Archive for the Stoicism Category

Stoic Week may be bad for my health.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , on October 24, 2016 by Joe Callahan

L0011744 Doctor and patient, 1509


Stoic week seems to be bad for my health.

From the organizers’ website: “Stoic Week is an annual online event in which people from all over the world attempt to live like a Stoic for seven days”. Briefly, a group of academics and psychotherapy professionals based in the UK organized the event each year. The object is to see if people would find it useful to follow some of the daily practices of Greco-Roman Stoicism for a week.  In turn, the participants give feedback via questionnaires over the net.

I have participated in this event each year since its beginning.  I always find it interesting as I learn something new about my own personal philosophical practices.  My 2012 Stoic Week experience was marked by a trip to the emergency room due to a freak eye accident.  I chose to view it as an opportunity to walk the walk with regard to Stoicism.  Now, for 2016, I’ve come down with the worst cold I’ve had in years.

A cold may not sound like much of a challenge to the practice of Stoic Week (or one’s philosophical practice at any time).  Unfortunately, I have a long history of colds dropping straight into my chest and causing bronchial woes.  Basically, a bad cold can lead to many days (if not weeks) of violent coughing where I sound like Val Kilmer playing Doc Holiday in Tombstone.  Albuterol is my friend.

One full day of Stoic Week was a complete washout.  Too tired, feeling too ill, too preoccupied by the constant hacking.  The next day I was back in the saddle with the exercises but I was left wondering how significant a failure (if indeed it was a failure) that sick day constituted.  If I did keep in mind a Stoic acceptance of things beyond our control and awareness that illness is a dis-preferred indifferent with regard to a “good” life wasn’t that enough?  Or is the simple truth I just dropped the ball because I felt lousy?

I think it is more the latter.  Yes I felt unwell and the coughing fits were distracting. Still, it’s not as though I was James Stockdale lying in his cell in the Hanoi Hilton with broken bones reminding himself of Epictetus’ teachings.  All I had to do was a little reading and some mental exercises.  Mind you, I’m not engaging in too much self-flagellation over this.  To get over-wrought about a setback is not in keeping with Stoic practices either.  But it is worth engaging in self-analysis and using the experience as a reminder not to make the same error in the future.

No, I don’t really see causality between Stoic Week and my physical woes.  But next year I think I will remind myself of “Amor fati” when things start just in case I get hit by a bus or develop a rare disease.  If something does occur I will try again to embrace is as part of my personal training.

Rainy Day Thoughts of the Past.

Posted in Agathos, arete, Stoicism with tags , , on January 10, 2016 by Joe Callahan


Today was dark and rainy here in the Boston area. It was a day well suited for hibernation and introspection. In between making to-do lists for the week ahead and catching up on a bit of reading I drifted into thoughts about the past. People I’ve known over the years came to mind. Some I still know. Some I have no idea whatever became of them.

The past is a place best visited only in moderation. Whether the memories are pleasant or not the past can be an overly seductive place to dwell. The past informs our present but it no longer exists.

The Zen master Kosho Uchiyama speaks about this in his book “Opening the Hand of Thought”. The present moment is all that really exists. Paradoxically, the past as well as the future are contained in the present moment. The past helped to create the present moment and it will presumably lead to future moments. But it is only the present moment that actually exists. That may sound a bit esoteric but it makes sense.

What has this got to do with Agathos, the good and the worthy, and the pursuit of Arete (human excellence)? I don’t think we can achieve these things without understanding the history of the microcosmic world of our individual lives. Each one has its unique past. But we cannot dwell there because it is only in the present that we can act. The Stoics would tell us that we must act according to the role we now find ourselves playing regardless of how we got here.  What we do now is really all that can matter.

Anyway, that is what has been rattling around in my head on a quiet rainy day.

Stoic Week 2015 – An Experiment in Living Philosophy

Posted in Agathos, arete, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on October 7, 2015 by Joe Callahan

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is the focus for this year’s Stoic Week.

While this blog is not all about Stoic philosophy there is a clear Stoic influence in my thoughts and writing. One could do much worse than taking up Stoicism as a practice to cultivate Agathos, the good and worthy, in oneself.
To that end I have participated in an online based event called Stoic Week each year since its beginning. The event starts in early November. Details can be found here. Also you can find info on the Stoicism Group on Facebook. I’ll let the description speak for itself.

Stoic Week is an online and international event taking place this year from Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th November. 2015 will be the fourth year in a row that Stoic Week has run. Anyone can participate by following the daily instructions in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook, which will be published online. You will be following the practice of Stoic philosophers for seven days. You will also be discussing the experience of adapting Stoic ideas for modern living with other participants in our online forums. The aims of the course are to introduce the philosophy so that you can see how it might be useful in your own life and to measure its psychological benefits. This year’s theme is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the most widely-read of all Stoic authors.

The event is put on by the good people at Stoicism Today and the University of Exeter in the UK. The event was first conceived by an interesting mix of Classical scholars, Philosophers and Psychologists. The object was to see how well Stoicism could be used as a method of living in the present day.

