On Stoical exercise

I am writing to you from my inner citadel fortified by my moral purpose. My outer citadel is located on high ground in the Upper East Side.

Irene rains grayly outside.

Yesterday I was restless, but today I am calm. This can easily be explained: I have kept up with my philosophical exercises and have felt my strength return.

The unphilosophical life is the way of torpor and lassitude; the philosophical life is the way of vitality. A philosopher must be a warrior of the soul. He does not hope for reality to become other than it is; he assents to its being; he loves what is and cannot not be; he affirms whatever reality makes its appearance. Moreover, he does not say that nothing can be done; he thinks the right thoughts and acts according to his will.

In both modes, that of affirmation and that of action, he is thoroughly active. In all things, he is wise.

I. Hope is pessimism

Let us follow hoping’s thinking through to the end.

If I hope, then I posit a desire for an object ‘out there’ and onto the future.

If I desire that which is ‘out there,’ then my desire will be frustrated or fulfilled. Sometimes it will be frustrated, sometimes fulfilled.

If it is frequently frustrated, then I am dissatisfied.

If I am dissatisfied, then I harbor regret and wish for something else.

If I wish for something else, then I become less and less active and more and more passive.

As I become more and more passive, I become more and more desperate.

But despair is another name for pessimism.

Thus does hope become its opposite.

II. Stoicism is vitalism

The Stoics do not hope; they affirm.

1. Love of fate is the strenuous exercise of assenting to what is and cannot be otherwise. Love of fate is active; the mind is at work when it says ‘yes.’ It says ‘yes’ to this-ness and ‘yes’ to existence.

2. Love of action is the strenuous exercise of willing something when confronted with the proposition that there’s nothing to be done.

To be a vitalist is to maximize one’s powers in all one thinks and in all one does.

III. Love of Fate: A Dialogue

Philosophy is a practice consisting of a set of exercises. The exercises in III and IV, cast in the form of dialogues, are meant to stage the pull of our desires and the strength of our reason. Our reason must be exercised in the right way at the right time, time and time again.

“O life, O Irene, I wish it were otherwise.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“If only it were…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“If only I had…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“I want things to be…”

“They are so; they cannot be otherwise.”

“Perhaps it will pass–pass by, be over soon, not damage, leave us be.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“Why didn’t I…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“Why didn’t you…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“My mother she…, my father he…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“I only wanted to…”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“Life is so unfair.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

“It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”

IV. Love of Action: A Dialogue

“There is nothing to be done, nothing that can be done.”

“I can do this here and now.”

“Here I sit and wait things out.”

“I can do this here and now.”

“I am dependent on him and her, on time, on world.”

“Of the world: you are no god. Still, you can do much, more than enough: you can do this here and now.”

“There is nothing of good that can be done.”

“You can do this here and now, this that is good.”

“You advise but endless activity. You tell me to move papers about.”

“I counsel: activity that is done for the sake of higher ends. Nothing? Prepare lunch. You believe in life. Go to.”

“And what of leisure?”

“Leisure is a form of activity: to begin with, the activity of contemplation. Amid contemplation, there comes a certain passivity but a passivity of a whole other order of being. In any case, you seek only to excuse yourself. Do not give in to weakness. When you excuse, you diminish your powers. When you act, you enhance them. Only ask, ‘What can I do, here and now?'”

V. Coda

Philosophy is a practice whose principle and purpose is integration: integration of self, of world, of self and world. As such, it consists of a set of exercises suited to our moods.

Last week I ranged about on the savanna. In my mouth there was blood-memory but no gazelle-reality. I ranged restlessly, tense yet listless. What now?

When life is hard, there is the exercise of strength. When life is easy, there is the exercise of joy. Montaigne:

When I dance, I dance.

And where there is life, there also is practice.

The Stoics on Hurricane Irene: There is much you can do but you can’t do everything.

Update: In this Wash Post piece, you can check out my book recommendations on how to think clearly about Hurricane Irene. Also at Wash Post: Here you can read the Aug. 24 transcript of my live chat about philosophical counseling.

Philosophy is an ongoing practice in living well. Here you can read a few of my essays on philosophy as a way of life.

My father is a seasoned worrier. About Hurricane Irene he wrote,

Andrew,

This is a Cat 2-3 hurricane. Worst case has Manhattan under 7ft. of water. How high is your building above sea level? Power could be out for days.

Love, Dad

My mom elaborates on my father’s condition: “Andrew, you know your father. He gets so worked up about things.”

As I see it, the only flaw with my dad’s thinking is that he didn’t make the weather. And that seems to induce in him more than his fair share of anxieties over parking, rule violations, finances, and hurricanes.

The ancient Stoics sought to get us out of this conceptual predicament by training us to think better about reality. Anxiety, they claim, arises from the belief that what we deem valuable will soon perish or what we care most about will never come to pass. The problem is that we’ve sought to treat what’s not within our control as if it were or, worse still, as if it should be. But gods we are not. And this mistaken belief about the nature of reality and the extent of our powers is leading us to unnecessary tension and strife.

To anxiety over escape routes and building heights. In Manhattan. For example.

There’s getting up worked up, and then there’s getting wound down. To achieve the latter, the Stoics suggest we perform regular mental exercises—most notably, that of premeditation. While our first instinct may be to hope that things will work out just the way we’d like, suppose instead we imagine they won’t. Suppose we imagine that an earthquake or a hurricane—Irene, for instance—is well on its way. First, loosen your mind from the thought that things could or should be otherwise; that reality will conform to your desires. Instead, assent wholeheartedly to this unavoidable reality. Second, consider what is within our power: you can take the necessary precautions to minimize the likelihood of harm.

Though at first it seems morbid, this exercise actually relieves us of anxiety by helping us to see not just that the weather is not up to us but also that our thoughts about the world, our awareness of ourselves, and our preparations for the worst all most surely are. Premeditation is thus a Janus-faced exercise in acceptance of reality and strength of will.

There is much you can do but you can’t do everything. The rest is love of fate. To learn the difference between will and fate: this is to become wise.

We want to worry less and to feel more at peace. Stoical philosophers like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca take the process of reasoning to be an ongoing, demanding, yet rewarding exercise whose ultimate aim is to teach us how to replace negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety with a sense of joy that comes with the oceanic movement of good thinking.

Further Reading on Stoicism

Andrew Taggart, “Ataraxia, Allostasis, or Resilience?”

—. “What If Pain Weren’t a Bad Thing?”