Examining Epictetus #13: Becoming Beautiful

Question #1: What makes a human being beautiful?

Is it the filter on your Instagram picture? Is it the cosmetics, the surgeries, the nips, tucks, or lifts? Those things may change perception aligning you closer to society’s beliefs of what is beautiful. But does this really make you a beautiful human being? And in the end, will time not eventually prevail? Our outer shell is going to deteriorate. It is going to succumb to the ravages of nature. Our bodies are destined to return to the earth.

We might find attraction in pretty things, but pretty things do not last. And they do not make a human being beautiful.

Question #2: Shouldn’t it be the excellence of a human being?

If you cultivate the spirit and the soul, it will not deteriorate. Unlike the body, it will last forever. How do you make this excellent? Not through riches, fame, or the number of social media followers. No. If we would be excellent, then we must be good. We must find virtue. Only through wisdom, discipline, justice, and courage can we attain unto excellence. Only through virtue can we truly have faith, hope, and love. This is what we must strive for. This will make us excellent human beings.

What then makes a man beautiful? Is it not the possession of the excellence of a man? And do you, then, if you wish to be beautiful, young man, labour at this, the acquisition of human excellence.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.1

Emperor’s Log #22: Five Rules

The words of the emperor Marcus Aurelius…

Rule #1: In your actions, don’t procrastinate.

The message: Loud and Clear. The execution: well, that is another story. Like a door that turns on its hinges, I used to be the sluggard that turned on my bed (Proverbs 26:14). I would like to say those days are long behind me, but the truth is that every now and then I have that day where I get bogged down in the mire without a branch of motivation to pull me out.

It is on those days, that I must remember my purpose. How will I get to where I want to go if I am refusing to move? If I waste away these hours and days, then I will never get ahead.

It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that other’s waste. -Henry Ford

Rule #2: In your conversations, don’t confuse.

There was some concern on my team that I would be too technical in my speech and too wide in my vocabulary. That is an issue I see with others. When they speak or write, I have no clue what they are trying to communicate even though I am trying my best to understand. I know there have been times when I took that path and drove on despite the glazed over eyes and confused brows.

What is the point of all this knowledge and understanding if it cannot be used in a way that improves the lives of others? If we cannot communicate the things we know then we are not helping anybody. But if simplify our language and communicate clearly, we can be effective in helping others to understand. Friedrich Nietzsche could have easily confused us all, but listen to this gem that he gave us:

Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity.

Rule #3: In your thoughts, don’t wander.

The practice of meditation. Oh man, this is something that I really need. It is something I must practice daily, even several times a day. It is not an easy task to sit still in mind and body. Once my mind strays down into the catacombs, it gets tangled and confused. Time will tick away, and I will still be looking for the way out. But then there is meditation, an internal GPS, which centers me and helps me to regain a sense of direction.

We all have the tendency to wander. The question we must ask ourselves is how long before we can regain the path. We are the masters of our minds. We are supposed to be the ones in control of the direction of our thoughts. Buddha was considered to a master of the art of meditation. Ponder these words attributed to him:

As the fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.

We must harness this energy and direct it where we desire it to go. We must be the masters over our minds.

Rule #4: In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive.

The heart is a muscle. If you train it, it will get stronger. If you don’t use it or even abuse it, you will eventually lose it. If you push it too hard, it will give out on you. You must train the heart, train it -just right.

Your heart is your soul. It is where your courage and intuition reside. It must be trained. Condition it by testing the boundaries. Don’t be too soft and don’t be too hard.

I sometimes test the upper limits of the organ. I want to find comfort in the uncomfortable. It is a good practice as it also tests my soul. It can be scary going there sometimes, but the fear is good, even healthy. We just need to remember these words:

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -not absence of fear. -Mark Twain

Rule #5: In your life, don’t be all about business.

I must catch myself sometimes. There is a relentless pursuit to catch the potential rewards at the end of my goals. The pursuit is exhausting. Am I able to recover from one workout to the next? Am I able to digest my studies before I gorge myself in the next lesson? Are there breaks in between milestones and projects? I might not be going full throttle the whole time, but I do need to stop and refill. The occasional stop won’t prevent me from completing my journey. It may even speed up the process.

