On Having Nothing Nice to Say

Within the last week I’ve read about a leftist creative writing professor writing nasty things on Twitter and the ensuing right-wing demand that she be fired or punished, as well as about a feminist journalist in Canada who was vilified and professionally ostracized by other feminists because she wasn’t feminist enough for them. If you don’t want to be terrorized by a mob, don’t take a political stand on anything, because whatever your stance, and whatever your attitude or intentions, there will always be an opposing mob ready to terrorize you online. That’s one lesson to be learned from a social media environment amplifying political vitriol that oft was thought but ne’er so poor expressed. There are other possible lessons to learn, though, both about how to evaluate social media nastiness and how to respond, or not.

Perhaps because I’ve spent my life avoiding angry fanatics, or perhaps because I’ve been academically institutionalized for most of my adult life, or perhaps just because I’m a big white guy who people don’t mess with in person, it’s hard for me to imagine that the online vituperation so common in social media is at all representative of how people behave in person. Do people rant and vent and treat people so awfully online because they’re awful people, or does being isolated from the physical presence of human beings flip off some empathy switch that keeps most of us from being awful people in person? Based on my own experience, I usually assume the latter.

I’m hardly immune to the immediate desire to respond when criticized or attacked, especially if I think it’s unfair criticism. To take a non-political example (if such really exists), a review of my book on libraries and the Enlightenment committed a typical sin of book reviewing by reviewing a book I didn’t write and had no intention of writing; that must have been easier to review than the book I actually wrote. My first impulse was to write a response saying exactly that. My second, and better, impulse was to ask myself why it mattered to me what this person thought or said. Five years later I still remember that review, though. Someone else derisively dismissed a complicated and inconvenient argument from the book instead of attempting to refute or argue with it. Again, I was tempted to respond, but after that treatment I couldn’t take seriously anything the critic said anyway, so why bother to respond? If criticisms of my work are fair and reasonable, I should try to learn from them; if they aren’t, the critic isn’t intellectually or ethically worthy of my engagement. Either way, it’s usually best to remain silent.

Criticisms of my work are rare, mostly from lack of interest I assume, but like most librarians I read things about libraries from librarians that rankle me. Recently I read an essay from last year that I generally agreed with. I could quibble, but it made some good points and the author created a good ethos. In contrast, one of the comments was arrogant, irrelevant, and smug, from someone who’s work, from what I can tell, doesn’t warrant such a grandiose self-assessment. Should I have responded? This post was inspired by that question. What would have been the purpose or consequences if I had? An arrogant, self-assured librarian finds out that another arrogant, self-assured librarian isn’t impressed? The virtual presses don’t need to roll for that.

Aggressive political opinions provoke me as much as they’re probably intended to provoke their audience. My initial reactions are as conditioned by temperament and perspective as everyone else. Sometimes I consider joining the chorus, to express empathy or contempt, and a couple of times during the Presidential election season I did, but there’s really no point. Political arguments are mostly people without shared premises talking past each other about their differing conclusions. Even if people understand the premises behind their political conclusions–which is doubtful–the premises aren’t objective facts that can be logically argued from; the premises are themselves conditioned by our temperaments and perspectives. You might change someone’s mind about politics through empathy, but probably not through argument.

These days online political discourse can become so toxic that engaging in some of it is an exercise for fools or masochists. When the very idea of civil discourse is mocked, as it sometimes is, disengagement becomes the only rational recourse other than shouting; one can’t civilly discourse with those who have abandoned civil discourse. Mockery and ridicule have their place, but if those are the only possible responses I usually see no point. If someone wants to attack me instead of engage in discussion, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I might think, as per Epictetus, that if they actually knew me well they would find much worse things to attack me about.

There are both rational and humane justifications for not engaging either unfair critics or just people with whom I strongly disagree. We could ask the following question about any political, religious, or otherwise contentious disagreement: is there anything your opponent could possibly say to make you change your mind about whatever the topic is? If not, why would you believe that something you say would change their mind at all? And if that’s unlikely, why respond to them? I suggest the answer is more determined by your ego than by a desire for truth, reason, or enlightenment.

