What good is philosophy? For the Stoics, among other schools, philosophy is dead if it is not fully lived. That's why the Stoics presented not just a system of logic and cosmology, but also a way of living - to put into practice the principles on which the system is built. But while the Stoic schools that taught this way of life died out many years ago, that doesn't mean that Stoicism is no longer an option for people today. Stoicism has experienced a revival in recent years.

Today on MindMatters we take a look at one modern presentation of practical Stoicism, laid out in William B. Irvine's Guide to the Good Life, as well as complementary methods and practices from other systems, like G. I. Gurdjieff's "Fourth Way." Whether you go "full Stoic", like Irvine, or merely adopt some of their practices to integrate into your daily life, there's a lot to learn from the Stoic sages of old, and their modern interpreters.

Running Time: 00:59:16

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For our previous discussion on Stoic cosmology, see: Books mentioned in the show: Here's the transcript of the show:

Corey: Hello everybody. Welcome back. On today's show we're going to be discussing the ethical dimensions to Stoic thought and practice. While studying for this show I came across a really interesting little essay by Rear Admiral James Bond Stockdale. Some people might remember him as a vice presidential candidate during the 1990s. He was seen as a doddering old man. But back in his day, he was quite a man. He was a war hero and he spent seven-and-a-half years in a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. One interesting thing about his life is that he had, up to his experience in the Vietnam War, numerous years of experience in the navy as a fighter pilot. He had returned to university in order to earn ranks. I'm not exactly sure why, but in order to pursue his education, and he got so bored with all of the typical stuff that he was supposed to study that he decided to go walk and take a flight and see what the philosophy department had to offer. It was there that he fell in love with Epictetus (if that's how you pronounce it.

Harrison: It might be Epictetus.

Corey: Epictetus. We can go with that - who was a Roman slave turned Stoic philosopher. His handbook has survived generations and was even included by anti-Stoics as being canon for Platonic and various other philosophical schools because of the numerous, brilliant insights it had into how to handle yourself in horrendous circumstances.

So he fell in love with this book and he memorized it, he read it, he studied. By the time the Vietnam War came around he learned firsthand what Epictetus was talking about. After his experience he wrote a book called Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. In that book he discusses many of the most important things that we're probably going to be talking about today, a number of them being how to handle yourself under severe duress. We're obviously not going to be giving pointers on how to do that but we'll be discussing examples.

Harrison: How to survive waterboarding?

Corey: How to survive waterboarding. But the thing is that he understood, subjectively, what it meant to lose your station in life and to one day be a rear admiral, a commander of hundreds of pilots in one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the next being as he described it, a weeping, sobbing, shameful prisoner, covered in mud and ashamed to even call yourself an American after being tortured. He was tortured repeatedly for a number of years. But throughout this experience, towards the end, he grew in such a tremendous way that he was able to create a network of prisoners that ran counter-propaganda warfare against the Vietnamese army, who would record their confessions. They would torture them until they confessed how evil American capitalism was and this and that, and that was one of the big things that American soldiers would feel ashamed of talking about to their fellow captive countrymen because they felt like traitors.

But over time, they developed a system where they would give fake names to the Vietnamese as if they were these serious individuals like Clark Kent went down over the Pacific or this or that and then the Vietnamese would air this propaganda, they would get backlash because it was so clearly obvious that they had been fooled by these prisoners. Over seven-and-a-half years in this situation, he tested Stoic doctrine and he found it to be 100% critical in terms of living life in a way that retained human integrity and your own personal dignity, even in situations where it would seem to any other person that it would be impossible to do such a thing.

So starting out, laying the groundwork for this whole school of thought, this whole system and way of thought, it works quite interestingly enough and from there, do you have any thoughts, Harrison.

Harrison: I want to give a bit of background before we get into some of the actual specifics of what Stoics do. Last week we talked a bit about the history of Stoicism and how it developed, as you mentioned, out of the Socratic school. I believe Zeno was the first Stoic. He developed the Stoic system and then it went through several permutations after that, eventually to become one of the predominant philosophies in the Roman Empire to the point where Marcus Aurelius, one of the Roman Emperors, was a Stoic.

But to give a background and to re-emphasize the importance of practice and ethics to Stoics, there's a quote that's applicable, but it comes not from a Stoic but from Epicurus himself. As I said last week, there were numerous philosophical schools in ancient Greece and Rome. Some of them had some things in common but they'd all start their own system when they branched off from their teacher. So there were similarities. This is what Epicurus had to say about philosophy in general:

"Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man for just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either if it does not expel the suffering of the mind."

