Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Month of Twitter, ended

Earlier this month, I declared I was going to write on Twitter every day as @skepticalstoic.  Fortunately, the end of this month coincided with Stoic Week, and it was great to be part of the #stoicweek dialogue.

At the end of this month, it's necessary to ask: did the daily writings help?  I'd say it helped somewhat.  Regurgitating Stoic ideas on Twitter is a pretty reasonable way to keep thinking about Stoicism.  The issue was that most of my thinking about Stoicism came at the end of the day, because no posts would come to mind during the day itself.  At the end of the day, I was often tired and not very motivated to write something on Twitter.  Often, not much came to mind as I sat down for my daily posting.  Overall, I felt this practice was a bit of nuisance, and I'm not sure the benefits made up for it.

During Stoic Week, I combined my mental review of the day with the Stoic post, and reviewed my day with an eye to finding a pertinent Twitter post I can write.  That proved to be more effective than just the Twitter journaling alone, and it gets closer to what the Stoic journals should be.

Going forward, I don't think I'll attempt to post every day.  But a mental daily review seems like good practice, and if it brings to mind something worth writing, then I'll go ahead and post it.  It may also be a good idea to specific try to write about areas I am having trouble with, so as to reinforce good thinking.  I did make some posts about things I was having problems with, but I wasn't focused on doing so.

Predicting the future, even of my actions, is hard.  I'm not going to promise to write at any frequency.  But I hope my natural laziness doesn't take over, and that I continue to post at least somewhat regularly. I only have 33 followers at the moment.  But that's ok, I'm really posting for myself.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Stoic Week

Exeter University is running a Stoic Week this week.  Check it out, and especially read their very excellent PDF handbook.  This is an excellent opportunity to start experimenting with Stoicism.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A month of Twitter

Every month I like to take on some new habit, try various things out for a spin. I don't write about them here, since most of them have nothing to do with Stoicism.

However, this month, I've decided to try and write every day on my as-yet-rarely used Twitter account. @skepticalstoic.  Hopefully, more than once a day.  So, check out what I have to say over there.  My hope is that this is a beneficial practice I' haven't done yet.  I did previously try journaling for a month, but that was a personal journal. If you look at what Marcus Aurelius wrote, it was rarely personal at all.  It was more like he was expounding wisdom for a reader, but the real reader was himself.  By teaching a thing, we can internalize it, and this is another form of journaling that I have not tried yet.

I'll try this out and see what effect it has, and I'll write it up at the end of November.  Has anyone else tried this before?  If so, what have your experiences been?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Stoicism is a pretty practical philosophy.  As the Stoics all mention, it really isn't about your knowledge of philosophy, or how well you can form syllogisms.  Essentially, Stoicism is a skill.

Thinking in this way, we have to wonder how we can practice this skill, so we can get better at Stoicism, which ultimately should lead us to a happier and more rewarding life.  The Stoics seemed to do this by reflecting on their day's activities, and by writing down Stoic thoughts as Marcus Aurelius did.

I was wondering if there were other ways, though.  One thing I've thought of is something I call "micro-Stoicism", which is practicing Stoic thinking on the smallest things possible.  For example, if I get an itch, I won't scratch it.  Instead, I'll observe I have an itch, and judge the true nature of it.  When I think about it, an itch is nothing bad.  It doesn't have any physical cause, or cause any harm.  Therefore, it is neither good nor bad, and one can ignore it as a purely neutral phenomenon.

I wouldn't try and use this technique to break habits.  There are more effective techniques for that.  But it is useful to come up with similar small opportunities to practice Stoicism.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Random Quote 2

Random Quote 2 is from Epictetus. I opened to a random page, and actually got something about negative visualization, which I didn't previously even recall Epictetus getting much into.
Is [a wise and good man] surprised at anything which happens, and does it appear new to him?  Does he not expect that which comes from the bad to be worse and more grievous than what actually befalls him? And does he not reckon as pure gain whatever (the bad) may do which falls short of extreme wickedness? Such a person has reviled me. Great thanks to him for not having struck you.  But he has struck me also.  Great thanks that he did not kill you.  
To me, this is an important passage.  This kind of anticipating all possible issues is something I haven't been very good about pursuing.  I need to seriously give it a shot.

Epictetus goes on to say:
For when did he learn or in what school that man is a tame animal, that men love another, that an act of injustice is a great harm to those who does it.  Since then he has not learned this and is not convinced of it, why shall he not follow that which seems to be for his own interest?
This is a really interesting point.  Not only should we not get angry at what little misfortunes befall us, but we can't even blame those who do it.  After all, people do have their reasons.

Today, on the subway, someone was thrown off balance and stepped back, right on my sandal-covered foot.  It hurt.  I did what almost any New Yorker would in the situation:  absolutely nothing.  This is one situation in which it seems that everyone in the city has learned that it doesn't even make sense to get upset, since all of us has done our share of stepping on other people's feet as well.  This isn't quite the same thing as the deliberate harm that Epictetus describes, but it is related.  There are some small situations where Stoicism, in its wisest and most profound sense, is practiced widely, and I'm happy about that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Anime heroes

I admit it.  As much as I'm sure this would disappoint the sages of old, I don't sit around and read philosophy in most of my free time.  I read other things too, including Japanese mangas, and I watch animes made from those mangas.

