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Sharing and commenting on things I see that I find important.


Sailing through the monotony of oneself

3 min read


Heraclitus is quoted famously as saying that "the road up and the road down are one and the same". This morning, I read a similar sentiment in Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet:

‘Any road,’ said Carlyle, ‘this simple road to Entepfuhl, will lead you to the end of world.’ But the road to Entepfuhl, if followed right to the end, would lead straight back to Entepfuhl, which means that Entepfuhl, where we started, is that ‘end of the world’ we set out to find in the beginning.

It has to be said that, on the face of it, The Book of Disquiet feels like one of the most pessimistic books you'll ever read. But, for me, there's an underlying optimism, something that reminds me of the Albert Camus' discovery that, "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer." While not a Stoic, there's nevertheless a sense in Pessoa that joy and satisfaction can be found in the details of life. 

In fact, Pessoa cannot understand the desire to travel abroad to see the sights, when everything you need is either inside oneself, or readily available in the immediate physical environment:

Someone who has sailed every sea has merely sailed through the monotony of himself.

This is a really interesting way of looking at the world, and one echoed in Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. Given that wherever you go and whatever you do, you have to take yourself with you, you're better off getting your internal life right first.

Condillac begins his famous book with the words: ‘However high we climb and however low we fall we never escape our own feelings.’ We can never disembark from ourselves. We can never become another person, except by making ourselves other through the sensitive application of our imaginations to our selves.

Of course, this perfection of the inner life is something that is never-ending. What I think Pessoa is driving at with the metaphor of 'sailing through the monotony' of oneself, is that if you take the same (undeveloped) version of yourself to different physical environs, you haven't really learned anything new:

Like history, experience of life teaches us nothing. True experience consists in reducing one’s contact with reality whilst at the same time intensifying one’s analysis of that contact. In that way one’s sensibility can widen and deepen since everything lies within us anyway; it is enough that we seek it out and know how to do so.

When I used to travel more than I do now (i.e. when others were control of my schedule) people used to think it was 'glamorous' that I'd have to go to the US for 48 hours. Nothing could be further than the truth:

There is an erudition of knowledge, which is what we usually mean by ‘erudition’, and there is an erudition of understanding, which is what we call ‘culture’. But there is also an erudition of sensibility.

This 'erudition of sensibility' means being able to 'appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic infludences'. Although Pessoa can't be counted as a Stoic philosopher, there is certainly more than an element of Stoicism in his writing. Today I've learned not to year for far-off places, but to be happy with exploring my inner and local environs. 

Photo by Hugo Kerr


#StoicWeek: Day 7

3 min read

Steaming cup 

Today's morning reading, the last in Stoic week 2016:

The works of the gods are full of providence, and the works of fortune are not separate from nature or the interweaving and intertwining of the things governed by providence. Everything flows from there. Further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. What is brought by the nature of the whole and what maintains that nature is good for each part of nature. Just as the changes in the elements maintain the universe so too do the changes in the compounds. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.3

...and the evening reading:

At every hour give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from other concerns. You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing life: the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.5

One of the things I've learned from Stoicism over the past few years, and this week in particular, is just how few things you need, and how few things you need to master to be contented in life. Although not a Stoic, this is reminiscent of a famous quotation from eastern philosophy:

If you are depressed, you live in the past. If you are anxious, you live in the future… If you are happy… You live in the present.” – Lao Tzu

There's much to be said for looking back at one's life up to this point without regret, and looking into the future without fear. 'Happiness' is a fleeting thing, and too much of a slippery idea to be pursued in real-time. Instead, I've learned to focus on productive habits, workflows, and regimes that leave me contented.

I'm sure that a younger version of myself would have been disappointed with aiming for mere 'contentment'. But, actually, as the Stoic philosophers argue, being of an even temper is definitely worth striving for. While life might not be so strenuous to our physical bodies as it was in the ancient past, modern life is nevertheless psychologically tumultuous.

Stoicism is a fantastic way to have a philosophy of living that gets out of the way and allows you to live. At the same time, it's a never-ending process of self-improvement. I'll continue striving for contentment.  

Image by John-Mark Kuznietsov


#StoicWeek: Day 6

3 min read

Waves crashing on headland

Today's reading:

Be like the headland on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me!’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

This is perhaps the layperson's definition of Stoicism  to be imperturbable in the face of difficulties that would otherwise show an outward display of emotion. 

I often wonder what it must have been like to have been raised in ancient Sparta, a warrior society immortalised both in writing but also in films like 300. Wikipedia notes that the harshness of Spartan society began at birth, when children would be bathed in wine to see if they survived, then presented to the father. If he didn't approve of how it looked, then the would be thrown of a cliff (an early form of eugenics). gives a pithy overview of what 'spartan' has come to mean as a consequence of this ancient society:

The word “spartan” means self-restrained, simple, frugal and austere. The word laconic, which means pithy and concise, is derived from the Spartans, who prized brevity of speech.

