How to Argue that God Exists

Written by: Michael Lucana

This is an exploration of Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s Ontological Argument, an argument which aims to prove the existence of God. The goal of this article isn’t to prove whether or not Anselm got it right, but to get a better understanding of what it means to have a philosophical dialogue about faith by breaking down how Anselm tries to get us to agree with him. I will try to stay away from using overly technical philosophical vocabulary where I can, but there are many aspects of Anselm’s argument that will require more than just broad and sweeping generalizations.

I have to admit, I’ve always found Saint Anselm’s Ontological Argument quite compelling. Not necessarily because I buy into it, mind you, but more because of how much it aspires to. Here is an argument that tells you without reservation that not only does God exist, but that it can be proven. Any way you slice it, that’s a pretty damn bold claim to make right there. Even if I don’t agree with the argument right away (more on that later), I just gotta know, how did you come to that conclusion? Let me in on the secret of your headspace Anselm, enlighten me.

And I’m not the only one who’s found the Ontological Argument compelling either. Ever since Anselm came up with it, back in the 11th Century, it has resurfaced again and again, taking on different forms, but ultimately amounting to the same thing, proof that God necessarily exists. In fact, even today you can find numerous videos online that will show you, using some version of the Ontological Argument, that yes God exists. By that same token, you will also find many videos that will argue the opposite and that there’s something just not right with Anselm’s argument.

So what am I going to do here? Am I going to show you that actually yes, Anselm’s reasoning is super bulletproof against any objections? No. Am I going to show you that Anselm was wrong? Not really. I’m just going to show how Anselm thought he was right, how he argued for the claim, “God exists.” And showing this really involves trying to understand the reasoning that Anselm used to get to his conclusion.

You Gotta Have Faith?

Anselm’s Ontological Argument can be found in a short work entitled Proslogion. The way Anselm presents it at the start of this work, he already believes in God, he’s already got faith. But now he’s trying to use his understanding to rationally work out his beliefs.

This…seems circular at first sight. After all, if I already have faith, that is, if I already believe that God exists, then can you really trust the conclusion I come to, that God exists? We would rightly be suspicious of someone’s conclusion that x was the case if they had started their argument with “I believe that x is the case.”

But when we actually get to inspecting Anselm’s Ontological Argument, we are going to find that, he doesn’t argue from the premise that he believes that God exists. Actually, he starts by arguing from the premise that God does not exist. Basically, he’s going to try to argue for the existence of God from what he believes to be an atheistic vantage point.

The Passage in Question

Alright well, let’s take a look at the passage in question, the one that all the hubbub is about. It’s the second chapter of the Proslogion. It’s an incredibly short chapter, so short that I included the whole thing below:

Truly there is a God, although the fool has said in his heart, There is no God.

AND so, Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you knowest it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak –a being than which nothing greater can be conceived –understands what be hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but be does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, be both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Okay, well…there’s a lot to unpack there. Even I’ll admit that. If you read all that and instantly understood every aspect of it, that’s great. If that wall of text is just screaming to you “Go no further!” don’t, worry about it. I first read this argument over ten years ago and even I still have to tread carefully when I rehearse it, but there is a way to to get through it.

To begin with, we won’t immediately worry about the content of the argument, what the argument is trying to say. We’re not gonna worry about how to wrap our heads around “that which nothing greater can be conceived” just yet. If we don’t buy into theism, we’re not gonna get offended that we’re being called “fools” for doubting the existence of God. No, what we want to get clear about first of all is the structure of the argument, how it thinks that it’s going to show us that the conclusion it’s trying to get at is true.

Reductio ad Absurdem

The Ontological Argument is fundamentally a Reductio Ad Absurdem argument. What this means is that Anselm isn’t really going to try to convince us that the claim (God exists) he’s arguing for is correct straight away. What he’s going to do first is show us that holding the opposite view (God doesn’t exist) leads to a conclusion that is self-contradictory.

Typically a Reductio Ad Absurdem doesn’t need to much to get going. If I’m going to show that someone’s belief leads to a self-contradictory conclusion I really just need the following:

(P) The belief that is to be refuted. This is the claim that my opponent is holding and I’m going to show leads to a ridiculous conclusion.

(Q) Another belief that my opponent also holds that is true, or that we both agree is true at least. There doesn’t just need to be one of these, there can be a whole bunch of them, but at minimum at least one is sufficient to get us to where we want.

Conclusion: (P & not-P) A conclusion that is inferred from P & Q that is obviously absurd because it involves the belief that P is both true and not true.

Let’s take a look at a Reductio Ad Absurdem argument that has slightly lower stakes than the existence of a cosmic creator to get a firm grasp of it:

(1′) David believes that it’s not raining right now.

(2′) David also believes that when the grass is wet, it is because it is raining. This is something David and I can agree on at least.

(3′) Well, you know what, the grass is wet when I look out the window. David looks out the window and notices that yes the grass is in fact wet.

(4′) David then comes to the conclusion that it is both not raining (from 1) and it is also raining (from 2 ‘& 3’).

Okay, there’s something obviously wrong with that, right? I mean, it can’t be both raining and not raining at the same time. We both agree that wet grass is a sign of rain and there is currently wet grass so it must be raining. Clearly David is wrong in believing that it’s not raining. But he chooses to conclude that it is both raining and not raining. Most of us would immediately see it as absurd if anyone continued to insist that there was nothing wrong with maintaining the conclusion (4′) David had come to. Foolish would probably be one of the nicer things they would get called.

In the same way that David would get called a fool for sticking to his guns that it is both raining and not raining at the same time, Anselm thinks that the atheist who says to himself that “there is no God,” is bound for a similar sort of absurd conclusion. Now let’s take that wall of text that confronted us earlier and see how it it fits within the structure of a Reductio Ad Absurdem argument.

Breaking down the Argument

To begin with there are three premises that Anselm supposes can be agreed upon by everyone. They are the following:

(1) A definition of God: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. For brevity, let’s just say that God is Q. There is a lot to be said about why Anselm thinks this is a good way to define God, but for now let’s just take it for granted that when we’re talking about God, whether or not we think He exists, we’re usually thinking of an ultimate sort of being, one which surpasses any other being in power, knowledge, etc. Therefore, if it’s the ultimate being, it’s going to be greater than any other being we can conceive of.

(2) God’s existence in reality is conceivable. This just means that if we’re talking about God, we can imagine the idea of an ultimate being existing. Really, if we’re having a conversation about God, even a hypothetical God, we’re kind of already doing this.

(3) To exist in reality is better than existing in thought only. There’s two ways we can take this claim which Anselm thinks is also something that everyone can agree on.

The first way is, we can look at it as saying something like “It’s better to exist than to not exist,” which, I think most of us translate to, “a delicious beer is nice to think about, it’s much better if that beer is actually existing in reality and is here physically in my hands!”

That’s not quite what Anselm is getting at here. There’s another way of looking at this and it is through the lens of Platonic Metaphysics. Without going into too much detail we can spell it out this way:

“If something exists in my thinking only, like an idea of what social justice is, then it has some reality but of a very minimal sort because it’s only in my thoughts. But if I see justice being enacted in my society, then it not only has more reality but is better than if it had stayed in my thinking. But even further, Justice must be a real objective thing that exists everywhere and for all time, otherwise what standard of justice am I comparing the justice being enacted in my society to? So, the existence of Justice, this universal sense of it, must be superior to it merely existing in my thoughts. That must be real existence, and better even, because it never changes, because it is true Justice.”

That’s kind of Platonic Metaphysics in an incredibly compressed nutshell. It assigns a higher degree of existence to things which are universal in nature, like Justice, Equality, Goodness. They don’t have to be something we can see and touch either, because, as this mini-argument shows, to be truly real, to really matter, things don’t need to meet that requirement. In fact, according to Platonic Metaphysics, being real in the physical sense is actually kind of a step down. But that is a longer story. Now, with this in mind, we can kind of see in what sense Anselm thinks it’s better to exist than to not exist. We’ll have more to say about this particular premise later but for now let’s just accept it at face value.

(4) The Atheist’s Claim: God does not exist. Alright, so this is the claim that Anselm is going to try to show leads to an absurd conclusion. Even though it look like one claim, it’s actually a combination of sorts of two different claims:

(4A) God exists in the mind. The atheist is thinking about about God, or at least thinking about the concept of God. So the atheist is already kind of conceding that God, defined as Q, is something we can think about, make hypotheses about, etc.

(4B) God does not exist in reality. But, the atheist also claims, existing in the mind is as far as God gets to being real.

Alright, these are Anselm’s main premises. Next, let’s take a look at how he uses these to show that the atheist is self-contradictory in their belief.

Inferring to Absurd Conclusions

(5) If God existed in reality, He would be greater than if he only existed in the mind. This inference follows from (3) and (4). It’s merely saying “Hey, of course it would be better to exist in reality than to exist in thinking only. But I don’t think God exists in reality, only in my mind, so I guess if He really did exist in reality, he’d probably be greater than I thought.”

(6) It is conceivable that there is a being greater than God. This inference follows from our newly created claim (5) and (2) from our original list of premises. This is where we start to get a sense of where Anselm is intending to trip up the atheist. Why? Because the atheist has already claimed not only that it would be better to exist in reality, but that God, being just limited to being thought about, doesn’t fit into the category of things which exist in reality. In fact, God is one step below reality. But this means of course, if we’re sticking to Platonic Metaphysics, that there’s now gotta be something else, something which has more reality than God since we just brought God down a notch. Platonic Metaphysics is a pyramid of sorts, and something’s got to be on top.

(7). It is conceivable that there is a being greater than that which has been defined as Q. Back in (1) we had defined God as Q, but apart from that claim we had also come to infer in (6) that if God wasn’t at the top of the metaphysical pyramid, something else must be. From (1) and (6) we end up with the conclusion that there must be something greater than that which we have already defined as that than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is absurd.

The chart I created above roughly conveys the atheist’s alleged absurd line of thinking that Anselm is trying to map out. Green items are our original unchallenged premises (1-3), the yellow item (4) is the premise that is also assumed but we want to challenge. The grayish items are the new inferences (5-6) that are made from the unchallenged premises. The red item (7) is the absurd conclusion that is derived from what came before it. When we trace our way backwards, we find that the only premise that could have caused the absurd conclusion is the one we marked as yellow (4) , the claim that “there is no God.”

Since we had broken down (4) into two smaller claims, we can take a look them individually and see very quickly that it is (4b) that led us to the absurd conclusion. Right away, we’re supposed to conclude, along with Anselm that (4b) must be false if we are to avoid absurdity, and just like that, (4b) is transformed into it’s opposite, “God does exist in reality.” And this is how Anselm concludes that yep, God exists.

So That’s it God Exists?

Well, that’s completely up to you really. After all, even Saint Thomas Aquinas (no theological lightweight), who lived around a hundred years after Anselm had a problem with Anselm’s attempt here. And, I’ve always found Aquinas’ counter-objection to kind of line up with my own thinking on the matter even though I have to admit, I still have much work to do in understanding the nuances of it.

On the one hand, Aquinas didn’t think human beings could work out the existence of God from concepts alone, which is pretty much what Anselm is doing. Aquinas was also an empiricist of sorts, and it is this empiricist way of looking at things that roughly (very roughly) lines up with how most of us think about what existing means in our day and age. For most of us, you have to demonstrate that something exists by appealing to empirical evidence, evidence gathered from your senses. For Aquinas, something like God can’t be reasoned into existence merely from analyzing our concepts about God, because it isn’t really clear straight away (to humans anyways) that those concepts do have greater reality than the ordinary things we experience in the world. For Aquinas, we have to take a look at what facts we have about the world, about what we immediately take to be “real” things and build up a theory of God in that way. So, the search for the existence of God takes on a character that seems more like scientific research as we think about it nowadays.

So right away we can see how those Platonic Metaphysics that undergird Anselm’s argument aren’t a given. Not everyone intuitively buys into the reality of abstract things like Justice and Goodness, or even God, because, if we can’t see it or touch it, or sense it in any way, what justification do we have for saying it has more reality than our thoughts? And if we don’t buy into the existence of abstract things, then we never really fall into the atheist’s alleged predicament, as Anselm presents it.

But this doesn’t mean that Aquinas rejected the existence of God either. Faith was just as important to him as to Anselm. But, he had his own ways of getting to the same conclusion without strictly resorting to Platonic Metaphysics.

