Recall: The Stoics

Crafting Yourself: Why the Stoics Will Help You Become a More Productive and Creative Maker

The Project

Suppose you are getting ready to start a really big project — a project that will require an immense amount of time and effort, a project that has so many parts and components that you are certain that you will lose your way and make mistakes. It is just that big. And yet the one thing you can be certain about is that the materials for this project are precious and you will not be able to re-start the project once you begin — you’ll have to keep forging ahead even if you make mistakes. It will be the summative production of your crafting life, and nothing that you make will be more important, more visible or have a greater impact on the world than it.

The Materials

The chasm of knowledge and understanding that separates modern, 21st century people from the heyday of Stoic philosophy is nowhere more clear than in how we view the human body. Where ancient Romans would see the body as a balance of liquids, temperatures and states that would make no sense to us, our ideas about the body as a mechanism with parts and systems would make very little sense to them. Its important not to get caught up in arcane details, but there is one important idea here that can’t be missed. For the Stoics, the human soul was a substantial and material part of the world that took its shape from what happened to the body. It was the divine spark that linked all intelligent and cognizant life in the world, and which made a human person unique: a creature of creativity, willfulness and the ability to learn.

The Pattern

The shaping that Stoics imagined was not random or guideless. There was a pattern that was available to all rational people: nature itself. It served for Stoic philosophers what a blueprint would serve for someone building a home. The Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius — yes, the Marcus Aurelius fromGladiator — veritably sang, “O Universe, everything harmonizes with me which is harmonious to you!” The harmony Aurelius describes is the result of a universal pattern to all things, which helps inform how Stoics tried to live good lives. For a Stoic, there is an “ought-ness” to everything that is natural to the universe. The way we ought to be is so because that is what our nature dictates. At one level, this is extremely limiting and confining, because it meant that everything in the world had a place and a role, and beyond that place and role the thing was outside of the “natural” world. (To be fair and to be completely disclosing, this included lots of regressive issues about the roles of women, slaves, our sexual roles, etc. This part of Stoicism is not so helpful for us.)

The Tools

The tools that go into living a life patterned on the freedom and harmony imagined by the Stoics finally gets into some of those dimensions of life I think will most resonate with people who think in terms of craft. The Stoics were really groundbreaking in thinking about life pragmatically and thinking carefully about the habits and manners that made for a contended life. And these tools are perhaps the most immediately useful for people to think about in 2018. You could find many more than the few listed here, but these few convey some important threads in Stoic thinking about how to become truly free and how to live a life that is contentedly happy.

Self-Critique

Being a copious and deliberate self-critic goes against many of the self-esteem-focused Saturday morning cartoons that certainly shaped my early years, but an honest and even brutal inventory of who you really are can be a huge breakthrough in your own life. It can highlight some things that you can fix to make yourself a truly better person, and just as importantly it can move you to become comfortable about aspects of who you are that you weren’t before. I think the key here is to get a sense of distance from the critique. It is easier to hear something negative about yourself if you acknowledge that everyone is flawed, that flaws are changeable, and that perfection is unattainable. Its notable that when the Stoics themselves get into this idea, there’s usually a smirk on their face about it. Epictetus writes, “If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He must not have known of my other faults, or else he would surely not have mentioned only these.’” I certainly wish I could muster than kind of self-deprecating response to cope with someone talking about me behind my back. But I think what Epictetus means is that if you are an honest and serious self-critic, no one in the world can hold anything over you. And that is a kind of personal empowerment I think most of us could really use.

Prize your Time

Aside from being the one bit of Latin most people can quote, “Carpe diem!” is a quintessentially Stoic idea. But there is a morbidity to the phrase that, I think, really can be a tool for those people who wake up most mornings waiting to get their hands dirty. Because there’s always more you want to do and — here’s the morbid part — your life is always running out. The Stoics would remind all of us that nothing in the universe is more valuable than your time, and that you should be more protective of it than you are about anything else. When you see time this way, the Stoics would say that you also realize something crucial about how you should carry yourself through your life: walk around like you have things to do. Seneca writes:

Pain, Difficulty and Defeat are Teachers

We live in a world of real traumas, violence on unspeakable scales and suffering that ruins lives. So this Stoic tool is a dicey one to raise, and I don’t think it is a tool that can be used without a careful awareness of one’s psychological and bodily well-being. But, of course, we have all suffered and struggled through life, and I think the Stoic insight here is to basically say, “don’t waste this!” And for those of us who, perhaps, have suffered more than others, I think the Stoic insight would be, “look around you! you know more of yourself than others do!” This of course is not to prize pain or to pursue suffering like a kind of sadist. Real suffering is always an education; I think that Stoic philosophers might simply remind us that there’s nothing wrong with taking notes as long as you have to listen to the lecture.

Friendship

Epictetus writes, “The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” It has never ceased to amaze me how much attention philosophers and other ancient people paid to friendship. It is a gigantic part of how they saw the world and their experience in it. And I think Epictetus gets at exactly why our friendships are so important and so uniquely valuable. Because our friends — if they are true friends — should encourage us and make us feel good, but they should also “call forth [our] best.” In an age where we have created categories of friendship that are defined by how unimportant they are to us (think of how we use the term “a Facebook friend”), I think the Stoics would remind us that we have to cultivate relationships with people who make us more truly ourselves, and even our best selves. A friend is not simply an intimate connection or a friendly person to recognize in social settings. A real friend should be challenging and maybe even a little bit intimidating — someone you feel like you can stand back from and in that perspective shift see a person with habits and characteristics that you would like to better emulate. Seneca is even more straightforward: “Associate with people who are likely to improve you,” he writes. Our friends can be part of how we become the kind of people we are supposed to be — and like a long-used tool that fits perfectly in your hand or a familiar forest trail whose bumps and ridges are known deeply in your bones, we should see our friends as an extension of ourselves and our experience. They should be a part of how we see the world.

Finishing the Project

I think for most people who have worked on a big, ornate project, there is a sense that you could go on forever tweaking and nitpicking here and there. But at some point, you have to step away, put down your tools, and look on to admire the work as a whole. Perhaps no one will comprehend the work that went into every part more than you, but its beauty and form and utility will be evident to anyone who sees it. Eventually you have to step away, because the project is finished.

Where to Get Started

The Stoic philosophers flourished beginning in the 3rd century BCE and had their heyday during the late Republic and early Roman Empire (1st–2nd centuries CE). For that reason, we have a sizeable chunk of material from Stoic philosophers whose teaching was especially valued by elite Roman citizens, though it also flourished among less socially prominent groups. The writing of Stoic thinkers tends to be very approachable even from a modern standpoint, and it is worth noting that the ideas of some of these thinkers have even been styled as self-help literature among some more modern interpreters. The best Stoic texts to get into if you are new to it are those figures I’ve been citing throughout. So you might start with:

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Dr. Allan T. Georgia

Dr. Allan T. Georgia

Dr. Georgia is the D.R.E. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland, OH.