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On practicing Stoicism

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”  Marcus Aurelius

WHY WOULD anyone want to practice Stoicism today? Most people think that Stoicism is about enduring pain or adversity without complaining. If that was the case, I could not imagine a less appealing philosophy of life. Things appear to be much more interesting though.

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It is true that building resilience and self-control are significant parts of Stoicism, but that is only the surface of a much deeper philosophy of life. After practicing for some years, I have found it to be a very useful and adaptable way of life. Traveling and working overseas I never run out of opportunities for practicing, and for finding out what works for me. So far, I could list twelve points in favor of keeping up the practice:

An antidote for a modern malaise

Most people living today have better access to healthcare, information and technology than a Roman emperor ever dreamed of. Yet, modern man seems to live radically dissatisfied, sometimes in a permanent state of anxiety. For thousands of years our ancestors survived to all kinds of extreme situations, life or death challenges that made their minds and bodies sharper and resilient. But with the emergence of technology and other advancements, we are becoming soft-minded and weak. We have created a civilization based on consumerism, entertainment and the worship of new gadgets and celebrities. Paradoxically, many of the so-called luxuries and modern comforts are not only not indispensable, but impediments to a god life. Advertizing is designed to create new “necessities”, to make us feel incomplete, ever dissatisfied, to make the worst appear to be the best. We are part of this society, but we don’t have to be part of its frenzy. Stoicism is  about developing strategies and habits of training and self-discipline, for times of excess as well as for times of hardship. It is not about being detached from the world, but about approaching it in a radically different way.

The most valuable things

When I am traveling, I try to apply  the Stoic maxim Omnia mea mecum porto “I carry with me all that is mine”.   Our most valuable possessions are those that go with us all the time, our moral character, our freedom to choose, our knowledge. Peace of mind, and integrity, are far more valuable than wealth or reputation. Therefore, we should never trade an internal good for an external one. According to the Stoics, external things are to be regarded as “indifferent”, meaning only valuable if used for virtue. It is easy to understand that in theory, but when I observe my reactions and behavior when I am under some pressure, I realize that I trade my inner goods too cheaply, too often. In many situations, specially while traveling, I have to remind myself that the content of a lost suitcase, for example, has no value if compared with my inner tranquility. When something stressful happens, I find helpful to ask myself: is this argument/car accident/lost object, more important than my peace of mind? Is this person’s opinion of me, more important than my opinion of myself?

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Most things are not up to us

The Stoics made a sharp distinction between the things we can control and the things we cannot. We have some influence in keeping our health, acquiring wealth or gaining reputation, but those can be taken from us by external circumstances that lie outside of our control. They used to compare life with sailing. When sailing we have no control over the elements. We can choose the direction of our journey, decide when to set out, observe the waves and currents and adjust the sails according to the winds, but we are at the mercy of the sea. If we want to arrive safe to a harbor, we must cooperate with the sea. Changes of fortune and unexpected disasters constantly occur, and many times, the only thing we can do is to accept them, gain experience from them, and use them as training for life. Yet we suffer and waste a great deal of energy for things that are not in our control. Stoicism has been very influential to modern disciplines such as CBT and Logotherapy. “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” Viktor E. Frankl

Building an inner compass

Nothing reveals our true character as the choices we make in real life, especially when we are under pressure. We may collect hundreds thoughtful maxims or read volumes of philosophy books, but theory is of little use unless it meets practice. When we expose ourselves to new challenges and difficulties opportunities for self-knowledge and growth appear. Stoicism is all about practice, you begin by paying attention to simple things, such as what triggers your anger, or if you can keep calm in a traffic jam, moderation at the dinner table, if your actions show concern for the well-being of others.

In ancient times philosophy  offered their students not only sets of concepts and ideas, but also a way of life, a worldview, and useful techniques for facing the problems of everyday existence. By internalizing the rules and principles of their schools, the students had to be able to make use of their philosophy in practice, as an inner compass, to help them take decisions, and navigate through life.

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Negative visualization

One of the most effective and interesting meditation techniques used by ancient Stoics was the practice called praemeditatio malorum  “the premeditation of evils”  or “preparing the mind in advance to cope with adversity”. We should spend some time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our partner has left us, that we have lost our job, our house has burned down, or that a doctor has informed us that we have only six month to live. The reason to do such thing is that we tend to be quite forgetful and ungrateful creatures. By doing so, we remember and value what we have right now, and are more prepared  when something negative happens in reality.

