Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Brief Note on the Unity of the Virtues

One of the positions that some of the ancient Stoics took was that Virtue was a single thing and that what we call 'virtues' were this one thing in different situations. The word for Virtue was αρετή (arete) which is better translated as 'excellence.' Being Virtuous meant (and means) acting in a way that displays moral excellence. When this excellence was displayed in the context of the fair distribution of resources or execution of laws, it is called Justice. When this same excellence is revealed in the face of challenging or overwhelming odds, it is called Courage. All virtue is the same virtue, just applied appropriately in various situations.

By the same token, one could not be Courageous, without also being Just, for the first without the second is not courage, but recklessness. One cannot be Generous (liberal in giving or sharing) without being Moderate (keeping within reasonable or proper limits) and Just (equitable, even, fair). Without the measure of appropriate bounds that moderation offers, the person who gives too much in a certain situation is prodigal and wanton, whereas without the requirement of justice, the person who gives too little is miserly and parsimonious. Even Justice must be meted with wisdom, compassion, moderation and courage, or it may become simple tyranny. Hence, there is only one virtue, one moral excellence for each person to individually strive for, choosing the best possible behaviour in varying circumstances.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On Building a Stoic Community

It has been months since my last post, but this hasn't been due to inactivity, but rather the opposite. For just a taste of what we have been up to, I am posting the contents of an interview I gave for the New Stoa's newsletter, The Registry Report, earlier this month:

