Maximus

“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.

Balance

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A few weeks back, a very wise friend I bumped into serendipitously mentioned this:

In the end, only three things matter:

1) How much you loved,

2) how gently you lived, and

3) how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Whose words of wisdom are they? Transpires it was the Buddha.

Numbers 1) and 2) aren’t that earth shattering. And ‘living gently’ is maybe not that exciting.

I get the point; let go of hatred and anger. But like with Roman Stoicism, I’m a bit watchful that Buddhist ‘patience’ and ‘tolerance’ – good though they are – don’t turn into accepting stuff which is unacceptable or giving up on things which are important.

But number 3) is a gem. This week I ‘let go gracefully’ of something that ‘wasn’t meant for me’ and feel infinitely better for it.

Power, money and status are inviting and intoxicating, but there are are phases to life and choices to make. So this week I put my family ahead of my career and let go of seeking advancement. Not forever, but not for now.

The Buddha is bang on – by letting go of what was ‘not meant for me’, and doing it ‘gracefully’ on my own terms I have protected what matters, lost nothing and gained a great deal: a self-imposed burden removed, a lightness of spirit returned and a much readier smile on my face. Balance restored.

Poetry in Motion

I’ve just finished Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’. There are things to criticise. Some points – the time we waste in front of TV notably – are right but he makes them repetitively. His style occasionally grates. But, in my humble opinion, it is an outstanding book. My Bayesian brain infers he is likely a pretty outstanding man.

There are many themes to pull out, ideas to take forward, good advice and thought provoking evidence. My simple summary is – just read it. I’ve given ‘Flow’ its own link in the sidebar to the right.

Two personal things I’ll draw out. First Csikszentmihilyi’s advice to read a piece of poetry every day. I’ve never much cared for poetry. But, as he says, I’ve discovered a poem is a simple and rewarding pleasure. It doesn’t take much. Just five minutes and two or three poems at bedtime and mood and life are subtlety and magically enhanced. I told my partner. She’s taken with it too. And now we both have books of poetry on the go. My advice – just do it.

The second personal thing was my curious desire to get the book over with. Mainly, I think, so I could get on with all the things I now want to read as a result of reading the book. But also because I ever-so-slightly feared Csikszentmihalyi might barrel off the rails and disappoint me at the end.

Many potentially great books have been marred by a lame ending. I worried about this one. Tantalisingly the penultimate chapter was pretty good – synthesis, some emergent structure and integration of themes. So, as I said to to a particular friend, I was anxious that the last chapter would be a major disappointment. He said ‘Don’t read it, write your own final chapter’. Good advice, but a somewhat daunting challenge, so I read it instead, and I’m glad I did.

No easy answers therein, but a validation of my own thesis, that the good life requires both thought and action – Aristotle and Achilles. Csikszentmihilyi also recommends the thinkers and writers of history and antiquity as invaluable guides. I increasingly agree. But his final challenge is a tough one: to learn to master oneself and then get beyond the self to find an overarching meaning for our lives and tune into and live vividly in the full ‘flow’ of the real world. Easy then.

Discussing this on Monday with another friend, we concluded life takes the balance of a Nureyev: to balance internal with external, self with others, the world within with the world without, skill with challenge, what we achieve in life with what we would want to be remembered for.

Stoic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Existentialist, pick your school of philosophy, they are all scratching the same basic itch: how much to stick your neck out and risk your mental and physical health in the hurly burly of the real world.

Finding ‘meaning’ for Csikszentmihalyi or a ‘telos’ for Aristotle is the tough one. For Aristotle’s harp player it’s playing the harp well. For me the meaning of life is getting clearer, but it’s reassuring to know there are philosophers and poets to help me on my way.

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’.