly. Includes good judgment, discretion, and resourcefulness. It is the all encompassing virtue, the other virtues are really just specific manifestations of practical wisdom.
Temperance – Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, and lust. Includes propriety, sense of honor, and self-control. It is wisdom applied to matters of choice.
Courage – Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful, especially death and disaster. Includes perseverance, confidence, and magnanimity. It is wisdom applied to endurance.
Justice – Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level. Knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. Includes piety, kindness, and sociability. It is wisdom applied to social living.
So essentially, if you have all of these virtues, and act on them correctly, you will live a good life. Sounds pretty good to me right?
But what about money, friends, family, pleasure, etc…?
Well, the Stoics thought that it would be nice to have these things, but they didn’t really think that they were necessary for a life of Eudaimonia, the good life. Why is this the case? This is because the Stoics classified these things as being outside of our control. The only thing that is fully within our control is how we act, essentially our character and our actions (they were compatibilists). If we allow ourselves to depend on externals for our happiness (money, pleasure, etc…), we will at some point become disappointed, or as Epictetus liked to say, we will become wretched. We will become anxious when we try to obtain these externals, and depressed when we fail. You should not rely on these externals for your happiness. Instead, you already have everything you need to live a good life full of joyfulness and tranquility, and that is a life of Virtue.
It is important to note that the Stoics did not forbid people from having money, friends, family, small pleasures, etc… they were not ascetics like the early Cynics were. They separated these things into what they called preferred and dispreferred indifferents. It is ok to have and pursue these things (money, family, friends) as long as they do not detract from your ability to pursue a life of virtue. In pursuing these externals you must not turn to vice, the opposites of the virtues.
This is not an easy task to accomplish. The only one to fully accomplish this goal is considered to be a Stoic sage, and we are not even sure if such a person ever existed. Perhaps Socrates, Zeno, or Cato the younger are examples of sages, but we are not really sure. Consistently achieving these virtues is something that must be worked on every day, perhaps, for the rest of your life. And that is why we should all be prokoton, one who makes progress towards virtue.
And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me.
– Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.35
For additional reading on Stoicism and virtue, I encourage you to read the r/Stoicism FAQ, the IEP entry on Stoicism, and this blog post by Christopher Gill about the virtues. Much of the information in this particular blog post was pulled from these resources.
This will be my final post for 2016, so I wish all of you happy holidays and a eudaimonic new year!
If you have poked around Greek philosophy texts at all, you have probably encountered the term Eudaimonia. This is an essential concept that we must wrap our heads around if we are to understand what the whole point of philosophy is (according to the Greeks).
I am no professor on Greek philosophy, and I can’t say that I know very much in the way of translating ancient Greek at all, so take what you are about to read here with a bit of skepticism.
The ancient Greek Philosophical schools were all about Eudaimonia. The Stoics, Skeptics, Cynics, Peripatetics, Epicureans, etc… They all pretty much agreed that Eudaimonia was the best thing ever, and that we should all pursue it. However they all disagreed on the best way to obtain it.
So what does Eudaimonia even mean? Well the term is often translated as “happiness”. That makes sense, everybody wants to be happy, but they might disagree about the best way the become happy, right? Now this is an ok definition, but it is still a little vague. A better translation of eudaimonia is often said to be “human flourishing”. Ok, that is a little different than happiness, and more specific in some ways but confusing in other ways. What does it really mean for a human to flourish?
If we say something like “wow, that new tree you just planted is really flourishing” we mean something along the lines of “that plant appears to be very healthy and is growing in an almost accelerated manner in its current environment”. Wow that explanation sounds like it was written by a robot huh?
Anyways, hopefully that helps us to unpack what we might mean by “human flourishing” a little, but we are still not quite there yet. I think there is still some ambiguity here, and that we can come up with a better definition.
The ancient philosophers were largely working within the framework of Teleology. To quote Wikipedia “Teleology (from Greek telos, meaning end or purpose) is the philosophical study of nature by attempting to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal”.
Maybe this will be a little easier to understand with a super overused example. Think of a knife. What is the purpose, or the telos, of a knife? The purpose of a knife is to cut things. A good knife cuts wells, while a bad knife cuts poorly.
