Lesson 1: WHERE PHILOSOPHY BEGINS
“An important place to begin in philosophy is this: a clear perception of one’s own ruling principle.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 1.26.15
Philosophy is intimidating. Where does one start? With books? With lectures? With the sale of your worldly possessions?
None of these things. Epictetus is saying that one becomes a philosopher when they begin to exercise their guiding reason and start to question the emotions and beliefs and even language that others take for granted. It is thought that an animal has self-awareness when it is able to fully recognize itself in a mirror. Perhaps we could say that we begin our journey into philosophy when we become aware of the ability to analyze our own minds.
Can you start with that step today? When you do, you’ll find that from it we really come alive, that we live lives—to paraphrase Socrates—that are actually worth living.
Lesson 2: ACCURATE SELF-ASSESSMENT
“Above all, it is necessary for a person to have a true self-estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can.”SENECA, ON TRANQUILITY OF MIND, 5.2
Most people resist the idea of a true self-estimate, probably because they fear it might mean downgrading some of their beliefs about who they are and what they’re capable of. As Goethe’s maxim goes, it is a great failing “to see yourself as more than you are.” How could you really be considered self-aware if you refuse to consider your weaknesses?
Don’t fear self-assessment because you’re worried you might have to admit some things about yourself. The second half of Goethe’s maxim is important too. He states that it is equally damaging to “value yourself at less than your true worth.” Is it not equally common to be surprised at how well we’re able to handle a previously feared scenario? The way that we’re able to put aside the grief for a loved one and care for others—though we always thought we’d be wrecked if something were to happen to our parents or a sibling. The way we’re able to rise to the occasion in a stressful situation or a life-changing opportunity.
We underestimate our capabilities just as much and just as dangerously as we overestimate other abilities. Cultivate the ability to judge yourself accurately and honestly. Look inward to discern what you’re capable of and what it will take to unlock that potential.
Lesson 3: (DIS)INTEGRATION
“These things don’t go together. You must be a unified human being, either good or bad. You must diligently work either on your own reasoning or on things out of your control—take great care with the inside and not what’s outside, which is to say, stand with the philosopher, or else with the mob!”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.15.13
We’re all complicated people. We have multiple sides to ourselves—conflicting wants, desires, and fears. The outside world is no less confusing and contradictory. If we’re not careful, all these forces—pushing and pulling—will eventually tear us apart. We can’t live as both Jekyll and Hyde. Not for long, anyway.
We have a choice: to stand with the philosopher and focus strenuously on the inside, or to behave like a leader of a mob, becoming whatever the crowd needs at a given moment.
If we do not focus on our internal integration—on self-awareness—we risk external disintegration.
Lesson 4: AWARENESS IS FREEDOM
“The person is free who lives as they wish, neither compelled, nor hindered, nor limited—whose choices aren’t hampered, whose desires succeed, and who don’t fall into what repels them. Who wishes to live in deception—tripped up, mistaken, undisciplined, complaining, in a rut? No one. These are base people who don’t live as they wish; and so, no base person is free.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.1.1–3a
It is sad to consider how much time many people spend in the course of a day doing things they “have” to do—not necessary obligations like work or family, but the obligations we needlessly accept out of vanity or ignorance. Consider the actions we take in order to impress other people or the lengths we’ll go to fulfill urges or sate desires we don’t even question. In one of his famous letters, Seneca observes how often powerful people are slaves to their money, to their positions, to their mistresses, even—as was legal in Rome—to their slaves. “No slavery is more disgraceful,” he quipped, “than one which is self-imposed.”
We see this slavery all the time—a codependent person who can’t help but clean up after a dysfunctional friend, a boss who micromanages employees and sweats every penny. The countless causes, events, and get-togethers we’re too busy to attend but agree to anyway.
Take an inventory of your obligations from time to time. How many of these are self-imposed? How many of them are truly necessary? Are you as free as you think?