by Guillaume Andrieu

Michel Daw is a long-time mem­ber of the New Stoa, who has a clear tal­ent for ped­a­gogy. When I heard last year that Michel was start­ing a Sto­icism work­shop in his neigh­bour­hood, I was in­trigued and hoped he would talk about this ex­pe­ri­ence to the New Stoa. This month's spot­light ful­fills that wish.
Hi Michel. First, you're a very ac­tive mem­ber of the com­mu­nity. Along with your wife Pam, you have sev­eral ini­tia­tives to your ac­count, among which sev­eral web­sites and blogs, you're an­i­mat­ing Face­book groups about Sto­icism and a Stoic "in real life" work­shop. I'm not sure to know all of your ac­tiv­i­ties so how about mak­ing a lit­tle list of the things you'd like me to link to? 
We have sev­eral Face­book groups. Two are for work­shop par­tic­i­pants only, and one other is for the on­line course. We also work on some web­sites and blogs. The blog is called Liv­ing the Stoic Life, and the web­site sim­ply The Stoic Life. We also have a daily blog called Words of the An­cient Wise, where we post in­ter­est­ing quotes, and dis­cuss about them in the com­ments.
There's al­ready a lot of meat there, but let's talk more specif­i­cally about your work­shop ses­sions. How did it all start?
This re­quires a lit­tle back­ground. My wife, Pamela, and I be­long to a vi­brant and ac­tive Neo-Pa­gan com­mu­nity in our re­gion. The term, Neo-Pa­gan, or Pagan, is an um­brella term that cov­ers just about every­one who is seek­ing to bring back lost or for­got­ten re­li­gious or spir­i­tual prac­tices, or to in­vent new ones. Some are well known, such as the Wic­cans, the Druids, etc. Many are not as well known, such as Hel­lenic, Roman, and Norse Re­con­struc­tion­ists who focus on the schol­ar­ship of an­cient cul­tures to form a mod­ern spir­i­tual com­mu­nity. 
Pam and I are very so­cial. We enjoy the com­pany of friends, the chal­lenge of con­ver­sa­tion and the plea­sure of shared ex­pe­ri­ence. About half of the evenings of any given month are spent with friends and fam­ily for din­ner and games. We were look­ing for a group that would also serve as a spir­i­tual 'home' so to speak, after being dis­il­lu­sioned by the major re­li­gions and the dis­con­nec­tion be­tween dogma and prac­tice. We vis­ited with sev­eral of the Pagan groups, learn­ing their core prin­ci­ples and watch­ing them in ac­tion. For us, what they didto make the world a bet­ter place was far more im­por­tant than what they taught. That being said, we tended to avoid groups that strained credulity to the break­ing point (for us).
When we had dis­cov­ered Sto­icism, we knew we had found the core of our be­lief sys­tem. The prob­lem for us was that there is very lit­tle in the way of com­mu­nity. Some of the on­line com­mu­ni­ties are fine, but usu­ally ex­tremely con­tentious. There were no other Sto­ics in our area. We sus­pected that this was sim­ply be­cause most peo­ple were not aware of Sto­icism as a prac­tice and sys­tem. The only way to have a Stoic com­mu­nity, there­fore, would be to share the Stoic teach­ings with as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, and hope that some would be in­ter­ested enough to start meet­ing to­gether. 
One fea­ture of the Neo-Pa­gan com­mu­nity is that, due to its rel­a­tively small size and scat­tered na­ture, fes­ti­vals and com­mu­nal camp­ing be­come the way in which most peo­ple make con­tact with oth­ers of sim­i­lar in­ter­ests. These 'fests' pro­vide a smörgåsbord of avail­able op­tions for re­li­gious and spir­i­tual ex­pres­sion, and many fea­ture work­shops where prac­ti­tion­ers dis­cuss and demon­strate their ap­proach to any in­ter­ested at­ten­dees. The Neo-Pa­gan com­mu­nity is still rel­a­tively young, and so it evolves quickly. These Fests are one of the keys for stay­ing in touch, in ad­di­tion to being just great camp­ing fun.
We had been study­ing Sto­icism for sev­eral years, and shar­ing some of our dis­cov­er­ies with our friends in the com­mu­nity. Most of the time this was on­line, on Face­book, but some­times we would get into con­ver­sa­tions with friends dur­ing out din­ners and games nights. One of the largest Fests in Canada was com­ing around, and some­one sug­gested that I might do a work­shop on Sto­icism. So I did, and the re­sponse was phe­nom­e­nal. Look­ing back, I can see a rea­son why this might be so. 
For the main­stream re­li­gions, their an­swers for how we should be­have, what the mean­ing and pur­pose of life are, and other big ques­tions are built into their dogma, usu­ally through sa­cred books or writ­ings. Neo-pa­gan­ism, like hu­man­ism and athe­ism, lack this cen­trally cod­i­fied re­source for an­swers to life's big ques­tions. Sto­icism, es­pe­cially if it is al­lowed to evolve, pro­vides a forum to ask these ques­tions se­ri­ously, as well as a pos­si­ble source for seek­ing an­swers. The fact that Sto­icism calls for vir­tu­ally no re­li­gious, su­per­nat­ural or spir­i­tual sup­ports, makes it a great fit for just about any­one with an open mind, be­cause it doesn't de­mand ad­her­ence to any dogma.
I think it's the sec­ond year you're doing this work­shop, but I may be wrong. How did it start ?
Prior to the work­shop at the fes­ti­val, we had de­cided to see if there was in­ter­est in form­ing a study group (which we also called a work­shop), to start in the fall. As part of our web­site, we had been work­ing with Keith Sed­don's ex­cel­lent Stoic Seren­ity book as the foun­da­tion for an on­line course, with his kind per­mis­sion. We de­cided to use these lessons as the foun­da­tion for a se­ries of monthly work­shops. With this very vague out­line in place, we de­cided to make an an­nounce­ment at the Fest.
Now, a year or so later, we are en­ter­ing our sec­ond year of work­shops. The par­tic­i­pants of last year's work­shops are mov­ing on to more dis­cus­sion (more on this later) and an new group has formed for the In­tro­duc­tion to Sto­icism work­shops. So far, we are run­ning three work­shops a month: two for last year's par­tic­i­pants, and an­other for new­com­ers.
Who joins, how do you find "re­cruits" ? How do you ad­ver­tise about it ?
Most, though not all, of the par­tic­i­pants come from our cir­cle of friends, and by ex­ten­sion their friends as well. Fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment at the fest, we an­nounced the work­shops through Face­book as well. We wanted these ses­sions to be live and face-to-face. That was im­por­tant. We wanted to start a con­ver­sa­tion that would go on for 10 months.
The re­sponse, to say the least, was over­whelm­ing. We had over 40 peo­ple ex­press an in­ter­est in the work­shops in a 24 hour pe­riod. Since we planned to have these dis­cus­sions in our home, that num­ber was clearly more that we could han­dle at any one time. We de­cided to break into four sep­a­rate groups of about 10 or so each. We ex­pected at­tri­tion over the com­ing months, so we knew that the groups would be­come smaller over time. In order to fos­ter a sense of ca­ma­raderie and team spirit, we named each Team after a key Stoic teacher: Team Zeno, Team Chrisyp­pus, Team Au­re­lius and Team Epicte­tus. At the be­gin­ning, we were run­ning a work­shop every week of the month. After the 10 months of work­shops were com­pleted, I was pleas­antly sur­prised that we still had about half the orig­i­nal groups left. About half-way through the year we re­com­bined the groups into two new teams: Team Seneca and Team Mu­so­nius.
The 'grad­u­ates' of the first year of work­shops ex­pressed an in­ter­est in con­tin­u­ing the work­shops, so Pam and I de­cided to step it up a notch. We have called the sec­ond year of work­shops Prac­ti­cal Sto­icism, with a focus on im­ple­ment­ing some of the Stoic teach­ing into daily prac­tice. The work­shop na­ture of the meet­ings also means that we can re­port our progress and fail­ures to each other, and seek sup­port and ad­vice for im­ple­ment­ing these skills on a con­sis­tent basis. We are using William Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life as our text, and we will dis­cuss points on which we agree and dis­agree with the au­thor and each other. I am look­ing for­ward to it.
We have about a dozen par­tic­i­pants who are in­ter­ested in the In­tro­duc­tory course this year. We have de­cided to keep them in a sin­gle group, ex­pect­ing at­tri­tion to re­duce this num­ber to about 50% again. We may be pleas­antly sur­prised, how­ever, be­cause word about what the ses­sions are about and how they are run has got­ten out, so peo­ple com­ing know more about what to ex­pect.
Could you tell us a bit about how the ses­sions work ? What do you do / talk about ?
To begin, we set some early ground rules for the group. Once a group had been formed, it would be con­sid­ered closed. No new mem­bers would be al­lowed to join with­out the ap­proval of the en­tire group. These work­shops were de­signed to be a 'safe' place to share opin­ions, and I sus­pected that over time, peo­ple would also come to share per­sonal tri­als and tri­umphs in their jour­neys of self-ex­am­i­na­tion. They had to be able to trust the peo­ple around them not to share that in­for­ma­tion with the wider com­mu­nity. We were ex­plicit about cre­at­ing this 'safe place,' and all of the at­ten­dees agreed that dis­cre­tion would be a key to their at­ten­dance.
I have been a Teacher of Adults for decades, so my ex­pe­ri­ence in group fa­cil­i­ta­tion, les­son prepa­ra­tion and dis­cus­sion gen­er­a­tion come into play. I de­signed each work­shop, and all of the work­shops com­bined, to fol­low the Gor­don Train­ing 'com­pe­tence ma­trix' ('un­con­scious in­com­pe­tence,' 'con­scious in­com­pe­tence,' 'con­scious com­pe­tence' and 'un­con­scious com­pe­tence'), with the final twin goals of 're­flec­tive com­pe­tence' and 'cre­ative com­pe­tence.' 
To this end, each work­shop would pre­sent a Stoic prin­ci­ple, and a prac­tice that could be used to lock that prin­ci­ple in as a guide to be­hav­iour. I would an­nounce the topic for the next ses­sion, and send out read­ing ma­te­ri­als (again, based on the out­lines of the on­line course) ahead of the work­shops. Some of the par­tic­i­pants would read the ma­te­ri­als ahead of time, some did not. 
The ses­sion would open at about 7 PM. We would begin by catch­ing up on the pre­vi­ous month's news and ex­pe­ri­ences, and par­tic­i­pants would share their ex­pe­ri­ences with re­gards to what they had learned thus far. Fol­low­ing this, we would start on the work­shop topic. Carnegie's ad­vice for pre­sent­ing was a gen­eral rule: "Tell the au­di­ence what you're going to say, say it; then tell them what you've said."  I would usu­ally in­tro­duce some of the foun­da­tional con­cepts, some­times with the aid of a white-board. We would then share in the read­ing of the Stoic sources. I have a few copies of Seneca, Epicte­tus, and Mar­cus Au­re­lius, and I would flag these ahead of time. We would then pass the books around while in­di­vid­u­als would read a rel­e­vant pas­sage. We would then dis­cuss the im­pact or mean­ing, each per­son mak­ing com­ments or seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion. 
I was very clear from the out­set that I did not hold these to be sa­cred in any way. These were men who, through their own stud­ies, had come to con­clu­sions about the way the world worked. That being said, these are human teach­ings, so many of them would not come as a sur­prise. In many cases, the Sto­ics would tell us things we would al­ready know at some level. The chal­lenge for us, of course, would be to take these 'well-known' teach­ings and ac­tu­ally put them into prac­tice. Ad­di­tion­ally, we could, and some­times did, dis­agree with the Stoic writ­ers on some points, with­out in­val­i­dat­ing the whole. We were not at­tempt­ing to form a re­li­gion, but rather have a open dis­cus­sion with each other. 
On the sub­ject of re­li­gion, an­other thing that we were de­lib­er­ate to avoid was any dis­cus­sion of faith or re­li­gion in the con­text of the dis­cus­sions. Sto­icism, as I have said, re­quires no ad­her­ence to re­li­gious dogma of any stripe, and so the dis­cus­sion of re­li­gion was quickly, firmly and kindly fore­stalled. As the groups tended to be a mix of dif­fer­ent Pa­gans, Athe­ists and Ag­nos­tics, every­one agreed to and ap­pre­ci­ated the lack of dogma in the dis­cus­sions.
As a teacher of many years, I un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of group in­ter­ac­tion, Tuck­man's fa­mil­iar Team De­vel­op­ment model1 (Form­ing, Storm­ing, Norm­ing, Per­form­ing and Ad­journ­ing) comes into play in the for­ma­tion and main­te­nance of each Team. Set­ting the ground rules early re­duces much of the stress in the Storm­ing stage. Par­tic­i­pants fell into re­spect­ful be­hav­iour pat­terns quickly, mostly due to the qual­ity of their char­ac­ters once they were com­fort­able that they would not be forced to take de­fen­sive pos­tures.
About half-way through the evening, we would break for 15 - 20 min­utes of cof­fee and snacks, which were pro­vided by the par­tic­i­pants. This is where the real work was hap­pen­ing, as par­tic­i­pants would get to know each other, share sto­ries and ask me or Pamela ques­tions about spe­cific ap­pli­ca­tions of the month's prin­ci­ples. We would then re­con­vene, and the top­ics raised dur­ing the break would be woven into the fol­low­ing dis­cus­sion. The ses­sion would wrap up with a re­fo­cus on the the prin­ci­ples and prac­tices dis­cussed, and lead in to the fol­low­ing month's topic. Work­shops tended to last about 3 hours, though some would go a lit­tle longer based on dis­cus­sions.
These ses­sions, I have been told by par­tic­i­pants, have changed lives. Peo­ple trapped in their own un­con­sciously de­struc­tive be­hav­iour pat­terns have learned to step back and con­sider their choices, mostly due to the fact that they are now con­scious that they can step back, and that the do have choices. The work­shops have, by their very na­ture, begun to cre­ate a Stoic com­mu­nity in our area. Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants now self-iden­tify as Sto­ics, and are re­quest­ing that we host an ad­di­tional in­for­mal 'cof­fee night,' to allow them to just hang out to­gether and per­haps share a meal. Friend­ships are being formed, trust is being built, and a real de­sire to work to­gether on ben­e­fit pro­jects is com­ing to­gether. In short, the Stoic com­mu­nity we were seek­ing is being formed, not through any ar­ti­fi­cial means, but at the re­quest (some­times de­mand) of the par­tic­i­pants. They have found some­thing that they have in com­mon, some­thing that tran­scends re­li­gious bound­aries, and they wish to pre­serve it, to make it grow.
Is there any ad­vice you could give to some­one who would like to do the same in his/her neigh­bour­hood ?
Run­ning a se­ries of work­shops such as these is no easy task. It re­quires a will­ing com­mit­ment of re­sources and times. Prepa­ra­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, set­ting and tak­ing down the room, fol­low up and con­tin­u­ing con­ver­sa­tions all re­quire at­ten­tion. Ad­ver­tis­ing the work­shops will also cost time, if not money. That being said, these are life chang­ing prin­ci­ples, and in­vest­ment will likely yield great ben­e­fits. Ex­pe­ri­ence and un­der­stand­ing of team and group dy­nam­ics is cru­cial in lead­ing any group, and it is no less so here. 
On an­other note, as the 'mes­sen­ger' of many of these teach­ings, there is a very real dan­ger of being what I call 'guru-fied.' That is, some par­tic­i­pants may come to view you as a pas­tor, priest or leader of some kind. We have been very con­scious of this, and through­out our ses­sions we were care­ful to lis­ten for points where we could and should be learn­ing as well. Just like the other par­tic­i­pants, we were still and would al­ways be 'prokop­toi', stu­dents of Sto­icism. There never were, are, and likely will ever be any Sages to whom we could go for learn­ing, and so the best we can all do is to con­tin­u­ously learn from each other.
Fi­nally, read deeply and read widely. Read as much Stoic ma­te­r­ial as you can, in­clud­ing ma­te­ri­als crit­i­cal of Sto­icism. More­over, read in many fields as well: psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, physics, his­tory. Sto­icism is about the en­tire human ex­pe­ri­ence, so as a dis­cus­sion leader, you need to have many av­enues avail­able to you to delve into for clar­ity and ap­pli­ca­tion. 
But most of all, lead a Stoic ses­sion be­cause you love it. I like to say that I am 'para­dox­i­cally pas­sion­ate' about Sto­icism. It is true, though, for it fills me with so much seren­ity and joy to have a liv­ing room full of peo­ple in ac­tive dis­cus­sion about what we can all do to live a more flour­ish­ing life, and then watch­ing as the re­al­iza­tion that that seren­ity and joy can be theirs as well.
Since I couldn't con­clude any bet­ter than you did, I'll just thank you for your time. I am sure that many peo­ple will enjoy read­ing about this ex­pe­ri­ence.

