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The Daily Stoic: Timeless Wisdom on Character, Fortitude, Self-Control, and the Art of Living from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.”

The Daily Stoic: Timeless Wisdom on Character, Fortitude, Self-Control, and the Art of Living from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

Few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Today, stoic is a word rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy, instead warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation. But two millennia ago, Stoicism emerged as a life-affirming platform for being — a kind of supervitamin for the soul, fortifying the human spirit against the trials of daily life, against the onslaught of the world, and, above all, against its own foibles. At its heart was the idea that the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control are the seedbed of human flourishing, and that all of our suffering arises from our perception and interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves — an idea that has as much in common with Buddhism as it does with Bertrand Russell.

Stoicism’s wide appeal and application is reflected in the diversity of its originators and early proponents — a Roman emperor and military leader, a celebrated playwright, a former slave who freed and sculpted himself into a prominent lecturer, a successful merchant, and a former boxer who put himself through school by working as a water carrier. Over the millennia, Stoicism has continued to influence minds as varied as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martha Nussbaum, and Tim Ferriss. Today, the Stoics’ wisdom is as valid and empowering as ever — Marcus Aurelius’s advice on how to begin each day is a potent recipe for sanity in the modern world; Seneca’s meditation on how to stretch life’s shortness by living wide rather than long remains the greatest consolation for the fact of our finitude, and his advice on the mightiest antidote to fear continues to fortify the spirit; Epictetus’s notion of self-scrutiny applied with kindness is perhaps the best attitude we can cultivate toward ourselves and the surest strategy for true growth.

Art from Philographis, a visual dictionary of major schools of thought in minimalist geometric graphics

In The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (public library), Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman reclaim this ancient school of thought from the sapping grip of academia and mend its misuses in the hands of popular culture to reveal its timeless wisdom in navigating the modern expressions of perennial human problems: how to love and how to work, how to tame and transcend anger, greed, jealousy, and the rest of our wildest flaws, how not to let success and power enslave us, how to find warmth and aliveness in the chilling awareness that we are mortal.

Holiday and Hanselman write in the introduction:

One of the analogies favored by the Stoics to describe their philosophy was that of a fertile field. Logic was the protective fence, physics was the field, and the crop that all this produced was ethics — or how to live.

Holiday and Hanselman reap the fruits of that field in original translations of the late Stoic triumvirate — Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — and some of the philosophy’s earlier proponents. Their selections are temporally and thematically organized across the twelve months: from clarity in January and the passions in February to acceptance in November and mortality in December. For each day of the year, Holiday and Hanselman highlight a passage from one of the great Stoics and discuss its meaning in relation to daily life. Partway between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and Joanna Macy’s A Year with Rilke, what emerges is a generous gift of guidance on modern living culled from a canon of wisdom hatched long ago and incubated in the nest of civilizational time.

Epictetus

The year begins with Epictetus’s insight into control and choice, which opens the month of clarity under the entry for January 1:

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…

Seneca
Seneca

In another January entry, Seneca echoes the sentiment in a passage from his treatise on the shortness of life:

How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius offers the three ingredients of the sane and satisfying life:

All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.

In a sentiment that calls to mind pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff’s case for the poetics of curiosity, Epictetus cautions against fetishizing knowledge, suggesting that the moment the mind is made static in knowing, knowledge becomes an end point of curiosity and thus a stunting of growth:

If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.

Seneca admonishes against the destructiveness of anger:

There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane — since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.

Epictetus points to the self-defeating impulse to want too much:

When children stick their hand down a narrow goody jar they can’t get their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.

In a passage reminiscent of Dr. King’s famous dictum that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Marcus Aurelius reminds us that our own experience is inseparable from the experience of everyone and everything else:

Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.

