1. Examine your impressions. “So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”This is the classic dichotomy of control with which we began this book. Epictetus exhorts us to practice what is arguably the most fundamental of his doctrines: to constantly examine our “impressions”—that is, our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told—by stepping back to make room for rational deliberation, avoiding rash emotional reactions, and asking whether whatever is being thrown at us is under our control (in which case we should act on it) or isn’t (in which case we should regard it as not of our concern).For instance, a few days before writing this I got food poisoning (from spoiled fish) and experienced a pretty bad forty-eight hours, during which I could hardly do anything interesting, let alone work and write. Ordinarily, this would be something “bad,” an experience that most of us might be inclined to complain about and seek sympathy for. The biochemistry of my body and of potentially pathogenic agents, however, is most definitely not under my control (though deciding to eat fish at that particular restaurant certainly was). So it made no sense for me to complain about being sick with food poisoning, since I could not change what had already happened. And though it is certainly human to seek sympathy, even that response—from a Stoic perspective—is an imposition on others in order to feel better ourselves, in a situation in which, moreover, others cannot do much more than pity us. It is perfectly acceptable for a Stoic to sympathize with others, but it seems a bit self-centered to require sympathy from others when we are sick ourselves. Instead, I acted in accordance with Epictetus’s words: I accepted what was happening as a fact of biology, took the medical precautions that seemed to be in order (taking some probiotics), and then adjusted my mental attitude to my predicament. I couldn’t work or write. Well, then, I would not even try, since there were other things I could do instead, and at any rate I was very likely to recover quickly, after which there would be plenty of time to work and write.One last comment here: the “it’s none of my concern” bit is often misunderstood. The idea isn’t that we should not care about what is happening to us. During my bout of food poisoning, for instance, I was forcefully reminded that health is ranked by the Stoics as a preferred indifferent—something that is to be sought unless it compromises our integrity and virtue. But if there truly is nothing more to be done about a given situation, then we should no longer “concern” ourselves with it—we should stop trying to do something about the situation—precisely because it is outside of our control. Larry Becker calls this the “axiom of futility,” which he spells out in rather crisp terms: “Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” Wise words, it seems to me.2. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things. “In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.”This very famous passage from the Enchiridion shocks students when they first hear it. It is one of the most misinterpreted bits of Stoic wisdom, sometimes even willfully so. That is why it is all the more important that we understand it properly. The troublesome part, of course, is not what Epictetus says about the piece of china, but the part that follows concerning one’s wife or child. If Epictetus had stopped at the first example, I think we would have all taken this to be a reasonable reminder not to get attached to things, perhaps even a second-century warning against consumerism. (Consumerism is not a modern American invention; there was plenty of it going around at the time of the Roman Empire—for those, then as now of course, who could actually afford to consume.) The second part, however, reveals a truly deep insight into the human condition, and may require some background to be properly appreciated. After all, Stoicism was thought of by its practitioners as a philosophy of love—not of callous disregard for human beings and their sufferings.First off, let’s remind ourselves of the historical context: Epictetus was writing at a time when even emperors (like Marcus Aurelius himself) lost most of their children and other loved ones at what we would consider a tender or premature age, to disease, random violence, or war. While most of us in the West and in a few other parts of the world are currently lucky in that respect (especially if we happen to be white and male), it remains true today that life is ephemeral, and people we deeply care about may be snatched from us suddenly and without warning.Second, and more crucially, what Epictetus is counseling here is not an inhuman indifference toward our beloved ones, but quite the opposite: we should constantly remind ourselves of just how precious our loved ones are precisely because they may soon be gone. Anyone who has lost someone they were close to ought to know exactly what this means. The idea is that we should go through life just as the Roman generals did during official celebrations of their triumphs in the Eternal City: with somebody constantly whispering in our ear, “Memento homo” (Remember, you are only a man).Forgive me if, again, I make this personal. I lost my mother to cancer at about the time I was beginning to study Stoicism seriously. I had lost my father to the same disease (and probably because of the same triggering factor, smoking) a decade earlier. Both those losses affected me deeply, not because I had had an idyllic relationship with either of my parents (I hadn’t, and instead feel most indebted to my paternal grandmother and her partner, my adoptive