The exercises that make up daily practice for the week-long event are familiar to me. Some are part of my daily regimen already. But I appreciate the event as a nudge to focus my practice (if not get it jump started again after I’ve lost steam). I also enjoy the collaborative effort. I have some friends to discuss these matters with but not that many and not acting in coordinated fashion.

Previous Stoic Weeks have been marked by Stoic learning opportunities like smashing myself in the eye and going to the ER. This year I plan on something more subdued, using the focused exercises of Stoic Week to help me with some personal projects. More on that later.

For someone looking to cultivate the virtues as laid out in Greek and Roman philosophy this is a pretty decent experiment and hey, its only for a week.  It builds character. The Stoics show us a certain detachment that comes from understanding what is truly within our control and what is not. Since this blog is about Eudemonia (a fully flourishing human life) and cultivating that through Arete (the acquisition of excellence in what we do) then practicing to be mindful of what is truly within our human grasp (or not) is a worthy topic.

Blogging Again and Excellence in Nature.

Posted in Agathos, arete, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on September 4, 2015 by Joe Callahan

After a year-long hiatus I’m back in the blogging saddle. This past year was an especially challenging one. My father passed away in May after some difficult months. He was a remarkable guy. I may write about that at some point. As the only child of elderly parents I have been the primary person to handle their affairs. I had no idea how much would be involved. Old age and the healthcare maze is not for the faint of heart. I may also write about that at some point. Combined with the demands of work and maintaining a reasonably balanced relationship, I haven’t written or even reposted a thing.

Writing about the continued effort to bring Agathos (the good and the worthy) into one’s life is a worthwhile undertaking and a good personal practice. So, here we are. To dust off the cobwebs I’ll share a passage.

Lucan was a Roman poet best known for the Pharsalia. This epic poem recounts the civil war between the Roman Senate and Julius Caesar on his rise to dictatorial power. Lucan wrote while still quite young. He was trained in the Stoicism school of philosophy. When he was only 25 he became involved in a plot to overthrow the famously unpleasant emperor Nero. The plot failed and young Lucan was ordered to commit suicide. It isn’t clear if Lucan was a very good Stoic in practice. The historian Suetonius recounts that Lucan sought mercy from Nero by selling out other conspirators including his own mother. There is disagreement over the truth of this passage. It does seem at odds with the details of his death. When Lucan ended his life he threw a banquet and recited poetry (his own) before opening up his veins. That doesn’t seem the act of someone who had previously been sobbing “Take mother! She did it!” Unfortunately we’ll never know for sure.

In the ninth book of the Pharsalia Lucan recounts the words of Cato the Roman senator. Cato was also a follower of Stoicism and one of the most steadfast opponents of Caesar. He would ultimately take his own life rather than surrender to someone he perceived as a tyrant. When Cato speaks in this passage he rejects the suggestion that he consult an oracle. Fighting a losing battle in North Africa he feels no need to ask what their fate will be.

He, filled with the god he carried in his silent mind,
poured forth from his breast words worthy of the shrine:
’What question, Labienus, do you bid me ask? Whether I prefer
to meet my death in battle, free, to witnessing a tyranny?
Whether it makes no difference if our lives be long or short?
Whether violence can harm no good man and Fortune wastes her threats
when virtue lines up against her, and whether it is enough to wish for
things commendable and whether what is upright never grows by its success?
We know the answer: Ammon will not plant it deeper in me.
We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know. Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence? Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.
Let those unsure and always dubious of future events
require fortune-tellers: no oracles make me certain,
certain death does. Coward and brave must fall:
it is enough that Jupiter has said this.’ So declaring
he departed.

The section that I’ve placed in bold is a lovely sentiment and has an almost Transcendentalist sensibility. Spirituality and nature become intertwined. Since the Stoics often used God, Zeus, the Logos, and Nature interchangeably it is maybe to be expected. The idea that one experiences nature and spirit personally, immediately and independently is compelling. When I was a teen I was introduced to backpacking by an uncle who was an avid outdoorsman and sailor. He expressed much the same sentiment and said his only church was out under the sky. It made perfect sense has stayed with me ever since.

I am not religious but if there is anything that can be called spiritual it will be observed in sunsets and tides and the trickling of creeks over stones.

What really caught my attention was the inclusion of the word excellence (I have also seen it translated as virtue). Was Lucan saying that human excellence is also a feature of nature like mountains or seas? I have to assume he meant excellence/virtue in the same way the Greek Stoics spoke of Arete. The Greek ideal of moral excellence was concrete. Virtue that can’t be demonstrated isn’t really virtue. As Eric Greitens points out in his fine book Resilience, today we often think of virtue as avoiding what you shouldn’t do whereas the Greco-Roman world saw virtue as what you do. In order to be just perform a just act. In order to be courageous perform a courageous act.

So is God (or Zeus or Logos or whatever you prefer) to be found both in nature and in our actions? Maybe we are closest to the transcendent when we are acting with Arete. That is what brings us most in harmony with the world, the world where gods are found in the mountains and the quiet forests. I like that thought.