So with this in mind how can we flesh out the idea of Eudaimonia? Well, as humans all of our action have some sort of goal or purpose. Why do people go to college? People go to College, so they can get a job, so that they can earn money, so that they can buy things, so that they can provide themselves with the materials that they think are required for a good life. So the end purpose of going to college is to have a good life. That is essentially the purpose of all of our actions isn’t it? We think, correctly or incorrectly, that our actions will lead us to have a good life.
Eudaimonia is that life that we are all seeking. It is a life full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. It is the best possible life that a human can have. So, now we have a definition I think that we can work with.
Eudaimonia – The best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.
So, if we define eudaimonia this way, and I ask you the question, “Do you want a life of Eudaimonia?” you are probably going to answer “Yes”. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone you does not want a life defined as “the best possible life that a human can have”.
So what is the problem here? Well it turns out that people are going to disagree about how exactly you can go an obtain a life of Eudaimonia. Here is a really brief, and in no way sufficient, tongue in cheek caricature of how the different Greek philosophical schools thought a person could reach a life of Eudaimonia.
Cynics – Live an ascetic life, abandon all of your worldly possessions except for the absolutely bare minimum you need to live. Go against the flow of common social norms. Bark at people when they do something stupid, and don’t forget to hug cold statues while wearing little to no clothing. You must also do backwards moonwalks into large crowds of people to prove that you are “going against the flow” of Society.
Epicureans – Move away from everyone else to live in a commune with all your best friends and become a self sufficient community. Remember that the only good is pleasure and the only bad is pain. And by pleasure I mean adding one piece cheese to you daily meal which consists of just a little wine and bread. Also don’t forget to tend to your garden, you gotta have one even if you don’t like plants.
Skeptics – We are troubled throughout life because we make incorrect judgments about what is good or bad for us. We become disappointed when our judgments do not match up with reality. The best way to alleviate this issue is to not make any judgments at all, about anything, ever. Is that the edge of a cliff over there? How can I be sure? I will suspend my judgement and walk over there anyways.
Peripatetics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. But you also kind of need money, friends, family, and good luck. So if you aren’t lucky, or are born into unfortunate circumstances, oh well, no Eudaimonia for you. Also don’t forget to walk around a lot and think about things.
Stoics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. You must be wise, courageous, temperate, and just. It doesn’t matter if you are a slave or an emperor. The only thing that matters are your own actions and your character. Because the only thing that matters are your actions, you can be happy all the time. Yes all the time, even if you are being tortured and your limbs are being hacked off one by one, you are happy. Also, the Stoic sage is the only one who can fully acquire a life of Eudaimonia, because he is the best person ever and always makes the right decisions. But this guy only appears once every ten thousand years, so you probably ain’t him. And by the way everyone else who is not a sage is insane, full of vice, and never acts correctly even if they copy the sage action for action.
Based on my previous blog posts it is probably not too difficult to guess my general position on religion. I am a De facto atheist. But what do I really mean by that? The words atheist, agnostic, and theist often have different meanings in different contexts, and can mean different things to different people. There are often debates about what the word ‘atheist’ actually means, along with how it is used in a societal and academic context.
So, what am I saying when I call myself a De facto atheist? Well, like many things in life, I consider a person’s religious belief to be best characterized as a spectrum of possibilities. Richard Dawkins popularized the spectrum of theistic probability which is what I am referring to here. The spectrum is defined as follows:
Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God.
“I do not believe, I know.”
De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent.
“I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high.
“I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent.
“God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low.
“I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero.
“I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
“I know there is no God, with the same conviction that a Strong theist knows there is one.”
I personally feel that the statement,”I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” describes my position on the matter fairly well.
However, there is another phrase which I also believe to describe my position, and that is “I remain unconvinced by the evidence or claims made by any of the world’s religions”. This was essentially said by Neil deGrasse Tyson in a podcast where he talked about why he doesn’t call himself an atheist. Neil would rather label himself as an agnostic over an atheist, due to the connotations associated with those words.
I am certainly sympathetic with that view, as I previously described myself as agnostic for very similar reasons. I did not like using the term atheist to describe myself, as people often took that to mean that I was a strong atheist, believing with conviction that there is no god, when that is not the case. However, referring to myself as agnostic caused confusion as well, as some people believed what I meant by agnostic was that “we can never truly know if God exists or not” or that “God’s existence and non-existence are equally probable” when that was not the case either.