This is a quote included in the book I mentioned last week by William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, which came out in 2009, so it's 10 years old now. As I also mentioned then, Stoicism has experienced a resurgence in recent years to the point where there are entire Stoic websites and tons of books and meet-ups of people who are actually engaging with Stoicism in this way and pretty much reinvigorating it as a lived philosophy. As Irvine himself points out, you no longer go to a philosopher to learn how to live. The philosophies that are taught in universities, which is pretty much the only place you learn philosophy, is strictly academic and theoretical. You learn the systems, you learn the logic. You learn who said what and when and you place it into a historical context, but you don't actually learn a way of living. That's what the philosophers of this time were all about. That's what the Stoics were all about; to actually learn how to live and to be instructed on how to live.

So that was really the primary reason, Irvine argues, for Stoic philosophy at the time, to learn how to live, how to deal with negative emotions, for instance. One way he puts it is, "They went on to develop techniques for preventing the onset of negative emotions and for extinguishing them when attempts at prevention prevailed." It was a system and a practice that was directly applicable, that was to be put into practice in your everyday life, for things as simple as experiencing those basic negative emotions like jealousy, anger, hate and things like that, that most people don't like experiencing or that lead to bad consequences usually as a result, when they come up automatically, when they express themselves automatically, when they possess you.

As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago on our show on breathing, we are machines in a sense. We're automatons in most cases where some thing happens in our environment, maybe it's our partner, one of our family members or our friends that just sets us off, an emotion that triggers something within us that we then automatically play through as certain action patterns and things that only make things worse. Then we end up regretting it afterwards. Or, if we don't regret it, we just act like total A-holes and then everyone hates us and we don't know why. We're not even aware that they think we're total jerks. Eventually it comes to a point, hopefully, where you realize this and you have a view of yourself where you see yourself as others see you and you realize how much you've failed to live up to the person you think you are and the person you actually could be.

So that's what the Stoics were trying to, and successfully to some degree, bring about in the people that were learning the Stoic way of life, how not to be a jerk, in one sense.

Corey: On that topic, I want to read a quote by Epictetus. This is something that one of his students said.

"'So and so, said someone, is already able to read Chrysippus all by himself.' 'It is fine headway, by the gods, that you are making man' Epictetus says, 'great progress this is.' The student responds, 'Why do you mock him and why do you try to divert him"' and then Epictetus responds, 'And why do you try to divert him from the consciousness of his own shortcomings? Are you not willing to show him the work of virtue that he may learn where to look for his progress? Look for it there wretch, where your work lies. And where is your work? In desire and aversion, that you may not miss what you desire and encounter what you would avoid in choice and in refusal, that you may commit no fault therein.'

So that's the basic attitude. No matter how good you are, or how smart you are, that the work in philosophy is in becoming virtuous and seeing how big of a wretch you really are.

Harrison: Yeah. A philosophy professor these days would probably get fired for speaking in such a way to a poor, fragile university student.

Corey: Oh yeah! {laughter}

Harrison: I mentioned that one of the goals of engaging in philosophy of this sort is to come to the place where you realize what a wretch you are in yourself, but it really shows what a state of wretchedness our entire culture is in where we are so reticent and hesitant to engage in that kind of truthful speech about others and about ourselves, primarily about ourselves. When you look at that exchange, the exchange is to give an objective view of oneself, to have someone point out to you that you're being totally full of yourself, you're being an arrogant snob and just behaving in a fairly reprehensible manner. People need to be told that every once in a while. Everyone needs to be told that every once in a while and chances are you will be told that on Twitter {laughter}. But never is it in a framework that's actually constructive. We lack that school in our culture these days for the instruction of moral virtue, of character building, of being told by someone who actually has your best interests at heart, of your shortcomings.

The type of abuse that goes on on Twitter is never pedagogical. It's never educational. It's never with your best interests at heart. It's just insults.

Carolyn: It's just a bar brawl.

Harrison: It's just a bar brawl. But I think for a lot of people, experiencing something like that for the first time will naturally feel negative emotions at being told off, at having one's true nature revealed in such a bare bones and blunt manner, but that is really where it all starts because you can't change yourself, you can't become something greater than you are right now without realizing where you are right now, without realizing what a wretched state you are in at the moment. That's what you need in order to become something new, to realize that there's nothing very good about where you are right now. That needs to be the fuel that propels you into having an ideal for something greater. So you have to realize how low you are right now in order to have a vision of yourself at a higher level, at a level of character and being that is at least somewhat worthy of being called a human being because most people are not at that level.

