Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most of my readers too. (Indeed, it’s more than just an assumption: consistently, the posts that get the highest number of hits here are those that have to do with practical aspects of Stoicism.)
That’s why in this and the next post I want to go back to some of my notes from the Stoic Camp I co-organized with my friend Greg Lopez and re-examine our proposed list of Stoic exercises. The first list (this post) is distilled from Epictetus’ Enchiridion (the aptly titled “Manual”), while the second list (next post) is derived from Marcus’ Meditations (again aptly, a diary that the emperor wrote for his own personal use).
The idea here is to step back for a moment from decidedly more modern “Stoic” exercises, which are actually derived from recent developments in psychology, such as Victor Frankl’s logo-therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy (see, for instance, Don Robertson’s book).
There is, of course, nothing wrong with attempting to update both Stoic theory (as I’ve began doing here and here) and practice. But it is also, I think, good to keep in mind what the ancients actually said and not mix it so thoroughly with modern perspectives that the two become indistinguishable.
Specifically, as we shall see in these two essays, ancient Stoic techniques were decidedly leaning on the cognitive/verbal side of things, not so much on the visualization approach promoted by modern CBT. This isn’t intrinsically bad or good. It just is, and some people will likely respond better to cognitive approaches (myself included), while others will do well with visualization exercises. Nothing crucial hinges on this, except, again, the need to have present in one’s mind what counts as an ancient Stoic vs a modern Stoic exercise, for the sake of historical clarity, if nothing else.
The way I decided to organize the entries below (and those from Marcus, next time) is simply in order of appearance in the Enchiridion (though the same “exercise” may be referred to more than once, which I will point out when appropriate). For each entry I will give a brief description or comment, followed by the full quote from the original.
Examine your impressions. Here Epictetus exhorts us to practice what is arguably the most fundamental of his doctrines: constantly examine our “impressions,” that is our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told, step back to make room for rational deliberation, avoid rash emotional reactions, and ask whether whatever is being thrown at us is under our control (in which case we should act on it), or it isn’t (in which case we should regard it as not of our concern).
So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ (Enchiridion I.5)
Remind yourself of the impermanence of things. Yes, yes, this is one of the (superficially) harshest passages in Epictetus. Not the part about the china, but the one about the wife or child. But I think Anthony Long (among others) is right about how this (in)famous quote ought to be interpreted. First off, remind yourself of the historical context: Epictetus was writing at a time when even emperors (like Marcus himself) lost most of their children and other loved ones at what we would consider a tender or premature age, to disease, or war. While most of us in the West are currently lucky in that respect, the point remains: life is ephemeral, and people we deeply care abut may be snatched from us suddenly and without warning. Moreover, what Epictetus is counseling here is not an inhuman indifference toward our beloved ones, but quite the opposite: to constantly remind ourselves of just how precious they are precisely because they may soon be gone. Anyone who has lost a person close to them ought to know exactly what this means. We should go through life just like the Roman generals went through their official celebratory triumphs in the eternal city: with somebody (in their case, a slave) who constantly whispers in our ears “memento homo” (remember, you are (only) a man).
In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you. (Enchiridion III)
Reserve clause. Since the only thing truly under our control are our intentions and behaviors, the outcome of anything we try to do depends at the least in part on external circumstances. Which means we should approach doing anything with the Stoic reserve clause, fate permitting.
Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse – people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’ (Enchiridion IV)
How can I use virtue here and now? The passage below is one of the most empowering of Stoic writings. Epictetus, the former slave, lame because of a once broken leg, tells us to use every occasion, every challenge, as a way to exercise our virtue, to become a better human being by constant practice.
For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate. (Enchiridion X)
Pause and take a deep breadth. Here is the crucial step that allows us to more rationally examine our impressions: we need to resist the impulse to react immediately, instinctively, to situations. Instead, pause, take a deep breadth, and then consider the issue as dispassionately (in the sense of equanimity, not lack of care) as possible.
Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control. (Enchiridion XX)
Other-ize. This is a fascinating one, as we are reminded of just how differently we regard the same event if it concerns us or other people. Naturally, it is far easier to maintain equanimity (which, again, is not to be confused with emotional impassivity!) when little inconveniences, or even disasters, happen to others than to ourselves. But why, really?
We can familiarize ourselves with the will of nature by calling to mind our common experiences. When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ It’s only reasonable, then, that when a glass of your own breaks, you accept it in the same patient spirit. Moving on to graver things: when somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others. (Enchiridion XXVI)
Speak little and well. I must admit that this is a hard one for me to practice, probably due to my ego and the professional habits of a teacher who is far too often in professorial mode. Still, I’ve tried to remember this counsel and take it to heart, and it is serving me increasingly well.
Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. (Enchiridion XXXIII.2)
Chose your company well. I laugh every time I read this. To modern ears it sounds insufferably elitist, but it really isn’t (remember, it comes from an ex-slave who was making a living teaching in the open air). Also, keep in mind that “philosophers” here doesn’t mean professionals, but rather people who are interested in following virtue. More generally, this is simply the sound advice that our life is short, and temptation and waste are always lurking, so we need to pay attention to whom we spend our time with and doing what.
Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out. (Enchiridion XXXIII.6)
Respond to insults with humor. This is a lovely example of profound wisdom accompanied by Epictetus’ distinctive brand of humor: instead of getting offended by someone’s insults (remember, they are not “up to you”) respond with self deprecation. You will feel better, and your vilifier will be embarrassed.
If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumours; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’ (Enchiridion XXXIII.9)
Don’t speak too much about yourself. I must admit to failing at this often enough (see “ego” and “professorial mode” above), but I’m trying. And boy, does that make for a much better social experience!
In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them. (Enchiridion XXXIII.14)
Speak without judging. Still working on this one too, but, again, this is so true, and so typically Stoic. The idea is to distinguish between matters of fact — to which we can assent, if we find them justified by observation — and judgments — from which we generally speaking ought to abstain, since we usually don’t have sufficient information. Just imagine how much better the world would be if we all refrained from hasty judgments and looked at human affairs more matter of factly.
Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different. (Enchiridion XLV)