Jonathan Church is an economist and writer. He works as an economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. He has degrees in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and became a CFA charter holder in 2014. He also earned a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, he has written over 75 essays published at Quillette, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, and Good Men Project. He has also published poems, a short story, and several papers in economics, which can be found at www.jonathandavidchurch.com, and he can be followed on Twitter @jondavidchurch.
In March 2018, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He wrote a powerful article about how Stoicism helps him cope with his terminal diagnosis. We reached out to Jonathan to talk more about his study of Stoicism, coming to terms with mortality, his response to the APA’s new guidelines and its scrutiny of “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression,” and much more. Please enjoy our incredibly in-depth interview with Jonathan Church!
Tell us about your introduction to Stoicism. How did it happen and do you remember your first reaction?
When I was a freshman in high school, I had an epiphany. Not a religious or spiritual awakening, but more of an intellectual awakening. It began with the realization that adolescent mischief was not serving me well. I write about it in some detail in a related article about how “restorative justice” disciplinary policies in schools would have failed me. Suffice to say that the proximate cause was a suspension from school for a transgression as dumb and embarrassing as stealing Twizzlers from a snack store in the cafeteria during lunch, but the ultimate cause was an introspective coming-to-terms with personal misgivings about being an unruly teenager. On a bus ride home after the first day, I returned to school, I got lost in thought and was suddenly struck by the absurdity of hinging my self-esteem on the shifting winds of capricious adolescence.
In the immediate aftermath, I stopped agonizing about whether girls liked me, ceased fretting about being invited to “in-crowd” parties and ritzy shindigs, no longer tried put on a façade of cool nonchalance about report cards, and quit cavorting with anyone who would tempt me into tomfoolery. I had a pensive streak even in pre-pubescence – I recall a baseball coach commenting on my “cerebral” approach to the game – so maybe I was merely harvesting a seed already latent within me. As Marcus Aurelius said in the Meditations: “Retire into yourself. The rational principle which rules has this nature, that it is content with itself when it does what is just, and so secures tranquility.” Then a few pages later: “Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and now live according to nature the remainder which is allowed you.”
In other words, I dusted off the mistakes of my past and retired into myself, developing an intense fealty to reason and virtue, a fealty seemingly already nascent in my character. I turned my attention to learning, and training as a track athlete. Immersing myself in studying and track, I discovered the rewards of a disciplined, contemplative life, free of the banal anxieties that plague a fragile teenage mind (granted, I was a teenager and still had a lot of growing up to do).
One day, I walked into a bookstore and bought a half-dozen books, mostly works of Greek literature and philosophy. I remember in particular Plato’s Republic. I subsequently fell in love with the Socratic dialogues. The style. The mood. The logic. The quest for truth. I was most impressed by the courage with which Socrates faced trial and death, buoyed by his commitment to a life of philosophical inquiry and the intellectual wherewithal to sustain it. At that age, I was not mature enough to fully fathom the gravity of what Socrates was up against and the poise with which he confronted it. Nonetheless, however much I may have romanticized it, the aplomb with which Socrates confronted the court in which he was tried on charges of impiety and corrupting Athenian youth, and ultimately his public censure and death sentence, struck a chord with me.
In time, I became acquainted with the Cynics, Epicureans, and the Stoics. All three shared a commitment to austerity, reason, and the pursuit of virtue as core principles, but the Stoic fixation on mortality dovetailed most seamlessly with my own intellectual curiosity about death, while offering a way out of what occasionally felt like an almost-nihilistic fixation with life’s absurdities in the face of looming mortality, a fixation that would lead to a lifelong fascination with Hamlet (and an on-again, off-again feeling of kinship with existentialist writers).
At the time, these intellectual currents drew me, in part, to the devilishly-entertaining Diogenes, but ultimately to the seemingly more sober-minded Marcus Aurelius, an emperor who was able to detach (though presumably only when time allowed) from the hurly-burly of imperial responsibilities and, as he says in the Meditations, “no longer be pulled by the strings like a puppet to social movements, no longer either be dissatisfied with the present, or shrink from the future.” Months before, I was stealing from the school store, succumbing to the hormonal whims of romantic infatuations, preoccupied with wardrobes and ensembles, and worrying about whether my equally-fickle peers would deign to welcome me into their social circles. Yet here was the ruler of the Western World in his time, presumably exposed to all manner of sycophancy and Machiavellian intrigue on a regular basis, who could maintain a steadfast independence of mind and soul, who could find repose in reason, and who could attain a kind of peaceful reconciliation with the vicissitudes of life in an indifferent universe.