I’m not going to run down all of the other counter-arguments against Anselm. Honestly there are far too many, and that would require far more philosophical analysis than I’m willing to write about in this article. Not to say that they’re not worth studying and appreciating either. But what I want to be clear about is that you don’t need to buy into Anselm’s argument, I certainly don’t. I’ve already said that Aquinas, a Christian, who philosophized about a hundred years after Anselm, had problems with this argument too. In fact, not even all of Anselm’s contemporary fellow Christians bought into it. There’s a very famous letter by an Italian monk by the name of Gaunilo where he makes a very intuitively compelling argument against Anselm’s reasoning. And Anselm even wrote back to Gaunilo where he attempted to clarify some of the finer points of his argument.

And this is honestly one of the biggest takeaways for me, that even though Anselm is up front at the beginning of the Proslogion that he believes in God, that doesn’t stop him from letting rationality also have it’s say about the coherence of his beliefs. After all, if he wasn’t open to rationality, to thinking about his beliefs through the lens of what he takes to be logical reasoning, why would he bother to respond to Gaunilo the way that he did? He could have simply said, “Well, God exists so your argument against my proof means nothing.” No, he tries to clarify his thinking about the matter, and explain his reasoning. In short, he attempts to have a rational dialogue.

In fact, even though he uses the pejorative term “fool” for the atheist in his argument, notice that he doesn’t merely say “The atheist is wrong.” Well, that’s his conclusion, but still. He tries to wrap his head around (whether successfully or not) how an atheist would conceive of that claim that “God does not exist.” Then he still doesn’t just say, “The way the atheist is conceiving of that claim is wrong.” He still tries showing how, rationally, the atheist’s belief just doesn’t work out. And this takes the form of an incredibly dense argument, as we’ve just seen. The atheist isn’t just going to believe that God exists like Anselm, so Anselm has to use a different method, he has to speak to the atheist in a language that circumvents dogmatic authority. And that language, within the Proslogion, is rational in nature.

And this is what is ultimately most important to me and, I think, should be important to everyone (whether atheist, theist, or somewhere in between). If we’re gonna get by in this world together, in any attempts at talking about faith or God or anything else, we have to make an honest attempt at rational dialogue coupled with a genuine understanding for one another. Anselm’s argument might be shaky in many respects, but the spirit in which he attempts it is not, at least the way I see it.

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

The Gospel of Pleasure

Reading from Cicero’s “De Finibus” Book 1

Written by: Michael Lucana

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman politician, lawyer, and philosopher who wrote most of his well known works around 45 BC. De Finibus is a work written in dialogue form in which Cicero discusses various philosophical views that were popular during his time. In Book 1 of De Finibus, Cicero has a conversation with a fellow Roman named Lucius Torquatus who is an avid Epicurean. Here is an online translation if you are so inclined to read through yourself. I’m using a translation by Quintus Curtius. This reading is by no means exhaustive, but is meant to give a view of the ideas presented in a broad and accessible manner.

Sometimes I think the Epicureans get a bad rap. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with all of their ideas, but I can appreciate any honest attempt at trying to figure out this whole “living” thing. Like many of their fellow philosophers in the Ancient World, the Epicureans were trying to figure out how to live the best life that one could live. Of course, as the Epicureans, and many of their contemporaries saw it, knowing how to live your best life is going to also require you knowing what it is that that makes a good life, or another way to put it, what it is that makes life worth even living at all. The Epicureans settled on pleasure as that which made life worth living. So, if pleasure was it, the end all be all that made life worth living, then, the Epicureans reasoned, all of our pursuits should be driven towards that goal.

This, along with their other views, kind of made the Epicureans, at least as far as I’ve seen, the philosophical punching bag of the Ancient World. In fact, that’s exactly how Cicero’s De Finibus begins, with him taking jabs at everything from their theory of atoms, theory of how we form beliefs, the exaggerated importance they attach to pleasure, and so on. It’s always the final jab that gets me though. Cicero points out that the founder of the Epicurean school of thought, Epicurus himself, just didn’t seem that well-educated. In fact, Cicero thinks Epicurus was kind of willfully ignorant.

To be fair, if we really deep dived into their entire philosophical system, some of the Epicurean beliefs would leave us amused as well. For example, one of the beliefs that Cicero criticizes is that Epicureans think the sun is about a foot in diameter. Ok. Sure thing. But those sorts of beliefs aren’t really our concern here, and neither are they Torquatus’ main concern as he steps up to defend his philosophical views. Now, Torquatus, as Cicero has written him in this dialogue, is is one of the reasons why I’m willing to even consider Epicureanism as a compelling ethical system. Torquatus is just kind of really into this philosophy. He comes across as very excited to talk about Epicurus, all things Epicureanism-related, and he wants you to be excited as well. In some places he calls Epicurus the “discoverer of truth,” or the “architect of the fulfilling life.” This guy is preaching the Gospel of Pleasure any way you look at it.

The Dichotomy of Pain & Pleasure

Torquatus begins his defense of Epicureanism by boldly asserting what I’ve already said, that the Epicureans believed the goal of life to be the pursuit of pleasure. He also adds that since pleasure is the greatest good, then pain must be the greatest evil. Torquatus doesn’t actually think that he needs to construct any sort of argument for this claim by the way. He is pretty adamant that this is an obvious truth of life, and that even when we observe animals, it is undeniable that their behaviors are guided by the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. As he says:

“As soon as it is born every animal seeks out pleasure and cherishes it as the ultimate good thing; it loathes pain as the greatest evil and pushes it away as much as possible.”

But, Torquatus continues; even if we don’t buy that this is an obvious rule of life, we can’t deny that pleasure is a desirable thing, and that pain is something that we are naturally predisposed to avoid. It’s “naturally imprinted on our minds,” as he puts it. Really, what more evidence do you need other than your own instinctual gut level reaction to things? You don’t need me to convince you that pleasure is a good thing because you’re naturally going to chase those things that make you feel good. And similarly, pain of any sort is going to elicit an immediate aversion from anyone aware enough to notice that they are in pain. Since we already have this deep seated instinct, and we already seem to live our lives based on it, doesn’t it make sense to just acknowledge it and get on with using said instinct?

I’ll be honest, on the face of it, this sets up a pretty simple dichotomy by which we can navigate most situations. Am I enjoying this, am I deriving pleasure from it? If not, then I better make changes to get me going in the other direction, because, as the Epicureans see it, if it’s not pleasure, it’s some sort of pain. But maybe it’s too simple of a dichotomy, after all, there are many situations where simply chasing pleasure is going to lead to a real bad time. If I say to myself that I’m going to only pursue pleasure and then get completely drunk every hour of every day, sure I may have a good time while drunk, but eventually all that drinking is going to catch up to me and then my liver and I are going to be in a whole lot of pain. Similarly, if I choose to just eat cheeseburgers every day, sure I’m going to get some immediate sensory pleasure every time I eat a cheeseburger, but I’m going to pay for it with a whole bunch of health issues down the line.

And Torquatus also follows this line of reasoning. Pleasure can’t be chased after in such a straight line, it must be approached “in a rational way.” Torquatus actually uses the example of physical exercise to illustrate what he means about chasing pleasure rationally. When we do any sort of workout routine, like lifting weights for example, what we’re doing is we’re subjecting our body to pain. In fact, anyone that’s familiar with weight lifting will tell you, specifically what you’re doing when you’re lifting weights is, you’re creating tiny tears in your muscle fibers. Given some time, your body heals those small tears, and in the process, your muscles get bigger, you look better in the mirror, and you feel great. What you just did there was you rationally weighed pain and pleasure and found the pleasurable outcome outweighed the painful process.

So, the Epicureans understand that as rational beings, humans have this ability to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, and because of this, it completely makes sense to hold off on pleasure in one way if it means a more fulfilling pleasure down the line. Torquatus explains this general rule in this way:

…some pleasures are given up for the sake of getting greater pleasures, and […] some sufferings are accepted for the sake of avoiding even greater sufferings.”

This general rule does seem to make the idea of living for pleasure more acceptable, I think. We aren’t reduced to mere animals, running from one pleasurable thing to another without regard for consequences of any sort. We’re rational, and because of this, we better put that rationality to good use and maximize pleasure, in an appropriate and responsible way. In fact, Torquatus is going to eventually argue that every facet of our interactions with other human beings can be successfully practiced with this general rule. But before he does that, he is going to try to show that pleasure itself is a lot more complicated than we think it is.

Not All Pleasures are Created Equal

Usually when we think of pleasure, we tend to think of it exclusively as something that we must be aware of as pleasure when it is happening. Think of it this way, when you’re eating a delicious and decadent chocolate cake and it’s hitting your taste receptors in your mouth, and you’re telling yourself, “wow, this is great,” that is obviously pleasure. Why? Because it’s obvious that it is, it couldn’t be anything else and you recognize it as such. Similarly, if you’re having to eat a terribly cooked dish that’s over salted and undercooked, you’re probably going to have very obvious averse physical reactions to it along with telling yourself, “this is awful, I should have gone to another restaurant.” It might not be extremely painful like if you smashed your toe on the end of a table, but it sure ain’t pleasurable.

But what about the the space in between these two obvious cases? What about when you’re eating, say, a plain old bowl of oatmeal? It’s somewhat healthy and relatively mild in flavor. It’s not the worst thing to eat in the world, and it’s not really making your taste receptors jump all over the place. In fact, you’re not even really thinking about it while you’re eating it. Does this experience fall under the category of pain or pleasure? Or what about that terrible dish you were eating? What about the moment of relief when it gets taken away or you are able to stop eating it?

Torquatus argues, as do all the Epicureans, that, because it’s not necessarily painful or uncomfortable, even this is a sort of pleasure. In fact, it’s an even better definition of pleasure to aim towards. As he puts it:

“we are aiming at the highest form of pleasure, which we consider to be the removal of all pain […] the very liberation and absence of discomfort is something we celebrate.”

So the Epicureans can distinguish between two sorts of pleasure, the everyday sort of sensory based pleasure, and this other much broader sort which is defined as merely the absence of pain. And it is this second sort of pleasure that the Epicureans are really placing their bets on as the better and, in many ways, more reliable conception of pleasure. Why is that though?

Well, now that pleasure can be thought of as merely the absence of pain, we can start incorporating even mental elements into our definition of things we want to rationally avoid or go after. Remember that dichotomy of pleasure and pain that Torquatus offered as a guide to life in conjunction with rational thinking? Well now, we can include even sometimes subtle and pernicious mental discomforts , like anxiety or depression, into that framework. We can build a more robust and ultimately more fulfilling conception of a well-lived life because we are sensitive to the variety of ways that pain and pleasure manifests in our experiences. Not only that, because we are more aware of these subtle forms of pleasure and pain, we can start doing something about them, where in the past we might have even been aware enough to notice.

So, Torquatus, and the Epicureans, are sensitive to this fact, that “…all fears and anxieties have their origin in pain…” Not only that, they claim to have a basic framework by which to navigate through life with pain and pleasure providing the criterion of decision-making. It doesn’t sound like rocket science to us when we think about it. In a more modern way of thinking we can say something like, “well of course mental well-being is something we should try to shoot for. Certainly it makes sense to live our lives with a sensitivity to our personal well-being. And approaching it rationally seems obvious as well.” But for myself at least, I can appreciate that this sort of philosophical system was constructed in a world with no concept of “mental health” or “personal well-being” like the sort we have today.

Virtue is (Not) it’s own Reward

But a life in which my sole focus is my own personal happiness seems kind of selfish doesn’t it? I mean, yes, if I am following the Epicurean model and being somewhat reasonable about how I pursue my own pleasure (mental or physical), then I probably won’t turn into some sort of purely selfish monster, but I also won’t necessarily have the best interests of others at heart. It’s too much of a me me me system, right? In the language of the Ancient Philosophers, I won’t be truly virtuous. And that, seems like a problem. Some might be alright with this, others might not. How to resolve this?

The way Torquatus spells it out, for the Epicureans, being virtuous is only rewarding if there is an actual reward distinct from it, because really, there’s no benefit i.e. pleasure involved in simply being virtuous. It’s got to have a payoff to it:

“who would think these extraordinary and noble virtues […] either praiseworthy or enticing, unless they generated pleasure?”

Torquatus offers the analogy of medical knowledge to help illustrate what he’s getting at. According to Torquatus, we don’t really think much of medical knowledge, or value it, unless there’s something beneficial that we can derive from it. If a doctor prescribes me medicine it better bring me back to good health right? An appreciation of the facts of human physiology has no practical value aside from how it will help ease suffering. Same with the exercise example we used earlier. Working out better improve my physique or increase my quality of life, or else there’s no point to it.