I highly recommend the 'King of Kings' series as part of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History series to find out more about this time period. It's fascinating stuff.

Back to the original passage from Marcus Aurelius. The idea that the wise person should be moderate in their emotions is at the core of Stoic philosophy, and can be found time and time again in the work of various writers. If I had to choose just one book to take with me anywhere, it would be Baltasar Gracián's The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence. Here's his fifty-second maxim:

Never lose your composure. A prime aim of good sense: never lose your cool. This is proof of true character, of a perfect heart, because magnanimity is difficult to perturb. Passions are the humours of the mind and any imbalance in them unsettles good sense, and if this illness leads us to open our mouths, it will endanger our reputation. Be so in control of yourself that, whether things are going well or badly, nobody can accuse you of being perturbed and all can admire your superiority.

The exhortation in that last sentence, being constant in the face of both success and failure, is an extremely hard thing to learn. I'm trying my best to do this, but it can be hard when others, including those closest to you, expect you to respond emotionally to certain situations.

Image by Sushil Nash


#StoicWeek: Day 5

3 min read


Today's text is the start of Book 2 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. I often think of this as the 'proper' start of the whole text, given that Book 1 is, in effect, Aurelius simply enumerating the people he's thankful to for the inheritance/learning of various character traits.

The section highlighted for reflection contains advice that, on my best days, I think about with a smile. The first two sentences are powerful:  

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognized the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1

I'm re-reading Epictetus at the moment. He's not my favourite philosopher, but given he's mentioned several times in the Stoic Week handbook, I thought he was working revisiting. In his Discourses (appropriate, given the title of this blog!) he states:

I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains – but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled; but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?

This to me complements well what Marcus Aurelius is saying about dealing with other people. The idea is to have such a strong sense of self and what is in and out of one's control, that you suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (so to speak) with good grace.

One other thing I wanted to record here is that my family and I spent the last 24 hours on a mini adventure here. This morning, lying in bed away from home, I read this:

One never lives so intensely as when one has been thinking hard. (Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet)

It reminded me just how much we're in control of the lives we lead. We really enjoy packing things in to a short period of time, it feels like you're really living. However, there's times when it's not possible, for whatever reason, to remove yourself physically from one place to another. One of the huge advantages of Stoicism (and philosophy in general) is having a rich inner world to escape to, whenever you desire.

Image by Kaley Dykstra


#StoicWeek: Day 4

5 min read

Old kettle

The reading for today is once again Marcus Aurelius. I have no complaints, given I read him every day anyway!

If you find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage… turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found… but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue give no room to anything else, since once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good [virtue] anything alien its nature, such as the praise of the many or position of power, wealth or enjoyment of pleasures. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6

I've spent so long thinking about this particular passage over the last couple of years I'm actually struggling to find anything to say about it, which is odd. In other words, I feel like I've internalised it to such an extent that all I can do is nod my head. Just like buying books and putting them on your shelf, however, this does not mean I've actually done anything useful as a result.

The notes for today from the handbook include this passage about the 'four chief virtues' of Stoicism:

The four chief virtues, taken together, are intended to cover the main areas of human expertise or ‘living well’: rational understanding, proper treatment of others, management of emotions and desires. The Stoics saw the virtues as a complementary set, which were mutually supporting, so that you could not have one virtue without having the others too. They also recognised there were many subdivisions of the main four virtues and that they could be understood from a number of different perspectives.

It's the holistic nature of Stoicism that appeals to me. You're attempting to become a well-rounded human being who's self-sufficient, with appropriate emotional responses. It's not, say, working on just one of the 'seven deadly sins'. The idea is, for example, that 'proper treatment of others' flows from 'rational undrestanding', and managing 'emotions and desires'.

I'll be away this evening and tomorrow morning, so I'll reflect on the second reading for today now:

Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you’ll see what the result is. And if you’re laid up a mere ten days, when you get up and try to talk any distance, you’ll find your legs barely able to support you. So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different. The same goes for the affairs of the mind… So if you don’t want to be hot-tempered, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get angry. ‘I used to be angry every day, then only every other day, then every third…’ If you resist it a whole month, offer God a sacrifice, because the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether. ‘I didn’t lose my temper this day, or the next, and not for two, then three months in succession.’ If you can say that, you are now in excellent health, believe me. – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18

Although I tend to find Epictetus a bit patronising (I've read his work before, but don't choose to include it in my daily reading) this is a good passage. "Habits," as I'm always fond of quoting Cory Doctorow as saying, "are things that you get for free". As I read this morning in Mason Currey's Daily rituals : how great minds make time, find inspiration, and get to work, it parallels what William James may have exhorted others to do, but which he struggled to manage himself. As James wrote in Psychology, a Briefer Course:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

If there's anything that's taught me the value of routines, it's having children. They crave routine, perhaps because novelty and deviation from that routine provides so much joy.