Lesson 5: CUTTING BACK ON THE COSTLY
“So, concerning the things we pursue, and for which we vigorously exert ourselves, we owe this consideration—either there is nothing useful in them, or most aren’t useful. Some of them are superfluous, while others aren’t worth that much. But we don’t discern this and see them as free, when they cost us dearly.”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 42.6
Of Seneca’s many letters, this is probably one of the most important—and one of the least understood. He’s making a point that goes unheard in a society of ever-bigger houses and ever more possessions: that there’s a hidden cost to all that accumulating. And the sooner we’re aware of it, the better.
Remember: even what we get for free has a cost, if only in what we pay to store it—in our garages and in our minds. As you walk past your possessions today, ask yourself: Do I need this? Is it superfluous? What’s this actually worth? What is it costing me?
You might be surprised by the answers and how much we’ve been paying without even knowing it.
Lesson 6: DON’T TELL YOURSELF STORIES
“In public avoid talking often and excessively about your accomplishments and dangers, for however much you enjoy recounting your dangers, it’s not so pleasant for others to hear about your affairs.”EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 33.14
Modern philosopher Nassim Taleb has warned of the “narrative fallacy”—the tendency to assemble unrelated events of the past into stories. These stories, however gratifying to create, are inherently misleading. They lead to a sense of cohesion and certainty that isn’t real.
If that’s too heady, remember that as Epictetus points out, there is another reason not to tell stories about your past. It’s boring, annoying, and self-absorbed. It might make you feel good to dominate the conversation and make it all about you, but how do you think it is for everyone else? Do you think people are really enjoying the highlights of your high school football days? Is this really the time for another exaggerated tale of your sexual prowess?
Try your best not to create this fantasy bubble—live in what’s real. Listen and connect with people, don’t perform for them.
Lesson 7: DON’T TRUST THE SENSES
“Heraclitus called self-deception an awful disease and eyesight a lying sense.”DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIVES OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS, 9.7
Self-awareness is the ability to objectively evaluate the self. It’s the ability to question our own instincts, patterns, and assumptions. Oiêsis, self-deception or arrogant and unchallenged opinion, requires that we hold all our opinions up to hard scrutiny; even our eyes deceive us.
On the one hand, that’s alarming. I can’t even trust my own senses?! Sure, you could think about it that way. Or you could take it another way: because our senses are often wrong, our emotions overly alarmed, our projections overly optimistic, we’re better off not rushing into conclusions about anything. We can take a beat with everything we do and become aware of everything that’s going on so we can make the right decision.
Lesson 8: DON’T UNINTENTIONALLY HAND OVER YOUR FREEDOM
“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled—have you no shame in that?”EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 28
Instinctively, we protect our physical selves. We don’t let people touch us, push us around, control where we go. But when it comes to the mind, we’re less disciplined. We hand it over willingly to social media, to television, to what other people are doing, thinking, or saying. We sit down to work and the next thing you know, we’re browsing the Internet. We sit down with our families, but within minutes we have our phones out. We sit down peacefully in a park, but instead of looking inward, we’re judging people as they pass by.
We don’t even know that we’re doing this. We don’t realize how much waste is in it, how inefficient and distracted it makes us. And what’s worse—no one is making this happen. It’s totally self-inflicted.
To the Stoics, this is an abomination. They know that the world can control our bodies—we can be thrown in jail or be tossed about by the weather. But the mind? That’s ours. We must protect it. Maintain control over your mind and perceptions, they’d say. It’s your most prized possession.
Lesson 9: FIND THE RIGHT SCENE
“Above all, keep a close watch on this—that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined…. You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends… if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.2.1; 4–5
“From good people you’ll learn good, but if you mingle with the bad you’ll destroy such soul as you had.”MUSONIUS RUFUS, QUOTING THEOGNIS OF MEGARA, LECTURES, 11.53.21–22
Jim Rohn’s widely quoted line is: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” James Altucher advises young writers and entrepreneurs to find their “scene”—a group of peers who push them to be better. Your father might have given you a warning when he saw you spending time with some bad kids: “Remember, you become like your friends.” One of Goethe’s maxims captures it better: “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.”
