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WhatisaStoic

WhatisaStoic

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Published by Michel Daw

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Published by: Michel Daw on Jun 26, 2012
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03/30/2014

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What is a Stoic?
Stoic Philosophy as a Way of Life
I see in myself, Lucilius, not just an improvement but a transformation.(Seneca, Moral Letters 6.1)
 What is a Stoic? Briefly stated, we are people who have chosen to adopt Stoicism as an
 Art of Living 
.This answer, of course, leads to another question. What is Stoicism? Why choose to study thisphilosophy instead of others, or none at all? Stoic philosophy can provide a person with a sense of profound tranquility, a cheerful and joyful lifefilled with gratitude, effectiveness and a sense of meaning. These however are not the goals or aims of Stoicism but rather some of the benefits of living life well. Stoicism is the study and practice of living a complete life based on reason and relationship, one wherewe explore and express our best selves, where we flourish to the best of our abilities in all places andcircumstances. Stoics reach for personal excellence in all the domains of our lives, privately and publicly,to benefit ourselves and our communities. This is the true purpose of studying the Stoic Art of Living. It isa long road, one of constant improvement and focus. We do this through the use of our minds and insights, through study and observations of the world we livein and the people we interact with. We do this through reflection, self-examination and deep involvementwith the world around us. We do this through the study of Stoic writers, meditation on Stoic principles andthe active practice of Stoic exercises.Stoicism is the practice of gradually changing the way we look at life, finding new and improvedperspectives on our specific concerns, to arrive eventually at a point where our baseless worries aredefeated, or our paralyzing fears abolished, our violent passions tempered, our childish selfishnessturned to generosity and compassion, and in effect, our empty lives given new meaning and purpose.This process of discovery, and the attempt to live by the insights we gain, is what it means to be a Stoic. 
How to Learn to live the Stoic Philosophy
There are literally hundreds of books and articles regarding ancient Stoicism. Some are very accurate,others wildly speculative (I have attached a completely optional Recommended Reading list to theend of this note). Stoic philosophy, practiced as it was created to be, is more than a matter of readingbooks to understand and appreciate the views of their authors (and to examine and challenge thoseviews, just as philosophers have always done). It is a way of living, of discovering our inner potential anddeveloping consistent habits of mind and body to uncover and realize it. This process of discovery, andthe attempt to live by the insights we gain, is what the ancients called living as a philosopher, or ‘lover of wisdom.’ We don’t claim to be ‘wise’ (
sophos
), but we are in active pursuit of the Art of Living well. Theterm ‘philosopher’ was not reserved so much for the teacher or author, but the person aiming to live thephilosophical life.In ancient times it was the job of the philosopher-teacher to show the student how this could be done.The teacher would do this simply by living the philosophic life, which the student could witness on a dailybasis simply as they attended their daily lessons and through personal contact at other times. Indeed,some schools accepted residential students who would actually have lived with their philosopher-teacher throughout the duration of their studies. Thus the students would have been able to see how their teacher managed their everyday affairs, how they coped with crises and lesser troubles, and how they faced thesorts of trials that in some shape or form eventually touch the lives of everyone. In short, the teacher was
 