The Book of Exodus instructs the children of Israel to rotate their crops (23:10). It is an ancient practice still in use today. And though Seneca is not in the Bible (however his brother does get a mention), he makes a good analogy:

The mind must be given relaxation -a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced -for they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break -so constant work on the anvil will fracture the mind.

Take a break, recharge, and get back on your journey.

Marcus Aurelius wrote these rules in his private journal over two thousand years ago. True wisdom holds the test of time.  

Feature photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

Contemplating Seneca #16: The Happy Life

From Seneca’s On the Happy Life, his 92nd letter to Lucilius:

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquility.

We all want a happy life, but do we know how to obtain it? Happiness does not come in the acquisition of more and more possessions. Often, we think those trifles will bring us happiness, and they may for a fleeting moment. But in the end, they will leave us wanting more.

This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached.

What does greatness of soul mean? Whenever I think of the word soul, I think of the word heart. It is the inner substance within you. It is the emotional part that often acts independently of the mind. Greatness of soul is courage and bravery. It is honor and fidelity. It is not thinking about laying down your life for a friend but doing it. It is doing the right thing without giving it a second thought, because you have developed the proclivity to doing such noble endeavors.

We have heard the ancient stories of men and women who possessed greatness of soul. If you look around you, you will see that it still exists. But it is not enough to witness it in the lives of others, we must also seek to possess a great soul.

How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of the truth,

The ways to getting it starts with a complete view of the truth. Truth is not always what we were told by our relatives or friends. It might not even be what we learned from our teachers and civic leaders. As George Berkeley said, “Truth is the cry of all, but the game of few.” But as correct as this statement is, it needs to be a game for all of us. We must dispose ourselves the embrace the truth, wherever it may be found (John Locke). It might bring us into an uncomfortable place, but we must go there anyway no matter how painful. We must challenge our assumptions, gain a complete view of the truth, and embrace it.

by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness,

Or in other words, we must become disciplined in all aspects of our lives. It is a daily process that must be practiced daily.

and a will that is inoffensive and kindly,

This is a tough one today where we might be viewed as soft and weak by our peers. But the reality is that it has always been tough, which subsequently is the opposite of soft and weak. To deny yourself requires sacrifice. To do it for another, who may not be inoffensive and kindly, is an act of humility. There is strength in humility, and the incredibly strong ones are those who can remove biases, hurt feelings, and indifferences from their interactions with others and treat them in an inoffensive and kindly way.

and that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration.

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.” Even softly spoken, the most powerful words are the ones spoken in wisdom. You cannot force people to bend to your way of thinking, but you can persuade them if you are tactful and willing to listen to both sides of the issue. This will not only help in forming a resolution but will gain you respect from others.

In short, to give you the principle in brief compass, the wise man’s soul ought to be such as would be proper for a god.

The Roman emperor Caligula, like many other rulers before and after him, thought he was something super special. So much in fact, that he considered himself a god. He was a mad sadist and most likely insane, hardly the proper credentials for a god.

Imagine you are a pagan living back then. * Who would you want for a god? Hopefully, someone who would have you (or mankind) in his best interests. You would want one that is just, honorable, and wise. You would want one that is loving and merciful. And if that is the kind of god you would want to follow, then it would only make sense that you would try to emulate that god and have such a soul as that. In short, you would strive to live a virtuous life and set yourself to the highest standards possible.

The happy life is possible for all of us. If that is what you want, then Seneca has a solution you should consider trying. What do you have to lose?

*This is paragraph is not about religious beliefs, only an imaginary thought experiment.

Contemplating Seneca #11

Bad Things Happen -Good.

What is the worst that could have happened? I could have been in the garage when the tree fell? But even that would not have been so bad if my heart was strong enough to bear the fright? No, things could have been much worse. I could be unable to work, paralyzed, lost a loved one, or even dead. None of those things happened. I am in good health. I have breath. I am alive.

A tree fell on my garage and my basement flooded, again. What a week! For a moment, a very brief moment, I felt a little disheartened. Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?

