• Twenty-First Century Stoic — Stoic Transformation

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    This is the third and final essay, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the first essay and the second essay.)

    Zeno of Citium, the Greek philosopher who first formulated Stoicism in 300 B.C., said that as you advanced in your Stoic practice, you would be transformed in certain ways. He claimed, for example, that there would be a change in your dream life. For years after I started practicing Stoicism, though, I could detect no change in my dreams. And then, about a year ago, I had a dream that was indisputably Stoical.

    In the previous essay in this series, I mentioned that I have been trying to withdraw from the "social hierarchy game" and that, as part of this effort, I have been trying to reduce the extent to which I engage in self-promotion in conversations and e-mails. In my Stoical dream, I was walking to meet a friend for lunch. While I walked, I thought about some good news I had just received: "It will be fun sharing this with my friend." But then I realized that my primary motive for sharing this news would be to make myself look good in the eyes of my friend. It amounted, in other words, to a fairly blatant form of self-promotion. "Better to keep the news to myself," I concluded.

    That was when I awoke and realized, with some delight, that I had just had a dream in which I was putting my Stoic practice to work. In other words, my conscious practice of Stoicism had apparently succeeded in altering the subconscious portion of my mind that serves as screenwriter for my dreams. This phenomenon, although surprising, was only one of the surprising side-effects of my practice of Stoicism. Allow me to describe some of the others.
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  • Twenty-First Century Stoic — Insult Pacifism

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    This is the second in a series of three essays, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the first essay.)

    A colleague who had been reading some of my published work told me he was going to comment on it in a book he was writing. I told him that I was delighted that he would do such a thing. Then the axe fell: "I'm trying to decide," he said, "whether, in my response to what you have written, I should characterize you as being evil or merely misguided."

    There was a time when being insulted in this manner would have upset me. I would have done my best to respond with a counter-insult, and whatever I said, I would subsequently have spent time fuming about the incident and thinking about other, more caustic things I could and should have said. I probably would even have spent time plotting revenge. In other words, I would have allowed the insult to ruin my day.

    In the incident described, though, I did none of these things. This is because I had come under the influence of those ancient philosophers known as the Stoics and had, as a result, decided to follow their advice regarding insults. Consequently, I responded to the insult with a question: "Why can't you," I asked, "characterize me as being both evil and misguided?"

    It may surprise readers that the Stoics would give advice on how best to deal with insults. Is this, one might reasonably ask, a proper activity for a philosopher?

    Not for a philosopher whose interests were primarily theoretical and who therefore spent his days contemplating esoteric theories regarding, say, truth, beauty, and justice. The Stoics, though, were wonderfully practical in their philosophy: after determining what things in life were most worth having, they devoted themselves to developing specific strategies for attaining those things.

    In the previous essay in this series, I characterized the Stoics as being the victims of a bum rap. Most people think of them as being anti-emotion, as being grim, wooden figures. As it so happens, the Stoics (and in particular, the Roman Stoics, whom I take to be my primary mentors) were not opposed to emotion in general but to negative emotions such as fear, anger, and grief — what sensible person wouldn't be? They saw nothing at all wrong, though, with the experience of positive emotions. Indeed, they strove to put themselves into a state of mind in which they could take delight in the world around them.

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  • Twenty-First Century Stoic — From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic


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    This is the first in a series of three essays, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the second essay.)

    I never intended to become a Stoic. Who, after all, were the Stoics? They were those grim, wooden figures of ancient Greece and Rome whose goal it was to stand mutely and take whatever the world could throw at them. Right?

    About a decade ago, though, I began a research project on human desire. The goal of the project was to write a book on the subject, but I also had a hidden agenda in conducting my research: I was contemplating becoming a Zen Buddhist and wanted to learn more about it before taking the leap. But the more I learned about Zen, the less it attracted me.

    Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities, something I found it quite difficult to do. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment — or you might not. It would be tragic, I thought, to spend the remaining decades of my life pursuing a moment of enlightenment that never came. Zen doubtless works for some people, but for me, the fit wasn't good.

    Then something quite unexpected happened. As part of my research, I investigated what ancient philosophers had to say about desire. Among them were the Stoic philosophers — people like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus — about whom I knew little. As I read them, I discovered that they were quite unlike I imagined they would be. Indeed, it soon became apparent that everything I "knew" about the Stoics was wrong. They were neither grim nor wooden. If anything, the adjective that I thought described them best was "buoyant" or maybe even "cheerful." And without consciously intending to do so, I found myself experimenting with Stoic strategies for daily living.

    Thus, when I found myself in a predicament — being stuck in traffic, for example — I followed the advice of Epictetus and asked myself what aspects of the situation I could and couldn't control. I couldn't control what the other cars did, so it was pointless — was in fact counterproductive — for me to get angry at them. My energy was much better spent focusing on things I could control, with the most important being how I responded to the situation. In particular, I could employ Stoic strategies to prevent the incident from spoiling my day. (more…)