“You must cultivate either your own reason or else externals; apply yourself either to things within or without you – that is, be either a philosopher or one of the mob.” — Epictetus Click To Tweet
I did not want to be part of the mob. I wanted to be a philosopher.
Is there one Stoic philosopher or one Stoic text you find yourself more drawn to than the others?
As a parent who appreciates how hard it is to rise above the fray while paying the bills and raising a child, I admire a man who could sustain a kind of disinterested, even-keeled serenity while simultaneously ruling an entire empire. Though he ruled during the so-called Pax Romana, his reign was not without war, plague, and the routine monotony of administrative responsibilities. Yet his mind and soul were not irreparably distracted from more “intellectual,” but ultimately foundational, questions about virtue, justice, and how to achieve a sufficient measure of contentment and tranquility amidst the challenges of a seemingly adversarial (though as a Stoic might say, providential) universe, and, of course, the looming inevitability of his own mortality.
Let me add that I am not convinced philosopher-kings would necessarily serve humanity well in leadership roles. I am less fond of a statesman who tries to be a philosopher than I am of a statesman who sees that he would do well to study philosophy. There is a difference. In this interview, Isaiah Berlin – twentieth-century philosopher, intellectual historian, and author of the fascinating essay The Hedgehog and the Fox – describes (around 3:00) the nature of a philosopher as one possessed with a proclivity to examine the fundamental assumptions that lie behind our beliefs, mores, habits, and ideas. But he adds a cautionary note that if everyone in society were going around constantly examining the roots of our ideas, we would never be able to get on with life. Imagine if society were comprised entirely of Hamlets! That said, Berlin adds, a society without philosophers would become ossified – beliefs would turn into dogma, imagination would be warped, and the intellect would become sterile. It falls to philosophers, endowed with a singular curiosity about these sorts of endeavors, to animate society’s ongoing examination of the ideas, mores, habits, and presuppositions that underlie its institutions. Thus, philosophers have their place in the division of labor, but it may have been disastrous if Hamlet ever acceded to the throne in Denmark. For statesmen, it is probably more advisable to read and study Hamlet (and Stoic philosophy), but then get on with affairs of the state.
This is what Marcus Aurelius appears to have done. As a competent and respected emperor, one of the Five Good Emperors, he does not seem to have been an absent-minded professor habitually divorced from a business-like preoccupation with the duties of imperial leadership. Yet he still had the presence of mind not to neglect a serious and ongoing investigation of more timeless and universal concerns about virtue, justice, and personal contentment, and not to be overly distracted by the petty and mundane ambitions of that part of humanity exclusively concerned with the transitory rewards of offices, plaudits, and riches.
Incidentally, if we need a more contemporary and quintessential example of a “Stoic” political leader with a particular talent for the synergistic assimilation of ideas and actions, philosophical detachment and pragmatic activism, in the interest of historic compromise (especially in our increasingly polarized society), can I nominate Abraham Lincoln as a Stoic politician par excellence, given his affinity for books, melancholic-poetic temperament (see this book on Lincoln), his lifelong admiration of this poem on mortality, and particular talent for parsing out the “right side of history” while navigating through a thicket of extremely acrimonious political divisions with grace, dignity, humor, and courage?
Just a thought.
In your recent Quillette article, you take issue with the APA’s new guidelines and its scrutiny of “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression.” Could you elaborate on your opposition to the report and it’s suggesting that stoicism is bad?
Strictly speaking, I would say I am not opposed to the report in the sense of being categorically opposed to any scrutiny of “masculine” norms that may be potentially harmful to the mental health of men. Rather, I am dismayed by the influence that social justice ideology exerts on the report. As I write here, the APA guidelines, like the recently-controversial Gillete commercial, seem “to be hitching [their] wagon to the hidebound focus of social justice ideology on historical-social constructivism and dismantling ‘power structures’ while glossing over the nuances and situational intricacies of the lived experiences of men (though, in fairness, the APA guidelines note they are not meant to be rigidly applied to every clinical situation).” This seems to be how they think about “traditional masculinity.” For example, Ronald F. Levant, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and co-editor of the APA volume “The Psychology of Men and Masculinities,” is quoted as saying: “Though men benefit from patriarchy, they are also impinged upon by patriarchy.” Patriarchy, of course, is one of the “social constructs” frequently targeted by social justice activists as being associated with “traditional” (some say “toxic”) masculinity.