Carolyn: At least Epictetus had the ability to offer the next step. Slamming someone on Twitter is pointless unless you can offer something better.

Harrison: Right.

Carolyn: In that sense you might say he had the right to say what he was saying.

Harrison: That's an important point too. Most abusive insults come from people who themselves have no right to give it because they're just as wretched as the people that they're insulting and pointing out the shortcomings of.

But that leads, for me at least, to some of the actual practical advice for living in the world. Irvine's book is a guide book for modern Stoic living. In part 2 he lays out the Stoic psychological techniques, as he calls them. The one that I want to talk about is fatalism. You guys say something while I find it.

Corey: Alright. You're talking about constructive practical advice. The psychology of the Stoics is a lot like cognitive behavioral therapy. It's very cognitive, when you get down to it and it's designed to offer practical help because in their theory, for animals there are two steps before acting. You get an impression - I'm hungry, and then there's the impulse - go find food. Well for humans there are more steps. They were elaborated on by Stoics philosophers. I'm not exactly sure how many stages there ended up being, but I know of at least four.

You got an impression from something, then you had to give your assent to that impression before you acted on that impression, or you could give your assent to that impression. The assent, this will, your own volition was the only thing that you really had any control over. One of the cognitive behavioral therapies for the Stoics was to focus primarily in that area of training your attention so that you can spot the impression, you can feel it, you can see the kind of judgments that come out and you can decide whether you agree with that impression or not.

As they taught, all of these things happen so fast and they're so mixed in people, the animal versus the divine nature, that it all happens quickly and you're not even sure exactly what is going on and you're acting like a slave or a puppet. You're acting like an animal and you're not acting like someone who has the divine spark within them. So you have to practice the discipline of assent.

Carolyn: So you would say that Stoic training was to give you more space to choose your action.

Corey: Yes.

Carolyn: To create more agency for that divine spark.

Corey: Yes. It was to decide whether the impression you're receiving was true or false and how you should act upon that given impression. John Sellers breaks it down into four different stages. He says,

"First we perceive the external thing. Then we form a pretty much involuntary, unconscious value judgment in most instances about that thing."

You feel that. Somebody honks at you on the road and immediately you're thinking "What's this guy doing?!" You're angry. If you're really bad then you've got road rage and you run him off the road. Then clearly, would you consider that person a Stoic sage? {laughter} Did they reason this out? Is this the best way to solve this road rage? To make it a thousand times worse for everyone involved? No, that's acting like an animal, as the Stoic would say.

And then the third is,

"An impression is a proposition formed from a perception and a value judgment that is presented to the guiding principle which is that divine spark within you. You either assent to and agree with the proposition or you reject it. Or you can just withhold judgment. Properly understood, the indifference of the Stoic to all external things, is simply the withholding of assent to value judgments about things that are not up to them."

So you just don't give your assent to things that you know are outside of your control and you know that the only thing within your control, truly, is your own mind. So then these things that would demand your emotional reaction or demand some sort of action, you decide in that moment or you train yourself so that you can think with a hammer critically and decide, is this the best way of action? Is this impression even true? What is really going on? What is the best course to take?

Clearly the idea of the virtuous Stoic sage or the ultimate Stoic sage is someone who actually would know all of these things. The progress is entraining that attention so that you gain the awareness of knowing, 'Is this thing in my control? Can I control this?' For example James Stockdale. He's in a prisoner of war camp. What is within his control? Probably he can't escape, I imagine. You're tortured, leg is broken, you're sick. If you escape what do you do? Where do you go? But the one thing that he does have in his control is his attitude, the attitude towards the thing and also to know that he is still a commander, even within this prison. There is still a chain of command and as a commander he should act in a way that's befitting that dignity that he has for himself; so always to remember that there is a spark of the divine within you and then always to act as if that is the most important thing and to treat yourself with the utmost dignity.

