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Tending the Stoic Orchard – Episode 26


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Stoic practice is distinct from academic philosophy because it is a way of life—an art of living—supported by a holistic philosophical system. The Stoics never intended their system to be a primarily intellectual endeavor. Nor was it created as a quick fix, self-help program. This is obvious from the surviving Stoic texts. Unlike academic philosophical tomes, the writings of Seneca, Discourses of Epictetus, and Meditations of Marcus Aurelius challenge and inspire us. It is quite apparent that something profound motivated these Stoics to live uncommon lives. For two thousand years, their lives have encouraged people like us to live up to our full potential as humans who are capable of developing moral excellence and experiencing true freedom and well-being. Nevertheless, the path Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus, and the other ancient Stoics trod toward that goal was not an easy one. As Pierre Hadot suggests, the practice of Stoicism will “turn our entire life upside down.”[1] While contemplating what that means, an image I found helpful was that of a farmer tilling a field. The process of tilling turns the soil upside down, and that serves several functions that help cultivate crops: It disrupts the root structure of existing weeds, it breaks up and loosens hardened soil, and it exposes fresh soil that is better able to absorb nutrients and support the growth of new seeds. Interestingly, these functions are analogous to cultivating our psyche, so it can bear the fruit of moral excellence. If a Stoic practitioner neglects to till the field of their psyche and instead scatters the seeds of Stoicism across untilled soil, they are unlikely to get the crop yield promised by the Stoics—eudaimonia. The initial excitement that comes from seeing the first signs of a plant breaking through the soil may be short-lived. That is because seeds scattered on hard, untilled soil may grow shallow roots if they can penetrate the soil at all. Those new seeds are forced to compete with preexisting weeds for water and nourishment. This is analogous to the modern Stoic practitioner who tries to apply Stoic sayings and techniques to their mind that is still entangled with the preexisting psychic weeds from a lifetime of false judgments, wrong desires, and irrational fears. Many people come to Stoicism in the twenty-first century looking only for psychological techniques, mind hacks, or inspirational aphorisms that will help them overcome obstacles and achieve their preexisting personal goals. Likewise, many seek a means of developing tranquility in our chaotic times. Judging by the current popularity of Stoicism on social media, it appears that many people are benefitting from applying Stoic principles and practices to help them get a better job or promotion, manage a company, become a better athlete, recover from a breakup, etc. However, what many moderns overlook is the fact that seeking externals is not the goal of Stoic practice. In fact, as Epictetus teaches us in Enchiridion 1, desiring and chasing after those externals will keep us enslaved and cause us to lament and have a troubled mind. Likewise, moderns may overlook the fact that others can apply those same techniques to make them a better criminal, corrupt business person, tyrannical political leader, or an uncaring, disconnected human being. Therefore, we must keep this important truth in mind: If we apply Stoic techniques and practices to an untilled psyche, it will fertilize Stoic seeds and preexisting weeds. To experience true well-being, our Stoic practice must be aimed at an excellent moral character rather than externals like health, wealth, office, and reputation. Stoic practice helps us develop new patterns of thought to replace our old errant judgments, misdirected desires, and disturbing aversions (weeds) so we can develop our moral excellence (virtue) and experience true well-being (eudaimonia). However, for those new seeds of thought to flourish and produce fruit,

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