In much the same way, Torquatus wants us to believe that this applies to virtue as well. There’s nothing beneficial to, say, being a fair-minded or kind person in my dealings with others if something pleasurable isn’t coming out of the whole activity. Now pleasure doesn’t have to be merely sensory as we’ve seen Torquatus point out. It can even be something as simple as the good feeling of pride at being a contributing member of society, or knowing that, because I help others in my community, they will be there for me as well if something happens to me in the future.

I’ll admit, that argument doesn’t really do it for me. It still makes it sound like self-interest is key and dammit, I want a reason to care about others and to be a good member of society in a way that seems like I authentically care about them, and not just in an instrumental sense. Really, it’s when Torquatus starts to talk about the value of friendship that this authentic sense of caring for others starts to pop up.

Friendship, as Torquatus puts it, is responsible for, “a solid and continuous joy in life.” The relations that we have with others which we call friends are good for us and our well-being. There is a material component to this of course. If we look out for our friends, they’ll look out for us too, at least if they are real friends. Having a friend to talk to can alleviate loneliness and anxiety as well. But, friendship can only be called friendship if, “we value our friends to the same degree that we value ourselves.” That’s essential for Torquatus. Another way to put this is, that the pleasure we get from friendship isn’t possible unless we care about our friends in a truly genuine way, in a way that involves us prioritizing their needs in much the same way that we prioritize ours.

This valuation of others has to be authentic too, because the moment we treat it as a means to an ends, what is generated by it will never really be quite as fulfilling. I think Torquatus, and the Epicureans are on to something very basic about human nature here. Of course we can rationalize treating others kindly on the grounds that we get rewarded with good feelings for doing so. Of course we can establish that positive relationships with other people have obvious benefits for us materially and psychologically. But when it comes down to it, true friendship, truly authentic friendship with another person, just feels good. And that’s exactly the point of life, according to the Epicureans. Why would anyone want true caring to feel any different?

The Ideal Life

There is much more to Epicureanism than what I’ve outlined above of course. But, for the Epicureans, what follows from their teachings, what ends up amounting to the ideal Epicurean life is one that is kind of quiet and simple. Some have even described it as monastic. It is one that prioritizes increasing our own mental and physical well-being through the rational use of our inborn intuitive sense of pleasure and pain. We can do this by being kind and generous to others, and by cultivating healthy and honest friendships with other human beings. Only then will we attain any sort of peace in life, any sort of tranquility. These are the things Epicurus thought were important, truly worth aiming for, and this is the same ideal that Torquatus is preaching.

To end his gospel of pleasure and circle back and counter Cicero’s original jab, that Epicurus was willfully ignorant and that he didn’t really care for education, Torquatus has this final thing to say:

“[Epicurus] believed nothing could be called ‘education’ unless it actually helped in teaching us how to live a happy life […] the real uneducated people are those who think a man should study, until his senility, those subjects that he should be ashamed not to have learned as a youth.”

To be honest, what really appeals to me about the Epicurean life, at least as Torquatus is selling it, is that it just sounds so…pleasantly pleasant. It’s a very no-worries approach to the question of how to live your life, but not in any way that immediately seems intellectually dishonest. The Epicureans aren’t telling us to not think about the bigger picture, or to ignore things that might be unpleasant. Far from it. They’re very much sensitive to the reality of what it is to be a human being, and that is, to unavoidably be acquainted with pleasure and a whole variety of pain throughout your life. Not only that, they are attempting to formulate some sort of way to navigate life with this reality in mind. If that’s not admirable I don’t know what is.

That’s the best way I can put it at least. I leave it up to you if this is a way of life that seems agreeable to you, or, if like me, you don’t want to completely put all your eggs in this basket. There are many other aspects of Epicureanism that Torquatus explains which I’ve glossed over in the interests of accessibility. Furthermore, Torquatus’ interlocuter in this dialogue, Cicero, is going to spend Book 2 of De Finibus picking apart the Epicurean viewpoint even further. But that is a post for another time.

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

Walk it Off

READING FROM SENECA’S LETTERS: LETTER CVII

Written by: Michael Lucana

This article is part of a semi-regular series in which I read from Seneca’s Letters and explain how they relate to my own life experiences. You can read the letter in question here. As for myself, I am reading from the translation found in the Penguin Classics edition of “Letters from a Stoic.”

If I had to be honest, I would say that I don’t think I’ve ever had a romantic relationship that didn’t end disastrously in one way or another. I don’t say that to garner sympathy either. I say it as a fact. And whether I’ve been the one ending that relationship or had it ended for me by the other person, in the past, I’ve never been able to just walk it off. I am only human after all. I have to process what’s happened, find my footing again.

And sometimes, like most people, I have had a hard time getting back into the swing of things, of moving on. In the past, I would recede into myself, play things over in my head, really let the gut punch of the breakup sink in, in short, I would mope. Usually someone would see me in this sorry state and say to me, “Hey, you’re not the first person in the world that this has happened to! You just need to keep on moving forward!”

“Ok, thanks. I didn’t realize it was that simple. I will get right on that,” would usually be my sarcastic response in my mind.

But the funny thing is, there was quite a bit of truth to what was being said to me. And furthermore, despite how I may have fetishized my heartbreak in the past, however I may have said, “No one has ever felt what I’ve felt,” it really isn’t anything that hasn’t been experienced, and been overcome, by countless people before me.

The Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65), writes to a friend who sounds like he’s going through something similar to what I’ve experienced before. Seneca starts off by congratulating his friend because he no longer has to waste his time on a relationship that sounds like it wasn’t doing anybody any good anyway. The relationship in question seems to be more platonic than romantic, but to be honest, I think the same advice applies. That’s the thing about dysfunctional relationships ending, no matter how you look at it, most of the time, everybody involved is better off, whether they realize it at that moment or not.

But Seneca goes further, he also reminds his friend that to be alive, to have any sorts of relationships with people is the same as stepping out onto a puddle or a muddy street. And if one complains about getting dirty, well what else can one expect? After all, Seneca says, “life’s no soft affair,” and there are worse things that can happen, “at one place you will part from a companion, at another bury one…these are the kinds of things you’ll come up against all along this rugged journey.”

So this is something I just have to deal with right? Relationships end, people die, I will eventually die too. It’s just part of being human. But what practical advice, if any, does Seneca offer that I can put to use to help smooth my acceptance of these facts of life?

Negative Visualization

I’ve written about the art of negative visualization before. It is a Stoic meditative exercise in which a practitioner not only visualizes the worst outcome for a given situation, but also visualizes how they will behave in accordance with Stoic virtues when that worst-case scenario actually occurs. Seneca recommends this exact technique in this letter as well, he says, “Everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even, being withstood if they have been trained for in advance.”

At the start of any past romantic relationship I’ve been in, my first thought hasn’t ever been to look forward to the worst possible way that it will end. Of course that doesn’t mean that I haven’t considered that the relationship could possibly end. But as soon as my imagination started considering under what circumstances that could happen, I would immediately set those thoughts aside. Why? because they’re negative, nobody wants to be around negative thoughts. That’s normal right?

But for Seneca, it is the unfamiliarity of a thing which makes it scary, and that is the reason why, for some people, even well into adulthood, the most recent breakup can feel just as jarring as breaking up when you’re a teenager. If we don’t train ourselves at the outset for something, if we don’t practice how we will respond to it, when and if it does happen, it’s like we might as well be “complete beginners,” overwhelmed and feeling as if the whole world is lost.

EMBRACING YOUR FATE

Ok fine, breakups are one thing, but what about griefs that cut deeper, like the death of a loved one? Or what if I know deep down that this love was meant to be? How can I come to grips with this fundamental sense of unfairness?

I think Seneca senses this possible objection, because he goes on to remind his friend yet again, that all of these griefs are, “conditions of our existence which we cannot change.” This is our fate, “the taxes arising from our mortal state, part of the package deal of being a human being, taking the bad and the good as they come. And in the same way that that he advises that we should work to maintain our mental composure when calamity strikes, he also says, “let us receive our orders readily and cheerfully, and not desert the ranks along the march…”

This line always stings when I read it, because, honestly, I don’t want to embrace these facts of being a mortal, but at the same time I can’t deny that there are going to be times when I really don’t have control over aspects of my fate. So what can I do? I can make sure that I maintain control over the only thing I really own, myself. I can look forward to the bumps along the way, not hide my face and look at the ground, or waste my time thinking about what could have been. I can embrace my fate.

Yes, breakups are difficult, life is difficult, but there are more difficult ways to lose those you love, more painful ways. Some may have had it worse and some may have had it better, but every single person, no matter who they are, is equally walking the same hazardous road. That road definitely has it’s down but it also has it’s ups, no way around that, and whether you were the one that did the heartbreaking, or were the one that had your heart broken, all you can do now is accept things as they are and keep moving forward. To want otherwise would be, for Seneca, to “see […] nothing right in the way the universe is ordered,” and for me at least, to do that would also be to deny all the good things that happened in between the bad.

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

Excursions into Anxiety

Written by Michael Lucana

This is an exploration of anxiety from an Existentialist viewpoint. This particular subject is close to my heart and so I drew much from own personal trials and tribulations. Everybody has their own battles with anxiety that they contend with and this essay is meant in no way to minimize or negate those experiences. I freely borrowed, reinterpreted, and repurposed many ideas from Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Concept of Anxiety” translated by Alastair Hannay.

I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of anxiety. And I don’t say this as someone who has had no direct experience with it. In fact, I say this as someone who would describe themselves as a highly anxious person. But, if I had to describe what anxiety feels like, I would describe it as, being constantly afraid, or perpetually worried. But worried about what? Well, everything really.

If I could list every type of thing that has ever given me anxiety, I don’t think I would have enough words. Anxiety has followed me in all my ups and downs, it has been a constant companion, speaking in many different voices, about many different topics. But I have found one pervasive feature whenever I’ve tried to catalogue my anxieties, one constant that all these anxieties seem to share. They always take me out of the present, they always keep me from being able to enjoy this moment, the here and now. I mean, if I’m too busy being anxious about possibly being fired for some typos in an email I’ve written, or I’m suddenly panicking about the way I woefully wronged someone decades ago, then you can be sure it’s getting in the way of my enjoying painting time with my daughters.

And in this way, I have always viewed my anxiety as something that keeps me from the present, keeps me from being here in the moment, in a real way, in a way that matters. Furthermore, because I’m not able to be in the present, I have no way of moving forward, of improving my situation. I’m stuck. I’m hopeless. So what have I done to try to fix this? Pretty much what everybody else does I’m sure.

“If I could list every type of thing that has ever given me anxiety, I don’t think I would have enough words.”

Causal Approaches to Anxiety

In many ways, we tend to approach anxiety in causal terms. We are not so much concerned with investigating the anxiety by itself, i.e. what it means to be anxious, as we are normally concerned with placing the blame on some aspect of ourselves, and then getting to work on mitigating the effect that anxiety has on us.

For example, if we assign the blame for anxiety on some neurochemical factor, we may seek medication to help dilute that pervading unease that follows us everywhere we go. In a similar but probably more self-destructive way, I’ve tried to medicate myself in the past with drugs and alcohol in order to reduce that constant rumbling of disquiet in my mind, in order to be able to stop and just enjoy things as they are. It’s never worked out for me though, because as soon as I’ve sobered up the next day, that anxiety has always returned stronger than ever, almost mocking, as if to say, “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

At other times, I’ve considered that maybe I just need to discipline my mind better in order to deal with anxiety. I remember a few years ago having to interview for a prospective job over the phone because it was out of state. Not only had I not interviewed for a job in years, but I was in a financially precarious position at the time, and was placing my cards on landing this particular job because I needed to ensure that I had work lined up for me as soon as I arrived. Prior to the call, I was imagining so many ways that I could mess up the interview, by saying the wrong thing, forgetting key facts that showed what a strong candidate I was, and so on and so on. In that moment, I conducted a few mental exercises to help refocus my mind to the task at hand and was able to land the job.

Good job. Case closed on anxiety right? Except it really wasn’t, because even though I was able to deal with my anxiety in that particular instance, that didn’t stop it from ever recurring again, from finding some new and inventive thing to worry about, to fret over. I guess what it really comes down to, no matter what I’ve done, this predisposition towards anxiety has never really disappeared.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these causal approaches to anxiety by the way. Anxiety is not a pleasant feeling. And in many extreme cases, it can be debilitating and even dangerous to one’s own health. Of course, we don’t want to feel anything unpleasant so it would make sense to attack the problem by going straight to what we believe is it’s source. Thus, we medicate that anxiety out of us, or we discipline ourselves through mental exercises or meditation to keep anxiety at bay.

