StoicDan on Minimalism, Transcendentalism, and Stoicism
This month I interview StoicDan, who is the very first Stoic I met in person (way back in 2017)! StoicDan is the organizer of 6 philosophy meetups, including Orlando Stoics, and is a public speaker on Stoicism, minimalism, and American Transcendentalism. I've always wanted to know more about the connections between these three philosophies, so I asked him to tell us how all three can help us to live a better, more intentional life. Thank you, StoicDan, for sharing these insights!
Brittany: To start off, could you tell us how you became interested in minimalism, American Transcendentalism, and Stoicism? Do you apply all three philosophies in your own life? StoicDan: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about “lived philosophies”. All of the ones you mentioned, plus Buddhism, are worthy systems that can improve our lives. I’ve studied them for many years, but in the last 5 years, I’ve found how to connect their ideas. This is why I apply them to life: sometimes, one system expresses an idea differently than another system. For example: the Stoic Discipline of Assent uses logic to make good decisions. Similarly, one of the logical tools of a minimalist is to keep possessions that bring joy or purpose.
Brittany: One important area where all three of these philosophies overlap is in helping us to live a very deliberate and intentional life. For example, you quote the opening line of Thoreau’s famous book Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” What are some concrete ways these three philosophies can help us live with intention? StoicDan: The modern world presents us with many obstacles, such as fear of failure. As a practicing Stoic, you can live deliberately by considering an upcoming obstacle, planning for it, and then attempting to overcome it. You should have no fear of failure, but you should recognize that you could fail, and if this occurs, to try again and be persistent. As Seneca said, “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” In Thoreau’s famous line from Walden, he’s resolved to live his life fully and, in my opinion, obstacles are just another form of self-improvement. By working in this area, we bring out our individuality, which was important to the American Transcendentalists. How might a minimalist strive to be deliberate? They focus their time and energy on what’s fulfilling.
Brittany: Self-reliance is another major theme running through these three philosophies. I really love this quote from one of your videos about self-reliance in a time of pandemic: “Self-reliance represents many things: self worth, using reason, and developing your own personal creativity.” Could you tell us more about how philosophical self-reliance can help us through hardship and social isolation? StoicDan: The definition of self-reliance varies, but the element that I enjoy the most is ‘adaption’. Some people might call it ‘flexibility’. Suppose you have a flat tire: you could use self-reliance to assess the situation. Is it day or night? Are you safely parked off the road? Is the car damaged in addition to the tire? All these things help you decide: should I change the tire myself or call AAA?
In the pandemic (starting March 2020), I began a video series called “Self-Reliance”, and every day, I wrote/recorded/edited another short video about some aspect of this important topic. It’s hard to pin down the central theme, but many of the ideas come from Stoicism, Buddhism, American Transcendentalism and minimalism. An example would be repurposing your solitude in the pandemic. Need to stay home? Don’t feel bad about it: instead, consider what you can do with the time. In the pandemic, many people have starting cooking healthier foods, they’ve gone back to school, and they’ve even started new careers. If the pandemic had not happened, people would still be going in the same cycles in life; unchanged.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his “American Scholar” speech in 1837, he began with “I greet you on the recommencement of our literary year. Our anniversary is one of hope, and, perhaps, not enough of labor. We do not meet for games of strength or skill, for the recitation of histories, tragedies, and odes, like the ancient Greeks… Perhaps the time is already come when it ought to be, and will be, something else; when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” He’s not talking about solitude per se, but his aim is self-renewal. Like a tree growing a new ring and expanding in a new season. Humans need to find a way to do this regularly.
Brittany: There seems to be a strong relationship between living fully in the present moment and enjoying what you have. What do minimalism, Stoicism, and Transcendentalism have to say about this relationship? StoicDan: Stoicism has my favorite explanation here: you appreciate it, but without attachments. You therefore enjoy a friendship, knowing it might end. You are running on schedule, but realize a traffic jam may stop you at any moment. You finish all your kitchen chores, and rest a moment, but then knock a glass over and have to clean up shards of broken glass. In addition, living “fully” (to me) means not always conforming to society’s norms or boundaries. The American Transcendentalists considered society valuable in some ways, but to beware of its corrupting aspects also. This is one reason why Thoreau went into the woods. He wanted to escape from society’s conventions and ‘find himself’ in wilderness.
Finally, minimalism helps you live a more fulfilling life by rejecting the part of society that tells us owning more ‘stuff’ is good and doing more is good (quantity over quality). How did society arrive at these conclusions? Before I move to the next question, I’ll also go beyond the confines of this question! I’ll use a quote from Lao-Tzu about enjoying each moment, because life is continually changing. He said “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow.”
Brittany: In your Stoicon 2018 talk in London, you discussed some ways minimalism can help us reduce technology dependence. Technology--and the news cycle--has only gotten faster since then! Can minimalism still help us today to break away from the grip of technology? What’s the best way to get started? StoicDan: The often-repeated line by minimalists is about reducing possessions, but the other important area of work is ‘time management’. We need to manage our time better, and technology is not the problem. It’s how we use it. Technology is a ‘neutral’, like the Stoics describe the universe itself. It can be used for virtue and vice, and our impressions of technology may seem ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but ultimately, tech is neutral. Therefore, the important decision here is how we use our time. Are we using it for something fulfilling or meaningful? Or are we wasting it? Consider: how many articles (like this one!) are you reading without advancing your purpose in life? How many meetings are you attending without self-improvement? Are you talking a lot, but doing little? People need to realize that technology gives us so much, but we can’t read it all. Instead, we need to be selective and pivot into making progress in our lives.