For many reasons, I am not fond of the contemporary social justice movement (e.g. see my essays here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Not because I don’t believe in “social justice” aspirations like dismantling “patriarchal” structures that may undermine the mental health of men (or impede progress in the attainment of equal opportunity for women), but because I am not convinced that the ideas, beliefs, narratives, sensibilities, and reflexes that have become associated with social justice activism are unadulterated by cognitive errors in reasoning, or histrionic overreactions to nuanced realities.
I should qualify my views by emphasizing that I’m not a psychologist by training, and make no pretense at submitting a professional assessment or critique of the research cited in the report. However, as an economist who passed the exams to become a CFA charter holder, I am conversant with how insights from psychological research have been incorporated in the field of behavioral economics. As a result, I have a fair amount of training in how cognitive errors in reasoning influence human decision-making when it comes to personal finances and portfolio management. Examples of key concepts are confirmation bias, availability bias (see here and here), base-rate neglect, sample-size neglect, and so on. Now, this is not to veer into tangential discourse on behavioral economics, but rather wish to point out that these concepts are useful in thinking about a wide variety of topics, not just financial decision-making. For example, I have written about whether confirmation bias is the dark side of social justice activism.
What does this have to with Stoicism and the APA Guidelines? The proposition that social justice activists are prone to cognitive errors in reasoning gives rise to a wider concern that the social justice movement’s otherwise-appropriate concerns about oppression and marginalization in society (which I have written about, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) have become “reified” (to invoke a term used by the original Critical Theorists – Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse – who inspired the kind of activism which eventually became the Social Justice Movement). By “reified”, I mean that abstract ideas like “toxic masculinity” or “traditional masculinity” are treated as rigid, concrete realities. Another way of saying this is that they are so embedded in the intellectual and emotional reflexes of social justice activists that they have ceased to be flexible concepts which usefully guide our investigation and interpretation of trends and circumstances in society, and have become more like pre-existing narratives into which the situational intricacies of lived experience are shoehorned (i.e. adapting facts to the narrative rather than the narrative to facts). The result is that notions like “toxic masculinity” or “traditional masculinity” become so over-used and fetishized as exegetical heuristics that they lose their meaning, yet continue to exert an outsized effect on how we understand reality and how we interact with it. When ideas like “toxic masculinity” or “traditional masculinity” are relentlessly and impulsively applied to situations where they may not, in fact, apply, we gradually acquire not only an over-simplified view of reality, but also a distorted view, kind of like how Hollywood glamorizes a narrative at the expense of marginalized, peripheral, or otherwise distinct narratives. They function as ideology rather than insight, obscuring the granularities of experience and obstructing a dynamic evaluation of the intricacies of unique situations on their own merits.
For example, a man who takes a Stoic approach to life, resulting in an authentic and productive relationship with the emotional currents within him, may instead be perceived as being prone to an unhealthy degree of emotional repression, simply because he views emotional restraint, which is not the same as emotional repression, as an optimal approach to the management of one’s spontaneous emotions. Or (as the APA guidelines suggest), Stoicism is misconstrued as a mere “power-through” stopgap, a temporary stanching of the emotions to “get through” times of extreme duress, e.g. in war – rather than a mature cultivation of philosophical perspectives on themes like mortality, suffering, and misfortune. Stoicism (or its popularization) is perceived as a tactical means of “getting by” before ultimately coming to terms with one’s emotions, rather than a strategic acclimation to the emotional fluctuations of human existence.
To pigeon-hole Stoicism into this pre-existing narrative, however, is to misconstrue what Stoicism is about (and perhaps deprive men of a healthy coping strategy). The APA guidelines recommend, for example, that mental health professionals “should consider how stoicism and a reluctance to admit vulnerability hamstring men in personal relationships, and they should combat these forces, in part, by encouraging fathers to engage more fully with their children.” Well, I can tell you, I have a reserved and insular personality, and I am not keen on rambunctious displays of emotion. But I consider my two-year-old daughter the most important person in my life, and my active, daily engagement with her is a delight and obligation I take seriously. Moreover, it most certainly makes me a healthier, more productive person. And by the way, I don’t mind being silly and playful with her.