Marcus Aurelius wrote on his private book, “Meditations”, a daily practice: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Reducing negative emotions

Ancient philosophers knew that a great deal of our suffering is self-inflicted, and that we can be very creative in doing so. Negative emotions, such as hate, anger, bitterness, fear or jealousy would rarely improved the quality of our existence. They are unavoidable parts of life, but it is up to us to amplify them or not. Stoics insisted that we are disturbed not by the things themselves but by the views we take towards them. We may not be able to control our emotions, but we can at least try to reduce them, and perhaps transform them into something more positive. We can try to transform our fear into prudence, our anger into determination, our pain and sadness into self-knowledge.

The joy of simplicity

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”  Following Seneca’s advice, I regularly spend some days living as simply as I can. During a week I try abstain from anything that I consider not essential. I keep a frugal diet, based mostly on vegetables, watch no TV, nor internet, use no elevator, nor warm water if possible. My experience is that, the so-called life of comfort is not as comfortable as we tend to think, and the simple life is not as harsh as it appears to be. After an ascetic week I begin to feel healthier, and sharper in mind and more focused. I regain time for reading, painting, putting my thoughts in order, or just being. Stoics followed the Pythagorean maxim that said: “choose the best way to live, however rough it may seem, custom will make it agreeable.”

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Freedom from useless things

We live in the age of constant distractions, our attention, a most valuable part of our being, is continuously pulled in so many directions. Billions of dollars are spent worldwide in advertising, carefully devised to make us desire stuff we probably don’t need, or that is negative for our health or human development. Excess of information and news become noise, rarely ending in knowledge. Fewer distractions mean more freedom, and more time for deep and sustained focus, spent in meaningful activities.

“Freedom cannot be won without sacrifice. If you set a high value on her, everything else must be devalued at little.” Seneca

When traveling for long periods, I got accustomed to carry all my belongings in one suitcase, and I find it to be a good exercise in self-restrain. We tend to acquire stuff we don’t need, which takes time, resources and space out of our lives, and getting irrationally attached to material things. Getting used to travel light develops a different relation to material things. “Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 1)

Living according to Nature

“Live according to Nature” was the motto of the Stoic school of philosophy. In reality they meant to live according to Reason, to the innate human capability for reasoning. But today we can re-frame that maxim for confronting the biggest problem of our time. It is an undeniable fact that our lifestyle is causing an unprecedented alteration of the ecosystem, resulting in dreadful long-lasting consequences for life on earth. The pollution of the atmosphere and the countless tones of plastic that end up in the oceans everyday are the result of an irrational way of thinking, of unreasonable values and habits of consumption.

We of the developed countries have most of us got far, far away from nature. A new form of Stoicism, or Epicureanism may help promoting a change of values and lifestyle that could help solving the biggest challenge of our time. Stoicism was an evolving philosophy more than two thousand years ago,  and still evolving today, in a time perhaps most needed of its recipes than ever.

Reading the classics

We live in a very different world from that of the ancients Greeks and Romans, our problems and challenges differ radically from theirs. But if one learns anything after reading Seneca’s Letters, Epictetus’ Discourses or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, is that human nature has changed very little in the last two millennia. In a time when slavery, exile, political assassination, war and plague were the norm, the Stoics thought that it was possible to live a good and serene life, regardless of the external circumstances.

A classic, unlike a best-seller, is a book to be read and re-read, and never ceases to give you something new. The classics, are books that have been read by different people in different periods of history, by different generations, in different languages, and have delivered something true, beautiful or meaningful.

Rehearsing death

It is a paradox that thinking about death could make our life better. A life of security and comfort may appear to give us happiness, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the human spirit than the numbness produced by it. It seems that,  to meditate about our own death once or twice per month, helps us remember that what we have is transitory, and that we should spend more time with relatives, and tell them how much we love them. Meditating regularly about death can help us live more authentically“Rehearse death” To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Seneca

Rehearsing death helps us putting things into perspective, problems that felt heavy before become lighter, we begin to see opinions, material things, as they really are, almost nothing. “By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent . We will no longer sleepwalk through our life”  Irvine. A Guide to a Good life.

A good flow of life

The goal of life, for most Graeco-Roman philosophies, was to achieve Eudaimonia, meaning a flourishing life, a good spirit, or well-being. Zeno, the founder of the Stoa, said that happiness consisted in “euroia biou” or a Good flow of life. As a philosophy, Stoicism aims at removing the obstacles that prevent us from flourishing as human beings. But pleasure and happiness are not the aim, they are the by-products of a meaningful existence, they should not be pursued directly. Instead our actions should aim at Areté (virtue or moral excellence); the act and habit of living wisely

Seneca once wrote, “The happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast—a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it.”

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Ethics & Aesthetics

 Ethics and Aesthetics –  Stoicism – Building according with Nature  – Rustic Simplicity – Harmony – Natural – Functional – Rational –  Restrained –  Austere colours – Clarity – Modern applications in Architecture and design.