One of my less positive attributes is an uncanny ability to find and probe people’s psychological and emotional weak points. Just ask my old friends, I’m really good at it. In fact, I asked some old friends; one said he thought it was my superpower, another said “poke, not probe.” However, it’s a skill I prefer not to exercise, and I try not to usually, even though it can be an easy skill to exercise online. Since nobody ever wins an argument, what’s the best case scenario if I concoct the most devastating takedown of people I might argue with online? That they’ll change their minds? They’re more likely to strengthen their commitment to their beliefs. That they’ll praise me for enlightening them? Never happen. That I’ll change my mind? Not impossible, but unlikely. Thus, it’s irrational to even join the discussion if the purpose is persuasion or enlightenment.

What’s the worst case scenario? That something I write will make them angry, either with me or themselves, perhaps? Or depressed? Maybe they’re ranting because they just had a really bad day and I’m making it worse. Maybe their life just plain sucks and my pointing that out isn’t helping things. Maybe they’ll take that anger and express it on someone they know instead of the faceless stranger who couldn’t care less about them, because anger seeks a target even if the original target is absent. If the best case scenario is that nobody learns or changes their mind and I waste my time, and the worse case scenario is that I make them angry or depressed and they make someone else’s life miserable because of that, the humane and the rational choice is to remain silent. My own irrational anger is likely to hurt no one but me, but my stoking someone else’s irrational anger could have broader consequences.

It could be that lashing out at strangers online just makes some people happy, at least in the moment. Studies of trolls suggest this. In the long term, such behavior is likely a sign of psychological or emotional disturbance that leads to or emerges from misery. To drop into humanistic psychology talk, joyful, self-actualized people don’t feel the need to attack everyone who disagrees with them, and they certainly don’t want anyone to lose their livelihoods over political disagreements in a heterogenous liberal democracy. The opinion of strangers online doesn’t matter to them. But misery, as we know, loves company, and if I’m miserable I want to make others miserable, whether I’m “correcting” the opinion of some political miscreant for being insufficiently conservative or feminist, or joining an “incel” community and viciously attacking women.

What if instead of joining in a hostile social media melee, we instead thought about what doing so says about our character? If we disagree with someone, are we sure we’re right? How can we really be sure? Are we practicing intellectual virtues of caution, open-mindedness, or epistemic humility, or moral virtues of prudence, moderation, benevolence, or justice? Are we acting as the sort of people we would like to see more of, or only like the sort of people we would like to see more of if only they already agreed with us about everything? Is our egotistic arrogance really justified, and if it’s not should we malign strangers online, or listen to them with charity and either engage or ignore them as appropriate? If you answer these questions one way in private but act in a contrary way online, what’s wrong with you and how can you fix it?

In addition to asking questions of ourselves, we could pick role models from various wisdom traditions and try to emulate them. What would Socrates, or the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zhuangzi do? What is the wisest and most skillful way to respond to others online? On the other hand, if you think it’s better for you and the world to vent your spleen on social media about everything that angers or irritates you, if you want to give your ego and sense of entitlement free reign over your good sense or character, you have an excellent role model in President Trump. Others of us might ask, what would Trump do?, and then do the opposite.

Stoic Zen Stuff

It’s been a long time since I’ve written much longer than an email. The last ten months (and counting) have been a time of extraordinary health problems, with six hospitalizations, three abdominal surgeries, bouts of diverticulitis, pneumonia, and gout, and eighteen weeks away from work either in the hospital (44 days total) or home recovering from surgeries. I lost over fifty pounds, not all the “good” kind of weight loss, and went from feeling big and strong to frail and weak, and at the time of writing I’ve gone ten weeks without being able to tolerate solid food, so almost all of my nutrition comes intravenously. I live in interesting times.

While there’s been a lot of physical trauma, and months of fatigue, and the whole not-being-able-to-eat-solid-food thing, with the exception of a few low moments my mental state has been good. Often I have experienced extended periods of psychological peace, equanimity, and even joy. A nurse not so subtly grilled me about depression (a bad symptom to have if you want to be released from the hospital), and I replied that I don’t get depressed. I learned to deal with general depression and existential angst decades ago when Nietzsche and Camus saved my life, but in the past few years my mental health and my ability to remain calm and focused have improved significantly from the Stoic study and practice I wrote about a few years ago, as well as the Zen study and meditation practice I began around the same time (strictly shikantaza until now, almost all alone). They were preparing me even better for adversity I couldn’t have foreseen, and adversity you can’t foresee pretty much describes life. Handling professional problems with equanimity has become very easy compared to dealing with almost a year of major health problems without anger, depression, or resentment.