The whole point of Stoicism, it seems to me, is to recognize emotions as rooted in the natural order of the universe, as unavoidable as other aspects of life. The question then becomes how to acclimate to the vulnerabilities to which emotions give voice, rather than to avoid emotions (and thus one’s vulnerabilities) altogether. By all means, you should see a therapist if you think counseling would be helpful. But don’t do so because social justice ideology tells you that you have a duty to purge yourself of ill-defined diseases like “toxic masculinity” or “traditional masculinity.” Social constructs are worthy of study, but I am not convinced that they are the whole, or even a significant, reason why men may be reluctant to confront their underlying vulnerabilities. I would venture to suggest instead that they have had an insufficient exposure to Stoic philosophy!
In popular culture ‘stoic’ still tends to conjure the image of an emotionless cow standing in the rain. How do you explain the relationship between emotions and Stoicism to someone who hasn’t studied the philosophy? Is there a difference between stoicism and Stoicism?
History is rife with examples of how a set of ideas can evolve over time. Christ and Christianity, Marx and Marxism, Epicurean austerity and epicurean hedonism. The difference between Stoicism and stoicism is perhaps another example.
Anyway, this is not an easy question to answer, because there will inevitably appear to be some truth to popular distortions of Stoicism for a layman unacquainted with Stoic ideas or otherwise not aroused by philosophical curiosity. The Stoic life is not for the faint of heart. When you read the Stoics, you realize that the life of virtue, in all its refinements, is one that takes much effort and experience to cultivate and sustain. Loneliness is almost inevitable because you’re simply not going to find many people who share or fathom your resilience, resolve, resolution, and aplomb in the face of life’s vivid mutability, and even rarely will you find someone who can do so, not mechanically (“powering through” in stoic fashion, as the APA guidelines might say), but with a philosophical facility for putting things in perspective as they unfold in real time.
Thus, I’m not sure I’d be quick to recommend Stoicism to everyone. King Claudius said about Hamlet: “there’s something on which his melancholy sits on brood.” For a Hamlet aficionado, Claudius’s remark might seem a little out of place since it is made in reference to Hamlet’s so-called “madness” (or “antic disposition”), but I venture to say that anyone who has found himself inclined to the philosophical arts, or the “melancholic” disposition of a Stoic-like philosopher, will have encountered a sentiment among his contemporaries that he is an odd sort of fellow, and thus will have attracted the suspicions of men like King Claudius. Thus, the issue is not to force feed Stoicism or to learn Stoic maxims by rote. For Stoicism to be effective, it must be a rational choice made after sufficient reflection, and sustained by ongoing cultivation of Stoic habits – not habits as a function of robotic obedience, but as a function of one’s volition.
That said, as a way to illustrate, to the uninitiated, how a Stoic might manage emotions, imagine being young and single, and, depending on when you grew up, waiting for a phone call, or a voicemail, or a text. Similarly, think about waiting to hear back from a company to which you sent a resume as part of a job application. One can easily grow impatient and anxious, anticipating a response from a romantic interest, or an email or callback from a recruiter at a company where one would like to find employment. It is natural to feel impatient or anxious. But one can maybe achieve some peace of mind if one reminds himself that scores of people have also lain in wait at night thinking about unrequited love or the fate of a job application. One can also conceive of many reasons a romantic interest or a recruiter has not replied. But it is wasted energy trying to figure out why.
It sounds a bit cliché to say that everything happens for a reason – and this is not, I think, the message of Stoicism – but in the interest of conveying, to the uninitiated, some sense of how Stoicism treats emotions, it might be helpful to think of it in that way, with the caveat that there isn’t necessarily any suggestion in Stoicism, so far as I see it, of an intelligent design the way we might understand it in a religious sense. It’s not about God’s plan, or the universe’s plan, but more about how Marcus Aurelius thinks of evil things:
“…Let the part which forms opinions about these things be quiet, that is, let it judge that nothing is either bad or good which can happen equally to the bad or good which can happen equally to the bad man and the good. For that which happens equally to him who lives contrary to nature, is according to nature and not contrary to nature.”