However, through my own experience I’ve found that this causal approach to anxiety is only half the picture. I’m lucky that in my life I have had some rare instances in which the anxieties that I normally experience have cleared, if even for a few minutes here and there. Those have been wonderful moments, but even when I’ve been in them, I’ve taken notice of this underlying expectation, this wariness that is always fearfully looking outward towards what lies beyond the immediate moment of calmness and tranquility. And when I’ve noticed this, I’ve realized that anxiety is still with me, waiting for it’s big moment to really let loose.

“I guess what it really comes down to, no matter what I’ve done, this predisposition towards anxiety has never really disappeared.”

EXISTENTIAL Anxiety

For the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), anxiety is an existential category, that is, it is a fundamental part of the human experience. Thus, it is something that we can never truly get rid of. In his classic work, “The Concept of Anxiety,” he attempts to work out what the meaning of anxiety, viewed existentially, is.

To begin with, Kierkegaard points out that, while anxiety initially seems like it is a worry or apprehensiveness associated with fear, it “differs altogether from fear and similar concepts that refer to something.” (51) I think many of us conceive of anxiety only in this way as well. It has to have an object, some threat that it can point to and say, “this is the object of my worry.”

But that doesn’t seem quite right on closer inspection does it? As even I’ve admitted, the list of things that have given me anxiety, that have caused me worry, is so extensive, that even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to catalogue them all. Because really, if my anxiety is merely reducible to a fear of something, and everything is the object of that fear, then I’m not necessarily afraid of any object per se. Really, my anxiety has nothing as it’s object.

So, nothing begets anxiety. Anxiety as an apprehensiveness merely is, and it always has been since, well, since we were born. Surprisingly, even children have anxiety according to Kierkegaard, but as he puts it, it manifests differently for them, it doesn’t quite have the same negative characteristic that we assign to it as adults:

“When we observe children, we find the anxiety more definitely intimated as a seeking after the adventurous, the prodigious, and the mysterious.” (51)

When I get home at night sometimes, and my daughters are still awake, they almost will always ask to play hide and seek. But they are very particular about how they play it. First, all the lights in the house have to be off. Second, I have to be the one that hides. Third, they get to have a flashlight while they search for me. I go off and find a nice hiding spot (of which I have mapped out many at this point) and listen to them countdown from their bedroom and then start their search in a big dark house, with only a flashlight to light their way.

Honestly, this doesn’t feel like hide and seek. This feels like a horror movie, I’m the monster, and they’re the scared protagonist trying to survive. I can always hear them gasping and whimpering at every creak of the floorboard as they try to find me, and when they do, I usually jump up and growl at them. They scream and then begin to laugh just as quickly. In this sense, they embody exactly what Kierkegaard is pointing out about anxiety in children. To children that general fear of the unknown is a game, an adventure, something to be sought out.

So, for Kierkegaard, on a more fundamental level, anxiety is like a sort of expectant restlessness ingrained into the human condition from birth. Even children seem to have it, but for them (and I think even young adults), it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as worry, but rather as wanting to move outward, to search out the possibilities that are out there beckoning. So where does it go wrong? Where does it all start to sour? When does anxiety take on a more sinister tone?

“To children that general fear of the unknown is a game, an adventure, something to be sought out.”

THE DIZZINESS OF FREEDOM

I went traveling down to Big Sur in California recently. There’s something about the wild harsh atmosphere of the coastline there that just speaks to something primordial in my bones. It’s hard to explain. But an interesting feature about Big Sur, well, interesting to me, is that there are very few real beaches there. Most of the time, the Pacific Ocean is crashing directly onto a rocky cliffside that is kind of crumbling away as you’re standing on it. On these occasions when I’m standing out there on some windy edge, admiring the dark gorgeous waves, I’ll sometimes have this moment where I look directly down at my feet and realize that if I wanted to, I could easily jump off.

This is a strange dizzying moment for me. I’m usually overcome by images of myself falling down, maybe hitting a few rocks on the way, and then impacting on the waters below, finally being swallowed up, engulfed really, by the roaring deep. I feeling of lightness always sets in around my ribcage at this time, a recognition of exactly how easy it would be to do the deed, and then just as quickly, I start to feel faint, shudder, and take a few steps back to steady myself.

This is actually a common experience that many people have had and Kierkegaard uses it as a metaphorical means to more accurately illustrate what existential anxiety, in it’s negative aspect, consists of. He says:

“Anxiety can be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy.” (75)

As Kierkegaard has pointed out, even children have a form of proto-anxiety, an apprehensiveness of that yawning abyss of possibilities that stretches out in front of every single one of us. But children, for Kierkegaard, are also innocent, they are “dreaming spirit,” (59) that is, they are not quite aware of themselves or the dangers that may be present in those possibilities. Leaping into the unknown could turn out good, or it could turn out bad, how would they know the difference? They don’t get dizzy, don’t feel unease at it. That is why they normally treat danger like a game, or a novelty, until they learn through experience, or are taught what they should fear and then begin to internalize it.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing by the way. On a practical level, children need to learn that many times, it’s better to not jump off every metaphorical cliffside that you’re on. However, sometimes we take it too far don’t we? Sometimes, without even being aware of it, we make a decision, as if in a haze, to never take the plunge in any circumstance, no matter how great or small. We start to always back away from possibilities, from the possibility of danger, of being hurt, of being let down, of letting others down, of letting ourselves down. This excitement and levity by which we understand that we have a choice in childhood turns into a dizziness as we get older, as we lose our innocence.

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom […]and freedom now looks down into its own possibility and then grabs hold of finiteness to support itself. In this dizziness freedom subsides.” (75)

It is in this subsiding of freedom, of closing the door on possibilities that we do damage to ourselves, according to Kierkegaard. This doesn’t mean that I should have jumped off that cliff by the way. That was just a metaphor. But there are moments in my life that I look back on now, some minor, some course-altering, when I should have taken the chance and not held myself back, not chosen finitude over possibility.

Sometimes we think that to choose finitude, to choose the safe way, is always supposed to refer to staying in a marriage, or staying in your hometown, or working the same job for half of your life. And to be free and throw yourself into possibilities is to do the opposite of those things. Trust me, you can still be choosing finitude when you break off a relationship because you’d rather avoid the painful process of really working on building something strong and long-lasting. Sometimes the choice to really put some work into something like that is a lot more frightening than merely running off.

The point of the matter is that, the particular choices we are making are not necessarily important in deciding whether or not we have “done it right,” acted with freedom. No, the point is that by refusing to even think to take the metaphorical leap into the unknown, by not even stopping to consider it as an option, we fail to live up to who we are, who we truly are, we fail to be truly free. And in failing to be truly free we don’t even get rid of that anxiety, if anything, it becomes twisted up, becomes a bogeyman.

Why? Because it becomes associated with with that failure to embrace possibility, hell, to embrace even the possibility of possibility. That lightness and strange excitement thus turns into something dreadful, something nauseating, something that we can’t sit in the same room with.

“This doesn’t mean that I should have jumped off that cliff by the way. That was just a metaphor. But there are moments in my life when I should have taken the chance and not held myself back, not chosen finitude over possibility.”

TAKING THE LEAP

So existential anxiety is something that we carry with us all of our lives. For Kierkegaard, at the beginning of our lives, it is essentially not a negative quality either, rather it is a restless sensitivity, or an awareness of our inborn freedom. But under the confusion of dizziness, in always choosing the safe route, the route of finitude, we actually kind of pervert anxiety’s intended use, and do ourselves more harm than good in the long run. While I have explained that some forms of extreme anxiety can be harmful to our health and do need to be treated as real disorders and dealt with as such, existential anxiety cannot be treated in the same manner.

So how does Kierkegaard resolve this underlying dilemma? What does he think we can do to get rid of the pain that is brought on by existential anxiety? To begin with, Kierkegaard points out two moments within anxiety itself.

First, the moment in which we recognize the existence of unlimited possibility, of both the good, and the bad that can occur. Second, there is the moment in which we grasp onto finitude, when we pull away from those possibilities and choose the safe route. In between these two moments, Kierkegaard thinks, there is a solution of sorts.

“Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained, and which no science can explain.” (75)

What is this leap? In the most simple terms, it is, a leap into faith, into embracing the possibility of both the good and the bad, of things turning out one way or turning out another way. It is to recapture, in a very qualified way, that innocence you had as a child when you not only dwelt in anxiety, but despite this, were able to leap into the unknown.

Kierkegaard has a very sophisticated and sometimes frustratingly obscure conception of faith, even I will admit that. Not only that, although much of the way that I interpret Kierkegaard is through secular lens, there is no denying that his philosophy is unashamedly Christian. But that doesn’t mean that faith has to merely be restricted to faith in God, or faith in Christianity. I think we can still construct a preliminary conception of faith that will allow us, for now, to make that leap that Kierkegaard thinks is necessary to get a handle on existential anxiety. And if anyone disagrees that’s totally fine as well.

To begin with, Kierkegaard reminds us, “in possibility all things are equally possible and anyone truly brought up by possibility has grasped the terrifying just as well as the smiling. (189) What does this mean? Well, it means that we must be able to embrace this freedom that is at the core of our nature, and we are able to embrace it correctly, not with fear or terror, but with acceptance that it could go either way. In short, we must be able to live with possibility in all its ups or down and, by virtue of this, we must be prepared to always struggle with that feeling which cohabitates with it, with anxiety.

That is why Kierkegaard also says that, “that individual must be honest toward possibility and have faith,” or what he calls an “inner certainty,” (190). This inner certainty, this faith in yourself and your decisions, or, if you prefer, in God’s decisions for you, is key in helping you get through that storm of dizziness when you’re at the the door of the possibility of possibilities.

You might think that to choose finitude is a good enough choice, but that’s because you’ve gotten confused by years of looking at anxiety in the wrong way. Remember, that awful feeling, that dizziness, that worried concern, it actually used to be an exhilaration, a life-affirming lightness in your heart at all the ways, both good and bad, that things could turn out. You’re not ignorant anymore, you know that taking the leap could lead to heartbreak or disappointment, but it could equally lead to the opposite.

I think this inner certainty that Kierkegaard goes on about at some length, this faith, is commonly mistaken for “a certainty that everything will turn out fine.” It might, it might not. The point is, with a correct understanding of what anxiety is, and with the fortitude provided by faith, one retakes their freedom, one gets to choose.

“What is this leap? In the most simple terms, it is, a leap into faith, into embracing the possibility of both the good and the bad, of things turning out one way or turning out another way.”

LIVING WITH ANXIETY

So the real question is, does taking the leap in all situations cure one of existential anxiety? Does this resolve the persistent nagging feeling? The one that underlies all these other forms of anxiety? No actually, and would you want it to? It’s hard to imagine this, even during the coldest midnight hours (oh I’ve been there). But it’s actually a beautiful thing to have this feeling of existential anxiety, it is a sign that you are free in a very real sense, free to make the choices that truly matter, and not only that, in a way it is a sign you give a damn about this life you live and the people you get to live it with. Because honestly, if you didn’t give a damn, then you wouldn’t be this bothered by anything that has happened, is happening, or will someday happen. This is the weird gift of anxiety.

But it is a responsibility as well. If you ignore your anxiety, if you only steer yourself towards finitude, towards a lack of real faith (whether faith in yourself or God, you choose), then you trap yourself, you give up hope in a variety of ways.

Concerning this responsibility which manifests as existential anxiety, Kierkegaard says:

“…it is an adventure that every human being has to live through, learning to be anxious so as not to be ruined […] Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” (187)

What does this mean? To be anxious in the right way? Is existential anxiety actually something that can be steered, that can be controlled? In one sense, no it can’t be, as we’ve seen again and again in the examples provided, anxiety merely is. It is self-generating ex nihilo.

But in another sense, it is also something that is in our power to manage. Kierkegaard gives us this piece of advice when, in the quiet of repose we begin to notice the unease begin to make it’s presence felt again, when it begins to whisper to us how things can always go wrong, or it begins to shows us with force that no, we haven’t quite go it right, that there’s still work to be done.

“…when it announces itself, when it […] makes it look as though it has invented an altogether new instrument of torture, far more terrible than anything before, [do not] draw back, [do not try to] ward it off with noise and confusion, [bid] it welcome, greet it solemnly, and like Socrates who raised the poisoned cup, [say] as a patient would say to the surgeon, when the painful operation is about to begin: Now I am ready. Then anxiety enters into [your] soul and search[es] out everything, and frightens the finite and petty out…” (192)

For my part, I know that the next time I sit down with my daughters to draw or paint there will come this moment when we have settled into a nice quiet flow. I’m certain that I’ll look up and become aware of it too, and of the transience of life, and of the many possible ways that things could go after this moment, good or bad. I’ll start to worry if my daughters will grow up kind and compassionate, if I’m providing them with enough to help them on their way, or in what ways the world might disappoint them, or in what ways I might disappoint them knowingly or unknowingly. And the list goes on and on. And anxiety will surely be sitting on the periphery, as a reminder that the only reason I really worry about getting any of it right is because this is actually something worth fighting for.