I prefer the term De facto atheist because it provides a little more information than the word atheist by itself, and my cause extra discussion about what exactly I mean by the term. Also, I get to describe myself using Latin, and using Latin phrases is what all the cool kids do nowadays. Right?
If we were to fully flesh out how I would describe my belief in technical terms, I would consider myself to be a friendlywidenegativeweak atheist. Wow, that is a lot of adjectives huh? You can read more about these terms on the IEP and elsewhere on the Internet, but here is a quick summary for you.
Atheism can be narrow or wide in scope. The narrow atheist does not believe in the existence of God (an omnipotent- being). A wide atheist does not believe that any gods exist, including but not limited to the traditional omnipotent-God, the Norse Gods, the Greek Gods, the Egyptian Gods, etc…
Negativeatheism isthe lack of a belief that God or gods exist, whereas positive atheism is to affirm the non-existence of God or Gods. The terms negative and positive are often used interchangeably with the words strong and weak, meaning essentially the same thing.
What about a friendly atheist. Now by friendly I don’t mean that I consider myself to be a friendly person who is also an atheist (although I certainly hope that to be the case). To quote the IEP again “The friendly atheist can grant that a theist may be justified or reasonable in believing in God, even though the atheist takes the theist’s conclusion to be false.” This has to deal with how we view knowledge (Epistomology), and whether beliefs can be rational, justified, and true or false. I recommend reading the IEP page to learn more if you are unfamiliar with these terms.
It has become a trend recently, that instead of calling oneself a weak or a strong atheist, people will call themselves an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist, with the terms gnostic and agnostic referring to knowledge, while theism and atheism refer to belief. If I were to use these terms instead, I would be classified as an agnostic atheist. Personally I do not like using this format, as it is not the way in which philosophers typically use these terms. Perhaps this form was recently popularized because people were uncomfortable with using the terms strong, weak, positive, and negative to describe their positions?
So, why am I spending so much time talking about what the difference is between agnosticism and atheism, along with how it all applies to myself? Well, honestly this is a question that I have personally struggled with for a while. Looking for an answer to this question is essentially what lead me down the path of philosophy in the first place.
I grew up in a Protestant Christian household that attended church fairly regularly. Both of my parents were very involved in the church, both of them being deacons, and my father was acting Treasurer for the church for a while. After I went away to college and was exposed to more people with varying beliefs, I started to doubt what I had been taught by my family. It all just seemed to make less and less sense. After doing a lot of soul searching and contemplation for the past few years, I have essentially come to the conclusion that I have been elaborating upon throughout this post.
I also think this is a question that all people need to wrestle with an settle on in one form or another, as it becomes a pillar that supports and influences your world view.
This question was also important to the ancient Stoic philosophers. They essentially believed in pantheism, that God and the universe were one and the same, and that the universe is governed by rationality and providence. This puts me at odds with the ancient Stoics as I am not a pantheist, and I do not believe in providence.
There is also a debate within the Stoic community as to whether one can even consider themselves to be a Stoic while being an atheist, as belief in a rational universe along with providence was an essential part of Stoic philosophy as a whole. Many people have written on this topic elsewhere in much more detail, but essentially I agree that an atheist would not be able to consider themselves a Stoic, at least in the classical sense, and that you would become a different type of Stoic, with a different philosophical world view. I do think it is possible to retain the concepts found in Stoic Ethics without the need of a pantheistic view of the universe. However, that is something that I will go into, another time.
What is the meaning of life? You have probably heard this question before, perhaps you have even asked this question yourself. However there is an inherent problem with this question. It is very vague. This question could actually be asking a variety of things. Does life (at the cosmic scale) have a purpose? Does my life have a purpose? Are we here for a reason? For what reason am I living?
There are a variety of ways you can answer these questions. From my perspective, there is no overall grand purpose to life. There is no objective meaning that we can find. Life and the universe just happened randomly, with no overarching purpose or goal. If you are of a religious orientation, you probably disagree with me on this point. You would be inclined to think that God has given humans a purpose and meaning to their lives. However, for those of us that do not attribute the creation of the universe to a deity or cosmic energy, the seeming meaninglessness of life is something that we must grapple with.