Consciously consider whom you allow into your life—not like some snobby elitist but like someone who is trying to cultivate the best life possible. Ask yourself about the people you meet and spend time with: Are they making me better? Do they encourage me to push forward and hold me accountable? Or do they drag me down to their level? Now, with this in mind, ask the most important question: Should I spend more or less time with these folks?
The second part of Goethe’s quote tells us the stakes of this choice: “If I know how you spend your time,” he said, “then I know what might become of you.”
Lesson 10: FIND YOURSELF A CATO
“We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts!”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 11.9
Cato the Younger, a Roman politician best known for his self-discipline and for his heroic defense of the Republic against Julius Caesar, appears constantly throughout Stoic literature—which is interesting because he didn’t write anything down. He taught no classes. He gave no interviews. His bold and brave example is what made him such a commonly cited and quoted philosopher.
Seneca tells us that we should each have our own Cato—a great and noble person we can allow into our minds and use to guide our actions, even when they’re not physically present. The economist Adam Smith had a similar concept, which he called the indifferent spectator. It doesn’t have to be an actual person, just someone who, like Seneca said, can stand witness to our behavior. Someone who can quietly admonish us if we are considering doing something lazy, dishonest, or selfish.
And if we do it right, and live our lives in such a way, perhaps we can serve as someone else’s Cato or indifferent spectator when they need it.
Lesson 11: LIVING WITHOUT RESTRICTION
“The unrestricted person, who has in hand what they will in all events, is free. But anyone who can be restricted, coerced, or pushed into something against what they will is a slave.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.1.128b–129a
Take a look at some of the most powerful, rich, and famous people in the world. Ignore the trappings of their success and what they’re able to buy. Look instead at what they’re forced to trade in return—look at what success has cost them.
Mostly? Freedom. Their work demands they wear a suit. Their success depends on attending certain parties, kissing up to people they don’t like. It will require—inevitably—realizing they are unable to say what they actually think. Worse, it demands that they become a different type of person or do bad things.
Sure, it might pay well—but they haven’t truly examined the transaction. As Seneca put it, “Slavery resides under marble and gold.” Too many successful people are prisoners in jails of their own making. Is that what you want? Is that what you’re working hard toward? Let’s hope not.
Lesson 12: SEEING THINGS AS THE PERSON AT FAULT DOES
“Whenever someone has done wrong by you, immediately consider what notion of good or evil they had in doing it. For when you see that, you’ll feel compassion, instead of astonishment or rage. For you may yourself have the same notions of good and evil, or similar ones, in which case you’ll make an allowance for what they’ve done. But if you no longer hold the same notions, you’ll be more readily gracious for their error.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.26
Socrates, perhaps the wisest person to ever live, used to say that “nobody does wrong willingly.” Meaning that no one is wrong on purpose either. Nobody thinks they’re wrong, even when they are. They think they’re right, they’re just mistaken. Otherwise, they wouldn’t think it anymore!
Could it be that the slights you’ve experienced or the harm that others have done to you was not inflicted intentionally? What if they simply thought they were doing the right thing—for them, even for you? It’s like the memorial for Confederate soldiers at Arlington (obviously a cause that was wrongly fought for by people doing wrong), which states, in part, that the Confederate soldiers served “in simple obedience to duty, as they understood it.” Again—they understood wrongly, but it was their genuine understanding, just as Lincoln was genuine when he ended his famous Cooper Union speech by saying, “Let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
How much more tolerant and understanding would you be today if you could see the actions of other people as attempts to do the right thing? Whether you agree or not, how radically would this lens change your perspective on otherwise offensive or belligerent actions?
