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Meditations on the Rise of Stoicism

by January 17, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Stoicism, as a philosophy of life, has become increasingly popular amongst the general public.
With practical lessons on how to control our temper, how to have good friendships, prioritizing what’s important, facing death, avoiding the pitfalls of consumer culture, and how to live the good life, it is no surprise that Stoicism would have much to offer those of us living in the 21st century.
I myself have improved much in my life due to my readings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
Though there is some excitement at this reemergence of Stoicism, there is room for concern as well. Excitement, because there is indeed much that the Stoics said that can and should be applied in our daily lives; concern, because perhaps behind this reemergence is the fact that people are feeling less and less in control of the world around them.
In the political realm, for instance, the feeling that “my individual actions won’t make a difference anyways” is becoming more widespread, especially amongst youths who notoriously fail to turn out to vote as it is.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

This feeling is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you believe you can’t make a difference anyways, and so don’t do anything at all, you will, in fact, not make a difference… shocking!
Whether all individual actions in the political realm really make a difference or not, and to what extent they make a difference is beside the point; it is not some well-reasoned, statistical analysis that leads people to feel this way, but the feeling of impotence itself.
They emphasized what they sometimes referred to as a retreat into the self. In other words, focus on what’s in your power and be indifferent toward what is not. All that is in our power are our thoughts and actions and, even in the case of being physically restrained, they argued, a free mind is never in chains.
Epictetus

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch

“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, an, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.”
This is, on the surface and for the most part, helpful advice for many people. In our modern world we do often get tossed about too much: bombarded by social media and television, concerned about having the latest technology, running to the stores to buy the latest fashion.
These are all things which the Stoics thought cause us much inner tumult and which we should be far less concerned with. Their main concern was with living a tranquil and virtuous life, and they saw focusing too much on external things as inherently opposed to tranquility and virtue.
Here are just several examples of some of the advice the Stoics had to offer:
“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgments on events… And so when we are hindered, or disturbed, or distressed, let us never lay the blame on others, but on ourselves, that is, on our own judgments.” Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5
“Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace.” Enchiridion, 8

Artistic impression of Epictetus

“What difference does it make how many masters a man has? Slavery is only one, and yet the person who refuses to let the thought of it affect him is a free man no matter how great the swarm of masters around him.” – Seneca, Letter XXVIII, Letters from a Stoic
“…how pleasant it is to ask for nothing, how splendid it is to be complete and be independent of fortune.” Letter XV
“Everything hangs on one’s thinking” Letter LXXVIII
“A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself.” Letter LXXVIII
 “Remove the judgment, and you have removed the thought ‘I am hurt’: remove the thought ‘I am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4:7
“Withdraw into yourself. It is in the nature of the rational directing mind to be self-content with acting rightly and the calm it thereby enjoys.” Book 7:28
“If your distress has some external cause, it is not thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgment of it – and you can erase this immediately.” Book 8:47
“That all is as thinking makes it so – and you control your thinking. So remove your judgements whenever you wish and then there is calm…” Book 12:22
As we can see from these passages, much of what the Stoics had to say was often deeply inspiring and memorable. They are the type of sayings that you keep with you throughout your life. But the underlying assumption the Stoics made—their stark distinction between what is and is not in our power—can, and often does, lead people to apathy and seems in some cases to provide an excuse for those who feel they have no obligation to be concerned with the state of society or political matters.
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

Furthermore, and this is the heart of the concern, in a political climate where people feel helpless and powerless as it is, Stoicism becomes a philosophical justification for inaction and retreating into the self.
Stoicism seems to reveal itself as a practical philosophy when it is no longer practical or no longer feels practical to change the things around us. Striving to change the things we can no longer accept gives way to accepting the things we cannot change.
But what we can and cannot change, what depends and what does not depend on us, and what is and is not in our control are difficult lines to draw.
The Stoics, Simone de Beauvoir thought, were at least right in acknowledging that we are not oppressed by things. As she wrote,
“[M]an is never oppressed by things; in any case, unless he is a naïve child who hits stones or a mad prince who orders the sea to be thrashed, he does not rebel against things, but only against other men.”
de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson)

She continues,
“Certainly, a material obstacle may cruelly stand in the way of an undertaking: floods, earthquakes, grasshoppers, epidemics and plague are scourges; but here we have one of the truths of Stoicism: a man must assume even these misfortunes, and since he must never resign himself in favor of anything, no destruction of a thing will ever be a radical ruin for him, even his death is not an evil since he is man only insofar as he is mortal: he must assume it as the natural limit of his life, as the risk implied by every step.”
Indeed, this is one of Stoicism’s greatest strengths. Some of the most beautiful and useful passages the Stoics have to offer are on accepting the natural limits of life and the things that are out of our control.
Yet, if we have established that the natural world and the limits set on us by nature do not oppress us, and furthermore that we must learn to accept these events and limitations rather than thrash the sea, what is it, then, that we should concern ourselves with?
What can, in fact, oppress us and deserve to be given our attention, maybe even our resentment and hatred?
Only man can be an enemy for man,” de Beauvoir writes,
“It is here that the Stoic distinction between ‘things which do not depend on us’ and those which ‘depend on us’ proves to be insufficient: for ‘we’ is legion and not an individual; each one depends upon others, and what happens to me by means of others depends upon me as regards its meaning; one does not submit to a war or an occupation as he does to an earthquake: he must take sides for or against, and the foreign wills thereby become allied or hostile. It is this interdependence which explains why oppression is possible and why it is hateful.”
beauvoir

Second thoughts … Simone de Beauvoir at home in 1957.
Photograph: Jack Nisberg/Sipa Press/Rex Features

In other words, our interdependence on others interferes with any Stoical distinction between things that do and do not depend us; in our relations with others, all depend on us and we depend on all. Oppression by our fellow human beings is not some natural order of the world that we must assent to; the tyrant who rides into town declaring himself ruler is not akin to a flood or an earthquake, and thus need not be accepted as such.
Hegel also had a critique of Stoicism which gets even more at the heart of my concern. As noted so far, the Stoics praised an inward freedom, a retreat into the realm of thought and individual action. Herbert Marcuse, quoting Hegel, explains that,
“‘The essence of this [Stoic] consciousness is to be free, on the throne as well as in fetters, throughout all the dependence that attaches to individual existence…’ Man is thus free because he ‘persistently withdraws from the movement of existence, from activity as well as endurance, into the mere essentiality of thought.’”
As Marcuse explains, Hegel did not view Stoic freedom as real freedom, but rather as “the counterpart of ‘a time of universal fear and bondage.’” This analysis is important, and can help partially explain the reemergence of stoicism. It is no coincidence, Hegel would argue, that as wealth, and thus power, have become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, many have turned to a philosophy that encourages retreat from the external world.
Hegel

Portrait by Jakob Schlesinger, 1831

Be indifferent to that which is indifferent; only your own thoughts and actions are within your control, therefore that is all you should concern yourself with; accept all that happens to you since it is not under your control. What philosophy conforms more perfectly to the feeling of impotence in modern democratic societies? What surprise, then, that it should become so popular.
We cannot entirely blame this failure entirely on the Stoics themselves, since all philosophical thought is situated within a certain time and place. And though it is a rather unfair criticism to accuse Stoicism of leading to political apathy (considering that many of the Stoics themselves, notably Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, lived very political lives), encouraging people to only focus on what is under their control—defining that as being simply our own thoughts and actions—can have an apathetic effect.
What is and is not in our control is blurrier today than it was for those living under the aristocracies, oligarchies, dictatorships, and slave societies of ancient Rome and Greece. This aside, as I mentioned above, some of the finest lessons and teachings undoubtedly can be found amongst the writings of Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. I myself have been profoundly impacted by their words. But we are not without justification to pause and wonder: why now? Perhaps the rise of stoicism will be a positive thing. But perhaps Hegel is right, that it is also indicative that we are living in “a time of universal fear and bondage.”

Plato’s Symposium: Always Change For Love

by January 11, 2020

By Van Bryan
So, that’s probably a strange thing to say, right?
After all, the popular opinion today is that you shouldn’t change for love and that your spouse shouldn’t make you change. I am who I am and that’s all that I am!
That certainly seems to be the mindset these days; at least that’s what my single friends tell me. They spend their evenings swiping left on their smart phones and making connections with total strangers on Tinder or J-swipe or…whatever.
“Never change for love.” That’s the battle cry.
Besides, if you just be yourself, surely you will find somebody just like you and you will inevitably fall in love.
Right?
“Wrong!” says Plato.
The problem with never changing who you are for love, or never letting your spouse change who you are, is that who you are might very well be a terrible person. What if who you are is an inconsiderate sociopath? Or worse, what if you are a sophist?
What I’m trying to say is that maybe a bit of change wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps we really should let our lovers change us. Who knows? Maybe they will make us better.
That seems to be Plato’s line of thought at least. Our particular topic of interest comes from Plato’s Symposium, that unique piece of philosophical literature that asks the question: “What’s love?”
Plato is a giant in the field of philosophy. He was easily one of the most, if not the most, influential philosopher in the Western tradition. His Symposium, for those of you who don’t already know, sounds more like the setup for a particularly funny joke than an actual piece of philosophical literature.
“Okay, okay, so a philosopher, a comic playwright, and a politician walk into a bar…”
See what I mean?
A symposium was like a dinner party in the days of ancient Greece. Except, instead of casually drinking beer and playing charades, the participants of a symposium would get rip-roaringly drunk off of wine and then commence to discuss some central topic of philosophical interest; although, that does sound pretty fun too.
symposium
Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the man dubbed “the Father of Western Philosophy”, is joined by a handful of important Athenian figures of the age, the most notable of which are the general Alcibiades and the comic playwright Aristophanes. They all gather to discuss the topic of love.
For the more initiated of you, you will recall that there are no shortage of interesting ideas to discuss in Symposium. However, today we are looking at the speech of Pausanias and the assertion that we ought to let our lover change us.
Pausanias first notes that love is the only thing that can justify some questionable behavior. Under normal circumstances, we might look strangely at a man who lies all night on a front porch. However, when we learn that this man is doing this in pursuit of his lover, then his behavior not only becomes somewhat acceptable, but even admirable.
“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest or wish for office or power. He may pray, and entreat, an supplicate, and swear, and lie on a mat at the door, and endure a slavery worse than that of any slave…” –Plato (Symposium)
Heck, Pausanias tells us that even the gods will forgive you if you commit some transgression whilst in pursuit of your love, and we all know how unforgiving those gods can be.
So love seems to be something of great power and importance. However, Pausanias tells us that, just like anything, there can be good and bad love.
It all comes down to your motivations. Why do you love somebody? It may very well be that you love somebody because they are beautiful or wealthy. This, however, is not true love, and is actually quite dishonorable.
Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account. To love either of the latter is truly a base thing, because both of these things are temporary. The beauty of youth invariable recedes, and misfortune may befall any rich man and reduce him to a peasant. Where will your love be then? It will take wings and fly!
“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable…” –Plato (Symposium)
So don’t love your spouse’s beauty and don’t love their account balance. What do you love? Their virtue!
“There remains only one way of honorable attachment which custom allows in the beloved, and this is the way of virtue.” –Plato (Symposium)
Okay, so Plato isn’t telling us that, come next Valentine’s Day, we write on the card, “Dear Honey, I love your virtue.”
Instead, he is telling us that we ought to be drawn to a person for their inner qualities. We should fall in love with the beauty of their soul and its capacity for virtue and goodness.
symposium
Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account
Moreover, we should, ideally, find somebody who has different virtues than us. This is where the whole “let your lover change you” thing comes into play.
Find somebody who has different qualities than you. Perhaps they are brave when you are timid. Maybe they are organized while you are messy. Whatever the situation, you should find somebody who possesses qualities that you yourself lack, and then let that person seduce you into becoming a better version of yourself.
True love does not mean loving your spouse for who they are right now. True love means that two people are committed to educating each other in the ways of virtue and enduring the stormy seas that result of such a union.
“This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to the individual and the cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement.” –Plato (Symposium)
Make sense?
So the next time you think your spouse is trying to change you, just remember that they probably are, and you really ought to let them.

