The Stoic Art of Living (Morris)

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).

Oasis Within (Morris)

The Oasis Within — Tom Morris

This book begins as “wisdom literature” but ends with plot twists and “gotcha” moments. Both halves are worth it. You really haven’t read anything like it. I don’t say that lightly, since I am not sure how to classify it. This is a different kind of novel, and since it is something of a prequel, it doesn’t have to follow the typical story-line pattern.  It is a series of wisdom conversations between an old man and his nephew.  In many ways it sums up Morris’s own philosophy of life.

Key idea: a person’s inner strength comes from cultivating an “oasis within” himself.  Nevertheless, we cannot stay at an oasis. We have to do more than simply rest in moments of strength and recovery.  We must achieve balance.  Morris’s interlocutor, Uncle Ali, explains, “Balance is not a steady, static thing.  It’s ever changing.  The essence of it is care and correction, or awareness and adjustment.  It is an ongoing dance of change” (Morris 13).

Key idea: We can’t control the day, but only what we make of the day.

Lessons from the viper:  emotions and feelings aren’t bad.  They are often good teachers, but only if they are disciplined and controlled.  Morris says “we must cultivate a sensitivity to what is real” (33). We do this “by creating new habits of feeling.”  Very few things are as bad as we fear them to be. We should neither ignore all our fears nor over-exaggerate them.

What do you want to do with your life?  There are two different types of “opportunities” we get.  Some are for particular actions and some are for directions to grow (39). The latter type usually materialize more than once in life.  The key thing is to “act with as much excellence as you can.”

Ancient philosophers spoke of the four elements. While we know that the physical reality isn’t reducible to earth, air, fire, and water, these elements nevertheless serve as a good picture of man.  Those who have “fire” have a creative energy in them.  Earth represents stability.  They are dependable and have fertile soil for vision to grow.  Water flows out to encourage and nourish people.  Air is information. The key is to balance these.

Those are some of the gems you will find in this book. Highly recommended.

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book.  It is one of the best beginner books in philosophy and maybe one of the most useful. It is straightforward and deals with matters with which most people struggle.  

In book 1 Marcus lists what he learned from each of his teachers.  The reader sees a list of manliness (the ambiguity in that term will become clearer later), directness, and lack of guile.  He urges the reader to live simply and positively.  Being positive, though, is not mere self-help fluff.  It is painful.  It requires emotional sacrifices.  For example,

“Not to say to anyone…that I have no leisure [to write to them]….by alleging urgent occupations” (I.10).  I’ll admit it.  I do this every day.

Elsewhere he says “freedom of will” is associated with “steadiness of purpose.”  This is a profound insight.  Regardless of what we may believe about “libertarian free will” or “determinism” (neither of which enter into the calculus of any decision we make), it is true that if we do not have a steady character, we won’t be in full control of our decisions.  Don’t you remember those times when you were tossed about by circumstances, and you worried over which decisions you had to make?  Remember how it felt?  You didn’t feel in control.  Could you really say that your will was 100% free in those circumstances?  Probably not.

Of course, as a Stoic he does hold to necessity. He notes that fortune is from providence, but there is an “interweaving involution with which the things are ordered” (II.3).

Book II ends with the fleetingness of human life.  Much of it echoes Ecclesiastes.  “Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux….and the soul a whirl” (II.17).  When we remember that Ecclesiastes 1 should be translated as “vapor” rather than vanity, we gain a new appreciation for Marcus’s words.

One of the reasons it is difficult to pin down his metaphysics and epistemology is that they aren’t easily separable.  That might account for Stoicism’s power as a way of life.  He writes, “If thou findest in human life anything better than justice, truth, temperance….anything better than thy own mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables thee to do according to right reason” (III.6).  I don’t think he is saying right reason = truth et al.  Rather, right reason functions as an accessing-relation to those entities.  You can’t experience them without the mind participating in right reason.

Regarding opinion, opinion isn’t a lower degree of reality, as perhaps in some Platonic accounts.  To be sure, it doesn’t have the same epistemic force as knowledge, but neither is it worthless.  He writes, “Reverence the faculty which produces opinion.  On this faculty it entirely depends whether there shall exist in thy ruling part any opinion consistent with nature” (III.9).  This is similar to the later English concept of “sentiment.”  Opinions, like sentiments, need to be purified and well-ordered, not done away with.

In a way anticipating modern business management, he argues for something like a “mission statement.”  “Make for thyself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance” (262). Of course, the immediate goal is something like an analysis of a substance, but the emphasis on proper definition shouldn’t be ignored.  Good business models tacitly apply this same rigor to their vision.

Anthropology: “to the body belongs sensations, to the soul appetites, to the intelligence principles” (III.16).  At death these departed souls float into the air; afterwards, they become fire and are absorbed back into the Cosmic Mind (IV.21).

Metaphysics: “The universe is transformation” (IV.3). It is a living being, having one substance and one soul (IV.40). It won’t do to say that this is pantheism.  He isn’t saying A = B.  Rather, A is part of B.  He elsewhere likens it to a river (V.23).  The universe functions as a unity is probably the best way to say it.  The wise man meditates on this connection (not dissimilar from St Maximus saying we should perceive the logoi of things).

Catchy quotes:

“Tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind” (IV.3).

Stoicism is worth studying because it was one of the first philosophical systems in dialogue with Christianity.  It’s strange that so many Christians became Platonists rather than Stoics.  The New Testament was far more interested in Stoicism.  Of course, we can’t simply baptize Stoicism.  Much of the system is unworkable for Christians.

Cicero: The Republic and The Laws

Image result for cicero the republic and the laws

Cicero. The Republic and the Laws ed. By Niall Rudd. New York: Oxford, 1997.

Thesis: Nature has given to mankind a desire to defend the well-being of the community (R1.1). 

The “republic” is the “property of the public,” and the “public” is defined as a legal gathering. It comes together because men want to defend and form communities (1.39).  Cicero turns to Aristotle’s discussion of the 3 types of government and their corresponding virtues and vices. Monarchy is the best type of government, but it has a precarious nature (1.54ff). 

Philus gives the standard rejection to natural law: there is no “justice” because men often prefer to enact injustice and different countries have different customs.  As Scipio begins his response, we have to navigate some difficulties in the text. Laelius is speaking that “law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature” (III.33). 

In Book IV Cicero gives a scathing rebuke of Greek “male love,” for lack of a more delicate phrase.

What is the purpose of life?  Religious worship, rearing a family, and participating in the community.  This is impossible without a well-ordered state (5.7).

Mind, Body, Soul

“You are not mortal, but only that body of yours.  You are not the person presented by your physical appearance” (6.26). A man’s true self is his mind.

>>Whatever is in constant motion is eternal. There must be something that moves others but itself is not moved. Cicero then makes the (albeit not very clear) inference that minds possess this property. His reasoning is that inanimate matter can’t move itself but must be moved.  Only a mind can do this. 

The Laws

The nature of justice must be deduced from the nature of man (L. 1.17). Law is the highest reason and enjoins what “ought” to be done.  If Cicero can make this argument work, then he just did an end-run around the “is-ought” problem.

Reason is a “middle term” between God and man (1.23). If you share in reason (i.e., participate in that reason which is connected to God), then you share in law.  If you share in law, you share in justice. This mutual sharing is a single universe of God and man.

Law is an “eternal force” and natural law is “coeval with God” (L 2.8-10).  So far that sounds like medieval and classical natural law theory. Cicero then goes pantheist: universal nature possesses intelligence (16).  His argument makes sense: law is embedded in nature because nature is able to reason. This overcomes the “is-ought” problem but at a very high cost.