Morris, Tom. The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results. Open Court: Chicago, 2004.
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Key idea: Our life goals must be rooted in self-knowledge, “guided by a sense of what is good, and should take form within an ennobling big picture” (Morris 5).
The mind should be exercised continually (10).
The proper application of any insight depends on perspective (15).
Seneca details the importance of goal-setting. “Begin with the end in view.” Not just any goals, but goals that are proper to you. The challenge is to find out how we can know the right goals. That’s where proper philosophy comes in. We have to go beyond what we want to “what we should want” (19). Seneca’s task was to link proper goal setting with pursuing the Good. We know that our desires aren’t always good ones; a proper understanding of the Good can try to offset erroneous desires.
Our larger goals will most likely be shaped, whether for good or for ill, by how our soul has developed at that point. Our smaller goals must fit within that larger structure.
Key idea: adversity is necessary for “soul-making.”
Goals and Sequences
Morris echoes, or perhaps anticipates, themes from his other works: “We need a clear conception of what is important” (36-37).
Key idea: “Inconsistency often shows that at some level we really don’t know what we want” (39). Consistency is truth. When you are inconsistent, you are not being true to yourself. One way to guide us is reason. But Seneca has a “thick,” not thin concept of reason: “It is the whole ability we have to grasp, through intuition, interpretation, and inference, what the truth is about anything” (42).
While many probably admire the Stoic’s ability to not let things get to them, few can go with them on negating all emotion. Is that what the Stoics really teach? Probably. Maybe. The key point, as Morris notes, is that “any extreme of emotion can distort our perspective if it gets out of control” (48).
The most famous modern ethical dilemma is the trolley dilemma or perhaps the Nazis at the door. Such discussions are important but largely irrelevant to modern life. Following Seneca, Morris notes, “In modern times we are encouraged to suspect that ethical dilemmas will stalk us at every turn, making it nearly impossible to have agreed upon, universally applicable standards” (57). In reality, you won’t be in those situations.
While we cannot go with the cosmic pantheism of the Stoics, they are correct that we stand in “reciprocally dependent relations with each other.”
“It is not external forces in our lives, but our own beliefs about those forces that pressure us and bring on us all the negative experience” (76). The background for this comment is that we shouldn’t look to the external world for our happiness. Morris takes the Stoic emphasis on the internal and draws a shocking (yet common-sense) conclusion: by focusing “our thoughts, plans, attitudes and energies…close to home, to what we can control, to the small sphere of real personal competence that we do command,” we are actually able to achieve positive change and balance (81).
In other words, identify your range of control. Your range of control is what is truly in your power: assent, aspiration, and action (86). This means developing our core within ourselves, which for the Stoics meant cultivating virtue and living according to reason. This means cultivating the will, “the seat of virtue or vice” (99).
Good practical advice
“It is only the relaxed and rested mind that can be intuitive and creative to its highest potential” (60-61).
Reason isn’t everything. “While we should govern imagination by reason, it is only the power of the imagination that is able to tame emotion” (93).
Like all of Morris’s books, this book makes the ethical life exciting. As Christians we don’t always have to agree with the Stoics (and Morris offers his own criticisms at the end). Nonetheless, the early Christians in the New Testament dealt with the Stoics and Epicureans, not the Platonists (who are no doubt important in their own way).