Stoic Week 2015: Day 4: Virtue

Morning Reflection:

If you ever find anything better in life than justice, truthfulness, self-control, and courage…by all means, turn it it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found… But if you find everything that, compared to Virtue, proves to be trivial and valueless, then give no room to it, because once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able to give the highest honor to that which is properly good without experiencing inner conflict. It’s not right to set up any rival to Virtue, such as popularity, powerful office, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.6)

I listened to the Morning Meditation Audio again this morning. Here are some of my favorite bits from it:

Marcus admires the Pythagoreans who walked in solitude each morning and contemplated the stars and the rising sun at daybreak to remind them of their place in the vastness of the Cosmos…

  • Every time I hear this part, it sets up beautiful imagery in my mind. How lovely it would be to start each day with a walk before sunrise, to look at the stars and remind myself how small I am. How sad, but true it is, that in today’s modern world, it can actually be impossible for us to see the stars in the morning, considering only light pollution… Can you imagine living in Ancient Rome, being able to get up each morning and stroll outside with a beautiful blanket of stars above your head?

Each day begins with the sun rising, and this is how your time is measured—by the movements of vast bodies in the Cosmos. You occupy a tiny corner of the universe, but you have the opportunity to expand your mind and contemplate the vastness of time and space.

  • If you’re into science, and even if you’re not into science (I definitely wasn’t!), I really recommend watching the new “Cosmos” series (you can find it on Netflix or on DVD). It’s a tribute to Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series which I had never even heard of (like I said, not even remotely interested in science). Narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson, this show has been so gripping. I’ve learned enormous amounts from it. It has even managed to expand my imagination, and my idea of the Cosmos has jumped from largely ignoring the idea, to being fascinated with it. I’m intrigued by the idea that my atoms have been floating around in the Cosmos for billions of years, and my physical body is made up of atoms that once used to make up the body of something else. Fascinating…

As Epictetus tells his Stoic students: “Imagine that you’re entering a festival each day and preparing yourself to endure the rough and tumble, but also to appreciate the spectacle while all the time accepting that certain, it must all come to an end, and that you must take nothing for granted.”

  • Now for your link between ancient Stoicism and modern pop culture! This makes me think of a song from the Australian singer “Lenka.” My sister loved this artist, so that’s how I came across the song. Probably not what you were expecting from a blog about ancient Stoic philosophy, but give the song a listen. I love the imagery; it’s a fun way to take to heart what Epictetus was saying: we’re entering a festival each day. 🙂


Lunchtime: Virtue and Values-clarification

I find it a bit interesting that Stoic Week waits until the second half to address that which, to me, is the core of Stoicism: Virtue. If you’ve studied any Stoicism before, you’ll be aware already that Stoics view Virtue as the only thing that is intrinsically good, and the four core Virtues are self-control, courage, justice, and wisdom. Stoics believe that Virtue is really the only thing necessary for real happiness. Those other things that people chase after in their pursuit of happiness, such as wealth and popularity?–those people are misguided. Wealth and property can be used to do both good and evil, therefore they have no intrinsic value.

To have a good life, it is only necessary to be a good person.

What makes the Virtues so special? The Virtues have to do with understanding and character, they guide us in how to deal with other people in a way that makes us rational and social beings, that is, fully human. When taken together, the four Virtues are intended to cover what it means to “live well:” rational understanding, managing our emotions, treating others properly. The Stoics viewed the four core Virtues as belonging to a set—one could not exist without the other. The Stoic Week Handbook adds this interesting bit: “[The Stoics] also recognized there were many subdivisions of the main four virtues, and that they could be understood from a number of different perspectives.” I would really like some further reading here. Anyone?

Then the Stoic Week Handbook says Stoics thought that:

…if you have the Virtues, you will be good at doing everything else in life.

What? We already covered the dichotomy of control, or what is in my power and not in my power. Even if I have the Virtues, how can I be good at doing anything that is not in my control? If anything, I see the Stoics saying that if you have the Virtues, then you will be good at handling everything that you encounter in life. Moving on.

The Stoics realized that “achieving” Virtue was extremely difficult. Did anyone ever fully achieve Virtue? The Stoics had the idea of the “sage,” as discussed yesterday, who functioned as a role model—much like the idea of “WWJD? or What would Jesus do?” But despite no one ever reportedly completely achieving “full Virtue,” the Stoics believed that all humans are capable of achieving Virtue and that this should be our ultimate goal in life.

A life centered on the attainment of Virtue is far better than one directed toward other misguided goals.

Marcus’ Meditations, particularly in book 1, speak to Marcus’ belief of his life as a journey towards the attainment of Virtue, rather than any other misguided goals.

So what does this mean for me?

How can I incorporate this view of Virtue into my own life? The Stoic Week Handbook discusses a method called “values-clarification.” This method entails two parts:

  1. What are my core values? What do I think is most important for leading a good human life?
  2. Do my daily actions match with my core values? If not, how can I change my actions match my values? What activities can I incorporate into daily life to make my actions match my values?

From the Stoic Week Handbook:

“Some modern psychotherapies think that psychological problems may stem from a mismatch between our actions and what we value, and that bringing the two closer together is crucial for helping us to get free of these psychological problems.”

My biggest core values probably include integrity (or justice with courage) and critical thinking (wisdom). What do I want to accomplish in life? I want to help others think critically. What daily actions am I doing that speak to this value? I work on a daily basis as a case manager who assists people to prepare for employment and to help bring themselves out of poverty. This can sometimes require complete change of outlook. So yes, I think my job speaks to my values. What else do I do? I study philosophy, I write this blog, I watch documentaries to open my mind, I attend lectures. I think I’m doing fairly well. Why am I not completely satisfied with life? Perhaps it has to do with days where I feel lazy/depressed and waste the hours away. That’s definitely not acting with my values. I have some more soul searching to do here, but I think those modern psychotherapists are definitely onto something.

I’m taking directly from the Stoic Week Handbook here, but I wanted to write down these questions to remember to do the exercise on my own time. If you have a minute, why don’t you answer the questions now?

  • What’s the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you want your life to “stand for” or to “be about”?
  • What would you want to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  • What sort of thing do you most want to spend your time doing?
  • What sort of person do you want to be in your various relationships and roles?
  • How far do your core values match the ancient Stoic core virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control?

Take a moment to contemplate your life. Do your daily actions speak to your core values? Is there one more activity you could add that would help you express your core values?


Evening Reflection

Every habit is formed and strengthen by its corresponding act—walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read; if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you’ll see what the result is. And if you are bedridden for ten days, when you get up and try to walk any distance, you’ll find your legs barely able to support you. So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different. The same goes for the affairs of the mind… So if you don’t want to become hot-tempered, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get angry. “I used to be angry every day, then only every other day, then every third…” If you resist it a whole month, offer God a sacrifice, because the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether. “I didn’t lose my temper this day, or the next, and not for two, then three months in succession.” If you can say that, you are now in excellent health, believe me.

(Epictetus, Discourses 2.18)

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2 responses to “Stoic Week 2015: Day 4: Virtue

  1. jbonnicerenoreg November 6, 2015 at 8:44 am

    “Character Strengths and Virtue” by Seligman and Peters and “Achieve your Potential with Positive Psychology” by Tim LeBon are related to this topic.

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