Lesson 13: ONE DAY IT WILL ALL MAKE SENSE
“Whenever you find yourself blaming providence, turn it around in your mind and you will see that what has happened is in keeping with reason.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.17.1
Part of the reason we fight against the things that happen is that we’re so focused on our plan that we forget that there might be a bigger plan we don’t know about. Is it not the case that plenty of times something we thought was a disaster turned out to be, with the passage of time, a lucky break? We also forget that we’re not the only people who matter and that our loss might be someone else’s gain.
This sense of being wronged is a simple awareness problem. We need to remember that all things are guided by reason—but that it is a vast and universal reason that we cannot always see. That the surprise hurricane was the result of a butterfly flapping its wings a hemisphere away or that misfortune we have experienced is simply the prelude to a pleasant and enviable future.
Lesson 14: SELF-DECEPTION IS OUR ENEMY
“Zeno would also say that nothing is more hostile to a firm grasp on knowledge than self-deception.”DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIVES OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS, 7.23
Self-deception, delusions of grandeur—these aren’t just annoying personality traits. Ego is more than just off-putting and obnoxious. Instead, it’s the sworn enemy of our ability to learn and grow.
As Epictetus put it, “It is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Today, we will be unable to improve, unable to learn, unable to earn the respect of others if we think we’re already perfect, a genius admired far and wide. In this sense, ego and self-deception are the enemies of the things we wish to have because we delude ourselves into believing that we already possess them.
So we must meet ego with the hostility and contempt that it insidiously deploys against us—to keep it away, if only for twenty-four hours at a time.
Lesson 15: THE PRESENT IS ALL WE POSSESS
“Were you to live three thousand years, or even a countless multiple of that, keep in mind that no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living, and no one ever lives a life other than the one they are losing. The longest and the shortest life, then, amount to the same, for the present moment lasts the same for all and is all anyone possesses. No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 2.14
Today, notice how often you look for more. That is, wanting the past to be more than what it was (different, better, still here, etc.) or wanting the future to unfold exactly as you expect (with hardly a thought as to how that might affect other people).
When you do this, you’re neglecting the present moment. Talk about ungrateful! There’s a saying—attributed to Bil Keane, the cartoonist—worth remembering: “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” This present is in our possession—but it has an expiration date, a quickly approaching one. If you enjoy all of it, it will be enough. It can last a whole lifetime.
Lesson 16: THAT SACRED PART OF YOU
“Hold sacred your capacity for understanding. For in it is all, that our ruling principle won’t allow anything to enter that is either inconsistent with nature or with the constitution of a logical creature. It’s what demands due diligence, care for others, and obedience to God.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 3.9
The fact that you can think, the fact that you can read this book, the fact that you are able to reason in and out of situations—all of this is what gives you the ability to improve your circumstances and become better. It’s important to appreciate this ability, because it’s a genuine ability. Not everyone is so lucky.
Seriously—what you take for granted, others wouldn’t even think to dream of.
Take a little time today to remember that you’re blessed with the capacity to use logic and reason to navigate situations and circumstances. This gives you unthinkable power to alter your circumstances and the circumstances of others. And remember that with power comes responsibility.
Lesson 17: THE BEAUTY OF CHOICE
“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.1.39b–40a
It’s that line in the movie Fight Club: “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” Obviously our friend Epictetus never saw that movie or read the book—but apparently the consumerism of the 1990s existed in ancient Rome too.
It’s easy to confuse the image we present to the world for who we actually are, especially when media messaging deliberately blurs that distinction.
You might look beautiful today, but if that was the result of vain obsession in the mirror this morning, the Stoics would ask, are you actually beautiful? A body built from hard work is admirable. A body built to impress gym rats is not.
That’s what the Stoics urge us to consider. Not how things appear, but what effort, activity, and choices they are a result of.