The remainder of The Daily Stoic mines the ancient canon for practical wisdom on such facets of character as transcending fear, mastering the art of leadership, and using self-control as a tool of freedom rather than restraint. Complement it with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s classic treatise on the art of being, Oliver Sacks on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

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May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a consolatory letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he was wrestling with depression, nearly a century before psychologists came to study the nonlinear relationship between creativity and mental illness. A generation later, with an eye to what made Goethe a genius, Humphrey Trevelyan argued that great artists must have the courage to despair, that they “must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”

Few artists have articulated the dance between this “divine discontent” and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (public library), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her sixtieth, With remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, hollowing despair and creative vitality.

May Sarton
May Sarton

In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:

It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…

She considers solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery:

For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.

[…]

My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In another journal entry penned three days later, in the grip of her recurrent struggle with depression, Sarton revisits the question of the difficult, necessary self-confrontations that solitude makes possible:

The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.

In a passage that calls to mind William Styron’s sobering account of living with depression, Sarton adds:

The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.

Perhaps Albert Camus was right in asserting that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” but this is a truth hard to take in and even harder to swallow when one is made tongueless by depression. In an entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows:

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.

By mid-October, Sarton has begun to emerge from the abyss and marvels at the transformation in a beautiful testament to the finitude and transitoriness of all things, even the deepest-cutting and most all-consuming of states:

I can hardly believe that relief from the anguish of these past months is here to stay, but so far it does feel like a true change of mood — or rather, a change of being where I can stand alone.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s memorable insight into writing and self-doubt — the same self-doubt with which Steinbeck’s diary is strewn — Sarton considers the measure of success in creative work:

So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.

Complement these particular passages of the wholly exquisite Journal of a Solitude with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckages of the soul, then revisit Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone needs at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.

BP

Listen! Listen!: A Vintage Invitation to Presence and Attentive Attunement with the World, Illustrated by Graphic Design Legend Paul Rand

From the plop of a raindrop to the crunch of buttered toast, a celebration of life through the soundscape of everyday aliveness.

Listen! Listen!: A Vintage Invitation to Presence and Attentive Attunement with the World, Illustrated by Graphic Design Legend Paul Rand

Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand was a creative genius who wore his kindness in cantankerous camouflage. His timeless wisdom on design continues to influence generations of creators and visual communicators. Steve Jobs, who hired Rand to design the identity for his second company, NeXT, admired him as “a very deep, thoughtful person who’s tried to express in every part of his life what his principles are.”

Among the principles Rand most passionately espoused was his faith in the power of the relationship between word and image, negotiated in the intricate language of visual communication — a language mastered throughout life, but first acquired in childhood.

In the late 1950s, Rand and his then-wife, Ann Rand — a prolific and imaginative children’s book author who had been trained as an architect — began collaborating on a series of unusual, semi-semiotic children’s books nurturing that formative relationship with word and image: Sparkle and Spin, an ode to words, in 1957; Little 1, a serenade to numbers, in 1961; and, finally, Listen! Listen! (public library) in 1970, conceived for the Rands’ young daughter, Catherine — a marvelous celebration of presence through the soundscape of daily life, reminiscent of Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known yet enormously wonderful Quiet Noisy Book, published two decades earlier.

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This forgotten gem, long out of print, is now brought to life anew by Princeton Architectural Press. Ann Rand’s warmhearted verses wink at Paul Rand’s unmistakable primary colors and collage-driven illustrations to extend an openhanded invitation to attentiveness and attunement with the living world.

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Now that’s not a door,
because a door goes wham!
if you slam it,
nor a dog,
and as for a at,
it certainly isn’t that.
A bear would growl
and a wolf would howl.
None of you knows
what that roar was.

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I like the whir
that the wings
of a hummingbird make
when it flies,
and the Psssssst!
of fireworks as they
sputter in the sky.

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But the noise I like
the very best
is early morning before sunrise
because then
(when I keep my eyes tight shut)
I can hear
the world wake up.
It’s a wonderful mixed-up sound.
From far and near
from air and ground,
it comes from all around.
Listen…

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Complement Listen! Listen! with the lovely Japanese counterpoint The Sound of Silence, then revisit Ann Rand’s What Can I Be? — her wonderful vintage concept book about how the imagination works, written in the same era but only discovered and published in our time.

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