grandfather, with whom I grew up), but because they marked the passing of the very two individuals who brought me into this world. Losing one’s parents is a rite of passage for most of us (unless we happen to die before them), and anyone who has gone through the experience will testify to how hard it is, regardless of the specific circumstances. Yet I observed that the way I handled the illness and subsequent death of each of my parents was very different in the two instances.When my father was diagnosed with the first of what turned out to be a number of distinct types of cancer, I simply did not take seriously the idea that I was going to have only a few more chances to spend some time with him—not only because of the suddenly shortened time horizon (he died at age sixty-nine), but also because we were living almost 7,000 kilometers apart, he in Rome and I in New York. I kept behaving as if we had all the time in the world and quite simply refused to internalize what my mind knew very well: what was happening was probably going to kill my father in a short time. It ended up taking about five years, but I still managed to be caught unaware by his final decline; as a result, I was not there when he finally died. (I was en route to the New York airport to take the flight for Rome.)I always regretted the way I responded to my father’s illness—until Stoicism taught me that regret is about things we can no longer change and the right attitude is to learn from our experiences, not dwell on decisions that we are not in a position to alter. Which brings me to my mother. Her demise was actually faster, and we didn’t even realize what was happening for a while because of an initial misdiagnosis. But once the picture became clear, I was able to return to Italy and visit her with full awareness—and acceptance—of what was going on. Every time I left her at the hospital, after having kissed her good-bye, Epictetus’s words rang comfortingly true. I really did not know whether I would see her the following day. None of this made the experience any less hard, since Stoicism isn’t a magic wand. But I tried my best to be present in the hic et nunc, the here and now, as the Romans used to say. That mindfulness is what Epictetus is attempting to instill in his students: far from counseling us not to care (despite the “you won’t be so distraught” of the English translation, which inevitably loses some of the poignancy of the original Greek), he is advising us to care and appreciate very much what we now have, precisely because Fate may snatch it from us tomorrow.3. The reserve clause. “Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse—people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature’ [that is, to apply reason to social living]. Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature—which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’”I love the “which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens” bit. It conjures an image of people who are too fragile to withstand even minor challenges in life because they let themselves be fragile. They always assume that of course things will go well, since bad things only happen to other people (possibly because they somehow deserve them). Instead, as Stoics, we should bring the reserve clause to anything we do, and even use it as a personal mantra: Fate permitting.Notice again that Epictetus here begins with a very simple situation: he wants to go to the baths and enjoy the experience. Just as we may want to go to the movies, say, and be able to watch the film without the glare of cell phones being lit up by obnoxious people who just have to check their messages one more time or else. Here too I speak from personal experience of course: I used to get really mad when this happened, and would occasionally engage the offender in a loud argument that, predictably, went nowhere. These days I react by deploying two of the Stoic techniques we have seen so far: First, of course, I think of the dichotomy of control. Going to the movies is under my control (I could, after all, watch another film at home or do something else entirely), and so is my reaction to other people’s behaviors. And though the latter are certainly not under my control, I can influence them: by politely explaining to another movie patron why what he or she is doing is inconsiderate, or by going to the movie house’s management and—again calmly and politely—complaining about the situation, since it is their responsibility to ensure that paying customers have an enjoyable experience while frequenting their establishment.The second technique to deploy is the reserve clause, properly understood. Once more, Epictetus is not counseling us to passively accept other people’s rudeness, but rather reminding us that we may set out with a particular goal in mind but that events may not go the way we wish. That being the case, our choices are to make ourselves miserable, thereby willfully worsening our situation, or to remember our overarching goal: to be a decent person who doesn’t do anything that is unvirtuous or that may compromise our integrity (like behaving obnoxiously in reaction to another’s obnoxious behavior).There is a nice analogy in Stoic lore meant to explain the point. It is attributed to Chrysippus—the third head of the original Stoa of Athens—and was allegedly recounted in one of Epictetus’s lost volumes of the Discourses. Imagine a dog who is leashed to a cart. The cart begins to move forward, in whatever direction the driver, but certainly not the dog, chooses. Now, the leash is long enough that the dog has two options: either he can gingerly follow the general direction of the cart, over