On the Porch with the Stoics: Discipline of Action
With the discipline of action, our ancient friends remind us that the way to live a happy and productive life is to make a habit of doing good.
To put it in a modern-day mantra: See things as they are; do the right thing; and, be at peace.
Today, we’re on the second prong of this three-prong philosophy for living. Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius exhort us to a life of action and doing what is right before us. No one is responsible for our happiness but ourselves. If you want a good life, be a good person. And this requires action–the kind of action that cares for your fellow creatures, the kind of action that is just and civil, the kind of action that befits rational beings. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his diary: “Joy for human beings lies in proper action. And proper action consists in acts of kindness to other human beings, disdain for stirrings of the senses, identifying trustworthy impressions, and contemplating the natural order and all that happens in keeping with it.” Meditations 8:26.
And three other quotes from our ancients regarding action…
“God laid down this law, saying if you want some good, get it from yourself.” –Epictetus
“Let us therefore set out wholeheartedly, leaving aside our many distractions and exert ourselves in this single purpose, before we realize too late the swift and unstoppable flight of time and are left behind. As each day arises, welcome it as the very best day of all, and make it your own possession. We must seize what flees.” –Seneca
“Concentrate every minute on doing what’s in front of you…and on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can–if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in this life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you.” –Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics were big into accepting responsibility for our own life and actions. Integrity was king and queen. Our daily small actions lead to good character and a good life. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius’s comments above about “concentrating on what’s in front of you and avoiding distractions and worry,” we’d say in the 21st century: 1. Don’t get upset, and 2. Do the right thing. Period. End of story.
Make a move. Make a mark. Be kind in your actions. Remember who you are. Be your own shero or hero. But above all, get to work, friends. Get to work. For Seneca rallies us from a distant time, “We must seize what flees!”
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Find some great books on the Stoics below and read along for your own fun and edification! Join me as I’m gobbling up these oh-so-modern “ancients”!
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (translated by Gregory Hays) — LOVE this! I can see why Bill Clinton reads this every year. It’s a joy to read. I am inspired by it! This particular edition flows beautifully. The introduction and notes that Gregory Hays includes in this publication are thorough without being highbrow.
Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic — This is the paperback version of this classic. And wow! Is it amazing! When you want to read the classics, choose the Penguin Classic version. That’s not me selling something, this is really very good. (The Modern Library editions are usually excellent, too.)
Epictetus’s Encheiridion (or simply, The Manual), translated by Thomas W. Higginson — This little book has played a disproportionately large role in the rise of modern attitudes and modern philosophy. And Thomas Higginson’s translation is beautifully rendered for the contemporary audience without losing the ancient’s wisdom and clarity.
The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman — The Daily Stoic offers 366 days of Stoic insights and exercises, featuring all-new translations from the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the playwright Seneca, or slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, as well as lesser-known luminaries like Zeno, Cleanthes, and Musonius Rufus. Every day of the year you’ll find one of their pithy, powerful quotations, as well as historical anecdotes, provocative commentary, and a helpful glossary of Greek terms.
The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness, Epictetus and Sharon Lebell — This is Ms. Lebell’s modern-day interpretation of Epictetus’s Encheiridion. It is a great starting place for someone who doesn’t want to slog through anything remotely ancient. And that’s a bit unfortunate because this text doesn’t need any updating. It’s so thoroughly a classic, it almost transcends time.
If you missed the other episodes in this series about the Stoics, you can find them by clicking on these episode titles: