Category Archives: philosophy

Sketched Book: The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results – Tom Morris

Tom Morris’ The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results (2004) collects easy-to-read quotes from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The author glues the quotes together with commentary, providing context and suggestions for interpretation.

2014-12-10 Book - The Stoic Art of Living - Inner Resilience and Outer Results - Tom Morris

I like the author’s quotes from ancient philosophers, as other translations can feel stuffy. It’s a decent overview of interesting thoughts, and you can follow the ideas to their sources. The book can feel a little light, though. There’s something about the succession of quotes and topics that makes me feel like I’m bobbing up and down on a surface.

For comparison, I feel that William Braxton Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life (2009) goes into greater depth for fewer concepts. Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way reads more like a modern self-help book inspired by Stoicism, without as many quotes as this book.

If you’ve read a lot about Stoicism (and especially from the three philosophers featured here), you probably won’t find a lot of new ideas here. However, you might pick up some good phrasings and ways to think about those ideas. As Pierre Hadot wrote in Philosophy as a Way of Life: “Ancient philosophy was designed to be memorized, so that it could be ‘at hand’ when we are confronted with tumultuous situations.” Maybe you’ll find the quotes in this book easy to hang on to. Enjoy!

If you want, you can check out the books on Amazon:

I get a small commission if you buy the books through those links, but getting them from the library is totally okay too. =) Have fun!

Categorical imperatives versus genetic algorithms

I was thinking about why I like thinking in terms of experiments, and how that’s related to how I generally don’t have strong disagreements with people.

I think most people I spend time with have a “live and let live” sort of policy similar to mine. We explore different life paths and have different opinions, but that’s okay. It results in more information and more insight.

Sometimes I come across people who express their opinions more strongly. Reading Reddit posts about people dealing with strong and probably well-meaning advice reminds me that there are people out there who are firmly convinced they know what’s good for you. I know I sometimes slip into that kind of advice-giving mode myself, especially around things that give me heebie-jeebies.

2014-09-12 Categorical imperatives versus genetic algorithms

2014-09-12 Categorical imperatives versus genetic algorithms

I like the idea that most of us are figuring things out in good faith. I haven’t thought through the limits of this idea yet (one’s choices might limit someone else’s, for example), but there might be something there worth exploring.

Appreciation and imagining loss

The Stoics have this practice of imagining loss in order to become accustomed to it and be less attached to these temporary things. You start by imagining that the loss of small things, and then move on to imagining larger losses like the death of a loved one. Seneca writes in his Moral Essays:

He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.

and Epictetus advises in Discourses:

This is what you ought to practise from morning till evening. Begin with the smallest, the most vulnerable things, like a pot, or a cup, and then advance to a tunic, a paltry dog, a mere horse, a bit of land; next yourself, your body and its limbs, your children, wife, brothers. Look about on every side and cast these things away from you. Purify your judgements, lest something not your own have become fastened to you, or grown together with you, and cause you pain when it is torn loose.

You might think that this kind of meditation is depressing. I think it enhances my appreciation of what’s in my life, and thus contributes to my happiness. Reflecting on loss–or even non-existence–helps me appreciate how things and people have influenced me.

 2014-08-13 To know something's distinctiveness - #philosophy.png

Tangential story applying this to my life:

Actually, keeping my cool around cats and people is pretty easy. Probably the thing that I most need to practise patience with is Internet Explorer, as I occasionally feel annoyed and frustrated about it. (Not super-frustrated, but still pretty grumbly.) Maybe the next time I find myself peeved by cross-browser differences, I can remind myself of things to appreciate about IE. I’m sure the Internet would have grown slower without a default browser on lots of people’s computers, and IE keeps lots of people employed or consulting–all the things that need to be tweaked. And things are getting better now! At least I don’t have to code for IE6 any more, or even IE7. Besides, IE makes a good basis for humour. ;)

Philosophy. Not just for the big questions–also for the little tech annoyances opportunities to practise patience.

“Call no man happy until he is dead” – I think it’s okay to be happy

In a comment on my reflection on leisure, Thomas Worthington mentioned the story of Solon and Crœsus. Crœsus had asked Solon who the happiest person was, and Solon’s answers focused on people who had died admirable deaths. The idea is that you can’t say people are happy or blessed person until they die, since their luck could always go bad.

 I’d come across that idea before. Aristotle says something similar in Nichomachean Ethics:

He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life. (1101a10)

It got me thinking about the differences between how I think of happiness and how I think they thought of happiness. I can see the point of those ancient philosophers, but it seems unnecessary to focus on what people would judge as happy.

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead - #philosophy

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead – #philosophy

For me, it’s much more useful and more real to be able to think of myself as happy, and to keep in mind that the ups and downs of fortune are small waves in a very deep lake. It’s like Louis CK’s rant, Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. I’m writing this on a computer and the text will be sent off through radio signals and electrons and photos around the world! And I have windows and indoor plumbing and all these other luxuries beyond those enjoyed by ancient kings.

But this kind of happiness comes easy to me, at least at this moment. We’ve learned a lot about how the mind works, but not enough – there are things that can take away your ability to appreciate and enjoy and hope. (Note to future Sacha: if this happens to you, remember that things will work out.) In the meantime, giving myself permission to be happy–not a tempting-fate sort of happy, just an appreciative sort of happy–makes it easier for me to enjoy life.

