This morning was an interesting test of my Stoic practice. When I went to run the snowblower this morning, I locked myself out of the house. Luckily, I had my aged iPod Touch on me, and could get access to my home wireless, so I sent a frantic, hopeful email to some friends who have a spare key and they were able to help me. My alternative plan was to walk a mile or so to work in the snow and either find those same friends there or get on the phone to a locksmith. Whee!
This morning’s inconvenience was certainly the result of a failure of mindfulness — I was on autopilot when I locked myself out, thinking about something else (something idle, something I should have let go). I didn’t really panic, though — I sorted through what I could do and what needed doing, and that’s what I did. This is progress, of a sort — situations of this kind tend to make me very cranky. I am particularly unkind to myself about my own stupid mistakes, as a rule. Today, I just sent the message, started clearing the driveway, and planned to check my email in a few minutes to see whether or not help was on the way. When help arrived, all was well, and I finished clearing snow. This sort of thing, honestly, usually ruins most of a day for me. It puts me in a hostile frame of mind, to say the very least. This morning, though, it was just…well, it was just this thing that happened. Progress, of a sort!
The Stoic Week theme for today is “Self Discipline and Stoic Simplicity,” which is timely given the Thanksgiving holiday in the US (which is typically characterized by excess). It’s a good time to think about food, which is what the quotation provided for the lunchtime exercise (from Musonius Rufus) allows me to do: “I maintain that [food’s] purpose should be to produce health and strength, that one should eat for that purpose only, and that one should eat with moderation, and without any haste or greed.”
I will admit that I have a bit of a hard time with this sort of attitude, in part because I think that a certain kind of aesthetic and emotional appreciation for food — above and beyond its mere nutritional value — might be entirely consistent with some kind of Stoic mindfulness and Stoic simplicity. Something like the Slow Food movement, for example, seems to promote the kind of virtue a Stoic would most certainly appreciate, precisely insofar as it is careful, thoughtful, and environmentally conscientious. There can also be a meditative beauty in the preparation and appreciation of food (as distinct from the industrial production and consumption of food), particularly if it is done in the context of a set of social and economic changes that might make it possible.
One of the dangers of taking on simplicity and self-discipline in our current socio-economic context, and particularly with regard to becoming more conscious and deliberate about things like food, is the likelihood that only the elite may have access to the resources, time, and other relevant good that make it feasible to do so. Perhaps this, then, is a source of Stoic political activist motivation: how do I help to create a world in which it is truly possible for all to be mindful? While much might be made of Epictetus’ status as a slave, it’s worth noticing that he was the exception and not the norm among the Stoics whose works we possess in any great amounts — the most notable of those who learned from him were not slaves themselves. I find myself worrying about the taking on of Epictetus’ methods by people like Marcus Aurelius as an early version of the Magical Minority business (in which the more powerful are “educated” in the wisdom of those over whom they have power, mostly by appropriating the tradition and deploying it to their own ends as a kind of magical and exotic thing). It reminds me of the appropriation of yoga by non-Indian people who then alter the practice and commercialize it. There’s all the difference in the world between making a virtue of necessity and making that virtue “magical.”
Any activist seeking an authentically Stoic change in the world may have to consider this sort of thing very carefully indeed.