Three New Year’s Resolutions from Epicurus

by January 1, 2020

Written By Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep. It’s why we joke and tease about the fact that gyms tend to be packed in the beginning of January but return to normal by February. Whatever motivation there was seems to fade, and the resolution with it.
But just because they’re tough to keep doesn’t mean resolutions are wrong to make. In fact, I think it is good to challenge ourselves to improve our lives, whether it be a physical change for the better such as getting in shape, or a mental/psychological improvement such as overcoming bad habits or forming better ones.

“We utterly eliminate bad habits like wicked men who have been doing great harm to us for a long time.” ~ The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings

With that said, I want to provide you with several possible resolutions to make for 2020. These resolutions stem from the philosophy of Epicurus, and I believe them to be not only wise but practicable as well. After all, what’s the point of a resolution that you can’t at least try to carry out!?
Epicurus

A bust of Epicurus

1. Lie a little less

“It is impossible for the person who secretly violates any article of the social compact to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for right on to the end of his life he is never sure he will not be detected.”The Principal Doctrines

Okay, maybe you don’t lie a lot. But we could all lie a little less.
And look, there’s nothing wrong with a little lie here and there, especially the harmless ones—like lying to a friend or relative about throwing them a surprise party.
Yet, lies aren’t only harmful to the person lied to, but to the liar’s peace of mind as well. As Epicurus pointed out, the liar can never feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, he will never be sure that he will not be detected.
So long as the risk of being discovered exists, as it inevitably will, the liar can never enjoy peace of mind or tranquility. He will always live in fear of being found out.

“Let nothing be done in your life which will cause you to fear if it is discovered by your neighbor.” ~ The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings

Thus, for Epicurus, it is in our own interest not to lie. So, if not for the sake of others, then for the sake of peace of mind, try to lie a little less!
Epicurus 2

A bust of Epicurus

2. Keep life simple

“By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.” ~ Letter to Menoeceus

In our consumer culture we think of pleasure all wrong. For us moderns it seems too often the case that we think the more we have the better: the more money, the more cars, the more houses, the more clothes, the more shoes, the more technology, etc.
All this in pursuit of happiness. But does it make us happy? Are we ever truly satisfied?
Epicurus’s answer: a firm NO.
Why? Because,

“Nothing is enough to someone for whom enough is little.” ~ The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings

When assessing our desires, Epicurus recommended asking the following question: “what will happen to me if what is sought by desire is achieved, and what will happen if not?”
busts of philosophers

Busts of Epicurus, Aristotle, and Socrates at the MET, New York City.

If we honestly answer this question regarding our desires we’ll see that, for the most part, the desires we obsess about and try to fulfill either only lead to the need to fulfill further desires, or to more pain than whatever momentary pleasure we may enjoy.

“No pleasure is a bad thing in itself. But the things which produce certain pleasures bring troubles many times greater than the pleasures.” ~ The Principal Doctrines

Epicurus would have been shocked at our modern obsession with material goods, the way we take pleasure in acquiring more and more stuff, and the way we idolize such acquisition as the road to happiness.
For Epicurus, pleasure is something altogether different. It consists simply in “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”
How do we achieve such an absence in both the body and the soul?
Well, for one, we must reflect on the fact,

“[T]hat of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live.” ~ Letter to Menoeceus

Some of our desires are groundless and to be ignored. But there are natural desires as well, that is, desires that are naturally occurring and are natural to have. Of this class there are certain necessary desires: some that are necessary for happiness, some that are necessary for the body to be rid of uneasiness, and some that are necessary for survival itself.
the philosophers

Me with the busts of Epicurus, Aristotle, and Socrates at the MET, New York City.

Once we’ve reflected on these things and gained a clear understanding of them, we will, he thinks,

“[D]irect every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life.” ~ Letter to Menoeceus

Learning to distinguish which of our desires are both necessary and natural is an important step to happiness for Epicurus, considering the role desire plays in our lives. We often think the fulfilling of our desires will invariably lead to pleasure and ultimately to happiness.
But if pleasure consists in the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul, then we see that only a small subset of our desires actually contributes toward happiness.
For Epicurus, we could be, and should be, content with much less than we typically are.

“The cry of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. For if someone has these things and is confident of having them in the future, he might contend even with Zeus for happiness.” ~ The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings

This is advice that even the Stoic rivals to Epicurus agreed with:

“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” ~ Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

“[B]ecoming accustomed to simple, not extravagant, ways of life makes one completely healthy, makes man unhesitant in the face of life’s necessary duties, put us in a better condition for the times of extravagance that occasionally come along, and makes us fearless in the face of chance.” ~ Letter to Menoeceus

thinker

The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin

3. Start studying philosophy… NOW!

“Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more.” ~ Letter to Menoeceus

It’s never too late to study philosophy, and it’s never too early either. So what’s the hold up? If the health of the soul is at stake, why put it off any longer?
“Come on,” you might be saying, “the health of the soul!? That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration.”
I understand your skepticism. But hear me out.
Philosophy, according to Epicurus, is intertwined with the study of nature. Indeed, the Epicurean sage is one with a deep understanding of the natural world.
The kind of fears that contribute to a troubled soul, such as fear of the gods and fear of death, require an understanding of nature to be overcome. Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus, thought these fears were the source of superstition—and that superstition is not only used by religious prophets to intimidate people, but also that it “is the mother of sinful and impious deeds.”
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

Translation of On the Nature of Things, by John Creech, 1683.

According to Lucretius, we “are haunted by the fear of eternal punishment after death” because we “know nothing of the nature of the spirit.” It is by studying the nature of things that we are to overcome such fears. As he put it,

“This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.”       ~ On the Nature of the Universe

Indeed, Epicurus would have resonated with these words. In his Letter to Herodotus Epicurus writes,

“I recommend constant activity in the study of nature; and with this sort of activity more than any other I bring calm to my life.”

The philosopher, the Epicurean sage, is not simply a philosopher but a student of nature—or rather, to be a philosopher, according to Epicurus, is to be a student of nature.
It is by reflecting on the nature of things with the aid of philosophy that one comes to an understanding that the gods are not to be feared, since common sense tells us they are “immortal and happy”, and such beings would not disturb the peace in which they dwell by pestering with the affairs of men; it further brings us to understand that death is not to be feared since “good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness.” How can we fear that which has nothing to do with us?
epicurus quote

“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.” ~ Letter to Menoeceus

Along with overcoming these fears, there are positive lessons to be learned from philosophy such as the value of friendship or the importance of gratitude; or, as was discussed earlier, why lying is rarely a good thing, and that only a small subset of desires truly contribute toward pleasure and happiness.
It is not only the attainment of these lessons that is enjoyable through philosophy, but the study of philosophy itself.

“In all other occupations the fruit comes painfully after completion, but in philosophy pleasure goes hand in hand with knowledge; for enjoyment does not follow comprehension, but comprehension and enjoyment are simultaneous.” ~ The Vatical Collection of Epicurean Sayings

So, don’t delay! The health of the soul is nothing to put off.

Three Stoic Lessons from a Galaxy Far, Far Away

by December 20, 2019

By Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom Weekly
It is no secret, to those who are familiar with the saga, that Star Wars is filled with wisdom. Those not familiar with Star Wars are at least familiar with its iconography, such as the helmet of Darth Vader—that great symbol of the dark side of the force.
Some are also likely familiar with the little green Jedi master, Yoda (not to be confused with the cute little creature of the same species from the Mandalorian). Yoda is first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke seeks him out on Dagobah to learn the ways of the Jedi. He appears again only briefly in The Return of the Jedi (but not without failing to impart some more wisdom), and is present throughout the prequel trilogy.
The great thing about being a reader of the Classics is that you can recognize almost immediately the Stoicism of Yoda’s teachings (one may also locate some Buddhist elements as well, though I think that is to be expected given the similarities between the two). He preaches against attachment, cautions against giving into fear, and speaks of the Force with the same reverence that the Stoics spoke of Nature, among other things. So, let us look at some of the Stoic lessons we can learn from Yoda.
1. Focus on the present

“Remember also that each man lives only the present moment:

The rest of time is either spent and gone, or is quite unknown.” 

~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

luke and yoda

Luke and Yoda in Yoda’s hut on Dagobah, The Empire Strikes Back.

