VIA NEGATIVA The Negative Way
“All philosophy lies in two words, sustain and abstain.” Epictetus
Via Negativa is an ancient philosophical and theological term that aims at finding truth by removing what something is not. If applied to a philosophy of life, it aims at removing what is bad and unnecessary in order to keep and enhance what is true and good in our life. The ancient philosophy schools that sprung after Socrates, proposed to mankind an art of living, the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life. The Art of living became central to philosophers such as Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca or Epictetus .
Adopting an ancient philosophy of life in our modern context can be helpful and applicable with very few changes. Cutting the unnecessary in our life. Information regime.
- Processed food and soft drinks.
- Sugar and white bread
- Watching TV entertainment, news, porn etc.
- Shopping things that are not essential for life
- Repetitive and irrational thoughts
- Time in the internet, only the necessary
- Time on the phone, only the necessary
- Reading News or magazines.
- Your wardrobe; give out a third to people in need.
- Stuff you do not need in your house.
- Thinking about past and future problems, that you cannot solve now.
- Anything that is not essential for your life or your one project.
- Reduce your projects, focus in one thing.
- Meet, unless it comes from natural farming.
- As a side effect radically changing your lifestyle you may have losses and gains.
- Body toxins.
- Cancer risk
- Waist and junk you don’t need.
- Toxic friends.
- Negative emotions such envy or anger.
- A healthier body.
- A sharper mind.
- More time and energy for doing creative things
- More time and energy for family and real friends
- More time and energy for your projects in life
- More time and energy for sports, outdoors and Nature
- More time for reading good books
- Reevaluating your priorities in life.
- Getting things done.
Unlike most modern philosophers, ancient philosophers believed that human beings were endowed with soul, (it is almost impossible to read a philosophical text in ancient greek without finding the word “soul” Psuché). Some schools, like the Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of the soul, but many others did not believe that the soul should outlive the body.
In an Hellenistic school, a student should have to learn logic, geometry, rhetoric, or compose dialogues, but along with those practices, he may have endure other kind of exercises.
The practices or “spiritual exercices” would differ from one school to another. An aspiring philosopher in the Pythagorean school, apart from learning mathematics, would have to remain silent for long periods of time, keep a strict vegetarian diet, watch the stars at daybreak; if he joined the Cynics would live an ascetic life, walking barefoot and sleeping on the ground; a simple life working in a communal garden if with the Epicureans; or to meditate on his own death if he studied with the Stoics.
Paradoxically, for the later school, the purpose of life was Eudaimonia, meaning a happiness or a flourishing life. That was to be achieved by living a life according to Nature, having a coherent life, and taking moral virtue as their only possession and only good.
For the reader it may be hard to see why on earth would someone want to join such school. Life is full of opportunities for pleasure and amusements. Religious people, at least, are promised that after death they will have a reward for their abstinences in this life. The stoic, on the other hand, was left only with Virtue?
The philosophers that lived under the rule of Nero and Caligula knew well how easily a life of excessive luxury, thirst for power and hedonism could destroy the human soul. That vice, greed and depravation are bottomless pits. They were aware of this flaw in our nature and they knew we needed to train against what they saw as irrational passions.
We are, according to science, pleasure seeking creatures. Our brains developed to survive in adverse situations when scarcity was the norm and are not well adapted to abundance and comfort. If the brain doesn’t find real problems it makes up new ones, more difficult to fight because they are self-made delusions.
The adequacy of Hadot’s account of the history of philosophy is not what I wish to consider in detail here.9 Rather, it is on his attractive recovery and insistence on the full force of Ancient philosophy as a way of life that I will focus.10 Modern philosophy, in discrediting theology but refusing its former status as a guide to everyday life and its challenges, has relinquished the opportunity to offer a non-specialist public any practical counsel. Philosophy today is emphatically not a way of life. As a result, the majority are left for their existential orientation to the questionable resources of commercial technoscience (proffering medical and technological panacea to life’s trials at premium rates), the hopelessly reductive maxims of self-help, or else an emerging cadre of suburban shamans promulgating new age religiosity. Although Hadot concedes that certain modern philosophers have managed to move beyond dry academicism, ultimately his conclusion rests: modern philosophy amounts only to discourse about philosophy.
One of the most important Stoics was Epictetus, born into slavery about 55 C.E. in the eastern outreaches of the Roman Empire. Sold as a child and crippled from the beatings of his master, Epictetus was eventually freed, rising from his humble roots to establish an influential school of Stoic philosophy that the emperor Marcus Aurelius would be its most prominent example.
The essence of his philosophy was apparently simple:
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
“Men are not disturbed by events, but by the views they take of them.”
“What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it natural”
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
‘When I see a man anxious, I say, What does this man want? If he did not want some thing which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?’
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
Yes, we all have heard those before. Many wisdom traditions from east and west tell us that to be contented with what we have is the key to happiness, that a good life does not come with wealth and success, that we should live in the present moment. Others encourage us to pursue our dreams, no matter what. They sound contradictory, but both sound right in a way. Can we have our cake and keep it to? It may be the case, according to Epictetus:
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master;
he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
“Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you.”
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
It may sound that it is all about ascetic self-denial. But that is misleading. There are pleasures to be had in the world. If there is wine, enjoy it, remembering that excess is hardly enjoyable. Enjoy the loves in your life, without becoming slave to them. These thoughts are as effective in today’s life as they were two thousand years ago.
We keep forming false expectations about our lives, falling over and oven on the same addictions, inflicting unnecessary forms of suffering to ourselves and others, living inconsistently and worrying about things that are not in our control.
According to his philosophy one can be contented with his life, and at the same time, have aspirations. Even more effectively that one carrying too many contradictory desires, anxiety and fear of failure.
Another benefit of his approach is that, by removing distractions, unnecessary stuff, excesses and time wasting activities, we leave space for the things that really matter in our life.
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy, but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.
From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
An athlete may want to win a tournament, because performing his sport is what makes him fulfilled. For Epictetus the athlete should not be concerned with the winning or losing, or the opinions of the public, those things that are out of his control. A contender may run faster than him, a judge may decide against him for some reason, the public may already have a favorite to support. He should not be concerned. The one thing that is in his control; is to give the best of himself. That, according to Epictetus is the only thing that matters in life. To give the best of ourselves in whatever we are doing, whether we are at rising a family, painting a painting or working at a hospital. Paradoxically, by being indifferent to opinions, contenders, referees or sheer bad luck etc, we are able to focus his energies in the one thing he is in control. Our will.
That is what they called Areté, that they linked with happiness and that was at the center of their philosophy, as a compass pointing toward a flourishing life.
It may turn out that in the near future the will be no ‘survival of the fittest’ but survival of the wisest.
MOST OF THE WORLD ‘S population nowadays live in cities. From Asia to the Americas, billions are beginning to live in a homogeneous way; they are exposed to the same advertising, consume and cherish similar products, dress alike, seem to have almost identical aspirations, and tend to suffer from similar problems and anxieties.
“To be interested in the changing seasons is . . . a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” Santayana
“My idea of the modern Stoic Sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile