“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”

“Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.”

“Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” —SENECA

Having dabbled and somewhat discarded it once before, I’m greatly warming to Stoicism…

The Daily StoicbyRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: offers a year’s worth (in 366 date-stamped, bite-sized nuggets) of: “wisdom, perseverance, and the ‘Art of Living’: from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.”

I find a nightly dose is a great way to take the good advice on board… As the foreword sets out:

Stoicism was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But over the centuries, knowledge of this way of thinking, once essential to so many, slowly faded from view.

Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. Indeed, it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.”

To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.”

I have to say that’s where I’d largely left Stoicism; an argument for detachment and disengagement. But as ‘The Daily Stoic underlines:

What a sad fate for a philosophy that even one of its occasional critics, Arthur Schopenhauer, would describe as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason.”

Channelling my ‘inner Buddhist’ and combining it with Aristotle’s worldly Ethics, I now see things very differently. Stoicism is basically the best of both, applied to the secular world…

Holiday and Hanselman agree:

It has been the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives… as a practical philosophy they found Stoicism perfectly suited to their purposes.

Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.

Our modern world may seem radically different than the painted porch (Stoa Poikilê) of the Athenian Agora and the Forum and court of Rome.

But the Stoics took great pains to remind themselves that they weren’t facing things any different than their own forebears did, and that the future wouldn’t radically alter the nature and end of human existence.

One day is as all days, as the Stoics liked to say.

They continue:

Making its way from Greece to Rome, Stoicism became much more practical to fit the active, pragmatic lives of the industrious Romans.

As Marcus Aurelius (above) observed:

“I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn’t fall into the sophist’s trap, nor remove myself to the writer’s desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens.”

Instead, he (and Epictetus and Seneca) focused on questions we continue to ask ourselves today:

“What is the best way to live?”

“What do I do about my anger?”

“What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?”

“I’m afraid to die; why is that?”

“How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?”

“How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

Stoics frame their work around three critical disciplines:

The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)

The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)

The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

Master these and you master yourself and your world:

By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity.

In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective.

In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.

Far from sombre and sober, Stoics believed:

That by strengthening themselves and their fellow citizens in these disciplines, they could cultivate resilience, purpose, and even joy.

The Daily Stoic Stoic offers some down to earth Roman ‘Maxims’ to add to La Rochefoucauld’s French fancies.

In what has been a very trying week at work, this one certainly helped:

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

But the best and most useful maxim this week, came to me by text message from my old boss:

Worthy of Maximus that one.

Cross Stitches

I’ve subscribed to Montaigne’s Essais on which breaks him up into comparatively bitesized chunks. Still the discovery that there are 426 daily episodes to look forward to sometimes feels a long haul. I’m up to episode 62.

Some days I skim him, some days I ignore him completely. But sometimes he discusses something with himself, in his meandering way, which speaks to my own day. Whenever I’m close to cancelling my daily dose of Montaigne, something crops up which piques my interest.

The other day I was tickled in Chapter XXV by his discourse on copying, citing and stealing the ideas and expressions of others. He describes the occasion he spotted a piece of stolen intellectual treasure in an otherwise dull read:

…After a long and tedious travel, I came at last to meet with a piece that was lofty, rich, and elevated to the very clouds… and so wholly cut off from the rest of the work, that by the first six words, I found myself flying into the other world, and thence discovered the vale whence I came so deep and low, that I have never had since the heart to descend into it any more.

In some ages quoting and embroidering ones own words with those of others has been considered scholarly. In others a sin. Montaigne is ambivalent, but on balance feels – properly cited – it is good to draw on others: 

…I myself… attempt to equal myself to my thefts, and to make my style go hand in hand with them, not without a temerarious hope of deceiving the eyes of my reader from discerning the difference… Besides, I do not offer to contend with the whole body of these champions, nor hand to hand with anyone of them: ’tis only by flights and little light attempts that I engage them; I do not grapple with them, but try their strength only. 

When I first read Aristotle and indeed almost any of the thinkers I’ve ‘tried the strength of’, it is easy to feel – at least for ethics – that it has all been thought and said. But an insight from Csikszentmihilyi reassures me that it’s still well worth thinking for myself. Like Aristotle, he maintains that there is no reliable guide or recipe for ‘the good life’. There are, at best, principles and then it is the work of every individual to create our own virtuous circle of thought and action. As Aristotle says: we are, what we habitually do.

That we each have a personal Odyssey to navigate, is reason enough to embroider our thoughts with the golden threads of others from all the ages. But Csikszentmihalyi’s further point is, even where great thinkers have distilled the essence of the good life for their age – Aristotle for the Ancients, Epictetus and Seneca for the random cruelty of the Romans, the Apostles for the tough early years Anno Domini, yogis, Confucius, the Buddha and others for their times and places – the times they are a constantly changin’. 

So not only is living ‘the good life’ a personal challenge, but it is a fresh generational challenge for every epoch given our vastly different social, technological and interpersonal contexts. 

It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the technological difference between me typing on an Apple bluetooth keyboard in 2011 and Montaigne scratching on parchment in 16th Century France. And yet a decent proportion of what drops electronically into my inbox from his pen is in some way pertinent and relevant. I find it remarkable that both Aristotle and Montaigne travel the ages so well. 

And so to my handy consolation from Montaigne for this week. I’ve spent the last couple of days wrestling with the interaction between my two ‘lovely’ children and two other ‘lovely’ children. Of course they are each individually and collectively lovely, and the interactions between them have been mainly delightful. But they have also been occasionally loud, wearing and late one afternoon briefly teetered towards ‘The Lord of the Flies’. Who was it who said other people are hell? They were wrong – it’s children.

Overall though it was lovely – and with no qualifying speech marks. But yesterday morning as temperatures and tempers warmed, it was nice to enjoy a moment of Montaigne on the iPhone, reassuring me that 400+ years ago, Renaissance parents struggled with many of the same challenges: 

We often take very great pains, and consume a good part of our time in training up children to things, for which, by their natural constitution, they are totally unfit.

Nevertheless, I am clearly of opinion, that they ought to be elemented in the best and most advantageous studies, without taking too much notice of, or being too superstitious in those light prognostics they give of themselves in their tender years.

But, in truth, all I understand as to that particular is only this, that the greatest and most important difficulty of human science is the education of children.

Reassuringly parenting down the ages seems much like John Wanamaker’s view of advertising: everyone knows half of it doesn’t work, the problem is no-one knows which half. Much like ‘the good life’, ‘good parenting’ is a fresh challenge for every parent and every age. It is indeed the greatest and most important difficulty of the human sciences, but also – at least most of the time – the most rewarding.

Inner Disposition

Twice this week I made myself feel a lot better by acting to adjust my ‘inner disposition’. Before Christmas I read the Stoic Epictetus’s ‘Handbook’. The translator and expert guide Keith Seddon has produced a simple summary of Stoicism in a flow diagram (above). In the centre is ‘adjusting one’s inner disposition’ which reduces ‘wrong judgements’, ‘debilitating emotions’ and overreaction to ‘external events’ – notably people. The products of an adjusted ‘inner disposition’ are ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’. 

I associate Stoicism with passivity. Shrugging the shoulders, avoiding situations, retreating to the intellectual ‘cave’ and keeping your head down. I conclude from this week it ain’t necessarily so. Why? Because in both cases I ‘adjusted my inner disposition’ by taking action ‘in the moment’, not reflecting on it too much, and in the process letting go of the ‘debilitating emotions’ almost immediately. 

The first instance was easy. I was fuming about my day at work and the inappropriate behaviour I’d been subject to. I put my iPod on and tapped out a rant (which I kept to myself) on my iPhone. Rant written, fave tunes playing, my ‘inner dispositions’ changed in less than 5 mins. I let go and felt better.

In the second instance, I also wrote a rant, but this time hit Send. Risky. And after an hour with no answer, I started regretting it. But like hitting the reset button, or turning a computer on and off, my head and heart were cleared. So when the time came to deal with the consequences of my rant, I had a better ‘inner disposition’ and we changed the air.

Many of the great thinkers draw on Stoicism. Kierkegaard, who I’m enjoying at the moment, places taking responsibility for your own life as part of his ‘ethical’ stage of life. Aristotle advocates thought and action. Like Achilles though, sometimes I have to act – not think – to achieve ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’.


Life is full of indignities, small and large. I, like most people, am easily persuaded that life’s indignities have been targeted at me by some malign intent. Human beings are programmed to look for causation. It’s a key survival skill. The moment you move beyond blind instinct, learning from your mistakes and finding patterns and causes is vital. 

It is said that the first religions – pan theistic, animist and shamanic all came from the need for hunter-gatherers and early nomads to find some answer, or cause, for the indignities of storm, drought, disease and death that pre-scientific man had no other method to understand or intellectually control.

These gods brought good, but more often bad. They were quixotic and quick to anger and required regular appeasement and speaking in tongues to commune with and placate. 

Ancient philosophers were not immune to the gods whims. They always paid them homage. But they tended to live in temperate latitudes – comparatively benign environments – which left some time for building civilisations and thinking. 

I’ve recently started reading Epictetus, a famous stoic philosopher from the 2nd century AD. It seems to me he offers a window into an interesting period between ancient philosophy and organised monotheistic congregational religion. 

I’ve not read enough to be sure, but my Bayesian brain guesses that his stoicism is a response to the superficially civilised but dangerously unpredictable indignities of Roman society – from slavery to summary justice.

His stoic answer seems to be to develop a detachment which has much to commend it in ‘coping with the loss of an earthenware pot’ or being ‘splashed and jostled at the bathhouse’. But inviting us to train ourselves to ‘feel nothing’ at the loss of a wife or child (as they are human and death is inevitable) feels plain wrong. For Epictetus the sole true value is our moral character. And all else – including people – are as Oliver Reed said in Gladiator simply ‘shadows and dust’.

I like Epictetus’s advice to recognise what you control and don’t, what you assume and what is real, what is intended and what is accident. His tip to take a moment to reflect before reacting is wise too. But I’m with Aristotle not Epictetus on people we love and the importance of friends.

One such sent me a piece of research which suggests that the value of friendship doesn’t just underpin Aristotle’s vision of happiness, but also the happiness that organised religions bring:

“It is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” according to sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier” his study shows.

So I go with Aristotle and the big congregational religions, not Epictetus on friends. Friends and social ties are the route to human happiness and eudaimonia. Avoiding them isn’t. 

You can’t control friends. As Epictetus rightly points out ‘the jeering of friends’ often accompanies any attempt at self improvement. There’s no doubt that friends can hurt you, and heap indignity on you too. But you can’t live happily without Friends.