  1. A de­scrip­tion of this model is avail­able on this page

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Passionate Stoic

Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger
constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
garnish'd and deck'd in modest compliment,
not working with the eye without the ear,
and but in purged judgement trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem.
       - Henry V, William Shakespeare

Ah language. I was recently asked regarding the so-called passionlessness of the Stoic. If Stoics are without passion, how can we actively engage in any truly worthy enterprise? If Stoics don't actually care about anything, how can Stoics speak of loving their children, or fighting for civil rights, or defending their country? The problem, as in most things, comes down to terms.

The word we bandy around so freely is 'passion.' We can be passionate about music, passionate toward a person, and passionate for a cause. The difficulty lies in using the same English word to mean two things. Passion can mean an intense emotional reaction. It can also mean a strong sense enthusiasm or engagement (i.e. a passion for justice). I will come back to this towards the end of this post.

If we want to know how the Stoics deal with passion, we need to be clear on what they say. The Stoic term pathê, which is usually translated as passion, means neither intense emotional reaction or a strong sense enthusiasm or engagement. Well, not exactly anyway. When the Stoic speak of pathê they are actually referring to four judgments:

  1. The belief that some anticipated thing is actually good (desire)
  2. The belief that some anticipated thing is actually bad (fear)
  3. The belief that some present thing is actually good (delight)
  4. The belief that some present thing is actually bad (distress). 
All of the other passions are actually subsets of these four. For example rage, lust, love of riches are specific types of desire.

The pathê are the judgments we make with regard to events and circumstances. In truth, they are judgments we make about circumstances before they actually occur to us, and we then trigger those judgments when the event they have been connected to occurs. We decide that it would be 'bad' (i.e. make us a worse person) if a particular person did not love us, and work to try to make them love us. If they do, we are elated (while secretly fearing that they will leave us). If they don't love us, we are crushed. (The Stoics also deal with correct judgments and emotional reactions, but those fall outside the scope of this post.)

The most important thing to keep in mind is that these are all mistaken judgments. What they are mistaken about is that the events and circumstances they reference, whether real or imagined, present or future, are either good or bad.

Events and circumstances, past present or future, are neither good nor bad, from a Stoic standpoint. The words good and bad, like the word passion, are so amorphous as to defy clear meaning. When the Stoic uses good, we mean to say that the action so described is virtuous, reasonable, in keeping with the very best that a human is capable of. Good, in the Stoic sense, is what we do to express our best selves. Bad, by the same token, is the opposite. If some act is good because it makes you a better human being, a bad act makes you a worse human being. Good acts, according to the Stoics, are just acts, courageous acts, moderate, compassionate, wise acts. Bad acts, again according to the Stoics, are unjust acts, cowardly acts, immoderate, uncaring, foolish acts.

Trying to use common terms, like passion, good  and  bad in a technical and special way is unnecessarily confusing, in my opinion. I realize the ancient Stoics did this very thing in Greek, but I believe that we can use different words, or sometimes short descriptive phrases, to provide clearer meaning. In my classes, I favour the use of Virtuous (reflecting Virtue) and Vicious (reflecting Vice) over good or bad. The Victorian sense of virtuous is just about out of fashion, so it leads to less confusion in my experience. The violence associated with the term vicious isn't alien to the special meaning I focus on, because when we act against our best nature we do violence to ourselves, and sometime irreparable harm. The term works well to convey the sense I mean.

For the term passion I prefer the phrase mistaken judgments and emotional reactions. It is an awkward, but necessary, expansion on the term but it serves the purpose.