This is an idea that makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. That life just kind of happened, and there is no overall meaning to it. No guiding hand of providence. Humans are very good at recognizing patterns. Sometimes, we even fool ourselves into thinking that we see patterns when there actually are none. How many times have you seen a “sign” that helped you make a decision, or reflected back on the past and said, “oh, that must have been a sign of things to come”. It is very difficult for us to escape this story making mentality. This is how I personally view most religious attempts to answer this question.
The struggle in dealing with the meaningless of existence is encapsulated in the views of Absurdism, Existentialism, and Nihilism. These views, all to some degree, state that life has no objective meaning, but humans will forever look for meaning in a meaningless existence. We are all Sisyphus, forever pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again.
This is the Absurd that we rebel against in Absurdism. This is the freedom that liberates us in Nihilism. This is the blank canvas that we can use to craft our own meaning in Existentialism.
As the philosopher Jean Paul Satre famously said, we are “condemned to freedom”. Having some freedom with some choices is nice, but having too many choices available can be a nightmare.
I am inclined to agree with the Existentialists here. Perhaps the Existential Nihilists to be specific? I too think that there is no objective meaning to life. In the first place we assign meaning to things, not the other way around.
Take a look at this sign. What does it mean?
It means, ‘be careful of deer crossing the street in this area’. Why does it mean this? It means this because we have assigned this meaning to the sign and agreed upon it. Even these tiny little letters combined in a specific sequence on your screen that you are reading right now mean something to you. But they only mean something because we have assigned a meaning to them. The meaning did not magically exist beforehand. We assign meaning to things, not the other way around.
Existence precedes essence.
– Jean Paul Satre
Because we as humans assign meaning, we can craft our own individual meaning of life. Nobody is going to simply hand over the meaning of your life to you on a silver platter. It is something that you must search for and create yourself. How do we create our own meaning in life? I am not sure, I am still working on that myself…
I was fortunate enough to attend STOICON this year, so I decided to do a write up about my thoughts and experiences from the event.
Being a native New Yorker who currently lives in Brooklyn, it was pretty easy for me to hop on the subway and head down to where STOICON was being held, at the Houston Street Center in Lower Manhattan between Little Italy and East Village.
I had never been to the Houston Street Center before, the best way I can describe the center is that it almost feels like a YMCA. It has a large gym for basketball, a workout room with exercise equipment, and a few small classrooms scattered throughout the building.
Upon arriving at around 8:30am I was prompted by the organizers to find my name tag from those alphabetically sorted on a table. I was then told to insert my name tag into a plastic pouch, and was provided with an untied shoelace. Combine all three of these things together and you get yourself a lanyard!
This process seemed a little strange to me as I have been to my fair share of conventions before, such as PAX East and NYCC, where they tend to go all out with the lanyards and badges. I am sure doing it this way allowed the organizes to save money on materials, and provided an interesting exercise in knot tying for the attendees.
They had also printed out a very nice convention guide booklet which contained a schedule of the days activities along with mini bios of all the speakers. In addition it contained a page of Greek terms that might come up during the conference, as well a list of basic Stoic resources, on the web and elsewhere, that would be helpful for people who are new to Stoicism.
I was surprised that as I entered the convention, nobody checked my ticket. My guess here is that the organizers believed that anybody interested enough to attend a conference about Stoicism, where people would be talking about morality and virtue, would not be so immoral as to attempt to sneak in without paying, or steal somebody else’s name tag.
The convention itself was setup inside a large basketball court, with a podium up front, a projector, and seats laid out throughout the court floor. Massimo Pigliucci came up first to do a quick welcome and introduction, mentioning that there were about 330 attendees at the conference that day, ostensibly being the largest gathering of Stoics in all of history, an amusing fact to ponder.
From the beginning it seemed as if the Stoic gods, if there are any, were testing us. There were constant issues with the microphones and sound, making it difficult to hear many of the speakers at times throughout the conference. It was also very difficult to see many of the presentation slides due to the lighting in the room. I do think however, that everyone got through these issues fairly well, without anybody losing their cool. Stoicism at work!
