As the one-year anniversary of this blog approaches, I thought it would be a good time to assess my Stoic practice. I came to a disturbing realization: I don’t strictly have a Stoic practice. But how is that possible? It really does seem like I’m a practicing Stoic, right? I mean, I have this blog and everything, so I must be an expert . . . Well, I’ve learned that it takes a good deal of time to develop a Stoic practice. (And also, that anyone can have a blog.)

I recently came across a few excerpts from the ancient texts that discuss the idea of humans proceeding to wisdom and virtue in stages. A year is not a very long time when you consider Musonius Rufus’ assertion that although we were born with an innate sense of virtue, we have been thoroughly corrupted since then. As he puts it, not only do we need to learn philosophy, but we also need to unlearn a lot of the harmful habits and predilections that naturally prey on all human beings. (See Musonius, Lecture 6.3.)

I came to Stoicism for the same reasons so many others have, to seek guidance in mastering my emotions and in pursuing an ethical path in life. While I have found many Stoic writings to be illuminating and transcendent, even while they appeal to common sense, I have also found the medicine that the ancients prescribe to be hard to force down at times. If someone guns down people in a movie theater, I should tell myself he didn’t know right from wrong? Tell myself that if my child dies, he was only human, so I shouldn’t get too upset? I can understand that if those things don’t upset me, then nothing will, but it’s quite a leap to arrive at that point personally.

Nevertheless, my intuition tells me to continue with Stoicism–but instead of plowing ahead and forcing myself to practice Stoicism daily, by, for example, calling myself to account every night for the things I did and said that day, I’ve decided to slow down and see what the ancient Stoics had to say about how one should proceed in her studies and practice, examine where I am now, and compare that to where I was when I started. I am less interested in a rigorous, authentic Stoic practice at the moment, and am shifting my focus to craft a somewhat personal, malleable Stoicism (purists be damned) that breathes with me and is there when I stumble, instead of leaving me behind. I would like first and foremost to stick with Stoicism, and so this is my attempt to encourage myself, and to rediscover the foundation for my studies, by getting back to basics.

Cicero on Virtue as the Sole Good

One basic Stoic precept is that virtue is the sole good – it is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. Cicero speaks to this in On Ends. His Stoic character, Cato, explains that human beings can understand this ultimate truth by proceeding through a series of stages, each stage building on the prior ones. The end result is that one becomes a Stoic sage–yet the Stoics believed that very few people had reached or could reach that pinnacle. This in itself is encouraging for anyone who feels she is faltering in her practice; we are all faltering and most likely will never achieve sagedom as the Stoics conceived it. I refuse to be put off by this severity, but rather am spurred onward despite lulls in my studies.

Stage 1 – Biological Survival

According to Cicero, we initially recognize that some things in life have positive value for us, or are desirable, and other things are undesirable. In Stoic terminology, the former are “preferred” and the latter are “nonpreferred,” or “rejected.” Most of us prefer to eat food that tastes good, to sleep on a comfortable bed at night, and to have a warm place to stay in the cold seasons. So, the first “appropriate act” is to “preserve oneself in one’s natural constitution.” The text’s invaluable commentary, by Dr. Jan Garrett, notes that this refers to “biological survival and health.” [1]  One can’t help but notice there is little in this stage that separates humans from other animals.

Stage 2 – Role-Related Duties

The next stage, says Cicero’s Cato, is to “retain those things which are in accordance with nature and to repel those that are the contrary.” Dr. Garrett explains that this corresponds to “role-related duties,” but adds that “this account telescopes a lot of things into a few words.”

This mention of role-related duties calls to mind Epictetus’ Discourses: in Disc. 2.10, he says “remember that you are a son. What does this character promise? To consider that everything which is the son’s belongs to the father, to obey him in all things, never to blame him to another, nor to say or do anything which does him injury, to yield to him in all things and give way, cooperating with him as far as you can.” He touches on this again in 2.14, saying that a philosopher should “without uneasiness, without fear, without perturbation to pass through life themselves, together with their associates maintaining the relations both natural and acquired, as the relation of son, of father, of brother, of citizen, of man of wife, of neighbour, or fellow-traveler, of ruler, of ruled.” In this sense, simply by acting appropriately depending on what role we play in life–employee, mother, daughter–we are on our way to virtue.

Stage 3 – Choice Conditioned by Appropriate Action

Next, Cicero says, our capacity for choice is “conditioned by appropriate action; then, such choice becomes a fixed habit.” The translator here notes that the Stoics were like Aristotle in this regard, believing that moral development depended on forming habits related to choice. This appears quite a bit more difficult than the previous stage; anyone can be nice to her mother or be a good employee for an hour, but making a habit of it starts to change us on a deeper level.