My aims for today? I'm going to follow Epictetus and try not to lose my temper, or, indeed, show any form of irritation to another human being.

Image by Jaime Spaniol


#StoicWeek: Day 3

3 min read


Today's morning reading from Stoic Week:

People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills; and you too are especially inclined to feel this desire. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order. So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This was paralleled by something else I read this morning:

Life for us is whatever we imagine it to be. To the peasant with his one field, that field is everything, it is an empire. To Caesar with his vast empire which still feels cramped, that empire is a field. The poor man has an empire; the great man only a field. The truth is that we possess nothing but our own senses; it is on them, then, and not on what they perceive, that we must base the reality of our life. – Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Internalising the idea that happiness in life depends on your perception of things that happen to, and surround, you is hugely liberating. It reminds me of Alain De Botton's The Art of Travel in which he points out that one reason why holidays can be so disappointing is that we have to take ourselves with us, as it were, complete with our worries, concerns and imperfections. The reality and the glossy brochure can never be identical.

In my own life, I've found this particular part of Stoicism extremely useful. I live in a terraced house only a few miles away from where I grew up. While I've been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit during my career, really all I need is my family around me, a healthy body, and access to books and the internet to keep me satisfied. 

Image by Rowan Heuvel


How to do more 'deep work'

2 min read


Alex Denning is on a mission:

Distraction is a problem. We’re probably reliant on or addicted to the internet more than we’d like to admit. Fixing this will be a work in progress, but acting now, recognising the problem and consciously trying to fix it is as good a first step as any.

It's a short post, so I'll forgive him the fact of not arguing well for his conclusion. It does, however, contain some actionable advice — some which also appears in Chapter 1 of my new audiobook.

Here's what Denning has done to leave him 'less distracted in general':

  • Delete social media apps from my phone (that aim to be addictive). I can still access from the mobile browser if I want, but its inconvenience puts me off.
  • Ban my phone from the toilet. Yup. This is actually a big one.
  • Stop keeping my phone near my bed. Check your email before you get out of bed? If you can’t reach it, you can’t.
  • Stop carrying my phone in my pocket. Keeping it in my bag instead makes it less convenient and me less prone to picking it up.

I'm doing the first and third of these and they do make a huge difference. Overall, though, it's about training yourself rather than banning things. In that regard, although it's not cool to say that postgraduate study is in any way useful these days, when you have a defined period of time to do the research to write a doctoral thesis, you either do the deep work and get it done, or you never finish.

That being said, I wouldn't advocate anyone enrols in a PhD in Ancient Greek Civilization just to get over their mobile phone addiction. Denning's other advice about the Pomodoro Technique is an absolute winner when it comes to cranking things out. 

Finally, it's easy to fetishize 'deep work' because it sounds serious and important. It also perpetuates the myth of the lone genius. The truth is that, while we do perhaps need to tip the scales the other way, collaboration, serendipitious connections, and speed is just as important as the skills it was possible to hone in pre-internet times.

Image by Sven Scheuermeier


#StoicWeek: Day 2

4 min read


Today's morning text for reflection:

Early in the morning, when you are finding it hard to wake up, hold this thought in your mind: ‘I am getting up to do the work of a human being. Do I still resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for and for which I was brought into the world? Or was I framed for this, to lie under the bedclothes and keep myself warm?’ ‘But this is more pleasant’. So were you born for pleasure: in general were you born for feeling or for affection? Don’t you see the plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees doing their own work, and playing their part in making up an ordered world. And then are you unwilling to do the work of a human being? Won’t you run to do what is in line with your nature? – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I enjoy getting up early, before everyone else in my family, to read everything from Marcus Aurelius to Montaigne. I have a series of books that I read on repeat. Some might say that I'm temperamentally suited to getting up and going to bed early, but I think it's a cultivated habit. I like getting things done, and (in my experience) those kind of people achieve things in the morning, not late at night. I might be wrong.

I'm sure we'll come onto this later in the week (I'm not reading ahead, which is unlike me) but in addition to not lying in bed, even on weekends, I also take a cold shower every weekday morning. The look of disgust on some people's face when I tell them this fact is hilarious! The truth is, however, that introducing small 'hardships' into your day makes you much more resilient in the face of greater trials. It's like exercise — and especially running — in that respect.