“As hard it may seem to imagine, it’s a beautiful thing to have this feeling of existential anxiety, it is a sign that you are free in a very real sense, in a way it is you giving a damn about this life you live and the people you get to live it with.”

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

How Many Books is Too Much?

Reading from Seneca’s Letters: Letter II

Written by: Michael Lucana

This article is part of a semi-regular series in which I read from Seneca’s Letters and explain how they relate to my own life experiences. In the letter under analysis below, Seneca gives his thoughts on how to have a self-disciplined reading experience. You can read the letter in question here. As for myself, I am reading from the translation found in the Penguin Classics edition of “Letters from a Stoic.”

I used to have a massive book collection years ago. It was so massive that it took up multiple shelves throughout my apartment, and once those filled up, I started just shoving books anywhere I could fit them, under the bed, in the closet behind my clothes, anywhere you can think of. Despite the unease of never knowing what to read, I was actually pretty proud of my collection at the time and took any opportunity I could to brag about how many books I owned. To anyone that remembers me doing that, sorry.

However, due to major upheavals in my life afterward, I lost, sold, or donated almost every single book that I owned. In fact, I hardly really read for years after, just occasionally skimmed through a random book but only a few pages here or there. Now it’s many years later and I’m in a place in my life where I’ve settled down and have enough quiet time to get back into my old habit. Especially since I’m a practicing philosopher now, you can bet I read quite a bit on a regular basis.

But I’ve noticed more and more lately that often I’m reading something in one book that refers to something written somewhere else and that usually ends up with me visiting a bookstore or looking online for a particular book. Invariably, I wind up overextending myself, I go down the book rabbit hole yet again, jumping from Aristotle, to Dante, then Schopenhauer with some sprinkling of Heidegger thrown in. Needless to say, my book collection has grown quite rapidly over the last year and is in danger of becoming a disorganized mess again.

But how many books is too much?  Now, I’m not a minimalist per se, but I’ve grown to appreciate the calmness that comes with a relatively organized reading and study area, as well as the tranquility of mind when I’m focused on only a few texts. Jumping around chasing references in different books does not make for a very calm and reflective mindset.

The Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) wrote that restlessness in reading of the kind that I am describing, is “symptomatic of a sick mind,” of a mind that is not well-organized. For Seneca, in order for anyone to derive any actual benefit from the act of reading, they should limit themselves to a small selection of books and writers at any given time, in order to be able to really be able to absorb what they are reading, or as he puts it, for the words to , “find a lasting place in your mind.”

This seems basic enough right? I mean, it seems obvious enough to us that overextending yourself in any activity is a recipe for disaster. But even having that knowledge doesn’t stop me from continuing to be pulled in various directions by what I’m reading, to continue piling up the books. Seneca next goes on to use a variety of metaphors that compare the act of reading to eating which I find very interesting. In one particular portion of the letter he says, “tasting one dish after another is a sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they [don’t lead to] nutrition.”

Now, I have also been quite a lover of alcohol most of my life. In fact, in the past, I’ve never really known when to say no to just another beer or another shot of vodka. Of course, not knowing when to say no to the drink always leads to trouble doesn’t it? Aside from not remembering exactly what you did the night before, there’s also the physical toll it takes on your body and, as you get older it becomes even more apparent that your appetites don’t really know what’s good for you.

That’s where self-discipline, or moderation in appetites comes in. For the Stoics, moderation (sometimes called Temperance) in appetites was one of the prime Virtues that one should cultivate. But your moderation didn’t need to just be for appetites of the physical variety. That’s why Seneca, in this particular text, is advocating a form of moderation in reading, an act that he finds very similar to eating.

It makes sense when I think about it though. After all, when I pick up a book and read it, in order for me to really latch on to the ideas present, to really get a sense of what is meant, I have to sit with it and digest it slowly. If another book (or many books) presents itself in my mind and I jump to that one and so on and so on I have a triple loss. Not only have I lost out on being able to really savor the ideas of one book, but now I’m weighed down by multiple ideas from different books that might not necessarily complement or inform each other. Finally, I’m just left feeling disappointed and kind of disoriented, not really having gotten anything positive out of the whole reading experience.

Seneca next goes on to provide a sort of checklist by which we can navigate through the reading experience. And I find it quite useful for myself at least:

  • Only read “well-tried” or “genius” authors.

This can even include writers who you don’t agree with. Seneca says it is important to have a well-rounded view of things and this sometimes means “going over to the enemy’s camp.” As to what qualifies as a “well-tried” author, Seneca isn’t clear, but he also mentions that whatever we read should be something that helps us to “face poverty, or death, and other ills as well.

  • Pick out one thought to digest thoroughly per day.

Back to the eating metaphor. How clearly we understand an idea is dependent on how well we have examined it. Give yourself time to really get to know an idea, to really understand all the implications of an argument you have read, and finally, to see how that idea relates to you.

  • If you want a change from a particular author, go back to one you have read before.

I find this tip extremely helpful because not only does it help me curb my spending, but I often go back to read a different writer and I’ll find new insights and ways of looking at things that I didn’t see there before. And I wouldn’t have noticed this if I didn’t follow Seneca’s advice.

So what does this mean for you? Should you give up your book collection? Should you go minimalist? I would say that if, you find yourself in the same predicament as me, following Seneca’s advice might not be a bad idea. But we all drive at different speeds so to speak. Maybe you are the kind of person that just likes having multiple books throughout your house, maybe it fits with your aesthetics for life and you don’t find yourself being pulled in various directions and weighed down like I do. That might just be a “me” problem. For you, the amount of books you have is just the right amount. If that’s the case, then keep on doing you. As Seneca says, regarding the things we own, “You ask what is the proper limit [?] First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

Run, Run, Run: Selfhood & Despair

Written by: Michael Lucana

I don’t like to run. So I don’t know why I titled this article the way I did. But I do go hiking quite often. Nothing too crazy or dangerous though. Most of the time I wouldn’t even call it hiking, just a very brisk walk in an upwards direction surrounded by lots of trees. That’s what I call hiking anyway. Disagree at your own discretion.

But why do I go hiking? Do I do it to escape from the world? From other people? From myself? In some way yes to all of the above. In other ways, no quite the opposite actually. So let me explain.

I suffer from what the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard calls Despair. Don’t feel bad for me though, because according to Mr. Kierkegaard so do you, so do all of us:

“…there is not a single human being who does not despair at least a little, in whose innermost being there does not dwell an uneasiness, an unquiet, a discordance, an anxiety in the face of an unknown something, or a something he doesn’t even dare strike up acquaintance with…” (The Sickness Unto Death P.52)

It’s sort of like an illness then, a disease of hopelessness that follows me throughout my life, even when I’m not aware of it. God, that sounds melodramatic doesn’t it? A touch self-pitying? Most of us don’t necessarily feel like we are in despair all of the time, because if we were, then we would all be hiding in our rooms with the lights turned off, unable to do even the most basic things. And we certainly aren’t like that.

But that’s exactly the problem according to Kierkegaard. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as being in Despair, but that’s because we’ve mischaracterized it, made it into a caricature in order to avoid the many ways that it has imbedded itself into our lives.

Well, if we’ve got the wrong idea about Despair, what is it really? According to Kierkegaard: “despair is exactly man’s unconsciousness of being characterized as spirit.” (The Sickness Unto Death P.55) Okay, got it. But what is Spirit then? That sounds a little too, spiritual… Not that I have a problem with Spirituality either, but most of us also tend to think of Spirituality as something divorced from the everyday, from how we live our lives day in and day out, right? Spirituality is going on a retreat to meditate, or sitting in a church praying to God.

Luckily, or unluckily for us, Kierkegaard does provide a definition of what it is to be a Spirit:

“The human being is a spirit […] Spirit is the self […] the self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. In short a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two terms. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self…if the relation relates to itself, then […] this is the self…” (The Sickness Unto Death P.43)

Well, that definition leaves quite a bit to make sense of doesn’t it? Entire libraries of books have been written on trying to work out what is meant here. I’ll try to provide my own interpretation, but remember it is only one of many.

To begin with, we can see in the preceding quote that there are actually three distinct things that are being defined, a human being, a self, and a spirit:

The human being is tied to a Spirit. This isn’t to say that a human being is a Spirit right off the bat, but rather that being a human being will be included in what it is to be a Spirit. Great, but what else? Well, the Spirit is a Self too. The same as before, this doesn’t instantly mean that by being a Self one is a Spirit, but rather, that being a Self is included in being a Spirit. The overall picture that we are supposed to have then, is that what we are is Spirit, but before that, we are a Self, and before that, we are a human being. These ways of existing build on one another. Kierkegaard…is not very clear in spelling out this distinction, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, but I will try to explain these three modes of existing as best as I can and at the end hopefully explain why any of this is even remotely related to hiking.

The Human Being

The human being is defined by Kierkegaard as a synthesis of traits which are opposites of one another. Infinite and finite. Temporal and eternal. Freedom and necessity. Now, we don’t immediately need to get into the specifics of what is involved with each and every one of these sets of oppositions, but we can give an example in order to get some idea.

Take the set of oppositions of necessity and freedom. As a human being, there are certain aspects of my existence that are going to be necessarily restricted, that are going to be factually determined. I can’t help that I was born in the year that I was born, or the country I was born in, or the genetic dispositions that I inherited from my parents. Yes, I could lie about my age, or where I’m from, and so on, but facts are facts right?

But on the other hand, I am also free. I may have been born and raised a certain way, with certain values and points of views about how the world should be, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t educate myself, expand my horizons, go beyond the world view I was raised in. So in this way, I can see that I contain within me both necessity and freedom. Necessity that places on my shoulders certain non-negotiable facts about myself, but freedom which also allows me to not be completely beholden to those very same facts, and in some cases, to even be able to completely surmount them.

For Kierkegaard, this is what it is to exist as a human being, to contain within oneself qualities which are, on the face of it, contradictory to one another. To me, this explains my own life experiences very well, always gravitating towards one way of being and then at another time in the opposite direction. No human being is a fixed set of qualities then, we are constantly in this active process of being either this or that. But this isn’t to be a Self yet, this is, in fact, the bare minimum of existing as a person, in a way.

The Self

Kierkegaard is clear that a human being, viewed as a synthesis of opposing qualities, is not yet a Self. Yes, there is a relationship between those qualities, such as necessity and freedom, and in our day to day lives we are expressing ourselves in our own unique ways, but that is still not the meat of what it is to be a Self.

Well what else could the Self be if not the ways that I express myself? I think of myself as a unique individual, with a distinct history and distinct personality from others around me, shouldn’t that be enough to distinguish me as a Self? For Kierkegaard, apparently not.

The Self, for Kierkegaard, is who you really are deep down, below the surface, regardless of where you come from, what clothes you wear, what social group you belong too, your own personal style, and anything else in between. It’s the real you. Most of us associate what it is to have a self with those immediate externals, as Kierkegaard says elsewhere, “the immediate person doesn’t know himself; he quite literally only knows himself by his coat, he knows what it is to have a self […] only in externals. (The Sickness Unto Death P.84)

But even more so, despite what has been said about identifying the Self with externals, the real you isn’t a thing separate from the world either, as we would normally think at this point. It isn’t a ghost in the machine of the body, or a mere outside observer of the world. No, the way Kierkegaard is spelling it out, the real you is actually that ongoing relationship that you are having with yourself. The real you is the you that, in every minute of every day, is trying to make sense of itself, that is trying to relate to itself and the world around it. That is why it is fundamentally referred to as a relation in a relationship with itself.

I think most of us fall into this category of existing. I most certainly do. We go about our day and every now and then stop to wonder, what is the point of all this? What am I doing with my life? Who am I even, I mean really? Am I this or that? What is my place in the world? What is my relationship with other people? Am I getting this whole existing thing right? If we decide to keep going with those thoughts, to really try to make sense of ourselves, Kierkegaard thinks we start to show the first signs of being a Spirit.

The Spirit & Despair

Well, what more could there be than making sense of myself? If I’m thinking about myself and trying to get a handle on that, isn’t that good enough? Can’t I just go back to the everyday now that I’ve noticed it?

To begin with, it’s wonderful and amazing that as human beings we have the capacity for this kind of interior reflection. But, according to Kierkegaard, we are capable of so much more than that, but are often, even when the opportunity is available, unwilling to see how far our introspective abilities can take us. As he puts it, of people who are unwilling to go further, “the conception they usually have of themselves is very humble; that is, they have no conception of being spirit, the absolute that a human can be […] If one were to imagine a house consisting of basement, ground floor and first floor, […] and if now one were to compare being a human being with such a house, then [the fact] with most people is, alas, that in their own house they prefer to live in the basement.” (The Sickness Unto Death p.73)

To me, this analogy best sums up what Despair consists of. It is not only a profound sense of hopelessness, a subtle layer of unease that permeates my day to day thoughts, but it is also something that I have the potential to change. But that change has to come from an acceptance that the state I’m in isn’t one that I think is all that I deserve. Like Kierkegaard’s confused home-dweller, I have to not only recognize that I’ve been stuck in the basement the whole time through my own inaction, but that I deserve better, that is, I deserve to live on the top floor.

I am a human being, a synthesis of a variety of opposing and contradictory qualities. I am Self, that relation of qualities trying to make sense of itself. But now I really have to put the work in. I have to want to not only get a handle on this Self that I am, but I also have to want to be it. I have to want to stay in this conscious state, always working towards a deeper understanding of myself, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. No matter the things I discover about myself and how I have related to others over the years. For Kierkegaard, this is why Despair is such an all-encompassing problem of the human condition, being a Spirit demands clarity and honesty with yourself about yourself. In short, you can’t bullshit your way around yourself.

The Spirit & G.O.D.

But wait, there’s more. Not only do you have to want to be yourself if you want to be a Spirit, if you truly want to rid yourself of Despair, Kierkegaard also adds that, you have to build a relationship with the power which established you:

“This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” (The Sickness Unto Death p.44)

There’s no way around this, but the power that Kierkegaard refers to is God, specifically, the Christian God. Even more specifically, the Lutheran Christian God. Kierkegaard’s solution for Despair also requires faith which, I will admit, is a difficult topic which , no will not be resolved in a simple blog. But I will say this, whatever stripe of faith you are, and this includes the atheistic type as well, you gotta believe in something bigger than yourself, something which gives your existence meaning, something which can be the foundation by which your relationship with yourself, and with others, can begin to make sense. I take some solace in the fact that others have taken the same route here when it comes to the G.O.D. question, such as the philosopher Gordon Marino:

“No doubt [faith] will illicit a grimace from many readers. Kierkegaard would disown me for it, but perhaps we can ease the rub of faith by allowing that, if you trust that your task in life is to become an authentic human being, then you will know what you truly fear-namely, becoming a vacant-eyed empty suit of an individual.” (The Existentialist’s Survival Guide p. 54)

But whether or not you settle on religious faith as the cure for what ails you, and that is exactly what Kierkegaard ultimately settled on, the undeniable part of his argument, the one that sticks despite any theological predilections you may have, is that Despair is a real problem that pertains to the human condition, and that it is fully within our power to overcome it, but we gotta want it.

Hiking

Back to the subject of my hiking. Why do I hike? Is it to get away from myself? From the world? No not really. As Kierkegaard shows us, no matter where we go, no matter how we change external things about ourselves, we can’t ever really get away from Despair, because Despair is ultimately, something that can only ever really be treated by being faced head on, and that is a really uncomfortable thing to do.

So I go on my walks, like a form of self-therapy or self-counseling, to get a handle on that Despair, to treat it by paying attention to it, by examining the contours of it, how it has affected my relationship with myself, with others, and even with that which Kierkegaard calls the power which established me. It’s not always the most pleasant experience, because it means that I have to take a plain and honest look at ways that I’ve failed to live up to Kierkegaard’s conception of Spirit.

But even on days that I come back ragged and tired, I always feel like I’ve done something positive towards helping myself out of that slump of Despair, something that positively impacts my relationship with myself and with other people.

Getting a handle on Despair in this way doesn’t sound like much fun, mix that with having to possibly get sweaty and out of breath, and you may wonder why I’m even recommending hiking. The thing is, I’m not really recommending hiking as a way to get a handle on Despair, it’s a method I use, but it’s not for everyone. I’m not even recommending that you agree with everything Kierkegaard says about the human condition, but I would ask you, as I’ve asked myself constantly, sometimes at my own discomfort the following:

Am I currently relating to myself?

Do I want to be myself?

Am I grounded in something meaningful?

If these are questions that trouble you, or that you find compelling, then perhaps philosophical counseling, either self-guided or with a philosopher is an option to consider. There are many resources available online, one of which is the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, link here, of which I am licensed practitioner.

I’ve only given a very brief summary of Kierkegaard’s conception of Despair in this article. In fact, I’ve really only touched upon the first few lines of one of his most well known works, “The Sickness Unto Death” of which I used the edition published by Penguin Classics. Gordon Marino’s book “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” has also been a huge help in getting to grips with Kierkegaard. Perhaps in a future article I will provide a summary of the many many ways that we can Despair, according to Kierkegaard. Expect lots of graphs and diagrams when that happens.

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

Reason, Emotion, Happiness

Written by: Michael Lucana

The Stoics were very much concerned with being the best version of themselves that they could be. And for them, this meant being rational, but they were not robots. That much is very clear when you read their writings. Epictetus, a former slave, could never be mistaken for Seneca, an advisor to the Roman Emperor. One had a very direct and abrasive teaching style akin to a sports coach, while the other one primarily traded in heavily polished orations, which on my most judgmental days I would describe as “fancy schmancy.” They came from diverse backgrounds and had unique and personal ways in which they developed their practices. Yet they all focused on the same thing, being rational. But what was the point of being rational? For the Stoics, being rational equated to leading a happy life.

The happy life (Greek: Eudaimonia) was, for the Stoics, a life in which one flourished, but this was a very specific kind of flourishing. We tend to think of flourishing as I kind of success or prosperity that one achieves, like when one’s business takes off and flourishes, or when a garden flourishes and grows many beautiful plants. This kind of flourishing was not the immediate concern of the Stoics, what was of concern to them was the kind of flourishing that was essential to the human being, the kind of flourishing that only a human being could be capable of. But what was the essential nature of being a human being to begin with?

The Stoics settled on Reason (Greek: Logos), or rationality, as the essential nature of what it was to be a human being. The power to think, to speak, to act according to reason was what made a human being, it was human nature. Given this, for a human being to flourish, to really succeed and prosper as a human being, they would need to develop themselves as rational creatures.

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius

If the Stoics were to be rational then, if they were to try to live their lives according to Reason, then this meant that they would need to find a way to manage their Passions (Greek: Pathos). The word Pathos is typically thought of as designating emotions in general. But for the Stoics, the Passions were specifically unhealthy sorts of emotions, the kinds that were destructive and fundamentally roadblocks towards leading a happy life. Fear could easily override one’s decision making process during a scary situation and one could end up doing something that they regretted afterward. Why? Because in that moment, they hadn’t been operating under Reason but under the influence of a Passion. In a way, one was being led by emotion, and by doing so, was no longer being true to human nature.

“Anger: an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything it is poured.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

So we can think of emotions as being destructive if they led a person away from Reason, from their true selves. To combat destructive emotions, the Stoics developed different techniques and practices. If you are so inclined, I have written about many of these practices here. Fundamentally, these practices were meant to bring a person closer to their true Rational self, to be the best version of themselves that they could be. In other words, these practices led to Virtue (Greek: Arete). I’ve written about Virtue as well before, and a more detailed explanation of it can be found here.

“To live a life of virtue, you have to become consistent, even when it isn’t convenient, comfortable, or easy.” Epictetus

But what was the benefit of being Virtuous and Rational? I could be the most upstanding, virtuous, rational person you could meet in ancient Rome, but at the end of the day, it wouldn’t save me if someone in political power decided they didn’t like me. And these sorts of things did happen. For example, Seneca was condemned to die by the very Emperor he used to tutor. If being a Stoic couldn’t guarantee me any physical benefits what could it offer me?

As I’ve said, in developing their Reason, the Stoics worked to inhibit the overpowering influence of negative emotions in their daily lives. Because much suffering could occur when negative emotions ran rampant, Stoics who were successful in their practice were able to achieve a state of equanimity in regards to those negative emotions. In Greek, this mental state was called Apatheia, which literally means “Without-Passions.” Since the Passions were, for the Stoics, unhealthy emotions like Anger or Fear, this left room for positive emotions (Greek: Eupatheia), emotions that didn’t call the shots, but that were a product of the Stoic pursuit of being rational. A constant fear of pain and death when traveling in a strange placed turned into reasonable caution. Self-directed anger towards oneself for failing at something turned into determination to learn from mistakes. These are some examples, to name a few.

Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue-if you care for yourself at all-and do it while you can.” Marcus Aurelius

The Stoic who was without Passions was not free from all emotions then, rather, those that were disruptive to mental well-being were no longer what ruled them. What this meant ultimately was that the successful Stoic had achieved Tranquility of Mind (Greek: Ataraxia), a mental state in which they were the true owners of themselves. And this happiness could only have been achieved, according to the Stoics, by being true to themselves, by being rational.

“The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.” Marcus Aurelius

Dear Diary: Meditating with the Stoics

Written by: Michael Lucana

Well, I told myself back in March that I would spend a month living and breathing Stoicism. It ended up running slightly longer than a month but I definitely learned quite a bit from the experience and hope to do another round sometime in the future. I have to say, on a personal level, the biggest takeaway I got from the whole thing was a deeper sense of compassion for those around me, as well as a stronger sense of self-reliance on myself to be able to face challenges that I ran across in my day to day.

How did I go about it though? What methods did I use?

First, I read, quite a bit. I already had a few books by Stoic philosophers sitting on my bookshelf. I purchased some additional books and got to reading during my free time. While I normally take a lot of notes (a habit picked up from my college days), I made an effort to just let the ideas I was reading about soak in naturally. I also watched a lot of videos online related to Stoic concepts or listened to Podcasts related to Stoicism. While doing this, I made a conscious effort to stay away from any sources, aside from the primary texts I read, that veered into academic territory.

Believe me, I love “Hard Philosophy,” it was my bread and butter for many years, but this time I wanted to understand Stoicism not from an academic perspective, but from an everyday practical perspective. I wanted to read and listen to how Stoicism could be practically applied, not on the difference between Stoic Propositional Logic and Aristotelian Term Logic.

“I wanted to read and listen to how Stoicism could be practically applied.”

Second, once I got a handle on some of the Stoic concepts, I made a conscious effort to live according to them, irrespective of whether I agreed with them theoretically or not. What did this mean? It meant that if I was reading something that said, “this is how you should behave in this situation,” if there was a theoretical concept in there that I ran into that I disagreed with, I didn’t let it stop me from following the ethical rule that was being given. Another way to put this is that I made an attempt to follow the ethical rules in good faith, without being reserved about the theoretical backdrop in which they were formulated.

“I made an attempt to follow the ethical rules in good faith.”

Third, I started keeping a Stoic journal and writing in it daily, usually in the mornings, sometimes in the evenings. The Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius actually kept one as well, and that was where I got the idea. On a daily basis I would write something to myself that related to Stoic concepts that were bouncing around in my head. After a few days of doing this, I found certain themes that I would return to, for example, on how to deal with strong emotions like anger or fear from a Stoic perspective, or simply reminding myself what the Stoic Virtues were. Sometimes my journal entries took the form of a dialogue between my emotional side and the rational (Stoic-like) side of myself. Sometimes, after rereading them, I saw that they repeated things I had read somewhere else, but that didn’t bother me either.

Most importantly though, I kept these entries short and to the point. I wasn’t trying to do anything but keep my daily thoughts and actions centered around Stoic ethics. Basically, the meditations that I wrote to myself were meant to keep me on the Virtuous path, to constantly remind myself of what was in my power to control in this sometimes crazy world.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything but keep my daily thoughts and actions centered around Stoic ethics.”

I’ve included some selected excerpts of my journal entries over the past few weeks. Perhaps they will be of use to you if you are so inclined to experiment with this journaling method. As a reminder, these meditations were written directly to myself, so sometimes I felt no need to pull punches. Many times I was honest to myself about my own failings, as one should be if they wish to improve anything about themselves.

Meditation 1: The Mortal

The mortal: confused, lost, pulled in every direction by malformed and undetermined ideas of the Good. Or lost to the whims of anger, or desire. And you are much the same aren’t you? Remember your share in this.

