I started studying and practicing Stoicism as an experiment on improving my quality of life on October 4th, 2014 (I know because that’s the first entry in my evening meditation journal). A year later, it seems like a good time to reflect on how the experiment has so far played out, and decide whether to continue it.
First, a straightforward answer to the second question: yes, I will continue studying and practicing for the foreseeable future. Not only I now have a contract (with Basic Books, the publisher of my Answers for Aristotle) to write a book not at all coincidentally entitled “How to Be a Stoic,” but the experiment has had a number of signifiant positive outcomes so far, as I’ll explain in a moment, so why quit something that seems to be working?
My interest in Stoicism is both theoretical and practical, as obvious from the entries of this blog. On the theoretical side, you will find my comments on ancient sources, for instance book VI of Marcus’ Meditations, or Epictetus’ Handbook, as well as on modern ones, like Irvine’s take on Stoic psychological techniques, or Becker’s comprehensive attempt to modernize Stoicism. But I have also written about mundane or practical matters, including movie reviews from a Stoical perspective, and my ongoing “What Would a Stoic Do?” series.
I have made clear, I think, that I am not treating Stoicism as a religion (which it was never meant to be, despite occasional statements to the contrary by some modern commentators), but rather as an open philosophical system, meaning a framework based on some general ideas and insights advanced by the ancient Greco-Romans, updated to the 21st century, in light of intervening advancements in both science and philosophy.
As Seneca put it, remarking on future knowledge and understanding: “Let us be satisfied with what we have discovered, and leave a little truth for our descendants to find out” (Natural Questions, VII.26). Although, of course such “updating” needs to be organic and sufficiently respectful of the original version of Stoicism that the modern one can reasonably be considered to have a family resemblance with the older one, otherwise there would be no point in call it “Stoicism.”
To begin with, why was I attracted to Stoicism a bit more than a year ago, enough to give it a serious try for a sustained period of time? I have written elsewhere about my personal philosophical journey, so I will not repeat the details here. Fundamentally, though, I was looking for something that smelled — philosophically speaking — a lot like Buddhism, and yet was more in resonance with the Western cultural tradition I grew up and matured with. Stoicism turned out to be by far the closest option available.
Okay, so during this past year I have certainly learned (or re-learned) a lot about Epictetus, Marcus, Seneca and the other ancient Stoics. I’ve also had the pleasure of reading modern authors like Robertson, Irvine, Becker and so forth. Not to mention a superb biography of Seneca by James Romm, and a number of other assorted sources on Stoicism, virtue ethics and hellenistic philosophy. But did it make a difference in my personal life, which — after all — was the whole point of the exercise to begin with?
The answer is yes, on a number of levels. Specifically, in no particular order:
- Stoic practice has made me more mindful of the moral dimension of my economic choices (for instance, where I bank, what I buy, and so forth). This was already the case to some extent, the result of my turn to virtue ethics more broadly construed over the past several years. But reflecting on the Stoic virtue of justice and the associated discipline of action has reinforced my attitude in this respect.
- Similarly, I have redoubled my efforts to engage in ethical eating, which for practical purposes means that I behave like a pescatarian. Again, this was something that had started before my Stoic turn (so to speak), but has further benefited from it.
- Another attitude that was present to an extent and got reinforced by Stoicism is my very moderate consumerism. Generally speaking, I like a minimalist life style, and while I do not deny myself an iPhone (though I don’t have the latest model), it very often happens that I go to a shopping district (thankfully, there are very few of those ghastly features of the American landscape known as “shopping malls” in New York City), look amused at what is on offer for purchase, and walk away with the same amount of cash in my pocket as when I entered. Irvine has commented on a similar development in his own life, which he also attributes at the least in part to his practice of Stoicism. I guess Stoics aren’t good for global capitalism…
- An important area of improvement — as I see it — is that I’ve become more conscious of the need to keep good company and engage in meaningful conversation. I’ve never been a party animal, but now even less so than ever before. I’d rather spend my social time with a few friends with whom I can talk at the least from time to time about matters both personal and of general importance, rather than, as Epictetus would put it (Enchiridion 33.2), of “banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink.”
- Even when it comes to my choices of entertainment and how to spend my free time — aside from the social occasions just mentioned — meditating about the impermanence of life has focused me on the need to profit (in a spiritual, not monetary manner) from most of what I do. As Marcus says: “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good” (Meditations IV.17).
- I have had, shall we say a rather varied history of personal relationships over the years, but I am now in what increasingly looks like a stable one — fate permitting, of course. Meditating on my and the general human condition from a Stoic point of view has contributed to make me even more resolute about working with my partner to overcome whatever problems couples normally have, with a mindful eye toward what I would miss if I stopped having what I have. Then again, I also constantly remind myself of what Epictetus says about attachment to people or things: “Under no circumstances ever say ‘I have lost something,’ only ‘I returned it.’” (Enchiridion 11).
- One of the things I have attempted to do is to provide some of the tools of Stoicism to my daughter, who has been going through a tough time with her mother (with whom she grew up), and now has just began to face the challenges of college. I wish I had done this far earlier, while she was growing up, but better late than never, right? One of the things I’ve learned in talking to her (and to other close friends and relatives) about Stoicism, though, is a lesson that Irvine also imparts at the end of his book, A Guide to the Good Life: Stoicism is best practiced in a quiet mode (he even uses the word “stealth,” which I don’t actually think is sustainable, nor necessarily desirable, especially given its connotation of somehow deceiving others). What I mean is that one doesn’t “preach” Stoicism (again, it’s not a religion!), one shows others by example, complemented — when appropriate, and with due caution — by occasional theoretical explanations of principles. The results so far have been encouraging: my daughter isn’t a practicing Stoic, but she has developed an interest for the idea (and for philosophy more generally), and a few maxims from Epictetus or Marcus (duly paraphrased by me) have actually been of comfort to her during some tough moments.
- Finally, practicing Stoicism has made me more temperate during interactions with others, including family, friends and even strangers over the Internet. Seneca’s comments on anger have been particularly helpful here, of course, though this is what Epictetus says on the subject: “If you don’t want to be cantankerous, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get mad” (Discourses II.18:12). And here is what the ultimate goal looks like: “Show me someone untroubled with disturbing thoughts about illness, danger, death, exile or loss of reputation. By all the gods, I want to see a Stoic!” (Discourses II.19:24)
You might have noticed a striking thing while perusing the above list: often I used words like “[Stoicism] has reinforced…,” meaning that my practice seems to have strengthened certain positive attitudes I already had, at the same time that it has helped me control some negative ones I already wanted to keep under check.
Again, this reminds me of a comment by Irvine, who says that Stoicism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, while some people may be temperamentally predisposed to the philosophy. That doesn’t mean that even those not so predisposed cannot potentially reap benefits from Stoic practice, just like plenty of people respond to a therapeutic approach that is related to Stoicism, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Besides, you may not know that you have an inner Stoic until you give it an opportunity to come out of the closet, so to speak. More broadly, though, I agree with Irvine that the important thing is to adopt, or adapt, a coherent philosophy of life in order to live a more eudaimonic existence. Whether that happens to be Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Buddhism matters much less, if at all.