Circumscribing the Present
Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.
Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.
Thanks to everyone who attended the How to Think Like A Stoic Workshop yesterday. If you’d like to continue your practice with others, our course on Applying Stoicism begins in 2 weeks.
Pierre Hadot describes one of the key Stoic spiritual exercises as “Circumscribing the Present.”
Marcus Aurelius reminded himself of this practice when he wrote:
Living in the present, as a Stoic, involves leaving the past behind us and trusting the future to arrive as it will.
To do this, Marcus Aurelius reminded himself that life is nothing more than a set of successive moments. By doing this the tragedies of life become bearable. It is only the present that proves an obstacle – the past is gone and the future has yet to arrive. All we need to do is live well in each instant. Do not make yourself anxious by bringing the future to mind.
The primary reason to stay in the present, however, is to bring our focus to our judgments and decisions. Those are what matter, as they determine our character and, as the line goes:
If we’re unaware of the present, we’ll miss important details that should shape what we do and think. If we can’t pay adequate attention to it, our minds may wander to more superficial things.
But if we can stay in the present, take responsibility for what is up to us, and agree to everything else, we’ll be happy.
Pause and return to the present.
If you’re having difficulty staying in the present, attend to finer details. Tennis coaches encourage their students not to “pay attention to the ball”, but to “pay attention to the lining – every groove – of the ball.”
📔 Pierre Hadot called the Stoic practices “spiritual exercises”, not because he was interested in new age thinking – or calling himself “spiritual” – but because he thought that term best captured the Stoic’s ambition. Each exercise is part of a training regimen to “raise one’s spirit.” They aim at self-transformation.
📗 A mantra for staying in the present: Let things come, let them be, and let them go.
🌍️ Often the Stoics urge us to see the big picture – does that advice conflict with “Circumscribing the Present”? For example, there’s Seneca’s quip:
If we could see the big picture, then we’d see there’s little reason to worry about events that come and go in our lives. But doesn’t that contradict the idea that we should apply ourselves only to the present?
I don’t think so. What the Stoics are calling us to do is have the right attitude about the past, present, and future. Each should inform our judgments and decisions. What’s important is that we cultivate the abilities of perspective: attention, awareness, and scale. If we can keep our focus (attention) while remaining sensitive to our internal and external surroundings (awareness), and keeping different perspectives in mind (scale) then we’ll see the world more clearly.
What did you think about today's letter?