Meditation 2: Wake Up

Early morning. Cold. Wanting to sleep in. But you are a human being and you were not meant for sleeping. At least that’s what you’ve heard. Even with eyes half-closed, in pre-dawn glow, get up, walk, run, do something, anything to warm up this body from within, through it’s own power. You may not do it perfectly but keep at your practice. It is the same way with the mind as the body.

Meditation 3: What You do Today

Today you will meet with some form of adversity whether it is a mortal danger or a trivial thing. Meet it with clarity of thought, with the saying, “What is outside of me does not own me, I own only myself and that is all I should concern myself with.”

Well in what way should that concern express itself?

Acting according to what the Stoics called Virtue, acting according to Reason, and always ask yourself, “whatever I do today, will I regret it later at some ungodly hour?”

Meditation 4: Be Kind

One moment in which you lose compassion topples over the moments that proceed from it. Be mindful of these moments when you forget to practice kindness.

And if you lose your temper, fall short of the ideal, what then? Fall apart? No, there is nothing you can do once the moment is past. Move on, you only have this present moment, the here and now, to act according to Virtue.

Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, Justice. What more do you need?

Meditation 5: Rest

Back to the grind. No more rest. But what did you expect? This body was not meant for laying under the covers for days. It was made to move and to work. You’ve rested long enough, recovered enough, now pick yourself up. You’ve wasted enough time.

Meditation 6: How to Respond to the World

You have no control over the world. Only of yourself and how you respond to it. And there are only four ways you can correctly respond. With Courage, Temperance, Wisdom, and Justice.

Meditation 7: Mindfulness

Mind only yourself but watch others, how they behave, what motivates them. And then ask, are you any different?

Meditation 8: Justice

In what ways will you be just towards others today? In what ways will you be unjust? You have some Wisdom that’s been given to you, but you must practice it. How else will you sleep at night?

Meditation 9: Bad Dreams

Even asleep one is assailed. Bad dreams, vision of what could have been, or of what will never be. Words left unsaid, things left unresolved. So be aware when you wake up.

“These dreams have perturbed me, but why should they? They are what they are and have no power over me unless I let them. All I have to worry about is whether or not I let them carry me away from myself.”

Meditation 10: Four Virtues

Wisdom: What is good, what is not good, what is indifferent.

Courage: Acting correctly despite your fears.

Justice. Duty to your fellow human beings, to your society.

Temperance: Self restraint, self control.

Meditation 11: The Human Being

To the Stoics, the human being was matter and a little bit of soul. A puff of air, a wisp of life in a fleshy capsule. Where did this animating essence originate?

Meditation 12: Mindfulness

Many of us assent to whatever appears to our minds and so they carry us away with them. If something like a memory of a bad event that angered you comes your way, you don’t think twice about letting it take up your thinking. So you turn the memory over in your mind, how you could have done things differently, how you could have come out on top at that moment, what you will do in the future to get even.

First, remind yourself you are a mortal and your time is precious, so why let this memory of the person who offended you eat up your time? Is it something that’s already happened? Something outside of your control?

Then, remind yourself that because you are a human being, you are not to blame for these thoughts appearing. That is just what thoughts do, appear. You might as well ask the world to stop spinning.

Finally, remember you do have this power: the power to say to the thought, “you are none of my business. I will not assent to you.” Turn away from the irrational thought, do not reason with it, it isn’t something that you can reason with any way. Pick yourself up, move on with the day.

Meditation 13: Compassion

Say to yourself, so you won’t be surprised, “Today I will run up against other mortals who are just as sick as I am. Perhaps they have a bit of Wisdom too, but I won’t even catch a glimpse of that if I see them as enemies. Because really they are myself with just another face, caught up in their own lives, pulled here and there by strong emotions, strangers to the Good.”

The only thing you can do then, is show a bit of compassion and bite your tongue, until you find the right words, kind words.

Meditation 14: Facing the Truth

Is turning away the same as avoiding? Only in the case of Truth. Face the Truth everyday under every circumstance. Everything else is not even worth looking at.

The Stoics sought Tranquility, to not be perturbed by the world. They achieved this by making a distinction between what is in our power and what is not in our power. Furthermore, they found that by living in accordance with this distinction and worrying only about what is in our power, they could not be ruled by misfortunes.

Meditation 15: Sleeplessness

Every night going into the morning you should be asking yourself, “what is keeping me up? What is it that my mind won’t stop turning over?”

If it is something you’ve done that did not align with Virtue, then you can never go back to that moment. It is lost to time and has slipped from your hands.

So say to yourself, “I will make an effort the next time the same situation occurs. I will act according to Virtue. ”

There is nothing more to say after that, all you can do is rest.

Meditation 15: Consequences

If you turn the memory over in your mind and find that your actions aligned with Virtue, then you did all you could do. The consequences weren’t to your liking? You are not a divine being, the world does not move according to your desire. You are a mortal, your power extends only to your actions and your thinking. So there is nothing more to turn over in your mind.

Meditation 16: The Need for Philosophy

Socrates said, “I am not Wise.” And in this way he was Wise. Because to know that you do not know is the start of having some sort of Wisdom.

In the same way you can say to yourself, “I am un-divine. I am mortal.”

Because, if you you were divine then you would already have Wisdom from the start. But you clearly do not have Wisdom from the start, otherwise you would have had no need of any sort of philosophy.

Meditation 17: Three Disciplines

Three things you have some control over and so you can develop.

First, you have the power to say yes to this or to say no to that. So, you can develop the ability to assent only to what is true.

Second, you have control over how you act, but no control of how the world reacts to your actions. And how you act should align with the kind of thing you are, which is a rational and social creature. So, let your actions be for the benefit of others.

Finally, you have the power to control your desires and fears. Whatever causes fear in you only does so because you allow it. If you choose to act in accordance with truth and justice, then whatever fear presents itself will only obstruct you if you allow it to. Similarly, you may know the right thing to do, but if desire gets the better of you, if you don’t renounce it for the sake of truth or justice, then you will never proceed further.

Meditation 18: Stress

Some people think, “I am stressed, I am irritable because I need more rest, because the world is not giving me a break.”

But when was it ever promised to you that the world was subject to you? Are you a god? No you’re not, otherwise, you would not be troubled.

And why do you want more rest anyway? Rest is merely a stop along the way to becoming who you are.

Why would you wish to add further stops along the journey, unnecessary ones at that? If anything you are stressed because of this imposition of further waiting, an imposition you placed on yourself by not getting to it.

Meditation 19: Choice

You are not the god of this world, it doesn’t listen to you, much less care what you think is or isn’t fair. But you are the ruler of this self, of what it chooses to do or not to do.

So, if you get mad, if you lash out at someone else, the responsibility will always lie with you, no matter how you rationalize it.

“I was tired. It was a long day. I didn’t have my coffee today. They yelled at me first. He was rude to me.”

Yet you make the choice to assent to these things, to let them sway you towards a direction that time and time again you end up regretting. And this regret proceeds from the realization that anger is no Virtue, but a Vice, and every Vice only compounds your lack of Justice.

Meditation 20: Pleasure & Joy

Pleasure comes and goes. When it is here it is wonderful and when it goes there is a pain caused by it’s absence.

Then there is something like pleasure, but less transitory. It is something like joy.

What makes joy so different? It is unaffected by time, by the ups and downs of life, even if you catch a sense of it once, you can always go back to it and it never changes.

Pleasure you can regret, you can resent even. Pleasure, in time, can turn to a pain and vice versa. And so in this way joy and pleasure must be distinct things with distinct avenues by which you reach them.

Meditation 21: Four Virtues

If you are Wise then you will know what is in your power and what is not in your power and so will act accordingly.

If you are Just then you will regard your fellow human beings as fellow citizens of the world and will treat them as family even.

If you are Courageous then you will do what is correct to do despite the fear it may cause in you.

If you are Temperate then you will not give in to desires when they contradict the correct thing to do.

Meditation 22: Your Other Self

Think of others as yourself with another face.

Do you criticize yourself too harshly sometimes or tell yourself “I am no good?”

But when you are fair to yourself you think, “I am being too hard on myself, I am not doing myself any good by thinking so badly of myself. How will I get any better if I’m not kind to myself?”

Now turn your attention to your other self, the one with another face. What good is it to throw insults at that self, to think that they are good for nothing? To be cruel to them, even in your thoughts? Stripped of race, gender, social status, of the accidents of a particular life, the human being is fundamentally the same self, an admixture of material body and rational soul.

You know this don’t you? So act like it.

Meditation 23: The Goal

The correct thing to do: what is that?

What is of benefit to the whole.

And what is it that is of benefit to the whole?

That which allows every human being to achieve tranquility.

And by what means is tranquility achieved?

By practicing the Virtues.

But not everyone wants to practice the Virtues, not everyone wants to be like you.

Well that is not my concern, I can only own myself. But I shouldn’t impede others from trying to achieve tranquility in their own way. That would not be Just.

Meditation 24: Being a Passerby

In every situation remind yourself, “I am a passerby, an observer from some far off land, coming and going from here just like that.” Then maybe later you won’t feel ashamed at having gotten caught up in troubles that are none of your concern.

Meditation 25: Reviewing the Day

Review your day. Did you try to the best of your abilities to be kind and compassionate to your fellow citizens of the world?

Yes.

Did you stop yourself when anger or fear arose in you?

Yes, I said to the feeling, stop, you have no power over me, I will not be led around by you on a leash.

Did you ever say to yourself I am a mortal and so I must die someday?

Yes, the thought is like my shadow now, an old friend.

And did you say to yourself, I will only worry over what I have the power to control, namely my own words and actions?

Yes.

So there is nothing more to say. If you wake up in the morning, be happy, you have another day to better yourself.

Meditation 26: Meditating on Death

No rest for the wicked, or so I’ve heard it said. You are a mortal, material body and a little bit of soul. You put them together and you get a human being, a rational creature that can conceive of eternity yet dwells in the finite.

What of it though? Dust to dust and all that. The mortal is fated to death in either case, to dissolution.

Well, that’s none of your concern now is it?

Well, it must be some of my concern, I mean, some aspect of me goes along for the ride down to some dark unknown right?

And if it does? Whether you protest it or not, the same outcome occurs right? “Thou art not a god.” You yourself said this, so why stress? Why worry? Why spend any time concerned over it?

My guess is as good as yours.

Well, I have a theory.

Well? Go on, explain it to me.

You, the one I speak to now are that aspect of yourself that only has one impulse, to live, to survive. Somehow you’ve gotten all mixed up with that animal self, and you’ve begun to think that it’s concerns are your concerns and they are sort of, in a fashion I suppose. But you aren’t merely an animal are you? You have some share of intelligence. That is the part that is unafraid I think, that speaks to you now, because it knows the way of things and so doesn’t concern itself over what is not in it’s power.

Ah but why should it? After all, it benefits from this arrangement does it not?

For you, yes, it appears as a benefit, but for that rational aspect of yourself, it is treated indifferently. Because your reason can also imagine the reverse of the situation and feel untroubled, it can say without hesitation that, were the tables turned reason would accept it’s fated dive into nothingness.

Meditation 27: Self-Improvement

So you want to improve yourself ? For beginners, change your words they only seem to trip you up.

“Why have I been so stressed lately?”

Say instead, “Why have I allowed myself to be stressed by these things which are happening?”

Remember, you and only you control what it is that you do or don’t assent to.

“But sometimes I am so lost that I don’t know what to assent to.”

That seems like a poor excuse doesn’t it? Think to the last time you let your temper get the better of you. There was that moment when you were presented with two choices, to say something or be silent. You know what is a Virtue in that situation, to simply let the situation be because no one was really hurt. But your pride has been hurt and so you have already allowed it to whisper in your ear this is what you should do. And despite you knowing what is correct to do, you follow along and worse still feed the fire, compound your anger and dig yourself deeper, all the while very much aware of it but letting yourself be carried along. So in the final account, the stress has not caused you to lose your temper, you have allowed yourself to assent to be carried along. You are the sower of your own discord.

“If only there was one day when I didn’t have to be tested.”


Everyday is a test. How could you forget?

Meditation 28: Tranquility

What is a good life irrespective of fortunes?

A life free of worry and the overpowering emotions.

How does one free themselves of worry and overpowering emotions?

By living virtuously, by developing the discipline of assent, of action, and of desire and aversion.

But if I free myself of passions don’t I lose a taste for life?

By freeing yourself of passions you open yourself to more authentic feelings. Non-destructive feelings. Wouldn’t you rather be reasonably cautious as opposed to constantly fearful?