Note that partway through the discussion I switched from talking about 'things' to talking about 'acts.' That was deliberate. Only our choices, opinions, selections and rejections, and the acts that we perform based on these decisions, are under our control. All the rest is not. Fame, fortune, the love of another, health, length of life are all ultimately out of our control.

The things that are in our control are either virtuous or vicious. It is these things that either make us better or worse human beings. The things that are not under our control are neither  virtuous nor vicious, because it isn't money that makes us virtuous or vicious, it is what we do with it. It isn't health (or lack thereof) that makes us virtuous or vicious, it is how we react to the circumstances of our lives.

What we usually think of as passions are the emotional reactions that come as a result of the mistaken judgments. When we believe that something 'good' is happening or is about to happen, we feel a sense of elation attached to it. This can come in the form of giddy anticipation, a strong desire or lust, or an intense feeling of pleasure. Conversely, if we believe that something 'bad' is happening or coming down the rail towards us, we feel a sense of depression. This can be fear, or distress, or hopelessness. These events, however, are just events. They have no actual moral value. It is what we do about the events in our lives that is either good or bad.

In short, the Stoics teach us to avoid mistaken judgments and the emotional reactions we attach to them.

With regards to the second definition of passion, that is of active engagement and enthusiasm, the Stoics actually show quite a bit of support. Social justice, politics, environmental concerns, poverty all fall within the purview of Stoic action. We are to help the poor and the suffering, both by the example of the teachers we posses (Epictetus for example) and by their teachings (Musonius Rufus taught that by spending excessively on decorating one's home, we are denying our fellow citizens the help and support that was their due.) We are to defend our society from attack from without, as Marcus Aurelius did, or stand against it when it needs to be changed, as Cato did. As Seneca wrote and demonstrated we are to engage, critique, lead, teach, correct, guide, and persuade our friends, family, fellow citizens and even our governments. We are to be engaged, seriously and completely, in the affairs of others. How someone else acts, be they friend, stranger or government, does not make me a better or worse person. Circumstance and the actions of others aren't good or bad in the technical Stoic sense, though they may be considered good or bad in the popular sense (i.e. that it is to the benefit or detriment of another).

As Stoics, we therefore avoid the the first definition of passion while engaging in the second. We make virtuous action our goal, while making the things we work towards our targets. We may fail in our targets (our fight against injustice might be lost) but our goal, to act virtuously, will be met.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Stoic Mneme - Part 3 - On Titles and Translations

In preparing to rewrite Epictetus, Book II, Chapter 8, Section 4 as verse, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the meaning of the words and phrases. If I was going to be repeating this to myself daily, and use it as a measure of my performance against the standards which I has set for myself, I felt that each part of it should be able to trigger deeper reflection. I was also keenly conscious of my past failed attempts, so I was going to be careful to not go TOO deep into the meaning of the Mneme.

A Challenge

The first thing I wanted to tackle was the title of the Mneme. Now some may argue that the title of the mneme is probably the least important part of the exercises. After all, why not just call it ‘The Stoic Mneme,’ or some variation thereof. For me, titles are important. They are the ‘First Impression’ of any written composition. Titles set the context, the frame of reference in which the following content will be played out. A good title acts as a highly condensed précis of the work, sometimes mysterious, sometimes clarifying.
Because I had first come across the passage in Elizabeth Carter’s 1758 translation of the complete works of Epictetus, the title of the Mneme suggested itself to me from the text itself. In the midst of a discussion on what it means to be a Stoic, Epictetus throws up a challenge to the questioner (who seems to have taken on a sarcastic tone.)

“Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?”

When I first read this, I could imagine the ‘tone’ of the reply. He was essentially cutting off further quibbling and hairsplitting on the part of an obviously hostile interlocutor. In my mind, I could hear Epictetus challenging him (in modern English, of course,) “Do you WANT me to show you what a Philosopher is REALLY like?!?”

“Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?” would be the basis for my title. It summarized the whole sense of the passage. What was to follow would be a quick, down and dirty, everything you need to know about being a philosopher, summarized and coined by the Teacher himself. There was a small issue though.

What's in a Name?

While I don’t mind paraphrasing the Stoics for my own purposes, I am usually pretty careful to retain the meaning of the passage. The word ‘Nerves’ that Carter selected felt a little awkward to me. It has several meanings in English today; actual physical nerves, the “nerve” of someone who stands against a foe, the bravery of the foolhardy or the uncaring, not to mention archaic uses of the word, since this was written several centuries ago. Before paraphrasing, I wanted to know which sense she meant when she selected that word.

In addition to Carter’s I had a few other translations handy. George Long’s (1877), T. W. Higginson’s (1865), and the Loeb edition translated by W.A. Oldfather (1925). A quick look through them brought me the following results:

Carter - “Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?”
Long – “I will show the nerves (strength) of a philosopher.”
Higginson – “Shall I show you the muscular training of a philosopher?”
Oldfather – I will show you the sinews of a philosopher.”

I seemed to have hit upon a rich vein of medical metaphors, all pointing to something. Were they literally translating the words from the Greek or were they interpreting? Each had come up slightly different terms to indicate the meaning they were aiming at. Long provided a bit of clarity with his parenthetical ‘strength,’ but now I was curious. What had other translators chosen to use for this phrase? This question led me to an interesting discovery.

There Aren’t As Many As You Think.

A little research turned up what, to me, was an interesting and surprising fact. Elizabeth Carter’s 1758 translation of Epictetus was actually the first known translation of his complete works into English. Portions, mostly the Encheiridion, had been translated before, however the Discourses had been largely ignored. This seemed remarkably late to me. However, the ability to read both Latin and Greek was taught as part of a rounded education at that time (and for centuries before and since, of course), and so most who might have had an interest in Epictetus’ less ‘accessible’ works would just read it in the original Greek.

The next fact surprised me even more. Since Carter’s translation, there have only been six other ‘translations’ of the Discourses into English in the intervening 250 odd years. In the end, there are only seven English translations of the Discourses of Epictetus, and in studying my Mneme, I had determined to use all of them. I looked into the other six translations, three of which I already had. I found it interesting that Carter’s translation cast a very long shadow.

In its day, Carter’s edition became a hit. If there had been a Best Seller list at the time, Carter’s ‘Discourses’ would have sat near the top of it for years. The immense popularity of the Carter’s ‘Discourses’ led to three more printings of her translation, two of them in her lifetime.

The translations of Higginson (1865) and George Long (1877) were actually based on Carter’s, although Long challenged some of her choices in translation. It took another 50 years before a new translation was produced by P.E. Matheson (1916), published by Oxford Press. As part of its massive effort to translate classic Greek and Latin works into English, Harvard Press added the Loeb edition of the complete works of Epictetus in two volumes to its library in 1925, translated by W.A. Oldfather. A full 70 years would pass before a new translation would find its way to market. However, Robin Hard and Christopher Gill based their 1995 Everyman Library edition on an update of Carter's initial work. Was this really a new translation, or just an updating from archaic English into something more sensible and pleasing to modern audiences? Finally, in 2008, Penguin Classics released Robert Dobbin’s translation of some of Epictetus’ Discourses and Selected Writings. Fortunately, the passage I was concerned with was ‘selected,’ so I could use it in my exercise.