This isn't a total waste of time from a philosophical perspective, though.  On the contrary, to a Stoic, these can be pretty interesting.  Take the ninja Naruto, one of the most beloved fictional characters in the Japanese manga / anime scene.  He has no fear of death, and his devotion to his friends trumps every practical consideration.  On the other hand, he often makes rash pledges to accomplish some task (notably to rescue his friend Sasuke), which the Stoic would never do.  Not that the Stoic ninja (if such a creature could exist) wouldn't try to rescue friends, but he would not give any guarantee of victory.  The matter of victory is not in his hands, that is up to fate.  But the Naruto-like will to be of service to others, to help those in need of help, that the Stoic could easily pledge to.

In the One Piece manga, which is the most popular manga and anime right now, the hero Monkey D. Luffy has a pretty un-Stoic-like goal: to become King of the Pirates by obtaining the legendary One Piece treasure.  Stoics are not known for their treasure hunting.  The Stoicism comes in with his attitude towards death; Luffy seems to be the remarkably unconcerned about dying, which is a character trait the series dwells on.  Notably, his philosophy is that if you truly want something, you should be happy to die in pursuit of it.  The Stoic wouldn't put it that way, I think.  They would say only that you shouldn't mind dying, and it shouldn't interfere with your judgements on the morally correct way to live.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Prince

If you could choose one classic book as a beautiful example of anti-Stoic thought, what would you choose?

Maybe it's just because I recently read it, but my choice would be Machiavelli's The Prince.  It's famous for being the quintessential book of realpolitik.  The book is a manual of how to obtain and then hold power.  Very few qualms about morality appear in the book, it is just about practices that are effective and ineffective.

There are a few interesting quotes that I think would be interesting to a Stoic audience.  He has a few things to say on chance, for instance:
I say that a prince may seem happy today and ruined tomorrow without having shown any change of disposition or character.  This, I believe, arises firstly from causes that have already been discussed at length, namely, that the prince who relies entirely on fortune is lost when it changes.
Everyone, regardless of philosophy, would agree this is true.  The Stoics would say that because of the caprices of chance, we should only treasure what is free from the reach of fate: our logic and morality.  Machiavelli, though, views those that can be undone by chance as merely not clever enough. When fortune changes, you have to change with it, or else fortune will overcome you.  Machiavelli, then, wants to fight fortune, while the Stoics wish to ignore it.

The fundamental problem, though, is that the world of Machiavelli is zero-sum.  One person cannot gain power without another losing it.  Not so for the Stoics, and in fact quite the opposite.  If you gain wisdom and the ability to transcend your position in life through philosophy, I am actually more likely to do so as well, since you can help me.  Therefore, at the least we can say that Machiavelli's advice is not for everyone.

I think a case can be made that his advice is moral.  After all, Machiavelli promotes effective leadership.  Imagine living in an Italian city centuries ago.  If your ruler was an effective leader, your life may be peaceful and prosperous.  If not, chaos and war could follow from your leader's follies.  The morality of a ruler is different than other morality.  Your duty is to your subjects.  Sometimes that means you have to betray people, or punish some severely so that rest can benefit, or destroy the family who may eventually plot to overthrow you.  Maybe the ends just the means.

Maybe.  It's all quite dubious to me.  Regardless, I have no real power, and am unlikely to get it.  The Stoic philosophy seems much more appropriate to me, since it is the philosophy of powerlessness itself.

One more interesting point from the book: he actually talks about Marcus Aurelius.  Marcus the Philosopher, as he calls him, was a pretty nice emperor.  But he could only be nice, Machiavelli claims, because he was born into the title of emperor.  Things would be quite different if he had to fight for it.
From these causes it arose that Marcus, Pertinax, and Alexander, being all men of modest life, lovers of justice, enemies to cruelty, humane, and benignant, came to a sad end except Marcus; he alone lived and died honored, because he had succeeded to the throne by hereditary title, and owed nothing either to the soldiers or the people; and afterwards, being possessed of many virtues which made him respected, he always kept both orders in their places whilst he lived, and was neither hated nor despised.
Machiavelli goes on to talk about the sins of Marcus's son Commodus, as well as other issues with Roman emperors.  Reading Machiavelli's praise of Marcus is amusing, especially for the idea that his success was so conditional on the circumstances under which he received the throne. Perhaps Marcus would answer that by saying that if that wasn't so, he'd just be a good man, and whether he was a successful emperor, an unsuccessful emperor, or not an emperor at all is unimportant.

With that in mind, I leave you with Machiavelli's description of Pertinax, who succeeded Commodus.  Think about what is written here, and what you would do if you were Pertinax.
But Pertinax was created emperor against the wishes of the soldiers, who, being accustomed to live licentiously under Commodus, could not endure the honest life to which Pertinax wished to reduce them; thus, having given cause for hatred, to which hatred there was added contempt for his old age, he was overthrown at the very beginning of his administration.  And here it should be noted that hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones, therefore, as I said before, a prince wishing to keep his state is very often forced to do evil; for when that body is corrupt whom you think you need of to maintain yourself - it may be either the people or the soldiers or the nobles - you have to submit to its humors and to gratify them, and then good works will do you harm.