At this moment fate is preparing some device against me? –Seneca

This is life and well, things happen. I cannot bemoan the fact that bad things happen. There is no “woe is me.” The worst did not come about. I can rebuild and prepare the best I can for what fate will bring next. From these experiences, I will grow stronger. I will learn new skills. In fact, these events are really opportunities for growth.

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul. –Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The philosophy I have studied now has to become a practice. I must follow the example of the Stoics, whose words have become a daily part of my reading. “Control what I can control.” I can’t control nature. I can control my emotions and my perception of the things happening around me. I will find no solace in being frustrated. I will find solace in work, in rebuilding.

 “Let us, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and wait.”

-Orison Swett Marden, Pushing to the Front

I’m reminded of GOOD:

Practice Truth

Justice 12/18/2019

When I first started reading philosophy in High School, I didn’t really know what it was. I thought it was the ramblings of a bunch of old men content to sit around in their robes and tell others how to think. And even though I didn’t understand any of it, I was intrigued. I didn’t know much back then, but at least I could try to think.

By reading philosophy I only gained a little knowledge. I could try to spout off some of the things I learned, but none of it was applied knowledge. I could only tell you what someone else thought. To some small degree I was embodying Thoreau’s words: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” I was only scratching the surface and putting none of it into practice.

A few years ago, I took a deeper look into stoicism. Reading the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, I was challenged to do more than only read. I was challenged to live this philosophy. I had to learn to practice what I was reading. I had to test the principles and see if they really worked. I had to go back and analyze my own performance and see where it went wrong. Was it the philosophy that was bad or was it my application? Finally, I had to validate whether or not this was something I could adhere to as a lifelong practice. If it wasn’t feasible to do throughout a lifetime, I didn’t want any part of it.

Philosophy is the science of truth. –Aristotle

How does this relate to justice? A just person seeks righteousness. He longs to discover the truth and then to put that truth into practice. It is a high virtue to do the right thing. Not only for others and for society, but for the individual. We must all find our own truths. Others can guide us along the way, but we must be critical thinkers in our education and then put it into practice. Discard what doesn’t work and hold dear to the ones that do. Be righteous, my friends.

The Last Day

If you knew today was going to be your last day on earth, what would you do?

For some reason this thought was on my mind as I wrapped up my morning workout. I was wondering whether or not I would exercise on my last day. Granted before I could decide, I would have to know it was my last day in advance. Otherwise, I would have already worked out before the Reaper’s blade would cut me down.

Knowing the short-term benefits of exercise, I think I would have to go ahead and achieve my peak heart rate one last time. I might not benefit from going heavy on that last day, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to get those endorphins flowing. It would give me a boost and help power my productivity to the end. The fact that I workout before the rest of the world is awake is another benefit, since I wouldn’t be taking time away from those I would want to spend time with.

What else would I do on a perfect last day? I might do a little light reading to get my mind right before I see the light. I would also write. I would probably write with a fury all those last minute thoughts that could somehow add to my legacy. Then I would spend the rest of the day with family, preferably outdoors. I would try to speak little and just listen to the voices that would hopefully permeate my soul and accompany me into the next life.

Then the thought comes, what would I not do? I know I couldn’t drink alcohol. If I justified one drink, I would probably justify a second which would lead to more. Who would want to waste away their last day in a drunken stupor? In addition, I wouldn’t watch any television, play any games, or scroll through someone else’s life or the political landscape on social media. I might leave a few messages, but that would be it. Anything that would be a drain on that last day would have to be scrapped, because it simply would not be worth it.

This is the mark of perfection of character –to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending. –Marcus Aurelius

There is so much I would want to do, and so much I would try to avoid. It makes me wonder, why am I not living that way now. How could I have so easily wasted away days, content in complacency, with never a thought to the preciousness of time? And though I can never recover the day gone by, I can begin fresh with this day and all the days to come. Few are occasioned with the knowledge of their last day, but all can live life as if it were their last. I would hope that on my last day, I could say I truly lived. Not just on the last day, but that when I woke up and realized any day could be my last, I never took another one for granted. Memento Mori.