Lesson 18: IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT YOUR CONSENT
“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 9.13
On tough days we might say, “My work is overwhelming,” or “My boss is really frustrating.” If only we could understand that this is impossible. Someone can’t frustrate you, work can’t overwhelm you—these are external objects, and they have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, come from the inside, not the outside.
The Stoics use the word hypolêpsis, which means “taking up”—of perceptions, thoughts, and judgments by our mind. What we assume, what we willingly generate in our mind, that’s on us. We can’t blame other people for making us feel stressed or frustrated any more than we can blame them for our jealousy. The cause is within us. They’re just the target.
Lesson 19: TIMELESS WISDOM
“For there are two rules to keep at the ready—that there is nothing good or bad outside my own reasoned choice, and that we shouldn’t try to lead events but to follow them.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.10.18
In the mid-twentieth century, there was an Indian Jesuit priest named Anthony de Mello. Born in Bombay when it was still under British control, de Mello was an amalgam of many different cultures and perspectives: East, West; he even trained as a psychotherapist. It’s interesting when one sees timeless wisdom develop across schools, across epochs and ideas. Here is a quote from de Mello’s book, The Way to Love, that sounds almost exactly like Epictetus:
“The cause of my irritation is not in this person but in me.”
Remember, each individual has a choice. You are always the one in control. The cause of irritation—or our notion that something is bad—that comes from us, from our labels or our expectations. Just as easily, we can change those labels; we can change our entitlement and decide to accept and love what’s happening around us. And this wisdom has been repeated and independently discovered in every century and every country since time began.
Lesson 20: READY AND AT HOME
“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I’ll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable.”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 67.4
President James Garfield was a great man—raised in humble circumstances, self-educated, and eventually a Civil War hero—whose presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. In his brief time in office, he faced a bitterly divided country as well as a bitterly and internally divided Republican Party. During one fight, which challenged the very authority of his office, he stood firm, telling an adviser: “Of course I deprecate war, but if it is brought to my door the bringer will find me at home.”
That’s what Seneca is saying here. We’d be crazy to want to face difficulty in life. But we’d be equally crazy to pretend that it isn’t going to happen. Which is why when it knocks on our door—as it very well may this morning—let’s make sure we’re prepared to answer. Not the way we are when a surprise visitor comes late at night, but the way we are when we’re waiting for an important guest: dressed, in the right head space, ready to go.
Lesson 21: THE BEST RETREAT IS IN HERE, NOT OUT THERE
“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul—especially if on close inspection it is filled with ease, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat and be renewed.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 4.3.1
Do you have a vacation coming up? Are you looking forward to the weekend so you can have some peace and quiet? Maybe, you think, after things settle down or after I get this over with. But how often has that ever actually worked?
The Zen meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn coined a famous expression: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We can find a retreat at any time by looking inward. We can sit with our eyes closed and feel our breath go in and out. We can turn on some music and tune out the world. We can turn off technology or shut off those rampant thoughts in our head. That will provide us peace. Nothing else.
Lesson 22: THE SIGN OF TRUE EDUCATION
“What is it then to be properly educated? It is learning to apply our natural preconceptions to the right things according to Nature, and beyond that to separate the things that lie within our power from those that don’t.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 1.22.9–10a
A degree on a wall means you’re educated as much as shoes on your feet mean you’re walking. It’s a start, but hardly sufficient.
Otherwise, how could so many “educated” people make unreasonable decisions? Or miss so many obvious things? Partly it’s because they forget that they ought to focus only on that which lies within their power to control. A surviving fragment from the philosopher Heraclitus expresses that reality:
“Many who have learned
from Hesiod the countless names
of gods and monsters
that night and day are one.”
Just as you can walk plenty well without shoes, you don’t need to step into a classroom to understand the basic, fundamental reality of nature and of our proper role in it. Begin with awareness and reflection. Not just once, but every single second of every single day.