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“The hidden harmony is more potent than the visible.” Heraclitus

We tend to think that ethics and aesthetics are two separate things, and many people believe that they should never mix. In this post I would like to argue that they are interwoven.

The term ethics derives from the Ancient Greek word ethikos, which is derived from the word ethos, habit, custom, conduct. The word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek “aisthetikos”, meaning “of sense perception”.  Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of art, beauty and good taste.

Aesthetics in Stoicism

Although Stoicism is best known for its Ethics and very little is known about their Aesthetics, (since most of their writings are lost), both branches are related and we can try to reconstruct their aesthetic ideas through their ethics. Stoicism happens to be the only philosophical school that bears the name of an artistic element, the Stoa or colonnade.

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The Doric order is the opposite of the baroque and embellished Corinthian

In 301 BC Zeno of Citium began teaching under the colonnade in the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile a painted porch or colonnade. It was a building of Doric order decorated with paintings depicting great Athenian deeds. Such style was named after the Dorians, the tribe to which Spartans belonged, who were noted for their austerity. That choice of location was probably casual, but if there is an artistic style that expresses Stoic ideas, that is the Doric. Whether in music the Dorian mode, architecture the Doric order, and or fashion the chlamys and the chiton dress, the Doric was a very well-defined style, unsophisticated and natural.

Zeno’s maxim was “Live according to nature.” To live a virtuous life was to fulfill one’s potential as a human; in other words, human rationality should be in harmony with the reasons of Nature. Beauty, to the Stoics, begun as harmony of the soul. Aesthetics was something that had to come first from putting their inner being in harmony with nature.

“All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature.” (Zeno, 4th Century B.C.)

Stoics used a series of Paradoxes, used to explain their philosophy in a way that seemed counterintuitive. The first of the paradoxes was: “That only what is beautiful is good” (Oti monon to kalon agathon) There are many things that are beautiful, but don’t necessarily have to be good. We don’t see anything good in, for example, a weapon, although it can be aesthetically beautiful. The key is in the word Kalon which meant both beautiful and noble. If we apply the paradox to , for instance, architecture, we would not call beautiful/noble a gigantic skyscraper erected in a small natural island, that destroys the harmony of the landscape, the environment, and bankrupts the local community, even if the building as an isolated object is aesthetically outstanding. A Beautiful/Noble edifice would be one that is build according to Nature, reasonable, useful, in harmony with the landscape and respectful with the local culture.

The early greek temple represents the soul of a certain people expressed in stone. There is nothing unnecessary in these buildings, nothing, at least, of which we do not see, the purpose (Telos). The astonishing thing in these early temples, is the combination of beauty, simplicity and harmony of the whole. Form and function are one, joined in a spiritual union. The same can be said about the open-air theater, resembling seashells or waves, simple, harmonious, functional, and totally integrated with the greek landscape. Greek temples had a purpose, a temenos a meeting place for humans and gods, for the impermanent and mundane with the eternal and sacred.

Stoic terms that apply to aesthetics.

LOGOS. Meaning, Reason. An artistic fire, the Cosmic active principle that creates as it expands pervading inert matter, the passive principle, and defining existence as an evolving, dynamic process.

EUPATHEIA: good feeling (as contrasted with pathos)

HARMONY: Stoics drew their physics from Heraclitus, who said: “That which is in opposition is in concert, from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony.” “They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.”

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PATHOS: passion or emotion, often excessive and based on false judgements.

PROPORTION: According to Galen, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus wrote: “beauty does not consist in the elements of the body (in themselves) but in the harmonious proportion of the parts. The proportion of one finger to another, of all fingers to the rest of the hand, of the rest of the hand to the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the whole arm, and in short, everything to everything else.”

SYMPATHEIA: Sympathy, affinity of parts to the organic whole, mutual interdependence.

TELOS: goal or objective, purpose.

TONOS: tension, a principle in Stoic physics causing attraction and repulsion. An internal tension in a body, simultaneously moving to the surface and back again, that creates the cohesive state.

Tension is an interesting quality – and architecture must have it. There should be elements of the inexplicable, the mysterious, and the poetic in something that is perfectly rational. 

Annabelle Selldorf

TECHNÉ: craft, art. The practical application of knowledge.

Vitruvius, the Roman theorist of art and design (before design was recognized as such) operated within the Stoic tradition. Vitruvius asserts “I have never been eager to take money by my art, but have gone on the principle that slender means and good reputation are preferable to wealth and disrepute”. This apparent disregard for riches is consistent with the Stoic view that the wise person must bear up without. In keeping with the Stoic enthusiasm for the interconnection of all things, the architect is to be educated in drawing, geometry, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law and astronomy. The unity of Nature is to provide the model for the unity of architecture. As the parts of the human body are proportionate with the regard to the whole frame, the parts of buildings are to be harmoniously ordered. (Further reading: Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture. Indra Kagis McEwen)

Building according to nature

Functional, Spiritual, Serene, Organic, Humanistic.