Meditation –On Happiness

Meditating is a new practice for me. It is one that I hope I can stick with. Why am I doing it? Am I trying to achieve nirvana? It isn’t my intention, but I am receptive to the possibility. This whole focus on my breathing and trying to find my center, what’s the purpose? Is it to lower my blood pressure or feel better about myself? I am sure those are some nice secondary benefits, but what is the real reason?

In the first few sessions, I found my mind wandering. I was constantly trying to remind myself to focus on my breath. The “path” is one of the concepts I am concentrating on these days and applying it to all aspects my life. To find my path, to know it, and to stay on it. If meditation is like this path, the breathing is helping me to stay on it. It is guiding me back on course. In the bigger picture, I am always trying to correct my course. I am trying to stay on my path. It is the reason why I am meditating. I need to find my center. I need to discover who I really am and where I want to go. The meditation is going to help me get there.


I breathe and I think. I am not happy. I am not where I want to be in life. There are things I want, and I don’t have them. I am trying to get to the place I want to be, but do I have to be unhappy on this journey? Do I have to go on with an iron resolve and a stoic countenance? The stoicism I heard of as a child was related to unhappiness and a stern face. But that is not stoicism, is it? I am not being stoic by being unhappy. I’m being an ass to both myself and those around me.

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions. –Dalai Lama

I am choosing to be unhappy. I am choosing to not be content with the things I have. I am choosing the wrong path. I can choose to be happy. I can be grateful for the things I have and the people in my life. Every morning I have been writing three things I am grateful for. Do I believe it? Am I really grateful, or am I just going through the motions? Why is it that the morning after a rough day, say a day full of pride, I don’t express my gratitude on paper? If I was to fill my soul with happiness, then the gratitude should come gushing out onto the paper. I need to choose to be happy. I need to change my attitude and get on the path.


I had a flashback to my youth. I was walking in line back to the locker room after a tough junior high school football game. I was tired and hurting, but I wanted to maintain my composure. When I passed by a few cheerleaders, one asked me why I always looked so serious. In my mind, I thought I was training to be a warrior and had to look the part. I should have learned my lesson. I should have learned it when so many people over the years have asked a similar question. Why am I so serious? Why do my brows furrow on my face? Why don’t I smile more? I like to tell myself, and others, that I am happy on the inside, and I just forget to show it on the outside. But I think that is just a façade. I am fighting a war within myself. When virtue reigns over my vices, I find myself happy. The opposite is true as well. When I give into my vices (laziness, gluttony, all the other things keeping my from realizing my full potential) I find myself unhappy and my face will surely show it.

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquility. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached. How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of truth, by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness, and a will that is inoffensive and kindly, that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration. In short, to give you the principle in brief compass, the wise man’s soul ought to be such as would be proper for a god. –Seneca, Letter 92: On the Happy Life

Soul to the Sun

MarcusAurelius_1a (2)

If you are driving north of Jacksonville along A1A, pull over when you see the small sign for Little Black Rock, not too far up ahead as you pass Big Talbot Island State Park. After you park, you will find a trail going into the North Florida jungle. Walk along this trail for about a mile, and as go, you will notice you can no longer hear the sounds of cars but instead the sounds of waves. Crest a sand dune and behold an almost always deserted beach filled with an amazing spectacle. On the other side of this dune is one of my favorite beaches and maybe my most memorable. After I left the Army, I used to surf up and down the Florida Atlantic Coast, but when I went to this beach, I left my board at home. A small barrier island protects the shore from the waves. Over that dune was a mystery I never tried to solve for fear the magic of my ignorance would be shattered. There are huge trees, my guess oaks, laying on their sides with the remains of their branches and roots laid bare to the sun. They are bleached white from the decades, possibly even centuries of exposure. How did they get there? I have no idea, but the power of my imagination has concocted many ideas. I doubt the gods fought a battle and these trees are the victims, but one can only imagine.