A Mystery Deepens

Through research, purchase and borrow, I managed to procure the text for the final three editions of the passage of my Mneme, brigning the entire list to the following:

Carter - “Shall I show you the Nerves of a Philosopher?”
Long – “I will show the nerves (strength) of a philosopher.”
Higginson – “Shall I show you the muscular training of a philosopher?”
Matheson, Oldfather & Hard – I will show you the sinews of a philosopher.”
Dobbin – In short, I will show you that I have the strength – of a philosopher!”

Unfortunately, the translations of this particular line did not help much with interpretation. Dobbin added strength to ‘strength’ as the meaning of the phrase (with an honourable mention to Higgingson), however the strangely anatomical ‘sinews’ seemed to prevail. Fortunately, Oldfather’s edition included the Greek text on the facing page, and with my trusty Lidell-Scott-Jones Lexicon handy, I was ready to dig deeper.

It’s All Greek to Me

In the interest of full disclosure, my Greek is rudimentary at best. However, I can read it phonetically, and I have a basic understanding of the grammar and a handful of terms. In other words, I know enough to be really dangerous (hence my first choice to go with the translations). Nevertheless, dauntless in the face of what was sure to be a hatchet job performed on a beautiful language by yours truly, I turned to the Greek text to puzzle out the underlying meaning of the Title of my Mneme.

The Greek phrase that was translated with medical efficiency by our battery of interpreters actually reads:

δείξω ὑμῖν νευρα φιλοσόφου.
(deíxo̱ ymín nev̱ra filosófou.)

The key word here is ‘νευρα’ (nevra). Flipping several hundred pages through the lexicon, I came the entry for νευρα. My LSJ proved its worth. The word means, literally: sinew, tendon, nerve. Not surprisingly, the majority of the translations had stuck very closely to the literal meaning of the word. In only two cases was the term interpreted. However, the LSJ provided another clue. The word νευρα can also refer to “the tendons at the feet,” that is, those used for walking. Additionally, the Middle Liddell lexicon added vigour to its definition of the word. I now had enough to build my title.

The Title is Revealed

The initial phrase “the Nerves of a Philosopher” was now ready for the Title treatment. As a title, it was intended to capture the sense of the entire passage. It had to put me in the right frame of mind to receive the instruction that was to follow. Based on my previous pitiful attempts at depth, I chose to take a step back from the literal translation, and look at the intention. Clearly, based on the preceding text, Epictetus was intending to demonstrate to his listening students what it was to be a Philosopher, what he or she did and did not do. In modern terms, we might say that this is how a Philosopher 'walked the talk.' Epictetus was about to counter the weakness and frailty imputed to him by the speaker with a clear statement of the Philosopher’s strength. Stepping out confidently, with strength in each stride, the true Philosopher supported his or her claim with virtuous action.

Thus, based on the research I had done, I was confident with my Mneme’s new title:

The Strength of the Stoic Philosopher.

I added the description ‘Stoic’ to reaffirm my personal stake in the study of the philosophy. Reading it now, and reciting the title daily, I am reminded that the strength must go deeply, into the nerves and tendons of my being. This Mneme would not merely describe what I should do, but more deeply, what I should be, and from whence I would draw my strength daily. It was intended to remind and affirm that my Stoicism was not a Philosophy of the mind only, but of the arm, the hand and the feet. I was comfortable that the Title reflected that intention.

On top of that, I now had access to all seven translations to help me peel back the layers of the rest of the Mneme, word by word. Let the fun begin!

Previous Article: A Mneme by Any Other Name
Next article: Four Little Words. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Stoic Mneme – Part 2 – A Mneme by Any Other Name...

The idea of summarizing the teachings of the Stoics into a simple set of lines may seem presumptuous. In a very real way, there is a danger that it can be. As explained in the previous article, it should only be undertaken when at least one round of Stoic studies is successfully completed, however one defines those studies. The danger lies in the assumption that the Mneme then created could apply to all people at all times, that this particular distillation of 5 centuries of wisdom is the high water mark for Stoic expression.

In truth, the Stoic mneme is an intensely personal exercise. It is a reflection of one person's understanding and aspirations at a particular time and place. It can change, and if it is to remain a true picture of a Stoic's experience, it will need to change.

A Personal Journey

As part of my training, I was asked to create a Mneme. Having a bit of an amateur poet in me, I thought that this would be the easiest of the assignments to complete. I was wrong. The process was difficult, and longer than I expected.

I was inspired to write this series by one of my students, who went beyond his Mneme (4 lines of poetry) and created an entire series of vignettes which explained and expanded on the meanings of each line. Erik Weigardt's own 16 page Mneme Manual serves as another example of the depths of meaning that can be plumbed in a simple 11 line blank verse poem. Having now written 4 or 5 Mnemes in search of one that would 'ring true,' I felt that an in depth analysis would help me to put the principles into practice more consistently.

This series actually began as a series of journal entries, (a practice I highly recommend to students of Stoicism). Each night, for several weeks, I would write, research, read and write again. In the end, I was left with a Mneme that I actually understood, and one in which a single word could evoke depths of meaning against which I could measure my own behaviour.

A Bouquet of Mnemes

Perhaps a set of examples of the Mnemes developed by others might be appropriate here. These are included in Erik's publicly accessible Mneme Manual, available free of charge from the Stoic College's website (While your there, take a look around the site, and if you like, sign up for the course!). They are presented here, uncredited as they are in the manual, with the exception of Erik's DOE, a summary of the Discourse of Epictetus.


“The DOE”
One rule to unite us:
     live in agreement with Nature.
Two maxims to guide us:
     Good is virtue that evil lacks;
     all the rest is indifferent.
     Good and evil are in the will;
     only will is in our power.
Three studies abide us:
     Judgments and the inner discourse,
     Desires and the rising passions,
     Actions and the noble duties.
Hear the sage inside us:
     practice, practice, practice, practice.
Be vigilant to your fire and keep it glowing bright
Make from it a beacon to return to in the night
Enshrine it in a hearth of stone to see it burning right
Seed from it the torches that will guide and aim your sight.
Life is a gift; so live gratefully.
Forget about likes and dislikes
The truth is One
No need to look anywhere but here and now because now is the only time you have and here is where you are.
The first point is to live.
The second point is to use appearances well.
To each his Flesh, his Reason, and his Bent.
We can neither control the world nor safeguard our flesh.
Choose Reason over Greed.

As you can see, the Mnemes vary greatly in form, content and aim. Each one is aimed at the writer's own heart, much like Marcus Aurelius' self directed writings in his so-called Meditations. Each one is powerful in its own way, and of each volumes could be written.

A Journey to Understanding

My own Mneme underwent several variations from edits to complete rewrites. My first Mneme was an over ambitious attempt to create a precis of Stoic teaching, rather than a personal reflection of Stoic progress.