Lesson 23: THE STRAITJACKETED SOUL
“The diseases of the rational soul are long-standing and hardened vices, such as greed and ambition—they have put the soul in a straitjacket and have begun to be permanent evils inside it. To put it briefly, this sickness is an unrelenting distortion of judgment, so things that are only mildly desirable are vigorously sought after.”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 75.11
In the financial disaster of the late 2000s, hundreds of smart, rational people lost trillions of dollars’ worth of wealth. How could such smart people have been so foolish? These people knew the system, knew how the markets were supposed to work, and had managed billions, if not trillions, of dollars. And yet, almost to a person, they were wrong—and wrong to the tune of global market havoc.
It’s not hard to look at that situation and understand that greed was some part of the problem. Greed was what led people to create complex markets that no one understood in the hope of making a quick buck. Greed caused other people to make trades on strange pools of debt. Greed prevented anyone from calling out this situation for what it was—a house of cards just waiting for the slightest breeze to knock it all down.
It doesn’t do you much good to criticize those folks after the fact. It’s better to look at how greed and vices might be having a similar effect in your own life. What lapses in judgment might your vices be causing you? What “sicknesses” might you have?
And how can your rational mind step in and regulate them?
Lesson 24: THERE IS PHILOSOPHY IN EVERYTHING
“Eat like a human being, drink like a human being, dress up, marry, have children, get politically active—suffer abuse, bear with a headstrong brother, father, son, neighbor, or companion. Show us these things so we can see that you truly have learned from the philosophers.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.21.5–6
Plutarch, a Roman biographer as well as an admirer of the Stoics, didn’t begin his study of the greats of Roman literature until late in life. But, as he recounts in his biography of Demosthenes, he was surprised at how quickly it all came to him. He wrote, “It wasn’t so much that the words brought me into a full understanding of events, as that, somehow, I had a personal experience of the events that allowed me to follow closely the meaning of the words.”
This is what Epictetus means about the study of philosophy. Study, yes, but go live your life as well. It’s the only way that you’ll actually understand what any of it means. And more important, it’s only from your actions and choices over time that it will be possible to see whether you took any of the teachings to heart.
Be aware of that today when you’re going to work, going on a date, deciding whom to vote for, calling your parents in the evening, waving to your neighbor as you walk to your door, tipping the delivery man, saying goodnight to someone you love. All of that is philosophy. All of it is experience that brings meaning to the words.
Lesson 25: WEALTH AND FREEDOM ARE FREE
“…freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.1.175
There are two ways to be wealthy—to get everything you want or to want everything you have. Which is easier right here and right now? The same goes for freedom. If you chafe and fight and struggle for more, you will never be free. If you could find and focus on the pockets of freedom you already have? Well, then you’d be free right here, right now.
Lesson 26: WHAT RULES YOUR RULING REASON?
“How does your ruling reason manage itself? For in that is the key to everything. Whatever else remains, be it in the power of your choice or not, is but a corpse and smoke.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 12.33
The Roman satirist Juvenal is famous for this question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) In a way, this is what Marcus is asking himself—and what you might ask yourself throughout the day. What influences the ruling reason that guides your life?
This means an exploration of subjects like evolutionary biology, psychology, neurology, and even the subconscious. Because these deeper forces shape even the most disciplined, rational minds. You can be the most patient person in the world, but if science shows we make poor decisions on an empty stomach—what good is all that patience?
So don’t stop at Stoicism, but explore the forces that drive and make Stoicism possible. Learn what underpins this philosophy you’re studying, how the body and mind tick. Understand not only your ruling reason—the watchmen—but whoever and whatever rules that too.
Lesson 27: PAY WHAT THINGS ARE WORTH
“Diogenes of Sinope said we sell things of great value for things of very little, and vice versa.”DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIVES OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS, 6.2.35b
You can buy a Plume Blanche diamond-encrusted sofa for close to two hundred thousand dollars. It’s also possible to hire one person to kill another person for five hundred dollars. Remember that next time you hear someone ramble on about how the market decides what things are worth. The market might be rational… but the people who comprise it are not.