I just want to read another quote from Epictetus where he discusses the attitude that we should have towards problems and towards all of the things that happen in life that seem unbelievably insane, crazy or evil. He writes,

"What do you think Heracles would have amounted to if there had not been a lion like the one which he encountered and a hydra and a stag and a boar and wicked and brutal men who he made it his business to drive out and clear away? And what would he have been doing had nothing of the sort existed? Is it not clear that he would have rolled himself up in a blanket and slept? In the first place then, he would never have become Heracles by slumbering away his whole life in such luxury and ease. But even if he had, what good would he have been? What would have been the use of those arms of his and of his prowess in general and his steadfastness and nobility had not such circumstances and occasions roused and exercised him? Ought he to have prepared these for himself and sought to bring a lion into his own country from somewhere or other and a boar and a hydra? This would have been folly and madness but since they did exist and were found in the world, they were serviceable as a means of revealing and exercising our Heracles[, the divine spark within Heracles].

Come then, do you also now that you are aware of these things, contemplate the faculties which you have and after contemplating say, "Bring now oh Zeus what difficulty thou wilt for I have an equipment given to me by thee and resources wherewith to distinguish myself by making use of the things that come to pass." But no, you sit trembling afear something will happen and lamenting and grieving and groaning about other things that are happening and then you blame the gods!" {laughter}

It is a significant attitude shift that echoes throughout the centuries. There was a reason it's fun to listen to the rough translation of the scribe who wrote down Epictetus's handbook because he didn't write it, one of his students did. It sounds like he said, "Holy crap man! We've got to get this guy on parchment!" {laughter} And because he did that...

Carolyn: Can you say that again?!

Corey: Yeah, "Can you say that again?" So he took these sayings down, he wrote them down and it was still of use and is still being used to this day, thousands of years into the future because it's something that's fundamental to human nature, to a certain kind of human nature, a kind of human nature that strives to excel, that is not afraid of seeing their own shortcomings, that has more of an adventurous spark to it.

Harrison: And there's an element of heroism and courage that comes out...

Corey: Yeah! Yeah!

Harrison: ...even in that quote about Heracles. I had this image of Heracles as the schlub living in his mom's basement {laughter} or in the recent Avengers movie when Thor gets fat.

Corey: Fat Thor. {laughter}

Harrison: What would Heracles be if he hadn't encountered these things? It's almost like a prayer to ask the gods or the universe to give me the challenge that fits with my tendencies and my abilities, my capacities.

Carolyn: But it's also an injunction to temperance.

Adam: Yes.

Carolyn: Yes, he got himself ready for all these adventures but what good would it have done if he had brought them to him?

Harrison: Right.

Carolyn: Go and meet what is in the world but don't create extra problems just for your own gratification.

Adam: Yeah.

Harrison: That's kind of the line between foolhardiness and courage, the line between just being a total idiot and courage, because there are a lot of people with...

Carolyn: Courageous idiots. {laughter}

Harrison: ...fake courage or what passes as courage but actually is...

Adam: The Twitter mom.

Harrison: Speaking of Twitter, the practical thing I wanted to bring up wasn't one of his specific exercises. It's under a topic heading on insults. So he's got a chapter on insults on putting up with put-downs. So I want to read a page, talk about it and then give a more modern source that gets to the same thing. So he writes:

"When insulted people typically become angry. Because anger is a negative emotion that can upset our tranquility, the Stoics thought it worthwhile to develop strategies to prevent insults from angering us, strategies for removing, as it were, the sting of an insult. One of their sting elimination strategies is to pause when insulted to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset. Suppose for example that someone mocks us for being bald when in fact we are bald. Why is it an insult, Seneca asks, to be told what is self-evident?

Another sting elimination strategy suggested by Epictetus is to pause to consider how well informed the insulter is. He might be saying something bad about us, not because he wants to hurt our feelings but because he sincerely believes what he is saying or, at any rate, he might simply be reporting how things seem to him. Rather than getting angry at this person for his honesty we should calmly set him straight.

One particularly powerful sting elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn't upset me. Suppose, for example that I am learning to play the banjo and that the person who is criticizing my playing is the skilled musician I have hired as my teacher. In this case I am paying the teacher to criticize me. It would be utterly foolish under these circumstances for me to respond to his criticisms with hurt feelings. To the contrary, if I am serious about learning the banjo, I would thank him for criticizing me.

Suppose however that I don't respect the source of an insult. Indeed, suppose that I take him to be a thoroughly contemptible individual. Under such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel relieved. If he disapproves of what I am doing, then what I am doing is doubtless the right thing to do! What should worry me is if this contemptible individual approved of what I was doing. If I say anything at all in response to his insults, the most appropriate comment would be 'I'm relieved that you feel that way about me', etc. etc."