The Greek Attempt

This first try included many of the Stoic technical terms, in transliterated Greek. In the end, it was impracticable, as the meanings of each of the terms would need to be constantly reviewed, and it was a little early in my studies to find it a comfortable recitation.
In my efforts to live the excellent aretes,
to exercise utmost kathekonta,
for the sake of universal oikeiosis,
I have the courage to face the world and its visicitudes.
By my faith in divine logos,
my trust in providential phusis 
and my hope of fulfilling eudaimonia,
I receive the serenity of knowing all is as it should be.
Through my practice of careful aproptôsia,
constant prosoché,
and proper epilegein
I acquire the wisdom to choose my own path.
The Simple Poem

The pendulum swung to the to the opposite end of the scale, as I wrote a simple poem outlining some of the same principles above. The laughable result was none too spectacular.
The Virtues great will I express
My actions right and true
To help all men learn happiness
And courage to pursue
I trust Intelligence Divine
To guide all Nature's ways
And make my light to fully shine
Thus peace will fill my days
With care all judgements I review
And ever mindful be
That I may say that which is true
The path to wisdom see

The 'Aren't I Clever' Approach

This next required so much thought and meditation in its creation that it had the opposite effect in practice. It very quickly became a trite recitation. A brief explanation of my thinking follows.
Connects me to the world
Connects me to my truest self.
The first phrase is a reminder of my duties to others (oikeiosis), and the virtuous behavior (arete) I must exhibit when interacting with them. The second phrase reminds me to seek out the best in myself, my truest self, with hesitation, reservation, and deliberation (askesis derived from the 3 fold division of philosophy).

The structure itself is a reminder to live in accordance with nature. The syllable count for the four lines is 1 6 1 8, which is a reminder to me of the Golden Mean (1.618), which in turn is considered a 'finger print' in the cosmos (as it seems to permeate everything from spiral galaxies to the shell of a nautilus.) The golden mean is coincidentally represented by the Greek letter phi, which is the first letter in phusis, the Greek word translated as nature.

A Second Look

None of these attempts actually 'stuck' in the way that I felt it should have. The mneme wasn't supporting my Stoic experience, and I actually felt the lack of its use in my daily life. Fortunately, my wife and I had developed the habit of daily reading from the Stoics and discussing the meaning and impact of the passages we would read over our morning coffee. Eventually, we started a blog (Words of the Ancient Wise) through which we could share the readings with friends who shared an interest in Stoicism.

It happened that on the morning of July 12th we were reading the following from the Discourses of Epictetus, Book II, Chapter 8, Section 4
“Such will I show myself to you: faithful, modest, noble, tranquil.”—What, and immortal too, and exempt from age and sickness?—“No. But sickening and dying as becomes a god. This is in my power; this I can do. The other is not in my power, nor can I do it.” Shall I show you the nerves of a philosopher?
What nerves are those?
A desire undisappointed: an aversion unincurred: pursuits duly exerted: a careful resolution: an unerring assent. These you shall see.
This is Elizabeth Carter's 1758 translation of the passage. It had a certain rhythm to parts of it, a cadence that and rhyming pattern that intrigued me. The passage itself was a summary of the teachings of Stoicism by one of its greatest teachers. I kept coming back to this passage, thinking about the meaning of the individual phrases. I had found, finally, the content of my Mneme.

It took a few more days of work to create the first version of the Mneme. More thought and practice, along with the journal studies and even preparation for this series of articles, resulted in the current version of the Mneme.
The Strength of the Stoic Philosopher
Faithful, modest, noble,
With Tranquillity unperturbed.
A desire undisappointed,
an aversion unincurred.
Pursuits duly exerted.
Resolutions carefully made.
Assents unhurriedly given.
Dissolution faced unafraid.
Following articles will break down this Mneme, analyzing the Stoic teachings encapsulated in each line, and how I use this in daily practice. The next article will be looking at the analysis of the title, along with a brief review of the many translations of this passage of Epictetus.

Previous Article: A Stoic Self-Dedication

(These articles are also being stored at our website Feel free to drop by for a visit.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Memento Mortuis - A proposal for a Stoic Exercise

When we read the Stoics carefully, we usually get two main impressions as to their focus. The first is typically one of the independence of the self, that choice is up to individual. The second, though less obvious, is of the duty to others, that service is the greatest expression of the good in us. There is a third, much less visible focus. It is regarding acknowledging the impact that others have on us. Putting all arguments regarding the so-called dispassion of the Stoic sage aside, we have a long and excellent example of a Stoic's acknowledgement of the interconnection and dependence on friends, family, mentors and teachers.

Marcus Aurelius' entire first book is an extended exploration into the power, influence and example that many of the people in his life had on him. Unlike the rest of the 'Meditations,' Book I was written at a precise moment, with a precise plan in mind. It is unified in a way that the other 11 books are not, and it is possible that it was not originally part of the 'Meditations' at all, but was perhaps a parallel literary project which was added to his journals post mortem. (Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel, p. 263)

As a standalone document, Book I is a remarkable example of exploration of the self and its interconnectedness with others, and even with fate itself. A read through it will reveal an underlying dependence on the examples, both positive and negative, offered up to Marcus for consideration. Many of the examples that he lists, however, are dead by the time he writes about them; for example his fathers, his mother, and many of his mentors. 

Hadot refers to all of Book I as a 'prayer of thanksgiving,' however this aspect of gratitude seems to be limited to Section 17, and it appears to be directed to the gods and fate. Perhaps a separate exercise, a Gratus Animus, could be developed from this passage, focusing on the good fortune of one's circumstances, acknowledging the fact that others are not so fortunate. That, however, is beyond the scope of this proposal.

Based on Sections 1 - 16, I would like to propose the Memento Mortuis, the Remembrance of the Dead. The Memento Mortuis is a parallel exercise to the Stoic Memento Mori (Remembrance of Death) exercise, where we as Stoics are called to face the reality of our mortality, and see our coming death as a natural event. (See Julian Evans' excellent article on the Memento Mori for more details []).

The Memento Mortuis, instead, looks not at death itself, but at the lives of the dead, and traces our dependence on them, and their impact on us. The exercise would focus on a specific person and would explore as many of the influences of that person on oneself as could be brought to mind. An example of the proposed Memento Mortuis would be Section 16 of Book 1. This written exercise would explore all of the impacts of one person's life upon our own, both positive and negative, with a specific focus on the lessons learned as a result. The ends of the exercise would be to acknowledge the roots of many of our beliefs and behaviours, and to trace them back perhaps to their causes.

What follows is merely a suggestion for the form such an exercise might take. A far more informal approach may be taken with similar results.

The Memento Mortuis

The Memento Motuis acknowledges a single person's impact on your life. It can be done on a significant anniversary of the death of the individual, perhaps 5 or 10 years afterwards, or at any time that seems appropriate.

It is suggested that you refresh your memory of the person prior to beginning this exercise. Collect photos, videos, letters, and objects that remind you of the individual. If appropriate, speak with others in your circle who have also been impacted by this person's life.

Find a private place for your work and give yourself at least an hour or so of time alone to do this. Try to have a picture with you or something that reminds you of the person, even if it is only their full name written carefully on a piece of paper in front of you. 

You may begin to write using Marcus' own expression "From [name] I learned..." then write the first thing that comes to your mind. Explain how you felt around them, what things they did or said that impacted you. Try to remember watching them with other people as well. How did they behave, how did the treat the things in their life? You are not writing a biography, but rather highlighting the interactions with your life. Note what you learned and experienced from their negative behaviour as well. Your honest memory is what is important here. 

Marcus tends to simply cut off when he has said what he intended, however you may wish to summarize for yourself the lessons and impacts. 

