Stoicism is not easy, and many times it does not come naturally. We are human, after all, and when someone cuts us off in traffic it’s nearly impossible for a new Stoic to say, “I’m not angry; it’s merely my impression that I am angry” (see Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5), or, “The other driver simply doesn’t know good from evil” (see Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1) This is why the ancient Stoics stressed the importance of exercises to strengthen our philosophical muscles. Musonius Rufus has some compelling thoughts on the necessity of philosophical training:
And moreover such practical exercise is the more important for the student of philosophy than for the student of medicine or any similar art, the more philosophy claims to be a greater and more difficult discipline than any other study. The reason for this is that men who enter the other professions have not had their souls corrupted beforehand and have not learned the opposite of what they are going to be taught, but the ones who start out to study philosophy have been born and reared in an environment filled with corruption and evil, and therefore turn to virtue in such a state that they need a longer and more thorough training.
Discourses, VI, “On Training”
In keeping with the Stoics’ view of philosophy as an art–or, I suppose, a craft–in which one requires practical training in addition to theoretical knowledge, Musonius reminds us that other practitioners in their respective fields did not have to unlearn what they had already learned in the past in order to be successful. For example, a child does not usually begin taking piano lessons after years of having played piano with his feet. As we are human and have naturally been surrounded by other humans since birth, we have to unlearn the human tendency towards folly and vice while we are also actively learning how to pursue eudaimonia.
Keeping all this in mind, it would be useful for us to begin the day by meditating on a brief passage to help strengthen our resolve to pursue this difficult yet worthwhile path. Here are seven passages I have found that are not too long and seem appropriate for mornings. They are not limited to morning reflection, however; you may find yourself thinking back on the morning’s selection throughout the day. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected. Seneca, Letter 49, “On the Shortness of Life”
No man is free who is not master of himself. Epictetus, Fragments, XV
And when you would find out whether you have accomplished anything, consider whether you desire the same things today that you desired yesterday. A shifting of the will indicates that the mind is at sea, heading in various directions, according to the course of the wind. But that which is settled and solid does not wander from its place. Seneca, Letter 35, “On the Friendship of Kindred Minds”
Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace. Epictetus, Enchiridion, 8
Remember that foul words or blows in themselves are no outrage, but your judgment that they are so. So when anyone makes you angry, know that it is your own thought that has angered you. Wherefore make it your first endeavor not to let your impressions carry you away. For if once you gain time and delay, you will find it easier to control yourself. Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20
Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:
- To accept this event with humility
- To treat this person as he should be treated
- To approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.54
Dig deep; the water–goodness–is down there. And the more you dig, the more water comes bubbling up. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.59
Image by Ronald Carlson via PublicDomainPictures.net.