Free Forever Through Stoicism

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“Some things we can control, some we can’t. We can control our attitudes, opinions, goals and desires – choices of our own. We can’t control health, wealth, fame or power – things we can’t have by choosing them.” —Epictetus

Freedom begins with understanding what we control and we do not. Yet very few people even begin to consider this essential dichotomy.

Even in the complete absence of “administration” as Tocqueville observed in early 19th century America, no one was free who failed to understand Epictetus’s control dichotomy: some things are under our control, some are not.

Conversely, Viktor Frankl never lost his essential freedom even when a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He never lost his freedom to choose his response. Frankl, and most of the survivors, clearly understood what was in their control and what was not.

Likewise, Admiral James Stockdale understood the dichotomy. He credits Stoicism with helping him survive seven and a half years in Hanoi Hilton. As he drifted to earth after ejecting from his jet, he said to himself, “I am leaving the modern world for Epictetus’s world.”

My dogs are upset.

Some neighbor had the temerity to walk down the street. The dogs don’t like that. My dogs haven’t come to grips with the things they can and cannot control. They want the world to work one way. It works another way before their eyes. So they yell at it.

How different are we from dogs?

Look at me. Page through this blog. How many times every week do I yell at the world for being different than the way I wish it to be?

Yesterday, I wrote a LinkedIn article on the subject of stoic persuasion. It asserts that understanding this dichotomy is the basis of influencing others. We cannot influence people when we’re trying to control them. The less we seek control over others, the more likely they are to follow.

It’s a paradox within a dichotomy.

You might not agree with Epictetus and me. You might have a formula for ethically controlling other people to do your bidding. You might have a super power that lets you control others’ minds and manipulate their wills.

It took me a while, but I finally realized have no such power. I cannot control those things that are not in my control.

And the only things in my control are my actions, my beliefs, my likes and dislikes.

One of those beliefs is that influence begins with understanding what we control and what we don’t.

So I’m going to try to practice that belief. Practice my belief so I can stop being a hypocrite. Maybe this is the path to true freedom.

I’m also adding a new category: Stoicism. More to follow, Deo volente.

Greitens breathes life into our first principles

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I am Catholic.

I believe in and trust the magisterium of the church.

Nothing distinguishes me from Protestants more profoundly than that concept: the magisterium, or the teaching authority, of the church.

For me, the church is like Locke and Jefferson and Madison. They were learned men who read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Cato, Epictetus, Epicurus, and other Greek and Roman philosophers, often in the original languages.

Those philosophical and political founders interpreted and organized ancient philosophy for England and America. Just as the church in Rome interprets and organizes scripture.

Jefferson never expected the masses to share his education. So he assimilated great thinkers for his contemporaries and for us. Jefferson and the founders did for political philosophy what Rome does for Catholics.

By “first principles,” I mean the raw material of philosophical thought. Elon Musk reinvented the battery by ignoring modern, interpreted batteries and returning to the origins of stored electricity. Tesla is a battery company that also makes cars. And only by returning to first principles of electricity storage could Musk have made the car that defines the breed. Analogy wasn’t enough.

I thought of this while listening to Eric Greitens open his new campaign office in Crestwood tonight. Along with 237 dedicated people who braved a pop-up snowstorm the day after the Super Bowl, I was amazed at this man’s ability to inspire and lead so many different people.

The crowd was way more diverse than any Tea Party crowd I remember. And much younger on average. So many veterans and first responders.

Yet I met at least seven people who became active in politics because of the Tea Party. One man, now a member of the Lindbergh School District board remembered the Kenneth Gladney smackdown event where he heard me speak for the first time.

I can’t speak for the others, but what draws me to Greitens is his first principles approach to governance.

Greitens reads all the same philosophers Jefferson and Locke read. And he reaches remarkably consistent conclusions about the proper relationship of the person to the state.

But unlike the vast majority of conservatives who rely on Lockean and Jeffersonian interpretations of philosophy, Greitens went straight to the source. Reading Eric’s masterpiece, Resilience, which somewhat mimics Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, I realized that America’s founders were not so much political philosophers as philosophical executives. America breathed life into stoicism.

Maybe Greitens can recite Jefferson and Locke. Maybe he can’t. I don’t know. But he can recite the philosophers that Jefferson and Locke relied upon to craft what we call naively our first principles. And Greitens is able to drop the weight of 18th century language and situations to make stoicism fresh in the 21st century.

As a Catholic, I’m fine with Jefferson’s interpretation, but I appreciate having a modern interpreter, too. I’m a little surprised that some of my friends, many of whom were not raised Catholic, believe we need an 18th century interpreter to filter our first principles for us.

I believe that Eric Greitens is the perfect soldier in our never-ending war against corrupt, coercive government. And I genuflect at his willingness to mimic our founders by putting his life on hold to breathe new life into the first principles of self governance and the good life.