Heavy Rain and Hagakure

Posted in Agathos, Martial Arts, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on June 10, 2014 by Joe Callahan
A little rain didn't deter the Seven Samurai....though musket fire was problematic.

A little rain didn’t deter the Seven Samurai….though musket fire was problematic.

Today we had a sudden heavy downpour in the Boston area.  I was already in my car when it began so I escaped the worst of it.  I did have to make a stop at a local establishment.  One of the shop owners offered to escort me back to my car with an umbrella.  Great customer service!  Still, I declined.  It was a short dash and, really, it’s rain not lava falling from the skies.  When I was back behind the wheel I was suddenly reminded of a passage from Hagakure (Hidden Leaves) written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a Samurai of the early 18th century.

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and
run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you
are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding
extends to everything.

It is true that the author tends to think the universal solution to all of life’s problems is drawing one’s sword and rushing forward to die well.  I prefer a more tactical approach myself.  I think here he is suggesting more that when faced with the inevitable, things beyond one’s control, that it is best to recognize them and accept that the soaking may be unavoidable but likely not fatal.  Discomfort does not equal death.  Better to simply get where you are going and let the rest take care of itself.  A drenched Samurai is still a Samurai.

New Year’s Resolutions?

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on January 2, 2014 by Joe Callahan

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. I’ve learned the hard way that changes are incremental, habitual and not the result of sweeping grand proclamations (I’m going to get in FANTASTIC shape and save the planet and learn to speak fluent French!!). Still, if you want to make some resolutions to follow in the new year you could do far worse than these from the Greek and Roman ancients.


Dante, Grief, Meaning, and Why Philosophy Belongs to Those Who Live It.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , on December 22, 2013 by Joe Callahan


I write frequently about the use of ancient philosophy as a practical guideline for living.  Because of my interest in this I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the current state of philosophy, and the humanities in general, these last few years.  It’s no great insight on my part to observe that most academic philosophy shows little interest in how the discipline may be used to live one’s life.  There are notable exceptions like Pierre Hadot and others but one encounters disappointingly little.  In fact,  there seems to be some animosity (or just simple sneering) at the suggestion that  “old dead men” can offer anything usable today for conducting a good, worthy life.  You can see it in pieces like this and this.  Arguments are made for the continued relevance (and therefore funding) of classics for intellectual development.  But the idea that classical philosophy might still be a living tradition is often dismissed.

Countering this, some amongst the scientism crowd insist that philosophy, literature, art and spirituality have nothing valid to tell us about life and humanity.  Only the scientific method can be the arbiter of truth.  If you spend any time reading debates in places like The Stone column of the NY Times there is heated disagreement over the value and future of the humanities.  Humanities don’t seem to be winning the argument given university cutbacks.  That may account for the defensiveness of some classics scholars when others make use of philosophy without seeking their seal of approval.

I am genuinely glad to see science give us new ways to consider these topics.  I am enthused and fascinated by developments in disciplines like physics and cognitive neuroscience.  Certainly these insights can and should shape how we view the human mind, cosmology, metaphysics, etc.  While I have been very influenced by Greco-Roman Stoicism it would be difficult to claim we should adhere to Stoic physics.  The problem comes with a blanket dismissal of what philosophy, art, spirituality can give us now that science will answer all mysteries.  It is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater (not to mention it smacks of hubris).

These issues came to mind when I encountered this essay.  The author is a professor of Italian at Bard College who specializes in the study of Dante.  In the article he writes about the unexpected and early death of his pregnant wife.  It is a moving meditation on what a work like The Inferno can give to us in our darkest nights of the soul.  His grief led him to look afresh at material he’d studied and taught.  Now it gave him more than intellectual satisfaction.  It helped to guide him through his own struggles with loss, mortality and meaning.

“I still lived and worked and socialized in the same places and with the same people after my wife’s death as before. And yet I felt that her death exiled me from what had been my life. Dante’s words gave me the language to understand my own profound sense of displacement. More important, it transformed this anguished state into a beautiful image.

After Katherine died, I obsessed for the first time over whether we have a soul, a part of us that outlives our body. The miracle of “The Divine Comedy” is not that it answers this question, but that it inspires us to explore it, with lungo studio e grande amore, long study and great love.”

In the face of such a passage it would be difficult to argue that Dante, as an “old dead guy”, had nothing to offer.  It would be reductionist to brush off the author’s inspiration as a mere cognitive strategy for reducing his pain.  It would be just plain lame to quibble over the real meanings of Dante as expressed through the deconstructionist work of So-and-so.  Work by academic philosophy and scientists can broaden our understanding of our minds, our lives and our world (the old and the new).  For that they have my admiration and gratitude.  But they cannot determine where and how I will find meaning.  Nor can they know how the ideas and images of philosophy, literature and art will guide me to a flourishing life.  For each of us, the knowledge we gain and the understandings we reach are our own regardless of the mechanics by which we attain them.  The Telos, the end goal, is for us alone to determine.  Philosophy belongs to those that use it.  That requires no justification.  As Dante said, just long study and great love.