This reminded me immediately of something I'd read a while ago. This is in a talk that Gurdjieff gave. Again, Gurdjieff wasn't a Stoic by identification. He didn't identify as a Stoic but he definitely had some Stoic qualities and some Stoic teachings. He was Greek. He'd probably read some of the Stoics along the way but if he did, he assimilated them for himself and took what he liked and left what he didn't. This is from a talk that he gave in 1923. It's available in a book called Gurdjieff's Early Talks. This is what he had to say. He uses an initial here, "M". I'm going to say Mike.

"Mike called me a fool. Why should I be offended? I don't take offense. Such things do not hurt me, not because I have no self-love - maybe I have more self-love than anyone here. Maybe it is this very self-love that does not let me be offended. I think. I reason in a way exactly the reverse of the usual way. He called me a fool. Must he necessarily be wise? He may himself be a fool or a lunatic. One cannot demand wisdom from a child. I cannot demand wisdom from him. His reasoning was foolish. Either someone has said something to him about me or he formed his own foolish opinion that I am a fool. So much the worse for him. I know that I am not a fool so it does not offend me. If a fool has called me a fool, I am not affected inside. But if in a given instance I was a fool and am called a fool, I'm not hurt because my task is to not be a fool. So he reminds me. I shall think about it and perhaps not act foolishly next time."

It's the same strategy for dealing with insults. Is the insult true? If so, then thank you for alerting me to my foolishness which I wasn't aware of. If it's not true then who cares? That falls into one of those things that you can't control. You can't control the fact that people are going to call you foolish or insult you or make fun of you. That's on them, right? The only way you can control that is if you eliminate every other person on the planet who might potentially be a source of insults towards yourself, which is totally unreasonable.

So you're going to be insulted at some point. Someone is going to say something mean about you. Either it's going to be true or it's not going to be true. If you were foolish, if it is true, it's in your power to do something about it. If it is not true, then who cares? Get over it. This is the antifragile advice that youngsters, those kids these days, are not being given because they want to live this sheltered existence where no one says anything mean to them, not realizing that, like I just said, you can't eliminate that. That's one of those things beyond your control. People are going to insult you. If you don't learn to live with it then you're going to be Heracles crying in his basement because his mom didn't give him his Cheetos at the right time while he's playing video games and imagining being a hero when really it would take him getting off his ass and actually doing something to become the hero that he actually was born to be. He had this potential within himself that he's not living up to.

Corey: All those ideas you're talking about with the insults and the quote from Gurdjieff, sound a lot like that cognitive behavioral therapy. You don't let the impulse just run away with you. You don't let the value judgments and the emotions run away with you. You stop. You decide whether you give your assent to this impression. This person said something wrong to you and then you evaluate the situation. It's very much in line with the situational awareness and with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Just getting back to that cognitive chain that I talked about - impressions, assent and impulse, Marcus Aurelius also added a fourth link in the chain. It was impressions, assent, desire and impulse because one of the biggest things in terms of deciding is what do you want. What should my attitude be? What should my desire be towards the world at large? So I wanted to read this quote about the discipline of desire.

"True education consists precisely in this, in learning to wish that everything should come about just as it does. And how do things come about? As the one who ordains them has ordained. It is with this order of things in mind that we should approach our education not so as to change the existing order of things, for that has not been permitted to us nor would it be better that it should be, but rather things around us being as they are and as their nature dictates so that we, for our part, may keep our will in harmony with whatever comes to pass."

And as Marcus Aurelius writes,

"Everything suits me that suits your designs, oh my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, oh nature. All proceeds from you. All subsists in you and to you all things return."

And as Epictetus writes,

"Some things are within our power while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever is of our own doing. Not within our power are our body, our property, our reputation, office, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing."

So if you place all of your desire and your hopes on these things that are out of your control and you are emotionally invested in them, then as Epictetus would say, you should be expected to just waste your soul for your entire life. {laughter} That's what it comes down to.

Now that's not to say that you shouldn't care because one of the big things in Stoic philosophy is the distinction between vices, virtues and indifference. There are things that are evil and then there are things that are good. There are people who are good but they probably don't exist. They might be out there somewhere and if you train hard enough, maybe someday you could be a virtuous person, but the chances are very slim that you'll ever reach that state.