A Book of Remembrance

A final suggestion. If you plan on doing this for several individuals over a period of time, you might want to consider writing your thoughts in a 'Book of Remembrance.' In the end, it might look much like Marcus' Book I. You may also want to periodically review, and perhaps amend or add to the book. As the years pass, our interpretation of the impact of the people in our lives will change. Noting this shifting of perspective will say as much about our own lives as it will about the people we remember, perhaps more.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Trite or True? On Quoting the Stoics

With the social media tendency to quote wise or funny sayings, is Seneca right when he says that:

"For a man, however, whose progress is definite, to chase after choice extracts and to prop his weakness by the best known and the briefest sayings and to depend upon his memory, is disgraceful; it is time for him to lean on himself. He should make such maxims and not memorize them." (from  ‎Seneca‎, ‎Letter XXXIII "On the futility of learning maxims", Section 7)

My wife and I have developed a habit over the last 4 years or so. Each morning, we read a short selection from the Stoics, and discuss it briefly. We actually maintain a separate blog, Words of the Ancient Wise,  where the readings are put up, sometimes months in advance, so that over our coffee in the morning, we can open up the site and we are presented with the sayings for the day. The sayings are not random, however. For the first several years, we essentially read through "Words of the Ancient Wise," a day book of Stoic sayings compiled by W. H. D. House and originally published in 1906. Each year, we would add our comments, interpretations and applications to the daily post. It was interesting re-reading the thoughts of previous years as the reading came around again.

This year we moved to a new selection of quotes, which expands on the readings and organizes them topically.  Frederic Holland's 1879 "The Reign of the Stoics" is providing a new crop of Stoic readings, giving us fresh fodder, if you will, for us to talk about in the mornings.

In addition to discussing and commenting, we have both taken to posting our thoughts and reactions through several social media as well, including Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The aim of this is mostly to reach out to our friends, many of whom have shown an interest in Stoic philosophy, some at an intellectual level, others as a practical philosophy.

This practice of doing a daily reading is actually born of our Christian past. In some circles, devotees are encouraged to practice a daily 'quiet time,' a practice that has an ancient history. There are actually some indications that the Stoics themselves used a similar practice.

It is actually in the spirit of what Seneca said above that we go beyond just quoting some pithy statement or other. Over time, we have pushed ourselves to ask the tough questions. What difference does this make to us, today? How does it change what I think about, what I choose to do, how I choose to react to life events? This summary, these paraphrases, are what we end up posting. It is a little like Epictetus' illustration of digesting the teachings, instead of merely vomiting back up the readings you have taken in.

But I often wonder: these 'maxims' that I formulate, the turns of phrase that I choose, the focus and flavour of my paraphrases, are they merely word games? Am I taking deep philosophical meat and turning it into mere brain candy?

People have reposted what Pam and I have written, sometimes citing us as the authors. Today, however, something happened that convinced me that what we are doing is not merely tickling the ears of our friends, but actually sharing some of the lessons we have learned, adding depth and richness, and perhaps comfort, to someone who needs it.

The circumstances of the post can be generally sketched out without revealing any private information. Today's set of readings were by Marcus Aurelius, and centered around finding peace in troubled times. My paraphrase was:
When you are troubled, remember how easy it is to return to a state of inner calm and peace. First, remember that you can bear anything, that there is nothing in this universe that can take away your power to choose. Second, remember that you already have everything at hand that you need to make your choice. Third, remember that by choosing that which is within your power, you will not be enslaved to the whims of others, or the circumstances that surround you. Then you will be free, you will be powerful, you will be at peace.
Like other days, I posted this on Facebook. As most of you know there are essentially three ways to react publicly to a Facebook post. The ubiquitous 'Like', the 'Share' and the 'Comment.' Many of our friends 'Like' our postings, but today one particular 'Like' changed my perspective on these daily quotes, permanently.

The person in question, a friend that we don't know nearly as much as we would like to, is going through what is probably one of the most difficult experiences in a parent's life. Their teenage child, full of promise and possibility, has been recently diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer. The family is in the midst of seeing specialists, and is still reeling from the news. Friends have gathered round them, providing for all of the mundane services that tend to fall to the wayside when these life impacting events happen. There are other children in the family as well to consider. Their entire lives, all of the plans, dreams, the assumptions of steady reliable life, all of them are gone. They have been cast adrift amidst a sea of uncertainties. Yet this morning one of the parents read my post, and 'Like'd it. Knowing this, take a moment and go back up to the paragraph above. Read it again, with them and their situation in mind.

I really can't speak for them. Perhaps it struck a chord with them, perhaps it was an automatic response that required no more that a brief thought before clicking 'Like' in an otherwise heart and mind numbing day. But I can speak to the impact it had on me. After noticing that this parent clicked 'Like' I was immediately transported into their shoes, for the briefest of moments.

What if it was one of my children who was going through this trial? What if Pam and I were trying to make sense of this life changing set of realities, seeking some comfort and assurance? Would I still be able to say  that, knowing what I know through Stoic training, that I would remain free, feel powerful, be at peace? While I cannot confidently say 'Yes,' having lived through relatively minor troubles (loss of job, etc.) and successfully applying these teachings, I have hope that I would, if the world should shift under me, find solace, calm, and a resolution to continue to do what is in my power. By this I think, I hope, that this is the proof of the internalization of Stoic principles, that this practice of reading, considering and sharing the teaching of the ancient teachers had over time and in small increments, changed me.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Towards a Stoic 'Ritual Life'

The importance of ritual in the formation and stability in personal, familial and social life has been well examined and documented over the years. Mounds of research into the uses and abuses of ritual, and its impact, have been created at the hands of the faithful, the philosopher, the sociologist, the anthropologist and the psychologist. Everyone seems to have an opinion as to why we seem to need ritual in our lives.

Stoicism, if it is to be adopted as 'Rule of Life', or as the ancient Stoics actually termed it, an 'Art of Living', needs to be both deeply studied and broadly applied. It is in the latter that the greatest challenges arise for the modern adherent. The study of Stoicism is well populated with such luminaries as Julia Annas, Susanne Bobzien, Jacques Brunschwig, Brad Inwood, and Malcolm Schofield, to name only a few. Some authors have even delved into ancient Stoic practice, including John Sellars, Pierre Hadot, A.A. Long, and Margaret Graver. A very few, such as Lawrence Becker, William Irvine and Keith Seddon, have attempted to extend that into a modern practice.

The challenge remains however. With all of the theory, and even the advice, that is available to us how does one actually incorporate these practices into daily living? So much is lost to us from the ancient school. The practice of Stoicism which once swayed an empire and provided the foundation to one of the most powerful religions on the planet, has been reduced to fragments and a handful of books. We are left with a few tantalizing hints of its training and practice however. Marcus Aurelius would suggest a regular practice such as "When you rise in the morning..." Seneca was fond of his "Evening reflection." Even Arrian's Handbook of the teaching of Epictetus give a strong indication of a 'mantra' like study and reflection of Stoic themes. But there isn't any system to it. We have lists of curriculum topics (physics, logic, ethics), but not the curriculum. We have evidence of a Stoic program, but not the program itself. For modern Stoics, there is no "Stoic Bible." As moderns, there is not even a central Stoic voice that speaks for all Stoics and provides interpretation and application of the texts that remain to us.

