993 The Daily Stoic

The Daily Stoic … Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Life, a new website (for me) 

and a book on my bookshelf I had much neglected.

I had studied Stoicism on-and-off for many years (essay STOICISM, in my book en.light.en.ment) and I try to apply stoic principles in my life. The book The Daily Stoic is on my bedside table, alas, I don't pick it up as much as I would like (oh, yes, so much to read - so little time; there are five books I'm reading at any time).

But now I have subscribed to the daily newsletter ... and it truly is inspiration in my inbox every day, a very convenient way to absorb ancient wisdom every day (Krishnamurti and Seth Godin are the two others I receive every day).

In the first newsletter, a couple of stoic principles are hi-lited:

The Stoics recognized the brotherhood of man. The greatest virtue was helping others for one’s own sake and peace of mind as well as theirs. Justice, goodness of heart, duty, courage, and fidelity to fellow creatures, great and lowly, were abstractions requiring no divine authority to sustain them; they were worth pursuing on their own.

Here is an important point about Stoicism. Most religions tell us to be good because God said so; or they tell us not to be bad 'cause God will punish us. Stoicism is different.

While not incompatible with religion, stoicism makes a different case for virtue ... a person who lives selfishly will not go to hell; they will live in hell. And both these points are related to the final and most important aspect ... we are all connected to each other, and to help others is to help ourselves ... we are obligated to serve and to be of service.

Now I have ordered another book, a stoic classic: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, born nearly two millennia ago (121 – 180), was a leader who became Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Marcus reminded himself to not be upset by the misdeeds of others and to correct them if possible, but if they were stubborn and would not change, to accept it. 

In reacting to such people, we must never allow our own principles to be violated. Moreover, we should never be surprised by the wicked deeds of others, and avoid wishing that men are not as they are (prone to evil acts) because then we are wishing for the impossible.

Marcus Aurelius coined this aphorism for us:

“The impediment to action advances action.

What stands in the way becomes the way.”

To unpack this in a most basic manner: If you stop what you're doing

because an obstacle is in your way ... consider that this obstacle right

now is where your work is. Don't avoid it, don't find a by-pass or a

short-cut, instead work with it. Acknowledge: 'The Obstacle is the Way',

(a book by Ryan Holiday)

Marcus would often practice an exercise that is referred to as “taking the view from above” or “Plato’s view.” It invites us to take a step back, zoom out and see life from a higher vantage point than our own.

This exercise - envisioning all the millions and millions of people, all the “armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths” - prompts us to take perspective and just like the previous exercise, remind us how small we are.

It reorients us, and as Stoic scholar Pierre Hadot put it, “The view from above changes our value judgments on things: luxury, power, war … and the worries of everyday life become ridiculous.”

When Marcus speaks of the certainty of death and how relatively soon it will come, he is not idly philosophizing ...

At a Roman triumph an aide in the back of the chariot, right behind the commander, would whisper into his ear, “remember, you are mortal.”

... he is recommending that this fact advise our decision-making and how we view the events in our lives. Instead of theorizing about what we should do if either there is a guiding intelligence in the universe, or if everything is just atoms, he prescribes one viewpoint that typically follows Stoic thinking, and explains why both possible truths would lead to the same best actions and beliefs.

Such reminders and exercises take part of Memento Mori (remember you are mortal) ... the ancient practice of reflection on mortality, that goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

In early Buddhist texts, a prominent term is 'maraṇasati', which translates as ‘remember death'. Some Sufis have been called the “people of the graves,” because of them frequenting graveyards to ponder death and mortality.

Throughout history, Memento Mori reminders have come in many forms. Some, like the aide behind the general, were there to humble. Others were invented to inspire zest for life.

The essayist Michel de Montaigne, for instance, was fond of an ancient Egyptian custom where during times of festivities, a skeleton would be brought out with people cheering “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

To us moderns this sounds like an awful idea. Who wants to think about death? But what if instead of being scared and unwilling to embrace this truth we did the opposite? What if reflecting and meditating on that fact was a simple key to living life to the fullest?

That it was the key to our freedom - as Montaigne put it, “To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

In his Meditations - essentially his own private journal - Marcus Aurelius wrote that “you could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

That was a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue NOW, and not wait.