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Choosing the Stoic Path – Episode 4


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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. ~ Robert Frost[1] I love those lines from Robert Frost’s timeless poem The Road Not Taken. As a practicing Stoic, they take on new meaning because of the importance of choice. Robert Frost’s traveler stands at a fork in the road, and he must choose—path A or path B. During his contemplation, he acknowledges that he cannot travel both paths. Then, in these closing lines, Frost highlights the obvious—the chosen path, whatever it may be, will make a profound difference in one’s life. So why choose the Stoic path? Why did you choose the Stoic, if you’ve already made that choice? Why not Epicureanism, Scepticism, Platonism, Cynicism? Why a philosophical path at all? In this podcast, I’m going to argue that if you did choose the Stoic path, you may not have made that choice for the reasons you think you did. If you haven’t chosen a path yet, I’m going to give you some things to consider before you choose a path. As much as I personally love Stoicism and believe everyone can benefit from familiarity with its ethical principles, I do not believe the Stoic path is for everyone. The Stoics teach three natures: Universal Nature Human nature And our individual nature—we might call that your psychological makeup of personality. There is a good reason why we have a variety of philosophical paths—its call human variety. The first choice is for a philosophical life; an examined life. Sometimes, that choice is made when external circumstances force a reevaluation of our life. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, faced one of those unexpected life events and the subsequent fork in the road as a shipwrecked merchant in a foreign city—Athens. According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno used his downtime wisely; he stopped in an Athenian bookstore and read about the life of Socrates. A new path opened in Zeno’s mind—a fork in the road—and he faced a choice. The choice he made not only changed his life, but it is also fair to say it profoundly changed Western thought and impacted history in ways he could not have conceived. Frost’s famous traveler only faced two choices. We face a multitude of paths and numerous forking roads as we travel through our lives. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is renewed interest in ancient wisdom and the philosophical way of life many lived at the time Zeno made his life-changing choice. I am going to focus on those options available in Hellenistic times when philosophy was practiced as a way of life, and consider why a person who has committed themselves to philosophy as a way of life might choose any of the schools available to them. Then I will offer some reasons why they might choose Stoicism. As Frost’s imaginary traveler considered his options, he knew two things. First, his choice would make a “difference” in his life. Second, knowing how “way leads on to way,” he understood it was unlikely he would ever make it back to explore The Road Not Taken. In other words, the choice was profoundly important and deserving of careful consideration. Moderns who are intrigued by virtue ethics and interested in philosophy as a way of life will likely find themselves facing a similar choice. Faced with several viable philosophical ways of life—Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Cynicism—which to choose? Unlike modern academic philosophy, ancient philosophy practiced as a way of life was not primarily intellectual; it was transformative. Its goal was not mere knowledge; instead, it intended to cure the soul of the practitioner by unburdening their mind of mistaken notions about the nature of reality and human nature and developing within them a state of moral excellence. This endeavor required more than philosophical discourse. That is why, as French philosopher Pierre Hadot so eloquently points out, ancient philosophical discourse and practice were intertwined and considered insep...

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