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Welcome to Starting Out with Stoicism. This blog is intended to present the teachings of Stoicism in a way that anyone can understand. My goal is to present Stoicism as a real-life philosophy with real-life application. Read more of this post

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Desire: Quit Counting on Telekinesis

Today we venture into the three fields of Stoic study, or topoi.

There are three areas of study in which a student of philosophy must be trained. The first is desire and aversion, so that the student will always obtain what he desires and will never fall into what he would prefer to avoid. The second is the impulse to act and not to act, and general appropriate behavior; so that the student may act in an orderly manner after careful thought, and not carelessly. The third is concerned with freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and in general, whatever is related to assent.

(Epictetus, Discourses 3.2)

  1. Desire (and aversion) – so we can always get what we want and avoid what we don’t want
  2. Impulse to Act (and not act) – so we can behave appropriately after thinking through the situation carefully
  3. Accurate judgement (and deception) – so we can learn what things we should give our assent to

The Stoics saw these fields as necessary in order to create and life a happy life. Let’s take a look at what each field is exactly. In an effort to avoid a lengthy post, we’ll break each area up separately, starting with Desire.

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Impressions: It’s All in Your Head

It’s All in Your Head

Have you ever thought that you saw one thing, only to find out that it was actually something else? For example, you’re out walking in the woods when you see a snake, and you jump back in fear, only to realize that it was actually just a tree branch lying on the ground.

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It looks like a snake… but is it?

An impression (phantasia) “is what is impressed into the mind by any of the senses” (from Seddon’s book Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes). When you experience something, you have an impression. Your interpretation of what happened then becomes an immediate response to your senses. In the tree branch/snake example, your experience began with the impression of seeing something that looks like a snake in the grass.

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Epictetus: A Short Review

If you’ve poked around on my blog before, you’ll know that Seneca is my favorite Stoic author. He’s eloquent, and I just feel like I “get” him. However, these past several years as my life situation has taken a turn for the better, it’s been easy to put Stoicism on the back burner and just ride life out. There are a couple of problems with this, however.

First:

At no time should Fortune be less trusted than when it is best.

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

The second reason has to do with impressions and Virtue. I’ve held a steady job for the past four years, even obtaining a promotion. Relationships seem to be going well. Life is fine and dandy, but I don’t feel satisfied. I fret more than is logical. I complain more than I should. I get frustrated over common events. There are just some things I do in daily life that I know I shouldn’t, but for some reason I simply can’t stop. Time to get back to the gym.

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Not as toned as you’d like to be? Time to get back to the gym.

When I’m feeling too comfortable in life, the last thing I need is a gentle guiding voice telling me to “just keep making progress,” and “All in good time, Kirsten.” No! I need a wake-up call. A “come to Jesus” moment. Someone who has the guts to say, “Just because life is going well, you don’t need to change a thing? FALSE.” Who better than Epictetus to get the ball rolling? Then I discovered that I already had this lovely book Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes by Keith Seddon! I thoroughly enjoyed Seddon’s book Stoic Serenity and was thrilled at the prospect of him guiding me through a piece of Stoic literature. Let’s see what insights he can add to these amazing, ancient writings.

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Crumbling

I first got acquainted with Stoicism by chance when I was battling my darkest depression. That was exactly two years ago. My life has turned a 180 since then. Two years ago, I physically could not get out of bed until 3:00 in the afternoon. I ate a cookie or biscuit for daily sustenance. I had no job and no support system. My life was full of people rejecting me, and I was left on my own to deal with it (apart from my roommate at the time who tried her best to be supportive). I was wasting away.