which he has no control, and thereby enjoy the ride and even have time to explore his surroundings and attend to some of his own business, or he can stubbornly resist the cart with all his might and end up being dragged, kicking and screaming, for the rest of the trip, accumulating much pain and frustration and wasting his time in a futile and decidedly unpleasant effort. We humans are, of course, the dog: the universe keeps churning according to God’s will (if you have religious inclinations) or cosmic cause and effect (if your taste is more secular). But you do have some room to maneuver, while you are alive and well, and can choose to enjoy the ride, even as you remain aware of the constraints you have and know that whatever you wish to accomplish always comes with a big caveat: Fate (the cart driver, God, the universe) permitting. This is what it means to do whatever you do while “keeping in line with nature.”There is yet another way to interpret the message of this exercise, and I thank my friend Bill Irvine for expressing it particularly clearly in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Let’s suppose that you are playing a tennis match or, more consequentially, being considered for a promotion at your job. The Stoic approach to both situations is the one counseled by Epictetus, and one that Bill reinterprets as internalizing your goals. While we naturally think that our goal is to win the match, or get the promotion, those outcomes of course are not in our control—they can only be influenced by us. So we need to make our goal something that actually is in our power and not even Fate can rob us of: to play the best match we can, regardless of outcome, or to put together the best promotion file we can before the decision is made. By now I should not need to add the usual caveat, but repetita iuvant (repetition is helpful), as the Romans said: the idea is not to passively accept defeat in the tennis match, or perhaps absorb the injustice of not getting a promotion that was richly deserved. Rather, it is to deploy the wisdom that sometimes things will not go our way even if we do our best, and regardless of whether we deserved to win the match or get the promotion. Not to confuse one’s aspirations, even well-grounded ones, with how the universe will (or ought to) act is one of the hallmarks of a wise person.4. How can I use virtue here and now? “For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.”I think of this passage as one of the most empowering of Stoic writings. Epictetus, the former slave, lame because of a once-broken leg, tells us to use every occasion, every challenge, as a way to exercise our virtue, to become a better human being by constant application. Notice how he counters each temptation or difficulty with a virtue that can be practiced, deploying the Stoic concept that every challenge in life is a perfectly good chance to work on self-improvement. When you see an attractive person walking by, you will not scheme to get that person in bed with you, unless both of you happen to be free from other relationships and pursuing your desires is not going to cause pain and suffering to others. Rather, you will summon your self-control and focus on how you can alter your own mentality so that eventually you will simply not feel the temptation at all. The second example is of a different kind, and yet it evokes the same response in a Stoic, with a similar result: you cannot control disease and pain, and it will happen at some point or another in your life. But you can manage it, not just with medications (there is certainly nothing in Stoic doctrine that precludes the use of medicine when appropriate), but also by way of your own mental attitude. No wonder Epictetus is often associated with the phrase “bear and forbear,” or “endure and renounce.” But remember that the goal isn’t to live an unhappy and grim life. On the contrary, it is to achieve what the Stoics called apatheia, which, despite the obvious and unappealing English echo, we have seen means tranquillity of mind, as well as equanimity toward whatever life happens to throw at us.Here again, perhaps a personal anecdote will help. Not long ago I was home alone and preparing myself dinner, engaged in slicing an onion to sauté in preparation for a nice pasta meal. Unfortunately, the knife was rather blunt, it slipped, and I cut my left ring finger—deeply cut, as in, I had to hold it to prevent it from falling off. (At the moment of this writing, more than a year later, I still haven’t completely regained sensation in that finger.) I distinctly remember automatically switching to an attitude that I probably would not have had a few years ago. I looked at what I had done, took the obvious precaution of holding the partly severed digit with my other hand, and then quickly decided that it wasn’t going to be a good idea to wipe the blood off and that I should simply get out and walk to the nearby medical emergency facility to have them take care of my finger as best they could. On my way there I kept engaging in premeditatio malorum (foreseeing bad things): what was the worst thing that could happen, and how would I deal with it? I’m no medical doctor, but as far as I could tell, the worst-case scenario was going to involve a significant amount of pain, the loss of a bit of blood, and possibly the permanent loss of part of the finger. Well, that wasn’t too bad, was it? I’m not a pianist, I’m pretty fast at typing my essays using mostly just two fingers, and such an outcome wouldn’t change my appearance enough to create problems with my dating life. I could cope with it, I decided. And I did. Then things turned out significantly better