In the notes to this morning's meditations within the Stoic Week handbook is this passage from Epictetus:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, social role or status, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. – Epictetus

My father spent a few years towards the end of his career working in the Middle East. A Christian, he nevertheless came back with the rather Muslim habit of appending inshallah (Arabic for 'God willing') to the end of sentences that involved planning for the future. There is an inherent humility in this that I respect.

At first blush, an exhortation to concentrate only on those things 'within our power' seems a bit defeatist. However, if there's one thing I've learned during my 35 years on earth so far, it's that you can't control other people's opinions of you. What's left is ensuring that, to quote Montaigne (who, in turn is quoting Horace) you become an 'empire unto yourself'.

To say that living is a preparation for dying sounds a bit morbid, but I'd very much like to die well. Cicero talks a lot about this, about how death isn't a bad thing in and of itself, and how we can be prepared for it by practicing the 'separation of soul and body' while we're still alive. Beside my bed I have a memento mori, a beautiful object whose only purpose is to remind me that everything is temporary and one day I will die.

It's hubris to think that there is anything I can control other than my own (internal) empire. I can try and rule it benevolently and with reason, while trying to affect the external world in positive ways. If things don't turn out as I expect, then it only goes to show what I already knew — that some things are under my control, and some things are not.

Image via Quin Stevenson


Barack Obama on the difference between Silicon Valley and government

1 min read

The video above (start from 1:09:13) is the particular piece of video that shows Barack Obama making the comments that have been going viral on Twitter.

 POTUS comments

Amen to that.


Stoic Week 2016

4 min read

Stoic Week 2016

Many thanks to my friend Eylan Ezekiel for drawing my attention to Stoic Week being run by What is 'Stoicism'? you may ask. I've been reading Cicero this morning (as I would be doing anyway, Stoic Week or otherwise) who the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says saw Stoicism in the following light:

Stoicism as Cicero understood it held that the gods existed and loved human beings. Both during and after a person's life, the gods rewarded or punished human beings according to their conduct in life. The gods had also provided human beings with the gift of reason. Since humans have this in common with the gods, but animals share our love of pleasure, the Stoics argued, as Socrates had, that the best, most virtuous, and most divine life was one lived according to reason, not according to the search for pleasure. This did not mean that humans had to shun pleasure, only that it must be enjoyed in the right way. For example, it was fine to enjoy sex, but not with another man's wife. It was fine to enjoy wine, but not to the point of shameful drunkenness. Finally, the Stoics believed that human beings were all meant to follow natural law, which arises from reason. The natural law is also the source of all properly made human laws and communities. Because human beings share reason and the natural law, humanity as a whole can be thought of as a kind of community, and because each of us is part of a group of human beings with shared human laws, each of us is also part of a political community. This being the case, we have duties to each of these communities, and the Stoics recognized an obligation to take part in politics (so far as is possible) in order to discharge those duties. The Stoic enters politics not for public approval, wealth, or power (which are meaningless) but in order to improve the communities of which they are a part. If politics is painful, as it would often prove to be for Cicero, that's not important. What matters is that the virtuous life requires it.

In the UK, at least, someone who is 'stoic' is defined as someone who endures hardship without complaint. I think this is an incomplete definition, as it doesn't get to the nub of what's important. For me, Stoicism is synonymous with the approach of Marcus Aurelius, who, in his Meditations, sets out his belief that:

  • we can train ourselves to fear physical and emotional pain less
  • everything is fleeting when viewed on a cosmic scale 
  • man (i.e. humanity) is the measure of all things
  • we have an obligation to ourselves, first and foremost, but also to our society
  • reason always trumps emotion

The theme of Stoic Week this year is, apparently, 'Stoicism and Love':

Many people mistakenly believe that Stoicism is unemotional. However, as we’ll see, the Stoics made a point of listing positive and healthy emotions experienced by what they would call the ‘ideal wise man’. In particular, love plays a fundamental role in Stoic Ethics: for example, Marcus Aurelius said that his goal was to be free from irrational passions, and yet full of love.

Appropriately, this morning's excerpt to be reflected upon is from Marcus Aurelius:

From Maximus [I have learnt the importance of these things]: to be master of oneself and not carried this way and that; to be cheerful under all circumstances, including illness; a character with a harmonious blend of gentleness and dignity; readiness to tackle the task in hand without complaint; the confidence everyone had that whatever he said he meant and whatever he did was not done with bad intent; never to be astonished or panic-stricken, and never to be hurried or to hang back or be at a loss or downcast or cringing or on the other hand angry or suspicious; to be ready to help or forgive, and to be truthful; to give the impression of someone whose character is naturally upright rather than having undergone correction; the fact that no-one could have thought that Maximus looked down on him, or could have presumed to suppose that he was better than Maximus; and to have great personal charm. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.14

I'm looking forward to participating! You can register directly on the site, or the handbook for Stoic Week is available as a direct download here