Brittany: One of the themes of my website is the Stoic idea of living in agreement with nature, so of course I have to ask you about the role of nature in Transcendentalism. Could you tell us how famous transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau viewed the relationship between people and nature? StoicDan: I need to give an academic response first. In the Stoic texts, they often say ‘live according to Nature’ (capital N). In American Transcendentalism, they often talk about nature (lowercase n). These are two different terms, and I will be talking about the latter term. One value of nature (to Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller) was how raw nature can change a person. It’s part a quest to find one’s self. It also provides the challenge and the difficulty, which results in improving one’s self.
Thoreau wrote a journal entry that expresses it quite well: “I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me.” Note that he says “wildness”, not “wilderness”. That’s important, because the wildness represents the unknown. It’s our personal challenge to survive and improve ourselves in that unknown. Don’t get comfortable! That’s something we can relate to Stoicism: practicing discomfort.
Brittany: In one of your talks you highlight that all three of these three philosophies are concerned with controlling our desires. What is the connection between controlling our desires and living a good life? Do you have any suggestions for ways to do this? StoicDan: The key here is moderation. Many philosophies, mostly Stoicism and Buddhism, talk of the value of moderation and avoiding extremes. Some of us get ‘carried away’ by our desires. Bill Irvine (a modern Stoic) described it this way“Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.” Moreover, every time I visit a grocery store, I marvel at shelves lined with hundreds of products in every variety. We can criticize some aspects of society, but we should be grateful for the abundance around us. The next step is therefore to consume only what’s needed and within reason. Any excessive behavior leads to trouble.
Brittany: Another area of overlap between minimalism, Stoicism, and Transcendentalism is the idea of nonconformity. All three philosophies ask us to reject the traditional materialistic values of society. But it can be hard to break out of the mold and live differently from those around us. Do you have any tips for how to become a nonconformist? StoicDan: In my lecture at London University in 2018, I spoke of how Thoreau wrote of living sparingly in a cabin in the woods. His ideas have helped define the modern phrases “living simply” and “simple living”. Why do we need such big houses? And so many possessions? We’ve been doing these things a long time, so it’s hard (very hard!) to break these habits. However, when we are able to ‘turn the corner’ in our minds and realize that such a lifestyle brings only temporary happiness, but is, instead, a long-term burden on our life, then we can change for the better. Overall, one way that we can be ‘nonconformists’ is to question our culture and its advertising. The next time you see a commercial for a product, ask yourself “do I really need this?”
Brittany: Both Stoicism and minimalism help us decide what to value in life, so we can make intentional choices about where to spend our time, money, and energy. How do we make these decisions? What’s the best way for someone to get started? StoicDan: In any ‘lived philosophy’, we should NOT practice it just to feel ‘woke’. The purpose should be to improve our decisions, our lives, and the people around us (look up the Circles of Heracles). Both Stoicism and minimalism are practical in nature. In our philosophy discussions over the years, I remember people commenting that the following practical tips were helpful: (1) save money by shopping according to a list, and not changing your mind and over-spending, (2) save time by not saying ‘yes’ automatically to people who want to setup business meetings, and (3) turn off most of the notifications on your smart phone, and set aside one time of day to answer all emails and text messages. Overall, it’s important that you make rules for yourself and keep them.
One of the Stoic concepts from Agrippinus (a lesser-known Stoic) was to NOT over-analyze situations, because this wastes your time and energy. Agrippinus said that we should be resolute in our decisions. He’s quoted in a Donald Robertson article: “For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their proper character.”
Brittany: Most readers of this blog are already familiar with Stoicism. Is there anything else you’d like Stoics to know about minimalism or American Transcendentalism, or perhaps the connections between these three philosophies? StoicDan: Our world is rich with examples. After the famous Stoics of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, we also have Stoics like Theodore Roosevelt, James Stockdale, and Yoda (throaty voice “do or not do, there is no try”). However, if you have a curious mind and want to learn other points of view, then you’ll like how the minimalist world expresses ideas differently. Lookup Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. They have a popular blog, many articles, and two documentaries on Netflix. You can also go further and explore the American Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. Most of their works are published online and free. If you’ve not read Walden yet, it’s time to start! The beauty of this timeless book is amazing. At my website, StoicDan.com, you can click “Library” to see free online books that I recommend.
Brittany: Thank you, Dan, for sharing the connections between minimalism, Stoicism, and American Transcendentalism!
StoicDan is the organizer of 6 philosophy meetups, including Orlando Stoics, which is the third largest Stoic group in North America (6 years old, over 1300 members). He is also a public speaker on Stoicism, Minimalism, and American Transcendentalism, and he often connects these topics with civil discourse, common ground, and women in philosophy. For more info, visit StoicDan.com.