than my premeditatio scenario allowed: I still have the full finger, and I even use it occasionally to help with the typing. My romantic life wasn’t affected either, I’m happy to report.5. Pause and take a deep breath. “Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control.”As we have seen, Stoics handled insults very well, ideally like rocks. (Have you ever tried to insult a rock? How did it go?) Those who felt so inclined also responded with a sense of humor. The point here, however, is to practice the crucial step that allows us to more rationally examine our impressions, regardless of whether they are negative, such as insults, or positive such as feelings of lust: we need to resist the impulse to react immediately and instinctively to potentially problematic situations. Instead, we must pause, take a deep breath, perhaps go for a walk around the block, and only then consider the issue as dispassionately (in the sense of equanimity, not lack of care) as possible. This is simple advice, and yet it is very difficult to pull off. It is also very, very important. Once you start seriously practicing this exercise, you will see dramatic improvements in the way you handle things, and you’ll get positive feedback from all the others who also see those improvements. I cannot even count, at this point, the number of occasions when doing what Epictetus says here saved a situation in my life and improved my mood.You know the famous Nike commercial slogan, “Just Do It”? Well no, the Stoics disagree. If it is important, you really ought to stop and think about it before you decide whether to do it. Imagine how much less pain you would have inflicted on others, how many difficult or embarrassing situations you would have avoided, and just generally how much more self-confident and positive you would have felt if you had started doing this years ago. As our friend Epictetus puts it, “[The next time] you encounter anything troublesome or pleasant or glorious or inglorious, remember that the hour of struggle is come, the Olympic contest is here and you may put it off no longer, and that one day and one action determines whether the progress you have achieved is lost or maintained.” The Olympic games of life have already started, and even if you did not join before, the time to join is now, not tomorrow.6. Other-ize. “We can familiarize ourselves with the will of nature by calling to mind our common experiences. When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ It’s only reasonable, then, that when a glass of your own breaks, you accept it in the same patient spirit. Moving on to graver things: when somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others.”This exercise is a fascinating one: Epictetus reminds us here of just how differently we regard an event that has affected other people when the same event affects us. Naturally, it is far easier to maintain equanimity (which, again, is not to be confused with emotional impassivity!) when little inconveniences, or even disasters, happen to others rather than to ourselves. But why, really? What makes us think that we are the universe’s special darlings, or that we ought to be?Of course, even if we can bring ourselves to realize and internalize (which is far more difficult) that we are just like everyone else on the planet and should have the same attitude about an occurrence when it happens to others as when it happens to ourselves, we could still flip the argument on the Stoic and say that the right thing to do is to feel the same degree of pain and empathy for everyone’s misfortunes as we do for our own. The Stoic has two responses to this argument—one based on empirical evidence, and the other from philosophical principles. The empirical fact is that human beings are simply incapable, physiologically, of that much empathy. To feel truly sorry and distraught for every life lost on planet Earth as we normally feel when our own loved ones die is, simply put, inhuman. The philosophical argument is that we are, if not entirely right, at least closer to the truth when we say to other people, “I’m truly sorry, but it is a fact of life,” than when we tell ourselves, “Poor me! Poor me!” Accidents, injuries, disease, and death are unavoidable, and while it is understandable to be distraught over them (presumably in proportion to their gravity—breaking a glass is not the same thing as losing one’s spouse!), we can take comfort in knowing that they are in the normal order of things. The universe isn’t after anyone—or at least, it isn’t after any one of us in particular!I found both interpretations of the “other-ize” exercise useful in a number of recent experiences. Sometimes I tend to dismiss the feelings of people who are close to me on the grounds that they are overreacting to whatever is happening to them. But Epictetus reminds me that I tend to feel differently when similar things—like a cutting comment from a friend or a colleague—happen to me. By the same token, when it is my turn to be on the receiving end, I now instantly recall that pretty much everyone I know has experienced whatever it is that is upsetting me at the moment, or will experience it at some point in their lives. This constant habit of adjusting my own reactions to others’ misfortunes and putting my problems in context by remembering that they are common to the broader humanity is—I think—gradually helping me see things with an equanimity that I definitely lacked before I got interested in Stoicism.7. Speak little and well. “Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink—common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.”I must admit that this is a hard one for me to