My friends and I use to come to this beach and climb and play among the trees as if we were kids again with little worries of the world. The trees were amazing, but for me they were not the best feature this beach had to offer. At the north end of the beach, there is a natural barrier. The ground becomes rocky. A black slick mud covers the ground. It is slowly hardening destined to become a permanent feature on the beach. Over the years, small cliffs have formed from this mud. They are not difficult to pass. They might be a deterrent to some, but the prize on the other side is worth the trouble. Beyond the cliffs is another part of the beach. Even more secluded is this perfect picture of a beach. It is smooth and crescent-shaped with the sea grape-covered dune and palm trees visible in the background. I would often go here and sit at the edge of the water. I would close my eyes and become one with my surroundings. I would hear the soft lapping of the waves and feel the warmth of the sun on my face. I felt like I could sit here for an eternity, meditating, one with the universe. I had so many problems back then and didn’t know how to fix any of them. I may have been having a difficult go at the time, but this moment on the beach was my brief respite, which I so desperately needed. This was my therapy. It may also explain why many other times I would sit on my longboard beyond the break, close my eyes, and search for that oneness.  It has been many years since I have taken that journey down the trail, across the trees, and over the cliffs, but the powerful memories of that beach still permeates my soul. Even now, I can go outside, feel the warmth of the sun on my face, and hearken back to those memories and that peace.

I don’t know how much time I have left on this Earth. It could be decades. It could be minutes. William Penn said, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” When it is all over, do we want to look back and say, “I wish I wouldn’t have wasted so much time on the things that didn’t matter and spent more on the ones that did?” You can’t go back in the past, but you can fix your present and make the most of the time you have left. There have been times I wish I could have gone back in time, but then… I probably would have never made it to that beach.

Response to Adversity

 

I had a service appointment for my car this morning. My overnight shift at work ended at 4:40 a.m., and I drove across the street to the service center to wait until they opened up at 6:30. I brought Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life to read while waiting. I finished up Rule #8: Tell the truth-or, at least, don’t lie. This is an excellent chapter about telling the truth to others and to yourself.

My car was done by 7, and I was soon on the highway home. At 7:15 my newly serviced car greeted the rear bumper of the car in front of me. I slowed down when I saw the brake lights ahead. But when the car in front of me made a sharp dip at the front, I knew my car would not be able to slow down in time. We made contact. It wasn’t much and nobody was hurt, but still contact is contact. We called the police and did all the things you do post-accident. The officer issued me a citation, told me he understood the situation, and if I appeared in court, they would help me out. I was the one at fault.

If this would have happened 5-10 years ago, I may have been inclined to blame anything and everything. It wasn’t my fault that the car two ahead slammed on their brakes. Not my fault that I haven’t gotten enough sleep on this overnight schedule. Not mine that it was past my usual bedtime due to the service on the car. Heck, it wasn’t my fault that the Fates lined up against me and dealt this blow.

I could have possibly spun a good story spreading blame, but who the person I am today is not the same person from the past that would have done that. I have been on a stoic journey that is constantly gauging my response to my external environment. I just read Rule #8 about telling the truth. The truth is that I hit the car in front of me. It wasn’t intentional, but I did it. Nobody else, me.

Now the reparations need to be made. I owe the legal system and the insurance company. This will cost my family money that could be better utilized elsewhere. This will cost me time away from work to make a court appearance. When it is all said and done, there will be a price required for what I did.


Everything in my life seems to be a lesson these days. Take my health for example. I may be my fittest in years. I exercise every day. I eat healthy. I believe I am doing all the right things. A few weeks ago, I got the flu. How could this be? I’m doing all the right things. But no matter how strong and fit I make my body, it is still a fragile, frail human body. It was a ridiculous thought that I could overcome the ability to get sick through fitness. Maybe I can offset a few of the effects or recover faster, but be immune to illness? What’s next in this illogical thought process? Overcome death somehow. Absurd.

The lesson that I am learning is not how to control future events. I can prepare and try to prevent all I want, but I am far from omnipotent. The lesson is about how I respond to adversity. Can I tell the truth even in difficult situations, to others and to myself? Can I not be angry when I feel like I have been dealt a bad hand? This is life. The opportunity for learning these lessons will be present until death, and it is not just a lesson for me. It is one for my son. It is one for everybody. Good times are not guaranteed to last forever. How will you respond in the dark days ahead? When confronted with adversity, will you be able to tell the truth?

Man is not affected by events, but the view he takes of them. -Epictetus