What is Musonius Rufus talking about? I am reminded of on Seneca’s most poignant lines, “Show me a man who isn’t a slave; one who is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. I could show you a man who has been a Consul who is a slave to his ‘little old woman’, a millionaire who is the slave of a little girl in domestic service. And there is no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed.”
The overarching principle that girds up Stoicism is the tenet of being a master to one’s own universe. To have complete control of our lives, our emotions, our desires, and our vices. Power over oneself is the ultimate goal. Power over oneself is something that no one can take away.
It’s not good enough to be successful and make a lot of money unless you are adding value to the world and being a good family man or family woman. It’s not good enough to achieve great heights if we are a slave to a substance, a vice, or our desires.
What are you a slave to? What is your weakness and what are you vulnerable to? Is it cigarettes, alcohol, pornography, or just spending too much time watching TV?
So let’s talk about throwing off the weights that hold you back. Let’s talk about truly freeing yourself from those things that you know are bad for you.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone in this pursuit. Even the great philosophers fell short time and time again to vice. Seneca succumbed to vice from time to time. He was tempted and even fell short time and again. From historical documents, it’s clear that Seneca had a bad temper that he struggled with throughout his life. His riches and vanity often got in the way of good judgment.
Of course, this made him somewhat of an expert on vice and overindulgence, so much so that he wrote the fantastic essay, Of Anger.
Seneca knew he had vices and habits that he needed to change. In James Romm’s wonderful translation of Seneca’s How To Die, we get this declaration: “My days have this one goal, as do my nights; this is my task and my study, to put an end to old evils.” That was Seneca’s ultimate goal: to put an end to his own bad habits. To quit what he needed to quit. That’s it.
And that, Sharon Lebell explains in The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, is exactly what Stoicism is designed to do. According to Lebell, “Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us.”
So in the first part of this training, we’ve focused on adding good habits, the “habits of success” and performing the tasks associated with those habits. We’re going to continue to do that, but now we’re also going to start focusing on removing behaviors that are unworthy of us.
A new game starts today. A game that is likely to be harder than any you’ve ever played before. You will quit a bad habit and remove from your life all things and people that do not add value.
Maybe it’s cigarettes, gambling, drinking, or pornography. Maybe you’ve been having an emotional affair with someone. Maybe you spend too much time on social media. Maybe you can’t go more than a few minutes without glancing at your phone. Maybe you’re addicted to TV.
And keep in mind, habits that are beneath you do not necessarily make you feel bad. As you have learned in this course so far, bad habits make us feel good, they give us pleasure or a release.
So let’s be very serious about this - it’s going to be hard. As a matter of fact, it will likely be VERY HARD. You’ll likely have setbacks and maybe even temporarily fail in your pursuit of removing “unworthy habits” from your life. That’s OK. Forgive yourself and move on.
If you are thinking that this will be hard to do, remember this conversation that Marcus Aurelius would have with himself when he doubted whether he was up to the task of leaving behind unworthy habits. He would say to himself, “Yes, you can–if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”
Many successful and regular people have quit bad habits, ranging from smoking to drinking to drug addiction to something as simple as chewing their nails.
Even though it won’t be easy, you can break these habits, one at a time, using the tactics that we’ve taught you over the last few months.
You’ve been keeping track of your progress on your Excel spreadsheet with Xs and Os for some time now, right? As we’ve taught you, you don’t want to “break the chain” of success.
Now you are going to use the same Excel spreadsheet to keep track of breaking your bad habit
Instead of greasing the skids of success, you’re going to ‘rust the skids’ of failures. You are going to make the bad habit HARDER to perform. Stephen Guise, the author of the bestselling Mini Habits, was asked what he would recommend to someone who wanted to quit a bad habit. “The absolute first step to quitting a bad habit,” he explains, “is changing your environment... That’s the easiest and most impactful thing you can do.” For example: “Repetition is a self-sustaining circle, so that’s a willpower battle most of us will lose. But if eating candy is your bad habit, and you don’t have candy in your pantry, how can you eat it?... You can take subtler but meaningful steps like putting candy in harder to access places, in opaque containers, and so on.” Sit down and figure out what you can do to sabotage yourself in the future from performing the habit you want to break.
Then we need to drill down into what your real goal here is. Marcus Aurelius’ writings are, in a sense, his attempt to answer an incredibly difficult question: You have been made emperor, what kind of emperor will you be? What kind of person will you be?
Marcus used what he called epithets, which I refer to as “touchstone phrases,” to remind himself of the kind of man he wanted to be: modest, upright, straightforward, sane, cooperative, disinterested, calm, reasoned. Whenever you are faced with the temptation of the bad habit, ask yourself in that moment, “Is this the kind of man I want to be? Does this activity fit in with my touchstone phrases?”
And when you slip up, don’t worry about it. Forgive yourself and move on. Change doesn’t come all at once. Addiction to vice doesn’t go away because you stop the vice. The temptation will likely be there your whole life. That’s OK. Over time, your strength of character will become stronger than the lure of the vice.
And most importantly, I will say this one more time: when you fail or fall short, forgive yourself.
I’ll end by sharing a wonderful story from Cleanthes, who once overhead a philosopher talking dismissively to himself. “Remember,” he said, “that you are not talking to a bad man.” Seneca too has a wonderful admission in one of his letters: “I am making progress,” he said, because “I am starting to be my own friend.”
NEW TASK: Identify the old habit that you are going to break.
NEW HABIT: Add a short, two-minute section to your daily journal. In this section, write about what kind of man/woman you want to be, what your touchstone phrases are, and every day write about how those touchstone phrases served you well and where you fell short. If you’re so inclined, write about how you feel about those successes and failures.