Stoicism and Zen (and other varieties of Buddhism) complement each other in many ways (and I’m hardly the only one to notice this), with Stoicism being somewhat like Zen without the zazen, but you could argue the zazen is everything. As the 13th century Zen master Dogen said, “Each moment of zazen is equally the wholeness of practice, equally the wholeness of realization.” Stoic practice is more about rationalizing your way to psychological peace and joy, while Zen moves past the rationalizations and the rationalizer towards mindfulness developed through meditation leading (possibly, eventually) to enlightenment. Both have been helpful, but I’ve gradually focused more on Zen study and meditation as a way developing mindfulness and inching towards whatever enlightenment I’ll ever be able to achieve. Stoicism was a good gateway drug into Zen, because the existing written corpus is so small–and the issues familiar if you’ve read Aristotle–and it requires no physical discipline, but the physical discipline helps train the mind. On a somewhat related note, while Zen is usually considered a religion, I’m more like many Western students of Buddhism and treat it as a philosophy, specifically a form of virtue ethics.

The Dichotomy of Control

Within both there’s a technique that Stoics call the “dichotomy of control,” where you try to learn how to focus your mental effort and well being only on things you can control and let go of the rest. Epictetus begins his Handbook (or Enchiridion) with a well known passage about what you can control and what you can’t: “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own.”

When you understand what’s within your control or not, then you work on reducing your often negative reactions to things outside your control. “From the start, then, work on saying to each harsh appearance, ‘You are an appearance, and not at all the thing that has the appearance.’ Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’” Over time, it’s possible to get better at identifying and dismissing such “appearances.” Some believe that Stoicism is a fatalistic philosophy, but it’s only after you work to control what you can that you understand what is truly out of your control, and to rage about that is just foolish.

I can say from experience that responding to each “harsh appearance” works, but it took me years to get there. One measure is how I react to traffic, which has always triggered anger in me. One time I screamed myself hoarse shouting at someone who stopped in the entrance lane to I-95. Now I can’t remember the last time I got angry in traffic. If someone cuts me off in traffic, or someone else doesn’t go as fast in the passing lane as I want them to, getting angry or upset about it is ridiculous and irrational. As long as I don’t engage in road rage revenge, my anger harms nobody but me. And with 7 billion people on earth, what’s so special about me that everything should go exactly as I desire at every moment of the day? And why react with anger rather than compassion? Maybe the person who cut me off was unaware of her action, or the person driving slowly in the passing lane was so caught up in his psychological problems that he couldn’t focus. Our anger often attributes evil intent to actions that we’ve done ourselves before without such intent. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that” (X.30). Or maybe, and this seems very likely, almost everyone around us in traffic is mostly mindless of what’s happening around them because their thoughts are trapped elsewhere. Should the proper response be anger, or pity?

Fortunately, it’s not just in traffic that I’m able to achieve some equanimity. My wife noticed during one of my many days in the hospital that when in some pain I might snap at her, and then very quickly catch myself, become mindful of my emotional state, and apologize. I would try, and sometimes succeed, to bring myself back to the moment just as I would bring my attention back to the breath when meditating. What I realized–as in made real for myself–is that my anger makes nothing better, and it affects me and those around me negatively. It just took lots of reminding myself to focus again on my emotional state and rationalizing every time I’d get angry or peevish to realize that, and the meditation practice made it easier to return to the moment. The same technique works whether I’m angry, or in pain, or have blood gushing out of places in my body from which blood should not be gushing. Instead of cultivating the negative emotions that normally accompany such activity, I’ve learned how to distance myself from them and cultivate positive emotions instead, or at least neutral emotions.

Buddhism has a related approach to what’s in our control and “up to us.” Here’s a passage from the Alagaddupama Sutta (the Snake Sutta) that reminds me of Epictetus: “Therefore, monks, abandon what is not yours—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time. And what is it that is not yours? Physical form is not yours. Abandon it—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time. Feeling is not yours … Conceiving is not yours … Volitional forces are not yours … Consciousness is not yours. Abandon it—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time.” The Buddha goes further than Epictetus, who would still consider “volitional forces” and consciousness within our control, but both Stoicism and Buddhism act on the assumption that one can learn to control or abandon “desires and aversions,” our greed, hatred, and delusion.