Then there are the great mass of things in everyday life that they would say are indifferent. That's almost everything outside of your control. The Stoic sage teaches that on some level you should be indifferent and you should be grateful and tranquil in facing the world. They include money, wealth, poverty, your station, all of the things that Epictetus named - your health, your station in life. Obviously there are some that are preferred. You prefer to be wealthy over impoverished. You prefer to be born into the greatest family and receive the best education. You prefer all of these other things for yourself and for others and probably you're going to work for them because it's within your control to do these things, to make life better for other people, but morally speaking, they are indifferent.

What matters is your attitude in doing these things, the reason that you're doing these things and how you conduct yourself in the everyday world itself. I get the impression it's a lot like Pink Floyd's Machine. Welcome to the machine. That's basically what they're saying. "You're in this world. It doesn't care about you. It's vast. It's crazy. You want to control it. You couldn't. It would suck. It would be worse if you had any control. You don't know. This great spectre of fate hangs over a lot of their theorizing and fate to the Stoics is just cause and effect. It's just a great mass of causes and effects that keeps going and keeps going until the universe dies and then is reborn again.

I can understand as well why people would be a little bit critical of this idea, this level, just the idea of indifference in modern times.

Carolyn: I think they mistake it though. One of the criticisms of Stoicism is the stiff upper lip. I think we live in such a reactionary society that the spectacle of somebody actually taking some time to consider what the proper response would be, comes across as mechanical and stoical and it's not valued. It's not valued at this point.

Adam: I think the other thing about it - getting back to what you were saying about the Stoic valuing attitude as one of their moral virtues - is paying attention to your attitude and not so much what is going on out in the world. As y'all are discussing this it brings to mind the prevailing postmodern thought which has spread throughout our culture in various ways and how completely inverted everything is, from what you value to how you act is just completely inverted.

Corey: It doesn't matter what you do as long as you believe that... {laughter}

Carolyn: Yeah, my truth!

Corey: Yes.

Carolyn: The other big misconception, especially as you've been talking about it, is the whole idea of the Stoic indifference. They're not saying don't strive. I think that's a big misconception about Stoicism, that you are fatalistic to the point where you don't act, you just make sure you don't react badly. But they do endorse striving. Look at how many great men practiced it. But it was their imbibing of Stoic principles that allowed them to strive in efficient and spectacular ways.

Harrison: It's 'what are you striving for?' What is your goal? What is your aim? Presumably the goal of a real Stoic is to attain that level of Stoic sagedom or sagehood, or whatever the word may be.

Carolyn: Or Peterson's competence.

Harrison: Well it would be higher than that.

Carolyn: Well to be able to move through the world in a sage way, in essence, competently with the maximum good and the minimum harm.

Harrison: So that would be competently in every dimension possible but with the indifferents. The two words sound the same. It's indifferents, a plural of indifferent things as opposed to a state of indifference. So with the indifferents, these are the things that fall, like you were saying Corey, in the realm of the things that you not necessarily don't have control over but that don't really matter. Sometimes they may be things that you don't have control over.

But there is room for maneuvering in the realm of the indifferents. Some other philosophies or religions say money is evil so you cannot pursue money whatsoever. No! Money is indifferent. You can have it or you can't have it. You can be rich or you can be poor but you can still be a Stoic. It's your attitude towards your wealth or your possessions that determines who you are, not your possessions. So the wealth itself is an indifferent which you can pursue to some degree if that's within your power and your inclinations but again, it's not straying too far to the left or the right. It's not denying yourself so completely that you refuse any gifts or wealth. In that case you'd just be insufferable. And you don't strive to acquire as much as possible. You find that middle ground. You do what's in you to do and you don't go too far in either direction. You keep that middle ground.

This relates to one of the psychological practices that Irvine gets into which is negative visualization. This is a cool one. One of the techniques is to visualize a negative situation. That might be first identifying the things that you value, so it might be your possession and then visualize the situation of you losing those possessions which will theoretically both make you value what you have more, so that you can be more thankful for the good things that you do have, but also less attached to the things that you have because you'll be preparing for losing these things which are out of your control because you can lose everything out of your control. It happens to people all the time.

Another one of those is to visualize one's own death because that tends to put things in perspective too, to realize that you will die. This also relates to an exercise Gurdjieff gave as well. He recommended something very similar but slightly different. I like Gurdjieff's a bit more because it's more expansive. I don't know if any Stoics recommended this, but who knows, they might have. Gurdjieff recommended that for everyone you meet, everyone you interact with, whenever you interact with them, to realize within yourself that they are going to die someday, that they have loved ones, that they have things and people that they do not want to leave behind.