In other words, anxiety or impatience about unrequited love, or silence from a human resources department, emerge from the opinions we form about unrequited love or absence of a response from a company’s HR department. It is obviously not easy to set aside such anxiety or impatience, which is why I began by saying that Stoicism is not for the faint of heart. But if you are able to accept that such things are beyond your control, perhaps you’ll be less likely to take such things personally, and maybe be more at ease with emotions which, in general, as a human being, you cannot eradicate, or even hope to eradicate, because emotions are integral parts of human nature. Note the essential point that Stoicism does not aim to deny or repress emotions, but instead encourages attitudes and habits that facilitate reconciliation to the inescapability of emotions, as well as a peaceful and productive accommodation to, and restraint of, emotions.
You talk about how, despite being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, you continue to live a happy and productive life and not succumb to anxiety and depression thanks to Stoicism. What lessons or practices from Stoicism have helped you the most?
No lessons, practices, or rituals. No magic trick. No device to be employed in a duel to the death with death itself. Just continuing to read, think, write, and put things into perspective.
When I received the news of my diagnosis, some would say I did so like (as you say) an emotionless cow standing in the rain. But it comes across that way only because I long ago acquiesced to the inevitability of death. I have been thinking about mortality for a long time, not out of morbid interest, but as an outgrowth of philosophical curiosity. That said, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that there is no preparation for the moment when the grip of death is upon you. It will be terrible. No avoiding that. But it’s beyond my control. Best to focus only on optimizing the time I have, rather than wasting it worrying about how to avoid the inevitable, or how to assuage the terror of the moment when it’s upon you. Put off depression and anxiety until that one brief instant when death is upon you, not the life you have to live between now and then.
What have you learned about adversity? What would you tell someone who struggles to have the same level of equanimity as you in the face of life’s adversities?
In my Quillette essay, I briefly mentioned Hamlet in Act 5, “exhibiting a quietist, contemplative air, inclined to philosophize with a gravedigger and marvel at poor Yorick’s skull as the gravedigger breezily went about his morbid business.” I mention Hamlet because his quietist, “Stoic” demeanor, while sauntering through a graveyard with Horatio, contrasts so strikingly with his intellectual restiveness in the earlier four acts of the play, when he exerts so much effort wrestling with, among other obsessions like revenge, the theme of mortality.
In the middle of brain surgery, I started to recite Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, which I memorized long ago in college. The surgeon had to wake me up during surgery so he could map active areas in my brain in real time to avoid harming healthy tissue. I was more concerned with losing cognitive abilities than with the risk of death, so I tried to think complex thoughts and speak them out loud – taking derivatives, talking about monetary policy with the surgeon, and, at one point, reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. It was probably silly – I imagine it was probably sufficient for the doctor to ask me my name, my profession, where I’m from, and what are my hobbies, to get an active read of functional areas in my brain – but in the middle of surgery, I was not exactly in an optimal state of mind.
Anyway, it occurs to me that reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy in the middle of surgery was not only a bit silly, but also rather fitting in the sense that Hamlet’s soliloquy is so profound a meditation on the nature of life and death, which have always been on my mind, but quite vividly as I was wheeled into the operating room. Like anyone else, I have endured the whips and scorns of time, the proud man’s contumely, the law’s delay, the pangs of disprized love, the insolence of office. I have sweated and grunted under this weary life, and have never made my quietus with a bare bodkin. The idea of suicide, an enterprise of great pith and moment, has been sicklied over by my pale cast of thought. But alas, perhaps it was not simply fear of the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns – i.e. death – that persuaded me to carry on. Rather, it was instead the realization that I am not alone in adversity, and I was determined to fulfill some kind of purpose in the time given to me. In a poem my father wrote about endurance, he said: “still I rise each day, the plants need water, and the animals must be fed.”
When we arrive at Act 5, Hamlet has grown solemn and pensive, perhaps exhausted by how much time and energy he has spent probing the pros and cons of revenge against King Claudius, his father’s murderer, and ultimately trying to pluck out the heart of his own mysterious inability to come to some resolution about the matter. But now Hamlet marvels as the gravedigger goes about his grim business singing, digging, and jesting. Meanwhile, Hamlet is in a kind of reverent awe at the skulls of lawyers, court jesters, and buyers of land. How the time passes! How life comes and goes! What kept us up at night – cases, tenures, statutes, fines, etc. – all comes to naught. We become nothing but skeletons in a graveyard, knocked about the sconce with a dirty shovel, with no one to inform the gravedigger of his action of battery. The gravedigger seems to know all this, either as a function of habit or of reflection, or both. Hamlet has completely exhausted himself throughout the play probing the mysteries of life and death, and seems transfixed by a man who seems accustomed to the banality of death by virtue of his trade. Is it possible that the gravedigger is a paragon of Stoic equanimity, and that Hamlet has come to learn from him?
