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.


  1. I think we can both say to the Stoic teachers who have left us their words to contemplate... "because I knew you I have been changed for Good". My further hope is that because of how we live our lives, write their words, try to bring this philosophy into modern light others can also come to say this.

  2. Regarding the first quote, it strikes me that studying Stoicism is like studying anything else. Merely reading, or even memorizing, is not good enough. You have to really think about things, relate them to existing concepts, try to critique the logic, etc, before you can really internalize the message.

    1. Agreed. I think sharing what we learn, as you do in your blog, is also important. As Seneca said, "Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach." ‎Seneca, ‎Letters VII - On Crowds, sec. 8 (