Diogenes, who founded the Cynic school, emphasized the true worth (axia) of things, a theme that persisted in Stoicism and was strongly reflected in both Epictetus and Marcus. It’s easy to lose track. When the people around you dump a fortune into trinkets they can’t take with them when they die, it might seem like a good investment for you to make too.
But of course it isn’t. The good things in life cost what they cost. The unnecessary things are not worth it at any price. The key is being aware of the difference.
Lesson 28: COWARDICE AS A DESIGN PROBLEM
“Life without a design is erratic. As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 95.46
The opposing team comes out strong, establishes an early lead, and you never had time to recover. You walk into a business meeting, are caught off guard, and the whole thing goes poorly. A delicate conversation escalates into a shouting match. You switched majors halfway through college and had to start your coursework over and graduate late. Sound familiar?
It’s the chaos that ensues from not having a plan. Not because plans are perfect, but because people without plans—like a line of infantrymen without a strong leader—are much more likely to get overwhelmed and fall apart. The Super Bowl–winning coach Bill Walsh used to avoid this risk by scripting the beginning of his games. “If you want to sleep at night before the game,” he said in a lecture on game planning, “have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that. You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor.” You’ll also be able to ignore a couple of early points or a surprise from your opponent. It’s irrelevant to you—you already have your marching orders.
Don’t try to make it up on the fly. Have a plan.
Lesson 29: WHY DO YOU NEED TO IMPRESS THESE PEOPLE AGAIN?
“If you should ever turn your will to things outside your control in order to impress someone, be sure that you have wrecked your whole purpose in life. Be content, then, to be a philosopher in all that you do, and if you wish also to be seen as one, show yourself first that you are and you will succeed.”EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 23
Is there anything sadder than the immense lengths we’ll go to impress someone? The things we’ll do to earn someone’s approval can seem, when examined in retrospect, like the result of some temporary form of insanity. Suddenly we’re wearing uncomfortable, ridiculous clothes we’ve been told are cool, eating differently, talking differently, eagerly waiting for a call or text. If we did these things because we liked it, that would be one thing. But that’s not what it is. It’s just a means to an end—to get someone to give us the nod.
The irony, as Marcus Aurelius points out repeatedly, is that the people whose opinion we covet are not all that great. They’re flawed—they’re distracted and wowed by all sorts of silly things themselves. We know this and yet we don’t want to think about it. To quote Fight Club again, “We buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.”
Doesn’t that sound pretty ridiculous? But more than that, isn’t it about as far as possible as you can get from the serenity and security that philosophy can provide?
Lesson 30: REASON IN ALL THINGS
“Hurry to your own ruling reason, to the reason of the Whole, and to your neighbor’s. To your own mind to make it just; to the mind of the Whole to remember your place in it; and to your neighbor’s mind to learn whether it’s ignorant or of sound knowledge—while recognizing it’s like yours.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 9.22
If our lives are not ruled by reason, what are they ruled by? Impulse? Whim? Mimicry? Unthinking habit? As we examine our past behavior, it’s sad how often we find this to be the case—that we were not acting consciously or deliberately but instead by forces we did not bother to evaluate. It also happens that these are the instances that we’re mostly likely to regret.
Lesson 31: YOU’RE A PRODUCT OF YOUR TRAINING
“Chasing what can’t be done is madness. But the base person is unable to do anything else.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 5.17
A dog that’s allowed to chase cars will chase cars. A child who is never given any boundaries will become spoiled. An investor without discipline is not an investor—he’s a gambler. A mind that isn’t in control of itself, that doesn’t understand its power to regulate itself, will be jerked around by external events and unquestioned impulses.
That can’t be how you’d like tomorrow to go. So you must be aware of that. You must put in place training and habits now to replace ignorance and ill discipline. Only then will you begin to behave and act differently. Only then will you stop seeking the impossible, the shortsighted, and the unnecessary.