Hamlet spends an entire play – the greatest play in all of literature, in my view – trying to figure it all out, and simply exhausts himself. But consider the gravedigger. Maybe he is the one to help us learn about equanimity in the face of adversity, and ultimately, mortality.
The one thing that appears the most in Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus is the importance of coming to terms with our mortality so we’re not defined by it. As you say, we are all living with a terminal diagnosis, yours is just no longer an abstraction lurking somewhere in the far-off future. How has that reality changed the way you live?
Let me first note that I often wonder whether Seneca accepted Nero’s command to commit suicide as dispassionately as one might expect of a Stoic philosopher. Coming to terms with mortality is one thing. But I am not in denial that the moment when death’s grip is upon you will be dreadful, all the more so when commanded to be the executioner by the tyrannical ruler you served, for a crime you may not have committed. I guess, however, that coming to terms with death is more about how to live after accepting the inevitability of life’s ultimate demise, rather than excessively preparing for it as if you can overcome its horror.
That said, I think of when my father died, and my family and friends were surprised, or impressed, at how calmly I received the news. Then, at his funeral, I delivered a eulogy, a revised version of which is published here, which eschewed hagiography and focused on the man that he was, moral warts and all – by no means a way of venting, but rather, conveying how much at peace I was with, as I write here (on being the son of a poet), “a cantankerous, melancholic, alcoholic father who was able to convey the deep and complex nuances of a father’s love.”
In the eulogy for my father, I began: “I have what one may deem a naturalistic view of life and death. Flesh and blood are all I can apprehend, and in this realm of apprehension, death is the very end of consciousness. It’s final. The heart beats no more. I do not deny that the life of a man has a destination that follows his direct encounter with the face of death, but this destination is a place that seems only to be reached during our life on earth by a so-called leap of faith. Thus, notions of spirituality and religious transcendence have no resonance for me. I’m only affected, or moved, by what I can apprehend with my rational and empirical faculties. Notions of spirituality and religious transcendence, or simply the idea of an afterlife, are beyond the reach of these faculties, and therefore, they do not resonate with me. I have not the legs for a leap of faith.
This is partly the result of my reading of Darwin and my study of biology, which provided me with a peculiar comfort rooted in the wonder of a world of order, but without design, or some moral bedrock built upon otherworldly foundations. This is the comfort of attaching no more moral significance to human life than to any other form of life. Putting aside kin selection and the obvious fact that being a human being acculturated to human civilization makes you more sensitive to the welfare of a fellow human being than, say, a fruit fly, there is no moral hierarchy in my view of life and nature.
This is a comfort to me because I cannot help but to accept death as being in the natural order of things. There is no God’s plan to question, or in which to find disappointment and anger. Death does not discriminate. It comes to us all.”
The Enchiridion advises: “Is the child or wife of another dead? There is no one who would not say, ‘This is an accident of mortality.’ But if anyone’s own child happens to die, it is immediately, ‘Alas! How wretched am I!’ It should be always remembered how we are affected on hearing the same thing concerning others.” That was the thought that implicitly came to mind when I heard that my father died.
In short, I don’t take death personally. Not only is it beyond my control (barring suicide, I suppose, but suicide would, I think, decidedly fly in the face of Stoic reconciliation with death), but, as I argue here (to the dislike of one commenter, but I can’t expect everyone to agree with me), the universe is indifferent. I expect no special favors from it.
Ten years later, knowing I have brain cancer, I do my best not to waste time, in part because I want to leave behind a record of accomplishment for my daughter, but also because, with the time I have, I want to live as I am meant to live, in uncompromising commitment to the goals I have set for myself. I’ve always been disciplined, regimented, and goal-oriented, and now perhaps more urgently than ever. But I do it not in search of praise, however gratifying it may be (“Neither worse then or better is a thing made by being praised,” Marcus Aurelius says), but because I can’t help it. Unlike when I was a wayward teenager, I have no ear for those who would try to convince me that my priorities should lie elsewhere. Rational autonomy is its own reward. That is, with the time you have, pursue those ends which you have rationally determined to be in accord with your true interests. Then you will live a life of virtue.
Lastly, do you have a favorite Stoic quote? A passage that has struck you the most?