practice, probably owing to my somewhat above-average ego and the professional habits of a teacher who is far too often in professorial mode. Still, I’ve tried to remember this counsel and take it to heart, and it is serving me increasingly well. Very few people wish to be lectured over dinner or on a social occasion. Come to think of it, probably very few people want to be lectured under any circumstances at all! So one side effect of this exercise is that it will probably make you more welcomed regardless of the occasion.On closer inspection, Epictetus’s list of things not to talk about is revealing in and of itself. We may not talk much these days about gladiators, but we do talk about star athletes, movie and music stars, and other “celebrities” (which, as a song from the musical Chicago aptly explains, means “to be famous for being famous”). Why should we refrain from such talk, or at least indulge in it as little as possible? Because it is fundamentally empty. Why should we care at all about what the Kardashians (or any other celebrities of the moment) are doing? To say that an interest in such matters is the hallmark of a rather shallow mind sounds elitist of course, and therefore distasteful to our modern sensibilities, but only because we have been conditioned to think that “serious” talk is boring and at any rate requires more background knowledge and attention than most of us associate with good conversation. This, however, has most definitely not always been true. Those who frequented ancient Greek symposia or their Roman equivalent, the convivium (which means “living together”), thought that a good dinner party hinged on involved discussions of philosophy, politics, and other “serious” matters. To make the discussion flow better, both the Greeks and the Romans served light wine and snacks. During the Enlightenment, private “salons” sprang up throughout Europe, and people competed to be invited to join in the salon conversations, with very few reports of ensuing boredom.Epictetus’s second list—the items of conversation we should stay away from “above all”—concerns gossip and judgments of people. This list requires some further discussion. Gossiping probably evolved over time as a way for people to “keep track,” so to speak, of members of their tribe, which is very helpful when your survival depends on the trustworthiness (or not) of those around you. Although even in modern society we need to appraise the people with whom we interact in order to decide whether we can rely on them as life partners, friends, business associates, coworkers, and so forth, this is probably best done directly, in person, based on what the people in question actually say and—especially—on what they do. To indulge in gossip and judge people who are not present to defend themselves simply does not seem to be the virtuous thing to do, and the Stoic idea is that we debase ourselves whenever we engage in such activity.An important part of what Epictetus is suggesting here builds on the general Stoic principle that we can decide on our best course of action and then redirect our behavior accordingly. Initially, this is difficult, and even feels unnatural, but then habit kicks in and redirecting our behavior becomes easier and easier—until we reach the point where we wonder how we could have ever behaved otherwise. So I don’t suggest that you suddenly and drastically change your demeanor at social events. But give it a try and see how it fits you. Begin by responding less and less to talk of “gladiators” and such and occasionally introduce a more challenging topic of your own that is based on something you’ve recently read or watched and that you feel might lead to a mutually beneficial conversation with your friends. See what happens! I’m still surprised at how much more I enjoy dinner parties now.8. Choose your company well. “Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.”I laugh every time I read this, since it is yet another example of Stoic, shall we say, bluntness; it is bound to shock modern sensibilities, and yet, the more I reflect on it, the more I become convinced that modern sensibilities could benefit from the occasional shock. Indeed, to our ears this sort of advice sounds (again!) insufferably elitist, but only a moment’s reflection reveals that it is not. First of all, remember the source: it comes from an ex-slave who was making a living teaching in the open air, not from a stuffy aristocrat living in a semi-secluded Roman version of a McMansion or a gated community. Second, realize that by “philosophers” Epictetus doesn’t mean professional academics (trust me, you don’t want to make a habit of socializing mostly with them), but rather people who are interested in following virtue and cultivating their character. From the ancient perspective, which we would do well to make our own, everyone ought to strive to be a philosopher in this sense of the term—that is, to apply reason to improve his own and his community’s life and well-being. Even more generally, this is simply the sound advice that our life is short, temptation and waste are always lurking, and so we need to pay attention to what we are doing and who our companions are.Again, I have tried to slowly implement this strategy in my own social interactions—it goes very well with the previous exercise of engaging in less and more meaningful conversation. I don’t mean simply that I have cleaned up the roster of my Facebook “friends” (although I have done that too), but that I truly pay attention to whom I spend my time with and why. Ideally, remember how Aristotle (not a Stoic!) put it: we want to be with friends who are better than ourselves, so that we can