 The way we build and create objects is a result of our needs, culture, economy, technology but also a reflection of our values and interests. Design and architecture serve as bridges between nature, culture and people, and our consumer habits have serious effects on the environment on our lives and on other people’s lives.

Everything we create has four fundamental functions: Practical, Aesthetic, Symbolic, and Ethical. A vehicle, for example, has the practical function of taking us from one place to another, it has an aesthetic value, such as color and shape, it can symbolize social status, power or personality, and it can be ethical or unethical if, for instance, concerns with security or environmental issues have been taken. The four categories can be applied to almost everything, from city planning to fashion.

905965_10207847890419393_2679531540408553009_o.jpgThe look of modern cities is the result of our values and believes; we believe in money and material gain as symbols of success and happiness. That value judgment fuels the use of cheap materials and creates economic bubbles. The fact that the tallest and most impressive buildings in big capitals around the world are banks is not casual; they are new temples of a culture that worships money and wealth.

The environmental and humanitarian problems created by our system of values is more visible everyday, but not advertised along with the products we consume.

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Concrete house by Olson Kundig architects cuts into a rocky outcrop.

If there is a contemporary architectural movement that inherits the sober ideas of and would be approved by the ancient Stoics is Organic architecture. It is a philosophy of architecture which promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world. This is achieved through design approaches so sympathetic and well-integrated with a site that buildings, furnishings, and surroundings become part of a unified, interrelated composition. An ethical building should be:

  • Inspired by nature and be sustainable, healthy, conserving, and diverse.
  • unfold, like an organism, from the seed within.
  • exist in the “continuous present” and “begin again and again”.
  • follow the flows and be flexible and adaptable.
  • satisfy social, physical, and spiritual needs.
  • “grow out of the site” and be unique.
  • celebrate the spirit of youth, play and surprise.
  • express the rhythm of music and the power of dance.”

Eric Corey Freed takes a more seminal approach in making his description:

“Using Nature as our basis for design, a building or design must grow, as Nature grows, from the inside out. Most architects design their buildings as a shell and force their way inside. Nature grows from the idea of a seed and reaches out to its surroundings. A building thus, is akin to an organism and mirrors the beauty and complexity of Nature.”

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Traditional Cycladic architecture
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Clean lines, solid materials and a sense of permanence surround this partly-subterranean house on the Aegean Sea.

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INTERIORS

A Stoic interior home should show simplicity, use few colours, be functional and serene.

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 ARCHAIC & MODERN ART

Archaic comes form the word Arché, origin, source. Greek art was heavily influenced by Egyptian and Assyrian art and architecture, but at around the 6th century B.C. a revolution started. Instead of imitating the hieratic style of the Egyptians, they begun to observe Nature directly. By doing so their works achieved wonderful simplicity, beauty and harmony. It is a process that parallels the development of greek philosophy.

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Igor Mitoraj

Igor Mitoraj was a Polish artist best known for his fragmented sculptures of the human body. Often created for large-scale public installations, his monumental works referenced the struggle and suffering of 20th-century Europe.

Mitoraj’s sculptural style is rooted in the classical tradition, his sculptures express a rare combination of fragility and endurance, with truncated limbs, emphasizing the damage sustained by most genuine classical sculptures. The absence of limbs and parts of the face tell a story that we have to complete.

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Once their naturalistic revolution had begun, there was no stopping it. The sculptors in their workshops tried out new ideas and new ways of representing the human figure, naturalism, dynamism and faithful attention to detail became more and more dominant.

The affinities between modern art and archaic art are too obvious to need proof.

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Brancusi

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Marino Marini

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Fashion and ethics

Simplicity, few colours, functional, linen, clean lines.

In fashion and clothing we tend put the aesthetic value first, then the symbolic (status, trendy), then the practical (warm, comfortable), and last, the ethical (fare trade, environmental concern). A better choice I think would be; 1st Practical, 2nd ethical, 3rd aesthetic 4th, symbolic.

Ethical clothing should not be cheap, but durable and affordable in the long-term, not  to be disregarded every season, it should use less colour, since the inks used to dye the fabrics pollute rivers and create diseases in local populations.

Dorian Style

The chlamys was made from a seamless rectangle of woolen material about the size of a blanket, usually bordered. It was normally pinned with a fibula at the right shoulder. Originally it was wrapped around the waist like a loincloth, but by the end of the 5th century BC it was worn over the elbows.

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Hermes wearing the Chlamys or Dorian dress, used by Cynic and Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius

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Doric Chiton, wore both by men and women.

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