And nor do I think there should be. Stoicism is not a prescriptive religion, if it falls into the definition of religion at all. The way we are considering it, it is not even a practice. It is an Art. As any art, it is in many ways free flowing, adaptable to circumstance and situation, growing to fill the space in one's life that is made available to it. And like any art, it isn't mere chaos either. It is comprised of a set of principles and practices, any one of which can be selected at a particular time to respond to a specific set of circumstances, as the painter selects medium and brush, or a choreographer chooses a dancer and the steps they will perform, or a composer the key, rhythm and instruments. This is what being a Stoic is like. It is choosing from one's palette of learned disciplines and applying it to a given situation.

It is in learning the disciplines, and in their application, that the ritual aspect of Stoicism can be brought forward. The principle of Stoic Mindfulness can be developed through the practice of self-reflective Journalling. The principle of the Stoic's awareness and acceptance of the rightness of their mortality can be developed through the practice of the Memento Mori. The Stoic principle of seeing via universal perspective can be developed through the Fourfold Meditation. Even the Stoic philosophy as a whole can be captured and internalized through the development and recitation of the Stoic Mneme.

To that end, I have begun a project, an attempt to capture a range of practices for Stoics, in order to provide for myself, and eventually for others, a palette from which I can choose. The rites and rituals captured in the slowly evolving "Meditations, Celebrations and Solemn Occasions" are meant to be guidelines, suggestions, and spring boards to further reflection. They aren't meant to be prescriptive. But for me, like my personal Mneme, they will lead me to greater depths of experience, greater heights of understanding and a greater breadth of life than a mere random set of actions and reactions could ever hope to.

We are all, already, slaves to ritual and habit. As Og Mandino once said, "If I must be a slave to habit, let me be a slave to good habits." And, I would add, to habits of my own choosing, established by rituals of my own design.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Stoic Mneme - Part 1 - A Stoic Self-Dedication


In Stoicism, the attitude of mindfulness is fundamental. Musonius Rufus even went to so far as to say that “to relax the mind is to lose it." Specifically, a vigilance regarding how we select pursuits, make resolutions, give assent to impressions, even how we handle desires and aversions, is in fact what it means to be a Stoic. Having a clear idea of how to evaluate all of these choices rationally is the challenge of living a Stoic life. From ancient times, therefore, Stoic teachers have provided their students with exercises in the formulation of rules of life which could then be kept 'close at hand'.

In this way Stoics could practice their Art of Living on a constant basis by applying the key Stoic principles to everyday circumstances. In this way they could “[engage] in a process of transforming [their] character (êthos) and soul (psuchê), a transformation that would itself transform [their] way of life (bios).”[1] This is essentially the transformation of Stoic theory to knowledge by experience, the central tenet of Stoic philosophy as an Art. With so much depending on correct practice, attention and evaluation, it was critical that what they 'had at hand' were correct and easily understood principles. Enter the Stoic Mneme.

The Mneme (pronounced neemee) is a powerful reminder of what it means to be a Stoic. It is an encapsulated, summarized distillation of Stoic teachings and practices. That being said, the Mneme is not the first thing one attempts to create when learning the Art of the Stoic Life. It is a more advanced exercise, one undertaken by a student who has already understood the fundamentals of Stoic practice. The Mneme is created, or more properly drawn from, the student's experience and knowledge of Stoic Teachings. The true purpose of the Mneme is to bring back to mind all of the Stoic principles and teachings the student has absorbed to date, especially with a view to increasing their practice in the student's life.

The usefulness of the Mneme is to place our daily experiences in the context of Stoic principles and practices. This memorization and meditation exercise is intended to provide us with a readjustment, a course correction if you will, that will allow us to maintain our equanimity, or if lost, to regain it quickly.[2]

The Mneme in Ancient Stoicism

While there is no exercise in ancient Stoic literature that is explicitly referred to as 'The Stoic Mneme', there is quite a bit of evidence to support its use in modern Stoic practice. Mneme (Μνήμη) is actually the  name of the Greek Muse of Memory, and the word has come to be synonymous with memory itself.  It is related to the Latin word for reminder 'memento.' The Stoic Mneme is an admonition to remember.

Xenophon, one of Socrates' biographers, wrote that it was the constant practice of philosophical principles that kept alive the influence of the teacher. In the same way, Stoics derived some of their own practices from continuous consideration of how the Sage would behave in various circumstances. In this way, Stoics could concentrate their attention and memory on specific principles, and would  serve as a substitute for actually having a role model or Sage at hand.

Epictetus constantly reminds his students to commit Stoic teachings to memory, bringing these continually to mind in order to apply them in their day to day lives.

"Having these thoughts always at hand, and engrossing yourself in them when you are by yourself, and making them ready for use, you will never need any one to comfort and strengthen you." (Discourses, 3.24.115). 

Marcus Aurelius repeats formulas and mental images to himself throughout hisMeditations in an effort to apply them to his daily experiences. Both Epictetus and Seneca speak of digestion to emphasize the repetitive nature of internalizing and expressing the Stoic precepts. Even Arrian's Handbook, itself an example of a collection of such formulas, warns us that we should not claim to be 'philosophers' but instead prove what we are by our actions.

"For sheep do not bring their fodder to the shepherds to show how much they have eaten, but digest their food internally, and produce wool and milk externally. And so you likewise should not display your principles to laymen, but rather show them the actions that result from these principles once they have been digested." (Handbook, 46)

The Stoic Mneme is not meant to be merely a verbal formulation of Stoic precepts. It is intended to be memorized and internalized,  but more importantly, it is meant to be manifested as a change in our behaviour and in our choices. It is therefore very important that as practicing Stoics we have extremely clear and simple reminders of our central precepts in an easily remembered form, precisely so that it is easily accessible and can be applied frequently in order to develop the sureness and constancy of a reflex.

Support in Modern Psychology

“The psychology of memorization, among other things, requires that we utilize (positive) rhetoric in the service of philosophy, and employ our imaginations in as vivid and concrete a manner as possible, turning what might seem at first to be an abstract intellectual principle into a fully-fledged "visualization technique" of the kind found in modern psychotherapy.”[3]

The memorization of Stoic precepts requires constant practice and repetition, like memorizing the lyrics to a song, or lines from a poem. It is actually in the intentional and focused repetition of the Mneme, and in its application to real life experiences, that the practice of mindfulness finds its full fruition.   Like the affirmations and rational statements of belief of modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the Mneme is repeated and rehearsed until it is integrated into the student's very character, and it can easily recalled in the face of adversity.

We need to formulate our Mneme in a powerful way in order to make it something that moves us when we remember it. It cannot be allowed to fall into a mere routine repetition of pretty words. The rhythm of metrical poetry, the striking sound of concise and powerful words, the succinct paraphrasing of vast concepts, all of these and more besides offer both intellectual and aesthetic hooks to encourage us to remember.  When we do this successfully, we keep our daily experiences "before our eyes," while at the same time seeing them in the light of the core Stoic principles.

It is important to remember, however, that the Mneme is not the culmination of Stoic practice. This exercise requires constant input. The principles and practices that form the basis of the Mneme must be kept fresh, and even built upon. It is therefore very important to continue Stoic studies throughout the student’s life, through reading and re-reading philosophical texts, the practice of Stoic meditations and mental exercises, and even to the adoption of the physical regimen that the Stoics recommended. The Mneme itself will need to be refreshed and rewritten as the student grows and experiences new insights in the Stoic Art of Life.

And we're back!

Apologies for the gap folks. It has be a long and busy season, but we are hitting the ground running in 2012. Next up, the first in a series of posts outlining the contents of an advanced Stoic exercise! Stay tuned!