learn from them. At the very least, we want our friends to be the sort of people who can hold up a mirror to our soul, so that we can look into it frankly and gain a better idea of just how much work needs to be done on it (the soul, not the mirror).9. Respond to insults with humor. “If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’”This is a lovely example of profound wisdom accompanied by Epictetus’s own distinctive brand of humor: instead of getting offended by someone’s insults (remember, what they say is not yours to control), respond with self-deprecation. You will feel better, and your vilifier will be embarrassed, or at the least disarmed. The already mentioned Bill Irvine has worked this advice into an art form. He tells the story of a colleague in his department who once stopped him in the middle of the hall to say, “I was just trying to decide whether to cite your work in my next paper.” At first Bill was delighted, thinking that one of his own colleagues actually appreciated his technical work (believe me, it doesn’t happen as often as you might think, especially in philosophy departments), but the colleague immediately went on: “Yes, but I can’t decide if what you wrote is just misguided or downright evil.” Now, most of us would be quite offended by that sort of comment, which may have been meant as either an “observation” without malice (academics have a not entirely undeserved reputation for being, shall we say, socially unaware) or in fact an intentional put-down. Rather than defend himself from the charge and launch into a detailed, and probably useless, explanation of why his paper was neither evil nor misguided, Bill did the Stoic thing: he took a breath, smiled, and replied: “Well, good thing you haven’t read my other works, or you’d see just how evil and misguided I really am.”I’m sure the reader will have no trouble believing that this is advice that I have also tried, if imperfectly, to put into practice. Doing so has made a significant difference in the way I relate to others, especially hostile others. In my younger days, I was far more insecure and prone to take offense, sometimes brooding for hours, or even losing sleep, over what I perceived as an insult, especially if it had come from someone I admired or regarded as a friend. No more. Now I follow Bill and actually relish the occasions on which I receive insults (which are fairly rare, I must say).The best arena to practice what he calls “insult pacifism” is, of course, the Internet. I maintain an active set of social networks for professional and outreach work, not to mention two blogs, and as I’m sure is common experience, that provides highly fertile ground for trolling, grandstanding, and general rudeness. I therefore had to set ground rules for my readers and followers—as well as for myself—very early on in the game, before I got interested in Stoicism. Since then, meeting insults with humor has most definitely made my virtual life a far more pleasant experience. First, however, I follow Epictetus’s previous advice about speaking little and to the point: I simply do not respond or engage as much as I did before, while increasing the time I spend just listening. More importantly, I have begun to internalize the concept that an insult works, not because it is intended as such by the person who delivers it, but because the target allows it to become an insult.There are two important caveats to discuss concerning this exercise. First and foremost, this shouldn’t be taken as a backhanded way to ignore the serious problem of bullying, of both the cyber and in-person varieties. Bullying is a behavior that is not acceptable and ought to be nipped in the bud, especially when aimed—as it often is—at minors or at people who suffer from psychological issues that make them particularly susceptible to it. But this is true in general of a lot of what the Stoics advise: the two approaches—working on eliminating or curtailing a problem while at the same time developing one’s own endurance—are simply not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, not only is there no need to choose one strategy or the other, but they can be reciprocally reinforcing. The more you train yourself to endure insults the stronger you feel psychologically, and therefore the more you can react appropriately and effectively, and vice versa: taking a stance against bullying enables you to see it for the infantile attitude that it really is (even, or especially, when engaged in by “adults”), and this insight then leads to the fostering of greater resilience.The second caveat stems from an objection I often hear whenever this particular Stoic advice is discussed: perhaps, the argument goes, what you perceive as an insult is only meant as a criticism, even a constructive one. By ignoring it or not taking it seriously, you may miss out on a chance at self-improvement and even come across as arrogant.In response, we have to remember that one of the four cardinal Stoic virtues is wisdom, the practice of which makes it easier for us to distinguish criticism from insult. Often the distinction is so clear that you don’t have to be a Sage to see it. Even so, it is always worth asking yourself a number of questions when you are on the receiving end of what feels like an insult. Is this person a friend or someone you look up to? If yes, then it is more likely that she is just offering advice, perhaps in a somewhat pointed fashion, but with good intentions nonetheless. Even if the person is not likely to be friendly or particularly well positioned to provide you with constructive and useful counsel, perhaps she is seeing something that you don’t? In that case too, it is