People have different ideas about happiness. Some people think happiness requires wealth, fame, pleasure, freedom. I doubt there’s much point in trying to change someone’s mind about happiness or get them to agree with you on your definition; and even your definition might change over time, as you learn from other people. Live your own life as well as you can. Perhaps by illuminating those possibilities, you might help other people explore their own.

Becoming comfortable with simplicity and even discomfort

Here’s an excerpt from Seneca’s Epistles (Letter 18) that made me think about voluntary simplicity:

Such is the course which those men I have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

… Even Epicurus, the teacher of pleasure, used to observe stated intervals, during which he satisfied his hunger in niggardly fashion; he wished to see whether he thereby fell short of full and complete happiness, and, if so, by what amount be fell short, and whether this amount was worth purchasing at the price of great effort.

… For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of Pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

I’m careful with my finances because I don’t want to end up in the kinds of situations that I see play out around me and on the Internet. I know I can’t eliminate those risks (no one is immune to bad luck!), but I can try to minimize the risks.

I’m pretty insulated from everyday troubles. I’m not often hungry or thirsty. I usually bring a bottle of water and a snack in my bag, and in the city, there are always places to go. We have what we need and want, and we don’t worry about where our next meal is coming from or how we can keep a roof over our heads.

Sometimes when I talk to people a little further ahead in life, I’m reminded that prosperity can lead to complacency. Some people tell me they wish they could do something like this experiment of mine with semi-retirement, but on the other hand, they like their current lifestyle a lot too. I like keeping my life simple and my budget almost student-ish. I check out thrift stores for clothes. I shop for groceries with a list, do the math when it comes to prices, and enjoy home-cooked meals more than restaurant steaks. It’s a way of minimizing risks and increasing safety, I guess. If I don’t get used to the good life – if I fight lifestyle inflation and hedonic adaptation – then I can more easily weather any downturns in markets or luck.

How can I get even better at this? In terms of food, it’s good to practice with simple ingredients and simple techniques. Then the main differentiator would be skill in choosing, combining, and cooking. I can still enjoy the things that I’m not very skilled at. I might even skip a meal, or eat lightly. In terms of transportation, maybe I should walk long distances once in a while, so I don’t get too accustomed to taking transit or biking. In terms of things, I can give more things away, or box things up temporarily.

It’s good to get pleasure from the small stuff. I can drink tap water here in Toronto, which still boggles me no end. I can read hundreds of books from the library. I can walk and feel the sun shining. I can breathe and feel my lungs inflate. What do I need richer pleasures for, if these simple ones can be enough?

Learning philosophy at the right time

When I took the required philosophy courses in university, I was too young for it. We all were, I think — inarticulate adolescents with little life experience. Perhaps a brilliant teacher would have been able to teach it anyway, and perhaps for some of my classmates our teachers were brilliant. I struggled with the courses, though. The topics seemed abstract and impractical. We read Plato’s Republic and were quizzed on his ideal society. We read the Nichomachean Ethics and differentiated among types of friendship. We read Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on totalitarianism and discussed terror. But nothing really made an impact on my everyday life, aside from the unexpected oddness of being comfortable with–even finding a sort of joy in–the hopelessness and despair described by Sartre when it seemed, based on how we were taught and how my classmates responded, that I should have had more philosophical discomfort with the concept.

Hence the young man is not a fit student of Moral Philosophy, for he has no experience in the actions of life, while all that is said presupposes and is concerned with these: and in the next place, since he is apt to follow the impulses of his passions, he will hear as though he heard not, and to no profit, the end in view being practice and not mere knowledge.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book 1 – 1095a)

The normal course of events, perhaps, might be that I’d revisit these topics later in life. Much later, the way people conscious of mortality tend to think about life. I think this 5-year experiment of mine nudged me to think about the best use of time, and from there to wonder about Aristotle’s recommendation of the contemplative life. Time and patience

I’m not quite at the point of understanding Heidegger and similar thinkers. I don’t need to get there, I think, in order to get some benefit from applying philosophy to life. I want to train my mind to see clearly, want the right things, not want the wrong things, act on these right judgments, and be able to explain what I’m learning to myself and to others. Starting this early makes sense, because then I can avoid bad habits (or unlearn them before they get ingrained) and enjoy the benefits for longer.

Keep on as you have begun, and make all possible haste, so that you may have longer enjoyment of an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself. Doubtless you will derive enjoyment during the time when you are improving your mind and setting it at peace with itself; but quite different is the pleasure which comes from contemplation when one’s mind is so cleansed from every stain that it shines.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 4

In a later letter, Seneca also tells us that we don’t have to put this kind of thinking off until we are comfortably settled. This reminds me of how people set these constantly moving goalposts for themselves (“I just need to make $XXX,000″ – and then higher, and higher), and why it made sense to me to risk jumping earlier rather than later. We’ll see how this works out.

Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: “I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy.” And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: “I wish to acquire something to live on.” Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 17

Now is a good time, I think. I can train my thinking and inspire my writing with classic, clear texts, and I can work on learning things that are common to more people than my other niche interests are.