Stage 4 – Becoming Rationalized and Harmonized with Nature

Finally, once we have passed through these prior stages, we reach the ultimate–one in which choice is “fully rationalized and in harmony with nature.” It is at this point that “the Good properly so called first emerges and comes to be understood in its true nature.”

It is only natural, Cicero writes, that our first inclination is toward things in accordance with nature, or what was discussed as belonging to the first few stages. However,

as soon as he has understanding . . . and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing this is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake.

Cicero goes on to remind us that although appropriate acts are means to the end of achieving goodness, “it will be an error to infer that this view implies two Ultimate Goods.” There is only one: using the analogy of a marksman aiming at a target with a bow and arrow, Cicero says “his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight.” To hit the mark would be what we would choose, but we should not desire it. We should focus on what we can control, which is keeping our aim steady and true. Hence another basic Stoic precept.

Assessing Progress

As I suspected, I am nowhere near this full rationalization and harmonization with nature–and yet all modern Stoics have likely had glimpses of this stage, which is what makes us continue to read the Stoics and try to put their ideals into practice. It almost reminds me of Buddhism’s nirvana, with the difference being that the descriptions of it are far more accessible to a rational mind.

I have stumbled somewhere around the first or second stage, and I can pinpoint the reasons. My health has been good and I am certainly surviving biologically, but I don’t sleep well. Without a solid foundation of sleep, I can’t very well harmonize with nature and discover the Chief Good of man. With regard to the second stage, I have a number of role-related duties, as I work full-time, am mother to a loquacious and inquisitive five-year-old, and am married. None of those things is a particular burden, but it does take time to see to it all.

Epictetus on the Two Stages of Philosophical Education: Theory and Practice

After fumbling through Cicero’s telescoping of complex ideas into relatively few words, it was useful to come across Epictetus on a comparable progression through stages, explained in John Sellars’ Stoicism–a wonderfully written, dense yet highly readable 157 pages about every aspect of Stoicism, including its modern legacy. Not only is Sellars readable, but Epictetus is as well, reminding me why Stoicism appeals to me: the Stoics are a pleasure to read.

As Sellars points out [2], Epictetus outlines a “two-stage model for philosophical education” based on theory first, and then on practice:

The philosophers first exercise us in theory, where there is less difficulty, and then after that lead us to the more difficult matters; for in theory there is nothing that holds us back from following what we are taught, but in life there are many things that distract us. (Disc. 1.26.3)

Epictetus’ teacher Musonius Rufus also emphasized that theory has to come before practice: “Theory, which teaches how one should act, is related to application, and comes first, since it is not possible to do anything really well unless its practical execution be in harmony with theory” (Lecture 5).

Assessing Progress

When I assess my progress through this perspective, I find that telling myself I’m still in the theory phase of my Stoic studies functions as an emollient to my angst over lack of a Stoic practice. With that said, I’m probably overly hung up on theoretical points. I’m not sure I need to understand what the Stoics meant by oikeiosis before I can proceed, for example. I also feel as though I need to read more original Stoic texts before I can consider progress to being a practicing Stoic. While it would naturally be good to do so, on further reflection I don’t think it is necessary to read, say, all of Epictetus or Musonius before I start undertaking Stoic exercises every day to solidify a philosophical practice.

One concept I have incorporated into a sort of practice is that of Stoic mindfulness, or prosoche. This has dovetailed with an ongoing mindfulness practice that I have been attempting to adhere to for several years now.

Another concept that I have been able to incorporate into my thoughts (if not into daily exercises, per se) is that of the four cardinal Stoic virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. I have a post-it note with “WCJT” in my work space, and I find my thoughts traveling from one cardinal virtue to another as the work day progresses. I enjoy reading about and reflecting on the nuances contained in each cardinal virtue. Together with a prosoche practice, this habit keeps Stoicism on my mind every day. I work in a large city, and there are plenty of opportunities daily to meditate on ways to face the challenges the city presents.

I can personally attest that, despite the shortcomings or virtual nonexistence of a rigorous, daily Stoic practice, studying Stoicism has made me a more tranquil, focused, contented person.

My next blog post will be about concrete ways to practice Stoicism, so stay tuned.

[1] The referenced excerpt of Cicero’s On Ends (III.vi-vii) and commentary can be found here. The translation is by H. Rackham; commentator Dr. Jan Garrett is professor emeritus in the department of philosophy and religion at Western Kentucky University. Dr. Garrett’s WKU home page may be of interest to you, as it contains many of his lecture notes, essays, and links to ancient texts online. He also writes about modern philosophers such as John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, as well as a number of others.

[2] John Sellars, Stoicism, University of California Press (2006), 44-7.

One thought on “Back to Basics: Reviving (or Starting) a Stoic Practice

  1. Thanks, this was very helpful! I also appreciate the link Garret’s lectures in the references.

    I try not to get down on myself for failing to have a daily practice. It’s all about incremental steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day!

    Liked by 1 person

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