worth ignoring the cutting aspect of what she is saying in order to focus on what it is that she may have gotten right and that may have eluded you. There is no reason at all why insults, even when meant as such, cannot also be teaching moments for us.10. Don’t speak too much about yourself. “In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.”I must admit to often failing to follow this advice (see “ego” and “professorial mode” above), but I keep trying. When I do succeed at it, however, not only do I feel good, but I enjoy my social life more. It feels good because, as we have seen with a number of the other exercises—and indeed as the Stoics themselves clearly recognized—there is a peculiar pleasure in being able to exercise some self-control. I can perhaps explain better by making an analogy to going to the gym. I don’t know about you, but when I get to my local gym and someone from behind the reception desk smiles and greets me with a loud and cheerful, “Enjoy your workout!” the first thought that comes to my mind is: Who on earth enjoys working out? Yes, I know, some people actually do enjoy it, but most of us don’t. And yet, it is the sort of thing we do because we have reflected on the benefits of doing it and decided that the gain is worth the pain, as they say. But it is also the case that once we get to the end of the workout and head to the shower, we feel a peculiar sort of satisfaction, not only from the physiological benefits of the exercise but also from being able to pat ourselves on the back and say: it was hard, we didn’t really want to do it, but we did it!As for the positive social benefits of this particular spiritual exercise, I think they are obvious: just as no one wants to sit through a slide show from your latest vacation (even when presented as tiny pictures on your latest shining iPhone), no one really wants to hear another person going on and on about himself. It is pretty safe to say that we are not as interesting as we think we are. So trust me (and Epictetus): being a bit more cognizant of that basic truth of social interaction and trying a little harder to take it into account will only make your friends and acquaintances happier.11. Speak without judging. “Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different.”I’m still working on this one too, I’m afraid. But again, Epictetus’s advice is so useful, and so typically Stoic. The idea is to distinguish between matters of fact—to which we can assent if we find them justified by observation—and judgments, from which we generally ought to abstain, since we usually don’t have sufficient information.As we all know, pretty much every day presents us with countless occasions to practice this exercise. Has a friend of yours let himself go in terms of physical appearance? Try to simply describe the fact to yourself, rather than construct a judgment. Then ask yourself why that might have happened. Did your friend want to become less attractive or physically fit? Probably not. What were the deeper causes then? And rather than judging the outcome, can you help him instead of sitting there and criticizing him? Or perhaps a coworker has snapped at you, or at someone else. Rather than hurling (or mumbling to yourself) what you think might be an “appropriate” epithet, ask yourself: Have I ever snapped at anyone? Yes of course. And when I did so, was it really enjoyable to treat someone like crap? Or were there deeper and not very obvious reasons why I snapped against my better judgment? And how would I have liked others to regard my outburst—what would I have wanted them to do about it? Now make an effort to reverse the situation and see if you can practice Epictetus’s advice in the presence of your irritable coworker.Just pause for a moment and try to imagine how much better the world would be if we all refrained from hasty judgments and looked at human affairs matter-of-factly, with a bit more compassion for our fellow human beings.12. Reflect on your day. “Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day—How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.”This last exercise comes from the Discourses, not the Enchiridion (and in fact, we have already encountered it), but I think it is crucial and include it here because I have found it extremely beneficial myself. Seneca advises us to do something very similar, and he specifically says that it is best to do it in the evening but before going to bed, because when we are already in bed we tend to become groggy and lose concentration. Find a quiet place in your house or apartment (I can manage that even in the minimalist spaces most people can afford in New York!) and reflect on what has happened during the day. I find it useful to write down my reflections, as Marcus Aurelius did with his “meditations.”The goal is to focus on the important happenings of the day, particularly those that have ethical valence. Perhaps I had a bruising interaction with a colleague today, or didn’t treat my partner as well as I should have. Then again, maybe I was magnanimous to a student, or helpful to a friend. For each of these types of occurrences, I write a couple of lines in my philosophical diary, add as dispassionate a comment as I can muster—as if I were grading my own ethical performance that day—and make a mental note of what I have learned from my experiences. On this point I honestly can do no better than to give you a small taste of Seneca himself, arguably the most compelling and elegant of the Stoic writers:The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?” Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore”?… A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.