Imagining this whenever you meet someone will make you feel pity and love for that person because you realize that they are another person too, that there will be hardships in their life and in the expanded life of the people around them. He said that by doing that and by striving to do that with everyone, that you will develop a love for humanity, a love for the people around you and that that will be real love as opposed to the thing that we call love which is a pale imitation of that love for all humanity.

So that too is a Stoic practice. It's to take yourself out of the constant flux of ordinary life. Ordinary life has a tempo like music. You get entrained in it and then you're this thing going along doing your thing, doing what's expected in the moment but you totally lose the wider perspective of what you're doing by getting lost in those moments. To engage in reasoning of this sort is to take a step back, to look at things from the perspective not of that immediate moment but of the expanded present, to make room for that impulse of love that is often lacking when we're just interacting with people the way we ordinarily do every day in those minor interactions. It's a way of transforming those everyday moments into something that is actually meaningful and has an effect on your own personal development.

It also relates back to something we talked about in the show that we did on the afterlife which was putting into practice the idea of there being a purgatorial state, a life review where you experience all of the things you did wrong with this awareness that what you did was wrong and there was a better way of doing it and the exercise was to review your life every day at the end of the day. Daily meditation is another of the Stoic practices and by meditation they mean not as in Zen meditation but more of the monastic meditation - to actually think on something, meditate in that way, more of a cognitive process.

That's why Marcus Aurelius's book is called Meditations because these were the things he was observing and thinking about and reasoning about within himself, about himself. So that requires first observing yourself. If you can't observe yourself in the moment, then review the day and remember what you did to see where you lived up to what your goals were and who and where you want to be and the place where you failed and you didn't live up to what the moment called for according to your ideal self and the ideal thing that you would have done in those situations.

So altogether, all of these practices seem to imply and require this separation, this self-observation, to see oneself in the moment and in retrospection, to see oneself from a different perspective, not to be caught up in oneself but to separate out an observer from what is observed. You need to be able to do that in order to be able to compare one to the other. You can't compare yourself to an ideal if you can never get out of your life and the way you live and see yourself, if you can never get out of that, then you have nothing with which to compare that present to some future or ideal. There needs to be a separation. These techniques are a way of doing that.

We could go back to the example of the insults. When you are insulted, the first reaction is to be offended but the whole idea here is to create that separation, that space that you were talking about Carolyn, that gap in the process where before the reaction starts, you have the awareness of "Okay, that happened. This is going to happen. I'm going to be feeling this." When you can separate that out, when you can look at yourself as a body that experiences that insult, already you're on the first step to not taking it personally because you're observing that your body is taking it personally. "Oh, this me took it personally but I haven't taken it personally."

That's a real practical example of that separation between what Gurdjieff would call the real I and "it", the machine, the thing that responds and reacts. So the Stoic practices are a way of putting that into action and facilitating that separation to be able to climb up that ladder to the Stoic sage.

Corey: In Meditations Marcus Aurelius pokes fun at his colleagues that take these nice big vacations to try and get away from the stress of life.

Harrison: Like some Presidents we know.

Corey: Yeah.

Carolyn: Congress.

Corey: Of crazy life. And he says that nothing compares to the inner citadel of the self that he withdrew into whenever necessary. It was through training, like we've described, through meditations, through observing the self, through awareness and like you pointed out Carolyn, through growing that space. I just want to read a little bit of what he wrote.

"You begin by delineating our true nature into three elements: body breath and mind. Body and breath are under our care but outside of our control. Only the mind is within our control."

The process of circumscribing the self involves realizing the things outside your control such as other people, the past, what people are saying about you and even your bodily reactions to what is happening and realizing that those things are incapable of touching your actual self. That self is your mind. If you have the strength of will to choose and not give your assent to these impressions then you can choose your own reaction to the situation, whatever that reaction may be.

"This realization creates an impenetrable inner citadel within which your self finds some form of serenity, protected from the vicissitudes of life."

This is one of the things that he commented that Stoic practices enabled him to do in the life of an emperor of Rome. I couldn't possibly imagine the level of stress of a Damocles sword or possibly a dagger behind every corner and in every tunic.

Carolyn: They didn't have impeachment.

Corey: You don't need impeachment.

Carolyn: They were much more direct about it all.