Enter Stoicism. A philosophical belief system that told me to refocus my desires. Who cares about the corrupt administration in your last job (and the fact that your peers think lesser of you for exposing that corruption)? At least you can be an upright person. I clung to it. Powerful quotes that could bring goosebumps… That could make perfect sense of this picture below…cosmos-giordano-bruno

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Epictetus: Discourses 1.3

Today’s discourse throws out a phrase that rings a bell for Christians. Whenever I run into these familiar phrases in Stoicism, I get excited. Why? Because without getting into how much exactly Christianity pulled from ancient Stoic philosophy, the fact remains that there are these “uncanny” similarities you run into. And I love these, because they widen my understanding of Christianity actually. Where Christian teachings during my youth may have fallen short at times, they suddenly make so much more sense in light of Stoic philosophy. Don’t know what I mean? Read the discourse and see for yourself. Read more of this post

Epictetus: Discourses 1.2

We just finished covering Discourses 1.1 – Things that are in your power, and things that are not within your power. Epictetus clearly laid out that the mind is distinguished from the body (among other things):

Body Mind
Not completely in your power Completely in your power
Clay, earth Portion of the divine
Subject to setbacks, hindrances Invincible
Small, “poor little body” Capable of expanding as large as the cosmos

He also alluded to a sort of human superpower, called reason, that helps us unlock these properties of the mind and deal with obstacles.

He talked about perceptions, and the concept that humans assign value to objects and events. (Remember, quotes like “What else tells us that gold is beautiful? Gold itself doesn’t tell us that,” and “I must go into exile; can anyone prevent me from going into exile with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?”

Today, Epictetus addresses the fact that “rational” and “irrational” can mean different things to different people, depending on what you value and what you consider your ultimate aim. He also talks about what it means to stay true to your character, and just how much weight that can have once you decide to adhere to it. Let’s get started.

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Epictetus: Discourses 1.1

I randomly decided that I want to read through the works of the three most famous Stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—and type up their works in a language that is quick and easy to understand. Once all is said and done, I may or may not print and bind the document, as a sort of “Stoic Trilogy” to keep at hand for quick reading of the main texts.

I’m starting with Epictetus’ Discourses. As you may well know, my favorite Stoic writer is Seneca. He’s funny, and he’s got a way with words. We’ll spend time with him later. But right now we’re working with Epictetus. Epictetus is a bad ass; he’s like a Stoic drill sergeant. I can imagine him tearing up a student, “You think that’s worth crying about, huh?? Shut the hell up and use that damn brain the gods gave you!” Read more of this post

A Morning Contemplation

It’s Sunday, and I woke up at 6:00am for fun.

Actually, I’m trying to add some intention to my daily life. So I did wake up early. I woke up to watch the sunrise, and it was awesome.

At 6:00am, I pulled on a sweater and shoes, made a latte in the kitchen, and headed out in the dark to my front porch, to sit, observe, and contemplate the sunrise. I was apprehensive at first. Since I had decided last night to do this, I thought, Am I crazy for waking up early on the weekend? This is my last day to sleep in, since work starts again tomorrow. But as soon as I stepped out the door into the darkness, I was immersed in the cool air and a sea of crickets and robins singing. That’s when I got excited. Read more of this post

Stoic Serenity 6.1: Impermanence, Loss, and Death

We’re progressing to the final full chapter of Stoic Serenity: “Impermanence, Loss, and Death.” Interestingly, author Keith Seddon starts this one out with a Bible verse:

cassini-earth-moon-look-bac“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
Remind me that my days are numbered—
how fleeting my life is.

You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
at best, each of us is but a breath.

We are merely moving shadows,
and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth, not knowing who will spend it.”

(Psalm 39:4-6, New Living Translation)

What do you think? Is eudaimonia and peace of mind even attainable? Can it be achieved, or are we simply enamored with an idea? Maybe the human mind is not capable of all this we’ve been studying—maybe we’re chasing after phantoms. After all, everything in the universe is transitory.

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Stoic Serenity 5.10: Thought Experiment 2

Well hello again. I’m going through a rough patch right now, which motivated me to re-read through the Stoic Serenity lessons here on the blog, which in turn motivated me to continue with the chapters in the book. So a year later, I’m picking up exactly where I left off: Cicero’s second thought experiment: Read more of this post

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