a model for their students. Now the reality of studying Stoic philosophy today is that there are no philosophical residential schools,and we would be hard pressed to find a teacher of the caliber seen in those ancient times. Neverthelessthe ancient philosopher-teachers can still guide and can give advice, and as students we can activelyput those teachings into practice. Though relatively scarce, there are enough remaining writings fromteachers and students of Stoic philosophy, as well as a wealth of additional material, to form a personalunderstanding, and more importantly, a personal practice.We will be encountering these teachers through the Stoic workshops. Each month we will delve into their insights and evaluate them for our own times, applying them when and where it is appropriate. 
Stoicism as a Spiritual Path
 When we hear the word ‘Spiritual,’ many thoughts come to mind. Some think of a dogmatic approach tobelief, almost a blind faith. Along the same lines, others see it as a rejection of rationality, or a trust inmyth and legend, often with no connection to the ‘mundane’ world. Almost by definition, philosophicalideas are to be discussed and debated, and if people think that any ideas are good ones, these ideasare defended and argued for rather than just ‘believed’. This is the case with respect to ideas in Stoicphilosophy. These workshops are intended to be active philosophical investigations (though at all timesseeking to support Stoic ideas) no matter where they may lead us. If, in participating in these workshops,you adopt the Stoic outlook, this will happen because you have decided it is right, and not becauseanyone has coerced you. For this very reason, many people would say that there is a spiritual path at the core of Stoicism. In fact,the actual work of practicing Stoicism is referred to by some authors as ‘spiritual exercises.’ The notionof spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy is meant to emphasize, in the first place, that in the ancientschools of thought philosophy was a way of life. Philosophy presented itself as a mode of life, as an actof living, as a way of being. The practice of Stoic philosophy consists of an invitation to complete personaltransformation, a journey along a spiritual path. Stoic philosophy, lived out in this way, is in a very realway a conversion, a transformation of the way of being and the way of living in the quest for wisdom.Therefore, the actual practice of Stoic philosophy required exercises that were neither simply exercises of thought nor even moral exercises, but rather, in the full sense of this term, spiritual exercises. Since theyare aimed at realizing a transformation of our vision of the world and a gradual change of our personality,these exercises have an existential value, not only a moral one. Being a Stoic does not mean conformingour behavior in accordance with some external code of good conduct. Following the Stoic Spiritual pathinvolves all aspects of our being - intellect, imagination, sensibility, and will - essentially our body, mindand soul. Stoic spiritual exercises are exercises in learning how to live the philosophical life, and applyingit throughout our whole life. The Stoic Spiritual Path calls us to pay attention to ourselves, to take care of ourselves through theseinner spiritual exercises. Really knowing ourselves requires a relationship with ourselves that forms thebasis of all of the Stoic spiritual exercise. Every spiritual exercise is a dialogue, with others, with the worldaround us, and most importantly, with ourselves. In this way, it is transcendent in the sense that we movebeyond our present and past circumstances, beyond our limited ego-centric perspective, and consider our lives from the view of the potential that inhabits each of us.  Ancient Stoic philosophers adopted a range of metaphysical and theological views concerning thenature of creation, providence and fate, the source of our rationality, and Deity. You are not required to
 
do so. In a more general sense, the notion of ‘spiritual path’, taken to mean ‘way of life’, ‘outlook uponlife’, ‘personal growth’, ‘personal healing’, is in fact the very essence of Stoicism. Some people accept theStoic views on moral conduct, but reject the ‘wilder’ metaphysical and theological views. But you will notbe required to adopt any particular beliefs. The actual transformational process is in and of itself intenselypersonal, holistic and fundamentally spiritual. 
About These Workshops
 The Stoic Workshops are held once a month and take the form of a live discussion group. In additionto the discussions, the workshops include a series of weekly readings and assignments. The actualdiscussions are relatively short, requiring less than three hours a month, and each lesson will focus on asingle general topic. The individual exercises should take no more than a few minutes a day, though youare encouraged to think and reflect on the lessons daily. What is most important is that the practices andprinciples you learn continue between lessons. This course is not so much about increasing knowledge,as it is about changing habits of thought and behaviour. That takes time and focus. You are under noobligation to keep up a specific pace.Each of the discussions in this workshop will focus on a specific Stoic practice or principle. Discussionsbuild on each other, so skipping lessons is probably not a good idea. You will be referred to outsidesources, usually from the writings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, with occasional referencesto other teachers, ancient and modern. You can use your own copies of these works (detailed below),however links will be provided to free online copies, and usually lead you to the exact passage beingdiscussed. More than reading though, this course is intended to be practical. The monthly work willinclude one or more exercises, requiring reflection and application of the principles discussed during thediscussion and readings. You will need a few things to get you started. Pen and paper (or the equivalent) for the discussion will beessential to jot down any developments that occur during the discussions.Ready to get started? Read on for your first lesson. Please have it completed for the first discussion. 

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