Corey: Impalement. That's another really critical thing too. It does sound harsh for the most part but we have to keep in mind that it sounds somewhat catastrophic because those were catastrophic times. You just have no idea how long loved ones will live and these Stoic philosophers are trying to give people something that will enable them to maintain their integrity in the face of tyrants, vast inequalities, slavery, rape, murder, pillaging, constant war. One day your family is one of the richest in Rome and then 20 years later you might be a pauper begging for money. As topsy-turvy as the world is today, times were catastrophic for a vast amount of normal people and normal people still want to engage in some kind of work that is higher than the worldly work that is offered to them. I think that's why Stoicism remains so popular even though it has been scrubbed a little bit.

I don't think we have any writings left from the first two generations of Stoic philosophers.

Harrison: I don't think we have any complete writings from the Greek Stoics.

Corey: Yeah, just scrubbed from history! But still maintaining an influence that has lasted all the way up to today, that has shaped and molded people, primarily through books which is quite astonishing because typically you'd think you would only get that kind of impression from an actual teacher, but these individuals were just so clear-spoken and well thought out that you can use all of these handbooks as actual guides because it fits almost every human psychology.

Carolyn: They wouldn't persist if they didn't work.

Corey: Yeah.

Carolyn: Plain and simple.

Harrison: Here's one more example of a psychological practice. This is the one called self denial or what the Stoics called voluntary discomfort. You can pretty much get an idea just from the name of it. Again, not going to extremes, it's not like they were self-flagellating or anything like that but to put yourself into uncomfortable situations. Do it sometime and then see what the benefit is. For example, it might be something as simple as when it's cold outside, not putting your coat on if you're walking to the mailbox or something, just to feel the cold or taking a cold shower or doing little things like that.

Again, Gurdjieff had these self-denials all the time, these little self-sacrifices. His motivation was as a way of training oneself. If you had a goal for the day in mind, he'd give various ways of either rewarding or punishing your body for either attaining or not attaining the goal. For example, set yourself a goal in the day and if you don't meet it, if you don't do it, then you don't eat dinner. You can have breakfast the next day but you don't eat dinner for the rest of the day until you actually do it. That motivates your body to actually get in motion and do it because it wants to eat. Once it does what it's supposed to, okay, you can have a meal. It's like training a dog.

You're probably kinder to your dog. {laughter} But your body needs to be disciplined.

Corey: And if you're used to that because you're already an ascetic, then try discrete mathematics. {laughter} Teach yourself discrete mathematics every day and feel that pain. There's a whole world of pain out there. {laughter}

Adam: Don't be shy guys.

Harrison: Another variation is to take something that you love, some habit you have, it might be alcohol or smoking, something like that and you deny yourself until you do what you're supposed to do, until you reach that little aim of yours. It might be something simple. It's not like, "Okay, I have the goal to earn a million dollars" or something. It's not like you quit eating until you make a million dollars. No, it's your goal for the day. It's the little thing that you've planned. It might to...

Carolyn: Pay your bills.

Harrison: your bills, do some small task. Maybe it's to devote 20 minutes to meditating or doing some good deed for the people around you. Whatever the aim is that you've set for yourself, to then make that the benchmark and then reward or deny yourself based on getting that benchmark. That is a way of training yourself to have self control because anyone who has done anything in their life knows that it's hard to train yourself into new habits. Being the new year, I'm sure everyone has tried new year's resolutions and of course they never work. You never stick with them.

It's kind of a trick. It's almost like a self-suggestion because it takes some effort and will to punish yourself for not having will. So you essentially trick yourself into doing what you planned to do by punishing yourself or by rewarding yourself. That strikes me as interestingly weird, that reverse psychology. If you don't do what you do, then do this. You have a new goal now to punish yourself for not doing what you do. So it's a task in itself to punish yourself for what you're not doing and that very process builds will.

Corey: And observing what happens, what's going on with you as you struggle with these things. We're all used to treating ourselves in some way and we do it because it's built into us. It's habitual. It's something that for the most part we're probably programmed with genetically and then there's also social things. We're used to saying yes to different parts of ourselves, like our taste buds and we're used to saying no to things that feel pain. But when you start to mix that up all of a sudden you start to feel all of the other aspects of yourself that aren't in your control and you put the hurt on them. You remind them who's boss. Maybe that's the right way to think of it, that the self is in charge and that there is a higher purpose to life, even if it's small things, to always remember that.

With that I guess we're going to go ahead and wrap up our show. We hope that you enjoyed it. Please subscribe if you liked our show and hit like and we will be back again soon with more interesting stuff to talk about. Thank you everybody and we'll see you next time.