While on Dagobah, one of Yoda’s first teachings to Luke comes after recognizing Luke’s impatience and frustration. While speaking to the Force ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, hesitant about agreeing to train Luke, Yoda says:
This one a long time have I watched. All his life as he looked away. To the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing. Hmph! Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!
Luke,  desperate to begin training as a Jedi, assures Yoda that he won’t fail him. Luke says, “I’m not afraid”, to which Yoda responds ominously, “You will be. You will be.”
Why will Luke be afraid?
Well, for one, Jedi training is no easy task. But more than that, Luke was not only being trained to be a Jedi, but to destroy the Sith. That meant confronting Darth Vader (Luke’s father, though he doesn’t know that yet). Luke’s lack of fear in the moment while he’s speaking to Yoda is unimportant; what will count is avoiding fear when confronting Vader.
Why is Yoda so certain Luke will be afraid?
Because Luke is always looking to the future and fails to keep his mind on the present. Fear arises from the uncertainty of the future. When getting ready for a job interview, for instance, it is easy to start creating worries in one’s mind: “What if I mess up? What if I start sweating too much? What if I stutter? What if I say the wrong thing?” Then the fear sets in, and you manifest the very thing you wanted to avoid.
Luke vs. Vader

Luke fights Vader on the Death Star, Return of the Jedi.

Now, imagine instead that you’re facing the full power of the dark side of the Force (aren’t we all, in some sense)!? It is easy to see how one who dwells too much on the future will be much more readily open to fear in that situation, and so Yoda knows Luke must overcome his inability to focus on the present.
In fact, Yoda was not unfamiliar with the fact that someone could deny being afraid but eventually be consumed by fear. Luke’s father, as a little boy, standing before the Jedi council, had also responded to Yoda that he was not afraid. Anakin had just left his Mom on Tatooine, destined to become a Jedi Knight. While the council debates whether or not to train him, Yoda asks Anakin how he feels, to which he responds, “cold.” But the council presses further:
Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.
Anakin: I miss her.
Yoda: Mmm. Afraid to lose her, I think, mmm?
Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?
Yoda: Everything. Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering… I sense much fear in you.
Though Luke is eventually able to not let fear overcome him and to focus on the present, Anakin was not so lucky: the fear of losing the one he loved overcame him and he tragically ended up bringing about the very thing he was trying to prevent.
Anakin goes ot mustafar

Anakin (Vader) goes to Mustafar to wipe out the Trade Federation, Revenge of the Sith.

2. Don’t fear death
In Revenge of the Sith, when he begins having nightmares of Padme dying in childbirth, Anakin is stricken with fear. Before Anakin’s mother died in Attack of the Clones, he had been plagued with nightmares of her death, nightmares that ended up coming true. So, these nightmares of Padme are especially worrying for him. After telling Padme about it, she says, “It was only a dream”, to which he responds, “I won’t let this one become real.”
Shortly after his talk with Padme, he visits Yoda in the Jedi Temple for advice. After telling Yoda of his visions, Yoda cautions him against giving into the fear his visions are producing:
Yoda: Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.
Anakin: I won’t let these visions come true, Master Yoda.
Yoda: Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the force. Mourn them do not, miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy, the shadow of greed, that is.
Anakin: What must I do, Master Yoda?
Yoda: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.
Anakin

Anakin visits Yoda in the Jedi Temple, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

Now, some have pointed out that this advice is terrible, or at least unhelpful given the situation. It has been argued that the lack of emotional support from the Jedi, combined with the lack of a proper channel for his emotions, makes it all too easy for Anakin’s fears to consume him, leading him to the dark side.
Nonetheless, it is very Stoic advice. What it amounts to is this: it is not that we must let go of everything we fear to lose, but that we must train, or be prepared to do without those things. We must train ourselves to let go, to be ready, when the time comes, to accept that “we live among things that are destined to perish” (Seneca, Letters from a Stoic).
Now, you might think that Yoda was being a hypocrite. After all, isn’t everyone afraid of death? Certainly a lot of people are! However, Yoda faces his own death with an exceptional Stoic disposition.
When Luke returns to visit Yoda, Yoda has grown weak and knows that he will die soon. Some of the last words he and Luke share in his little hut on Dagobah are the following:
Yoda: Soon will I rest. Yes. Forever sleep. Earned it I have.
Luke: (pleading) Master Yoda, you can’t die.
Yoda: Strong I am with the Force, but not that strong. Twilight is upon me, and soon night must fall. That is the way of things… the way of the Force.
Yoda's death

Yoda’s final conversation with Luke before he dies, Return of the Jedi.

This acceptance of death is not easily come by. It takes discipline and being prepared to let go of the things we fear to lose—even our own life. One who cannot let go will try in vain to hold on—will try in vain to struggle against the course of Nature. Yet, according to the Stoics, what attitude are we to have towards that which is not in our power to change? Acceptance. The same goes for the Jedi.
“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish,
but wish that they happen as they do happen,
and you will go on well.”
~ Epictetus, Enchiridion
3. Don’t give into the dark side
Now, I’ve referred to the “dark side” of the Force several times. But what is it exactly? Yoda and Luke have a conversation about it while training:
Yoda: A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression—the dark side of the Force are they, easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will…
Luke: Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. But the easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
Yoda: You will know when you are calm, at peace; passive.
Anger, fear, and aggression, the passions the Stoics cautioned against, constitute the dark side of the force. And, as Yoda and the Stoics understood, these passions are easier to give into and more seductive than what we know to be the case when we are in a calmer state of mind.
Luke on ledge

Luke gazing out at a binary sunset for the last time, The Last Jedi (Concept art by Seth Engstrom).