There were three speakers arranged to talk in the initial morning session, from 9am – 10:30am consisting of Donald Robertson, Julia Annas, and Bill Irvine. I found all of the speakers in this session to be interesting and engaging, as each approached Stoic philosophy from different perspectives.
Donald Robertson talked about Stoic Mindfulness and how it relates to many of the techniques practiced in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy).
Julia Annas approached the Stoic philosophy more directly, taking about how the Stoics viewed virtue and vice along with their ideal sage. She tackled the rather off-putting concept of how the Stoic philosophers say there are no degrees of virtue, you either wholly virtuous or wholly vicious, and explained why the Stoic philosophers thought of it that way. I found this talk helpful in resolving some of the common “Stoic Paradoxes” that come up as you dig deeper into the philosophy.
William Irvine talked about using Stoic techniques, and applying them so that you could become an “insult pacifist”, basically somebody who is unperturbed by insults. He mentioned some of his own personal stories where he had been able to apply these ideas to his own life, and also mentioned stories where he had failed to live up to those standards. William’s speech was probably taken the most well received by the audience out of first few presentations due to the humor and personal perspective he provided.
After the first three speakers had finished, we took a quick 15 minute break to get up, stretch, and walk around. During the break I noticed Matt Van Natta, author of the Immoderate Stoic blog as well as the Good Fortune podcast. I had listened to his podcast before, so it was cool to see him there. I was able to talk to him for a little while during the break time.
Convention Morning Part 2
After the break, we had another series of speakers setup to talk from 10:45am – 1pm. The speakers included Lawrence Becker, Debbie Joffe Ellis, Chris Gill, Cinzia Arruzza, and Jules Evans.
Lawrence Becker was unable to attend in person, so instead a Skype call was setup so that he could address everyone at the convention. As you might expect, there were issues initiating the Skype call, glitches with the audio skipping at times, and they were unable to get the video to work until about half way through the talk. It is difficult to pin down exactly what Lawrence talked about, as he bounced around from topic to topic, mentioning how Stoic philosophy is really an evolving philosophy, giving examples of Stoic philosophers, such as Posidonius, who took the philosophy in different directions at times.
Debbie Joffe Ellis talked about her late husband, Albert Ellis, and how he used many ideas from the Stoic toolkit to develop REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) which helped many people throughout his career. She also mentioned how he lived as a good example of how you should live, as he always sought to help others throughout his life even into his 90s while he was ill.
Christopher Gill talked about whether Stoicism conflicted with political activism in any way, with the conclusion being that Stocism actually encourages political activism instead of passivity which it is commonly misconstrued as suggesting. His speech felt very much like a good old fashioned college lecture, which makes sense since he is indeed a Philosophy Professor.
Cinzia Arruza talked about using enabling us to use Stoicism to take better care of ourselves, along with Stoic exercises in relationship to French Philosopher Michel Foucault. This lecture went beyond me at times, digging deep into Foucault, who I was not really familiar with. There were some helpful insights at times about inspecting your impressions, trying to evaluate your issues from different perspective (such as a cosmological perspective) and that often we much change ourselves internally before we can change the external world.
Jules Evans was probably the most lively of all the speakers, encouraging everyone to stand up, stretch, high five the person next to them, along with other shenanigans. Jules talked primarily about his own life experiences, how throughout and after college he ran into a lot of anxiety issues, discovered CBT which helped him to mitigate his anxiety issues quite a bit, and went on to discover how the root of CBT came from ancient Stoic philosophy.
We were then dismissed from around 1:00pm to 2:30pm to go off and find lunch. I had scoped out some nearby pizza places before and ended up trying to get some food at Prince Street Pizza. Their spicy pepperoni squares were highly recommended so I decided to try that. They did not have any available when I showed up, but they gave me a waiting ticket (#5) and said that more should be ready in 10 minutes. I had some time to kill anyways so I figured it would be fine to wait.