Meditation 29: Justice

Yourself with another face. That is all another person really is. Because what are you really? Not your race, nationality, clothes, job. You are all the same deep down. Since you’ve caught a glimpse of this, act like it.

Know what is and isn’t in your power.

Act according to what is in your power, irrespective of the consequences because they certainly aren’t under your control. And what is in your power is to be virtuous because when you’re not virtuous, then you have relinquished that power.

To give in to desires is to relinquish your power. To give in to your fears is the same thing.

Meditation 29: Own Yourself

Remember your time with the Stoics.

You want to be wise? Know the difference between what is and isn’t in your power, then worry only about what you have it in your power to control.

Not even what you did yesterday is in your power so what’s the point of tossing and turning in bed at night reliving past mistakes? All you have is this, the present moment to act justly, to temper destructive emotions, to do what must be done without being afraid. As for the future? All you can do is prepare for it by reminding yourself yet again, it can turn out well or it can turn out bad, but you will wind your way through it with integrity, with wisdom.

It will press on you, it will back you into a corner, it will pull at you in every direction but only if you say yes to it, if you let yourself be owned by it.

How to be a Better Person : Stoic Edition

Written by: Michael Lucana

I’m always working on trying to improve myself, on trying to become the best version of myself that I can be. I don’t always succeed, actually far from it. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a project that’s never complete. But there is something to be said for making the effort, for having self-improvement always in the back of your mind. And when I talk about improving myself, I don’t necessarily mean the outer aspects of myself, like my eating habits, my workout routines, or even my career.

Don’t get me wrong, those are important things to work on, and I do work on them, but they are secondary projects to me, projects distinct from what I mean when I say improving myself. Really I’m talking about something like improving my mental habits, my character, my soul.

Maybe that’s why I always find myself drawn to Stoic philosophy, because that was what the Stoics were concerned with first and foremost; becoming the best version of oneself that one could be. Of course, the Stoics had very specific ideas about what that meant.

For the Stoics, self-improvement involved practicing the 4 Virtues (in Greek: Arete), Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. No matter what Stoic writer you read, these Virtues will always come up in one form or another. I’m always amazed when I read what kind of advice Seneca or Epictetus would give people who came to them with various personal problems that they were experiencing. These Stoics would always find a way to resolve the problem by tracing it’s solution back to one of these Virtues.

So, the Virtues set the standard for how to behave and so, the closer you adhere the Virtues, the more you are improving yourself. I’ll try to explain the Stoic Virtues below, as I as far as I have understood them:

Wisdom

Wisdom (in Greek: Sophia) is, simply put, knowledge of what we should and should not concern ourselves with. What should we not concern ourselves with? Everything outside of us that isn’t in our power to control, and that list is quite large: life, death, reputation, health, wealth, social status, the list goes on and on.

But you might say, “Of course I have the power to control things outside of me, what are you talking about? If I want to be healthy, I’m gonna exercise every day. If I want to make more money, I’m gonna move up the ladder at work. I’m not just gonna sit around and do nothing, that’s stupid.”

And I don’t think the Stoics would disagree with you. Yes, go out there and work on building your career, start eating healthier and work out. But remember, you’re not guaranteed to keep those external things that you want. They’re nice to have, worth going for, helpful in a lot of ways, but not absolutes. A major economic downturn can make your money worthless, you could be paralyzed in a freak accident. Don’t base your entire existence on them, they are not fundamentally under your power.

So what is important? The only thing we should really be concerned with is what is in our power to control and that’s really only two things: our thoughts and our actions.

What the Stoics are getting at with placing your thoughts and actions exclusively under your control is that you are ultimately responsible for everything you think and do. Someone was rude to you and it caused you to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day? Well you have no control over the other person’s attitude, but you are in control of refusing to let those emotions get the better of you.

Making this distinction between what is in your power and what isn’t in your power seems easy, but it is something you have to develop on a daily basis, constantly asking yourself, is this something that should concern me? Is this something that’s worth my time worrying over?

JUstice

Justice (in Greek: Dikaiosune) is a concern for the common good, for the welfare of other people.

It’s very easy to say to yourself, “Well, because I should only concern myself with what is in my power to control, then I shouldn’t worry about other people. They’re having a bad day? That’s their problem, they need to work on that themselves.”

But when we say things like this to ourselves we are ignoring how interconnected we are with one another. The Stoics believed that the universe was one enormous organism, and that each and every human being was part of this greater whole. Given that, one’s actions shouldn’t be merely for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others as well. To me this means having a compassionate and understanding attitude towards other people, even when you may not see eye to eye or just plain don’t like each other.

But this doesn’t mean that you should just allow people to walk all over you either, or say to yourself when you see terrible things happening on the news, “Oh well, I have to accept that people are just people.” Far from it. After all, if you view all of the world as interconnected, then other people’s problems are also your problems. Given this, it is almost as if it’s your obligation to stand up for others, to correct bad behaviors from other people, and at the same time not be just an all-around jerk yourself.

COURAGE

Courage (in Greek: andreia) is more than just being unafraid. It doesn’t mean that you can pick a fight without hesitation either. Courage is acting the right way, doing the right thing, being your true self, despite whatever fears you may have. You’re not pushing your anxieties or worries away when you do this either, you’re recognizing that they’re there. But you’re also recognizing that the thing that you have to do, whatever it may be, is in keeping with you being Virtuous.

Temperance

The word Temperance (in Greek: Sophrosune) always makes me think of someone who abstains from drinking alcohol, doesn’t even dare talk to women, and is just an overall un-fun person to be around. I think a better way to describe this Virtue is that it is something like self-control, or self-discipline. I can get behind that, who doesn’t want to be in better control? But in better control of what?

The easy answer is: in control of the things that give you physical pleasure. I like to drink beer, but I also have a history of doing very stupid things when I’ve wanted to keep the party going longer that it should. So I intentionally practice drinking in moderation. Maybe a victory beer after a particularly hectic week at work, or when I’ve decided to treat myself and cooked myself a burger and need something to pair it with. By practicing self-control, I can still do the things that give me pleasure, but in a way that won’t kill my liver.

A more subtle way of looking at self-discipline is when it comes to your emotions. We all experience anger, fear, jealousy, sadness. We’re all human beings, it’s a normal thing. But when we let those emotions lead us and start to guide our decision making, then we can get into all sorts of trouble. Remember, for the Stoics, Wisdom is being able to make a distinction between what’s important and what’s not. If your thinking is clouded by anger or sadness, how well do you think you will be able to make important decisions?

Of course, it’s easy to say, “Shut off your emotions, be a robot, only think logically.” That’s not what I think the Stoics are advocating either. What I think they are pushing instead, is an awareness of the presence of those emotions, of looking at something like anger straight in the eye and telling it, “You’re not the boss of me. You can’t fool me into doing something I’ll regret later. I am the boss of me. I decide what I do.”

Those are the Stoic Virtues to the best of my understanding. Because I practice them daily does that mean I consider myself a Stoic? Do I consider myself a Wise, Just, Courageous, Temperate person? Far from it, but on a practical level I can derive benefits from making the attempt. I invite you to try to examine yourself and see if you can also draw any benefits from trying to live according these principles.

The Cup is Half-Empty: The Art of Negative Visualization

Written by: Michael Lucana

I am not known to be a generally positive-minded person. If you were to ask me if the cup was half-full or half-empty I would tell you it’s half-empty. In other words I don’t see the positives in most situations I find myself in, only the negatives. If I’m going to set out on a new task I only see the challenges before me, and the many ways that things could go wrong on the way to my intended goal. This has led to many people calling me “moody” or “negative” over the years, and in the past I would have agreed with them. But as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve slowly come to regard my negative-minded approach as a virtue of sorts.

The Ancient Stoics were very much negative-minded thinkers as well. They developed the ritual of Negative Visualization to an artform, reminding themselves on a daily basis of the many ways that things could go wrong, of the many challenges they would meet on any given ordinary day. Those negative conditions could be as disastrous as one’s boat sinking, or as mundane as running into an unpleasant person. Here is an example by Marcus Aurelius:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” (Meditations)

This is just one of numerous meditations written by Marcus where he reminds himself about all the terrible people he will have to interact with on that day. Why would he do this to himself? Wouldn’t it make more sense to tell yourself that today is going to be a great day? That everything will work out? I’m sure that I’m not the only that’s been told the same thing in the past.

For the Stoics, the ritual of Negative Visualization was meant to ready them for whatever might happen so that they would not be caught by surprise by dramatic turn of events. After all, one can plan the perfect day, but it is never promised to us, as is shown by experience, that things will turn out the way we want them to. And, for most of us, when we are caught by surprise by events that we don’t plan for, we panic, we freeze up, we fall apart. This is exactly what the Stoics were trying to prevent, as Seneca says:

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” (Letters from a Stoic)

By utilizing Negative Visualization, a Stoic mentally kept themselves mindful and alert. They were prepared for anything and so would ensure that they maintained their own integrity and were able to navigate through changing circumstances whatever they may be.

So how to go about practicing Negative Visualization?

For myself, this exercise is most effective when I wake up early in the morning before the start of what I know will be a big day. This doesn’t mean that you have to do it in the morning, but definitely prior to undertaking an activity which has some importance to you. What constitutes an important activity? That is completely up to you. We all have different things which make us anxious and which we worry about going right. For some people, it could be going on a first date with someone. For others, it could be making a speech at a meeting.

I’ve written before that my preferred method to conduct many of these Stoic exercises is in the form of a short journal entry and I invite you to do the same. If you have a note-taking app on your smart phone that works just as well. Saying it to yourself in the form of an internal dialogue works as well but I think it is important to stress that there is a difference between simply thinking something and letting that thought manifest in the world in some concrete form.

In this step-by-step exercise I will be using excerpts from Epictetus’ Enchiridion to help show how this exercise can be structured.

First, be clear with yourself about what it is that you are going to do. Picture yourself going to the place, how you will behave, what it is that you are intending to do when you get there. Imagine the people that will be there, how they will most likely behave, what they will most likely say. In a way you are imagining the ideal scenario, how you would like things to go. In ancient Rome, communal bath-houses were very popular and were found everywhere. In the example by Epictetus we are asked to rehearse how we hope things will go when we head out on a trip to a bath-house.

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to the bath, picture to yourself the typical scene at a bathhouse…

Second, list the things that could go wrong once you get there. This is where you are imagining the things that people might say or do that would not make the situation ideal. If in the ideal situation of giving a speech you had imagined that someone would laugh at a joke you had prepared to open with, now imagine that they don’t laugh or that they sigh. Imagine that there are complaints from people who can’t hear you very well from the back. Maybe the room will be lit poorly. In Epictetus’ example, he imagines that at the bath-house there will be people rough-housing, maybe even fighting, maybe even stealing other people’s personal belongings when they’re not looking.

people splashing, pushing, yelling and [stealing] your clothes…

Third, remind yourself that in your ideal version of events, there is also an ideal version of yourself. This ideal version prepared their notes for the speech they were going to make, they practiced it in front of a mirror or friends, they are ready to go out there and make it happen! This ideal version of yourself is something that you do have control over. While the event itself could always go wrong in a variety of ways, many of which I have asked you to imagine, you don’t have to stress over those details, the only thing you should worry about is how you will respond.

Someone coughs loudly during your speech? Not your problem, you were in the middle of an important topic, continue with it in the precise manner you had planned. You see someone not really paying attention to something you’ve just said? What’s it to you? You know what you have to say is interesting and worth talking about so go on in keep at it. In the bath-house example, Epictetus reminds us in a similar way to make a distinction between the event in question, and what is in our power to control, ourselves. As he says:

…say at the outset, “I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature…which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.”

Another way of saying this to yourself is, “I want to participate in this event, and whether this event goes good or bad, I will not let it control how I behave. Because I will be the best version of myself no matter what happens.” Now, while the Stoics had very specific ideas about what it meant to be the best version of oneself, for the practical purposes of this exercise I leave it up to you to decide what the best version of yourself is.

The speech was not received well? Perhaps you need to work on improving something about it, and you will make efforts to improve yourself based on feedback, but during those minutes while you were up on stage you gave it your best shot. The date was a disaster? Your date was rude? Maybe it’s not meant to be, but you made sure that you were authentic and kind to your date. You maintained yourself. Move on, keep putting your best foot forward. While you may not be able to control how things play out, you are completely in control of how you respond to adapt those situations.

I invite you to try this exercise, to imagine that the cup will be half-empty, and further, to remind yourself that, that is only half of the cup. The other half still has something, the best part actually, the part that you have control over, the part that can surmount obstacles, yourself.