When we are calm, we know that there is no point in giving into anger. After all, what does it do? Does it solve the problem? Does it make the person fix what they did to you? No. That is out of your control. Does fear itself prevent the thing you fear from happening? No. If it is in your control, then what is there to fear? And, if it is not, what point is there in fearing it? There is nothing you can do. These same reflections apply to aggression and other destructive passions of this sort.
Is it easier to give into these passions? Yes. Is it to our advantage? No.
The Jedi, like the Stoic, recognizes this, and so resists the dark side.

“There is no surer proof of greatness than to be in a state where nothing can possibly happen to disturb

you. The higher region of the universe, being better ordered and near to the stars, is condensed into no

cloud, is lashed into no tempest, is churned into no whirlwind; it is free from all turmoil; it is in the lower

regions that the lightnings flash. In the same way the lofty mind is always calm, at rest in a quiet haven;

crushing down all that engenders anger, it is restrained, commands respect, and is properly ordered.

In an angry man you will find none of these things.”

~ Seneca, On Anger

From Yoda to the Stoa
These are just some examples of what I think are clear parallels between the teachings of Yoda and the teachings of the Stoics. There are undoubtedly many others given the ascetic nature of the Jedi. For those of you who are fans of Star Wars, I hope noticing these parallels will encourage you to continue studying the Stoics. For those of you who are not familiar with Star Wars, I hope these parallels encourage you to begin watching the saga to see what other bits of Classical Wisdom you might find!
Epicurus once said that “no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul”, but I say that no age is too early or too late to begin watching Star Wars!
May the Force be with you!

Having a Healthy Debate: Three Tips from Marcus Aurelius

by November 27, 2019

Written by Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
As a Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius faced many instances of adversity, not only from the Germanic tribes to the north, but from his generals and members of the Roman Senate as well.
So it is no surprise to find in his Meditations various reflections on how a rational person—the type of person the Stoic strives to be—must react to disagreements with others.
Though no one reading this is an emperor, we face disagreements everyday with our family, friends, and even strangers on social media. There’s no avoiding that (not that you have to argue with people on social media, but it will be difficult to avoid seeing things posted on there by family and friends that you don’t agree with!).
What we can try to avoid, however, is having these disagreements in an unhealthy manner, and in a way thats gets us nowhere.
Marcus Bust

Bust of Marcus Aurelius.

One could spend a lifetime learning from the wisdom contained in the Meditations (I know I plan on it!).
Yet, I’ve taken up the much smaller task of providing you with just three pieces of advice from Marcus Aurelius that will, hopefully, allow you to begin having healthier, more productive debates.
1. Being open to change

If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. Book VI, 21

The first thing is to begin any debate or argument with a devotion to truth. You must say to yourself, “It’s the truth I’m after.” With the truth as your aim, you’re prepared to see where someone might be wrong, where you might be wrong, or where you both might be wrong. 
And, of course, sometimes there may be no “Truth” with a capital “T” to the issue in question, in which case the intellectually honest thing to do is to simply say, “I don’t know.” Being able to say those three words is not something everyone has the humility and honesty to do, but it is required more often than not, given how nuanced the world is. 
Equestrian statue

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

The next thing is to keep in mind that “the truth never harmed anyone.” Now, you might say, doesn’t it often hurt to hear the truth? Yes, it definitely can hurt!
But Marcus is working within the Socratic framework which holds that the truth, however painful (in Plato’s analogy of the cave, the truth is portrayed as the sun, which pains the eyes of the man who has lived his life in the shadows of ignorance), is a good in itself worthy of striving after. 
Whatever seems “harmful” or painful about the truth, in reality is good, whereas the only true harm comes from persisting in “self-deceit and ignorance.” 
Once you’ve devoted yourself to the truth, and recognized that true harm only comes from persisting in one’s own ignorance, then you’ll be open to change, which is a prerequisite for any healthy debate. 
First english translation

First English translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; 1634.

2. Be patient : 

The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t. Book VI, 47

So, great, now you’re open to change. But your interlocutor isn’t. What do you do? 
Well, it should not be a shock to learn that most people aren’t open to changing their minds. Reading any Facebook thread serves as a great example of how futile it can often be to try to change someone else’s mind, no matter how many facts or sources you provide that back up your own view. 
In fact, sometimes, simply showing someone that they’re wrong can make them more zealous about their beliefs! 
This doesn’t mean you should just give up. There is definitely some amount of discerning you must do when deciding who to get into an argument with. If they’re not devoted to the truth, you might be best off to leave it alone. After all, if you’re going to play chess with someone, there’s not much of a point in playing someone who has no interest in playing by the same rules as you. 
Cicero

Cicero attacks Catilina at the Roman Senate, from a 19th-century fresco.

However, if you do choose to debate this person, you must do so with patience.
Sure, it might be frustrating. But weren’t you, at some point, resistant to change, ignorant of the facts regarding some issue or other, or in a situation where you felt your beliefs threatened and so clinged to them tighter? 
If you’ve devoted yourself to truth, then all that you need to be concerned with is your own disposition, living “life out truthfully and rightly.” Regarding those who haven’t done so, be patient. 
As Marcus writes later on, People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. Book VIII, 59

3. Be kind, humble, and consistent

Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy. Book VIII, 5

“Be a good human being”: simple enough, right? Well, not quite. 
When someone you love is espousing views you detest, it can be easy to get angry, to lose your place, and to forget what nature demands of you. That is, it can be easy to forget your duties as a rational creature. 
aurelius on horse

Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.