About 10 minutes passed and a pepperoni pie finally came out. However, it was only enough to serve # 1 – 3 who arrived there before me. Apparently I would have to wait a little longer. It was now 1:55pm and I had been waiting for Pizza for at least 35 minutes. I decided that in-order to get back to the conference in time for the 2:30pm workshops, I might as well hand in my #5 ticket, forego the pepperoni pizza, and get something else. I ordered two slices of margherita pizza instead. After I had received and paid for my two slices I saw them pulling two pies of pepperoni pizza out of the oven. Again, it seemed as if the Stoic gods, if there are any, were testing me, or at least they had a sense of humor. I basically went “oh well” and continued on with my margherita pizza, which was rather good anyways.
There were 6 potential workshops to choose from that would last from 2:30pm – 4pm, and you had to sign up in advance to indicate which workshop you wanted to attend. I decided to attend Tim LeBon’s workshop titled “Trump for President? A Stoic response”.
The first great test of the workshop was finding it…I was able to find all the other workshops in the building but could not seem to find the specific one I wanted to attend. After wandering around for a few minutes I eventually bumped into Time LeBon, who also was confused and looking for the workshop room. Eventually we found a staff member who was able to direct us the workshop room, which ended up being on a different floor in a back room.
The room was pretty small, having enough space for about 16 charis. There were around 12 people in total attending Tim’s workshop. The patience of this group of Stoics was again tested, as there were many difficulties setting up the presentation. Tim had brought his own laptop with an HDMI cable, however the projectors they had only took VHS. The staff then brought in another laptop that had a VHS port, but Tim could not load his presentation on to the laptop, as it would not recognize his flash drive. Three different laptops and two flash drives later, we could still not get the presentation setup properly.
Eventually Tim realized that he had his presentation on his website, and was able to download it onto one of the working laptops. Unfortunately he only had it in pdf format, not power point, which made it a little awkward to present. Did I also mention that the projector was crooked the whole time? It was almost like being in an absurdist play where everything goes wrong. However, we did get through it and went on with Tim’s presentation.
To quickly summarize Tim’s presentation, we essentially did a bunch of negative visualization training. First we imagined what it might be like if Trump became President, imagined what moods and emotions we might feel at the time, as well as what we would feel like doing. Some emotions that people listed out were disappointment, fearfulness, and depression, along with taking actions such as hiding in your room under your bed to escape reality.
We then moved on to examine how a Stoic might react to the situation, taking into account what we could or could not change at that moment, and how we might use the Stoic virtues in ways that would be helpful. We could not change the fact that Trump was president, but we could change our reactions along with our actions. We could use the virtue of temperance to make sure that we do not go on an angry tirade, the virtue of courage to take action against decisions we disagree with, and practical wisdom to determine what actions we might take to lessen any potential damages that might occur due to a Trump presidency.
The idea here was that, if we visualize how we might react to the situation, and rehearse how we should behave after we have those reactions, we would be better equipped to deal with the situation if it did occur. Obviously these techniques can be used for any potentially upsetting situation, which was the main point of this workshop. You need not let your initial impressions dictate your reactions.
After all the workshops were over, we all headed back to the gymnasium for the Keynote speech, which lasted from around 4:15pm to 5:15pm. The speaker this time was Ryan Holiday, who is probably one of the more well know speakers, since he has written a handful of books on various topics ranging from social media manipulation to overcoming obstacles in your life.
He told us how he personally encountered Stoicism back in college, by reading a copy of Marcus Aurelieus’s Meditations. After regaling us with a variety of Stoic quotes from Marcus, Seneca, and Epictetus he elaborated on his belief that Stoicism really is a philosophy for the common person, and the we should push it into the mainstream as much as possible, so that others may also benefit from it as we have.
He then talked about his new book The Daily Stoic which contains quotes from many of the great Stoic philosophers with detailed comments on each quote, the idea here being that every day you would read one page from the book and focus on that Stoic principle for the day. Ryan was also kind enough to give everyone at the conference a free copy of his new book, which was a nice surprise.
And thus ended my long day at STOICON.
If you are interesting in hearing what the speakers had to say for yourself, most of STOICON was live streamed and put on YouTube to watch here and here. The audio is not great at times, but I am sure you can use many of the techniques mentioned in this post to help you deal with it. You can also read more about what happened at STOICON on Massimo’s blog here.
In the end I would consider STOICON to have been a successful event. It was great to see the various perspectives that people approached Stoicism with, learn more about the Stoic philosophy as a whole, and to see the philosophy at work in action.