I just signed up for Stoic Week 2015, which will run from November 2nd-8th. I think you should too.
It will take a little commitment, but it won't be overly burdensome. It'll include some short daily readings and light meditative practices. I call them “light” because you don’t have to be a yogi to do them. They’re really just about taking a few minutes to quietly reflect. It is—as Michel de Montaigne puts it—"nothing but the bringing of my emotions and thoughts back to myself."
What is Stoicism? Stoicism is a philosophy in the old sense of the word. It’s a way of life—a set of ideas that points directly to a series of practices. Stoicism’s central claim is that virtue is the highest good in this life. Virtue, for the Stoics, is closely linked to rationality. The Stoic cultivates habits that orient her toward virtue. She takes a view that encourages detachment from the everyday desires that make it hard for us to cultivate virtue in our lives.
Most Stoic practices are about cultivating mindfulness. The resemblance to modern, secular Buddhism is striking and probably a major source of renewed interest in Stoicism.
Why am I taking up Stoicism? It’d be a stretch to call me a Stoic, but I think I’ve always been Stoically-inclined. That is, my personal dispositions lean toward the Stoic view of life. More than that though, Stoicism has remained on my radar for the last year, so I think that Stoic Week is as good of a time as any to dig a little deeper.
I’ve flirted with mindfulness practices for most of my adult life, but I’ve never managed to turn any of them into habits. My only semi-success has been the conscious adoption of minimalism. I borrow the definition from The Minimalists: “Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.” I’ve found it to be very liberating.
My friend Mark, who turned me on to minimalism, started reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations last Christmas while I started thinking about including Stoicism in the course I was going to teach in the spring. I ended up using Seneca’s wonderful essay, “On the Shortness of Life.” The first several paragraphs of that essay cut straight through me: Life is long if you know how to use it.
At the same time, another friend, Casey, had independently started thinking about Stoicism. He got there through his interest in scientific rationality. Casey turned me on to the recent work of Massimo Pigliucci. I knew of him from previous conversations with Casey and the great podcast Rationally Speaking, which is now run by Pigliucci’s old co-host, Julia Galef. Last October, Pigliucci began a yearlong exploration of Stoicism, and he’s been actively chronicling the moral and intellectual experiment ever since. Here is Pigliucci on Rationally Speaking; his website How to Be a Stoic on which he is chronicling all of this, including this recent post on what he's learned in the first year; and his New York Times op-ed, in which he does a great job of outlining why one might be interested in adopting Stoicism and what the meditative practices look like.
So what do I hope to gain from Stoic Week? I don’t know exactly. I am looking forward to deepening my sense of community. Several friends have already committed to Stoic Week too. So I’m guaranteed at least a few great conversations about Stoicism, virtue, and modern life. What more could I want? And perhaps I just might overcome some of the everyday distractions and come to better appreciate this wonderful life I'm living.
*Photo is a poster of Epictetus, one of the great Roman Stoics. I love the idea of Stoic street art.