Now, perhaps speaking “the truth as you see it” doesn’t sound too difficult. But it’s how you do it that’s important. 
You must speak it with kindness. No one wants to hear what you think if you say it with disdain or contempt. When you speak with kindness you separate yourself from those who speak with anger or hatred, and you let the truth of what you have to say stand out more. 
You must speak it with humility. People are more likely to be receptive to what you have to say when you speak your mind acknowledging that you could be wrong, that you are open to changing what you believe if good evidence or reasons are provided. 
You must speak it without hypocrisy. Be consistent, apply the same standard to yourself that you do to others. Don’t get angry with someone who is being stubborn about changing their mind, when you’ve been stubborn in the past yourself. If you would have wanted someone to be understanding and patient with you then, be understanding and patient with others now. 

Marcus Aurelius and myself, taken at the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Some concluding reflections
These are just some of the many bits of advice Marcus Aurelius has to offer us when it comes to dealing with our fellow human beings in a healthy and productive way.
Those familiar with the Meditations will know that what I have listed above is a mere fraction of what Marcus had to say.
Yet, I think you’ll agree that it is very helpful advice.
Whether it’s your family, a friend, or a stranger on social media, the words of Marcus Aurelius can guide you to having healthier and more productive debates.
You’re not always going to win everyone over. You’re not gonna change everyone’s mind. Nor should that be your goal, since sometimes it is your own mind in need of changing.
The point is to try to get closer to the truth, or to realize how far away from it you are.
At least, that was what the great minds of the classical world hoped to do.

Reflections on the Brevity of Life

by November 15, 2019

By David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Weekly
“Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” So said  the 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his magnum opus, Leviathan. It is a stark and negative statement, to be sure.
Of course, Hobbes had in mind that the life of ordinary people would go much better under both a strong Sovereign and governmental structure, but on its surface there is some serious truth in his statement.
Human life can be full of wonder, happiness, fulfillment, and love. However, often concurrent with these positives, we must all endure negatives such as terrible diseases, loss, loneliness, war, destruction, and ultimately death.
The ancient Athenian historian and general, Thucydides (ca. 472 – 400 BC), in his monumental work History of the Peloponnesian War (dates of the war: 431-404 BC) records one of the greatest speeches of the ages in Pericles’ “Funeral Oration.”
Pericles

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

The situation addressed by Pericles is somewhat analogous to a Memorial Day celebration in the U.S., where the President speaks to honor the soldiers who lost their lives in war.
Pericles was making an address to Athenian citizens the year after the war with Sparta had begun, in which he recounts many of the glories and blessings of Athenian life during that time. He extols the virtues that the citizens enjoyed, such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, an open society, patriotism, free trade, and consequent prosperity.
According to Pericles, Athens had reached such a height that it served as “the school of Hellas.” The prosperity and freedom of the Athenians, of course, was due to the honor and bravery of those who died defending Athens. “Freedom,” most certainly, was “not free.”
In one of the supreme ironies of recorded history, within a year after Pericles made his famous oration extolling the virtues and prosperity of Athens, the city was stricken by plague.
Plague

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The death and destruction were horrific, and Thucydides gives a thorough record of their effects on the population.
He states that plague spread with “appalling rapidity,” causing widespread sickness of the most unpleasant kind and mass death.  Lawlessness prevailed; people forgot their morals, religion, and ethics, and, in Thucydides words, “resolved to enjoy themselves while they could, and to think only of pleasure.”
Their physicians could make no headway against the spread of the plague, and their prophets and priests were unsuccessful in availing of divine help:

No human art was of any avail, and as to supplications in temples, inquiries

of oracles, and the like, they were utterly useless, and at last men were over-

powered by the calamity and gave them all up.

The Athenians realized in brutal fashion the truth of Hobbes’ aforementioned statement about life being “nasty and short,” having come from the height of their freedom and prosperity to dismal suffering from plague and war.
Spartans

Spartan Warriors on Greek Vase. Google Images.

Of course, as most of our Classical Wisdom enthusiasts know, the war with Sparta ended up being a catastrophic loss for Athens in 404 BC, and the prosperous and free golden age of Pericles was long behind it.
Thucydides encapsulates in his work what amounts to an analogy for the human experience in general: the astonishing heights a great civilization can reach on the one hand, coupled with the miserable lows they can descend into on the other.
As I write this, we are nearing the end of another hurricane season in the northern part of the western hemisphere. In early September, Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas with such a fury that $7 Billion of damage was caused and, much worse, 61 people lost their lives and 70,000 were left homeless. It was catastrophic.
All of us read of natural calamities taking place each year, wherever we live.  Ironically, it sometimes takes the worst of natural calamities for the best in human nature to come forward, manifested in unusual acts of bravery, charity, love, and care for those affected.
My point in using these two examples, from ancient Greece to the present, is to show that this is the natural cycle of human life – from the dreadful low points in human experience to the high points.
Orestes

William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

Though all of us have suffered in some way in this life (or will), we manage to come through with amazing contributions to the overall human experience:  amazing acts of kindness and charity, creation of great art works, literature, architecture, scientific achievements, relief of suffering through medical breakthroughs, and the like. Life goes on.
Has Classical Wisdom anything to say to us about how we should live our lives in response to life’s extreme vicissitudes? Moreover, how do we respond to life’s ultimate brevity?
As it turns out, these subjects weighed heavily on the minds of the ancient thinkers, and the study of ethics came about in ancient Greece to articulate an answer to the problem of “how we should live.”
Was it, “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”? Or were there rationally attained virtues and guidelines for human beings to strive towards in order to overcome moral laxness, existential despair, and the overall feeling that we cannot make a difference on our own?
Roman Decadence

Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence, 1847 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

The study of ethics (normally defined today as a moral philosophy of personal and/or corporate behavior) was addressed somewhat by pre-Aristotelian philosophers and writers (such as Homer, Aesop, and Pythagoras), but it was up to the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle (ca. 384-322 BC) to leave us an entire life’s work dedicated to the subject.
According to Aristotle, our behavior and ethics had a telos; a “goal” or “purpose” higher than ourselves. In other words, how we behave and respond to life’s negatives matters.
He was writing at a time after the greater Greek world (“Hellas”) had gone through the convulsions of the Peloponnesian War and plague. In one of his most influential and popular works, the Nicomachean Ethics (likely named after his son Nicomachus), Aristotle set forth in a series of lectures several propositions, guidelines, and his famous “Golden Mean.”
The Golden Mean is where virtue lies, between the vices of excess and deficiency. Courage is a virtue, situated between the excess of rash confidence and the deficiency of cowardice; liberality is a virtue, situated between the excess of prodigality and the deficiency of miserliness. Aristotle thusly contrasts many other virtues and vices.
The Ethics is set forth in a series of ten “Books,” each subdivided into several chapters.  These explicated to his students (count us in, Classical Wisdom Weekly fans!) how human beings can, by reason and practice, excel towards virtue and excellence (arête).
Ultimately, these practices can result in happiness (Eudaimonia) which then enables the achievement of the summum bonum (the “highest good,” or “goodness embodied in a flourishing human life”). He also addresses issues such as cultivation and improvement of friendships, and explains the nature of Eudaimonia.
This idea of the happiness of human beings, for Aristotle, carried with it a teleological element. Teleology is derived from the Greek word telos, meaning “goal” or “purpose.” For Aristotle, our behavior can be modified by teaching and diligent practice. Moreover, our acts have consequences; ideally in the furtherance of good intentions and aims.
This is the way we ought to live—a noble way of living. Far from being aimless, drifting, and purposeless in such a challenging world, humans can act with a purpose which uplifts not only themselves, but everyone around them.
As we master ourselves, our passions, and our personal behaviors, we cultivate these virtues and contribute to the summum bonum, or the “highest good” of human activity. This is real “happiness.”
The Philosophers

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-1511, fresco (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)

Of course, for Aristotle, being the master thinker that he was, philosophy was the mechanism whereby this ultimate good could be realized. Each of us should aspire to be a student of philosophy in order to “know ourselves” much, much better.
Moreover, we should constantly examine our motives, set out goals for ourselves towards greater achievement, and make a habit of virtuous behaviors. In other words: Rise! We can do it!
In so doing, we improve our own lot in life while also improving our relationships with our families, friends, and communities.  By being the best we can be as individuals, it is only natural that the community at large is uplifted and inspired as well.
Allow me to put something quite deep into more prosaic terms and examples: Are you a teacher? Then be the best possible teacher you can be.  Are you an artist? Then be the best possible artist you can be. Are you in business? Then run the best and most ethical business you can.  On and on. (A contemporary example of the latter is the rise recently of the doctrines of “conscious Capitalism”—a more holistic and ethical approach to the making of profit.)
The bottom line here is this: whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability and always strive to improve. By doing this we maximize our natural talents and potential and, as the saying goes, “make the world a better place.” Invest in yourself and others will prosper along with you. Making the best of ourselves, in an ethical fashion, helps lead all of us toward the summum bonum (greatest good).
Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Like most of you, from a very young age I’ve contemplated the very difficult existential question of life: does it have a purpose? The same for our Universe: does it have any purpose? Is there meaning?
We inhabit a Universe that simultaneously provides us with evidence of a well-ordered design (Aristotle, for example, thought nature followed some kind of order implemented by the “Unmoved Mover”) as well as randomness, chaos, and destruction.
How do we respond to all this? Do we “eat, drink, and be merry,” since tomorrow we die? Life is “nasty, brutish, and short” anyways, right? Or, do we take Aristotle’s cue and cultivate our virtues, abilities, and talents in order to best realize our happiness and make this a better world?
On this wager, I’ll take the latter proposition. I have nothing to lose from following the ethical path to realize my own potential and maximize my own personal virtues, thereby living a life devoted to Aristotle’s idea of excellence and happiness.
Is there something of us that continues after death—an afterlife, if you will? Or do we return to the void? Regardless, we are all in the same boat while we are alive. And when all is said and done, dear reader, what kind of life would you have wished you lived?
So take the rewarding proposition: take Aristotle’s cue and pursue virtue, excellence, and happiness. Read his Nicomachean Ethics—and continue on to other sources of classical wisdom.  You’ll have a much more rewarding and full life, in good times and bad. What more meaning, what more purpose, could one ask for than that?