The Discipline of Judgment

Related to the Dichotomy of Control is the Discipline of Judgment. In the Stoic scheme, the Discipline of Judgment allows one to tell the difference between what is within one’s control or not, or what is just an “appearance” and not the (usually harmful) thing that appearance pretends to be. How we feel about the things not within our control is up to us. From Epictetus’s Handbook again: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things. For example, death is nothing dreadful (or else it would have appeared dreadful to Socrates), but instead the judgment about death that it is dreadful—that is what is dreadful.” Other people don’t “make” us angry, unless they’re capable of some sort of mind control. The anger is all in our mind. “So when we are thwarted or upset or distressed, let us never blame someone else but rather ourselves, that is, our own judgments. An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly; a partly educated person accuses himself, an educated person accuses neither someone else nor himself.” (Enchiridion ❡5)

For the Stoics, the combination of the Dichotomy of Control and the Discipline of Judgment allow one to attain equanimity, to gradually eliminate the effect of pathological emotions like anger and envy and cultivate healthy emotions like joy, empathy, and gratitude. Buddhists use the terms “unskillful” and “skillful” to describe such emotions. How we see the world depends on what we expect to see, and much of our anger and disappointment with the world is based on our unwarranted expectations that the world should be exactly the way we want it to be at all times, or at the very least fair some of the time. If the world doesn’t satisfy our ego’s constant need to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want, we get frustrated, angry, or disappointed, but the problem is our foolish expectations, not the world. The hard part is training our mind and aligning our foolish expectations with reality. As Ronald Pies wrote in his book on Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, “if you ask more of the universe than it can give, you will most certainly be unhappy. If you stop doing that, there is at least a good chance your unhappiness will decrease dramatically.”

Similar passages occur in the Dhammapada, for example in the opening chapter on “Dichotomies”: “All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind, And suffering follows As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox…. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, And happiness follows Like a never-departing shadow.” Buddhists also believe that what upsets us is our  judgment about things, which is made by mind, not the things themselves. Epictetus believes the uneducated (or, perhaps better, untrained) person accuses others when doing badly. The Dhammapada contains a similar sentiment: “‘He abused me, attacked me, Defeated me, robbed me!’ For those carrying on like this, Hatred does not end. ‘She abused me, attacked me, Defeated me, robbed me!’ For those not carrying on like this, Hatred ends.” It’s not that things don’t happen to us, but that whether we judge them as good, bad, or indifferent is up to us, or at least up to those with trained minds. With the proper training, so both philosophies agree, we can react more skillfully and less egoistically to all situations, whether we would normally consider them “good” or “bad.”

Awareness

For both Stoicism and Zen a goal is awareness or mindfulness of our feelings and perceptions at all times, although the routes to such awareness differ. Stoic prosochē and Buddhist sati aren’t quite the same thing, but close. For both, we’re trapped in delusions our mind creates. To be aware of the moment and notice how we’re reacting to it without judging that reaction is mindfulness, but then we can mentally stand back and judge that reaction. Is it appropriate? Is it a skillful reaction? Is it good for us? Is it good for other people? And if not, we can alter that judgment. The important thing is the ability to distance our consciousness from our initial nonconscious reactions to events and learn to control them. Awareness is what allows us to use the Discipline of Judgment to exercise the Dichotomy of Control.

A modern Zen master, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, puts it this way in Opening the Hand of Thought: “What is this way of awareness? Let us first consider what it means to be unaware, or oblivious to what is going on around us. All human beings are deluded by our brains and become absent-minded because of our discriminating minds…. We also get caught up in desire, anger, and group stupidity. These are more difficult to deal with, because they are fabrications conjured up in our heads. We create various illusions in our minds and then jump in, becoming immersed in them.” For Zen practitioners, the path to awareness is sitting meditation. Uchiyama continues: “How can we awaken from these illusions? The only way is to open the hand of thought, because our thoughts themselves are the source of illusion. When we let go of our thoughts and become vividly aware, all the illusions that create desire, anger, and group stupidity vanish immediately. This is the way of awareness. We must neither fall asleep nor get carried away by our thoughts. The essential point in zazen is to be vividly aware, opening the hand of thought.”

Stoics also have forms of meditation, but the practice is about rationalizing with less physical and different mental discipline than zazen. One recommendation is to meditate on your activities during the day and ask whether you responded to people or events in a good or beneficial way. Another practice is premeditatio malorum, or premeditation of evils, where you imagine the bad things that could happen in a situation so you’re prepared for them in advance. If you’re going to drive somewhere, you’re going to experience traffic, bad drivers, etc. Be prepared for it and react calmly, because any other reaction is foolish. I’ve been practicing what I call postmeditatio malorum; when dealing with some new health problem I think, “at least it’s not as bad as that time [something disgusting I won’t detail] happened!” There are suggested physical disciplines, such as exposing yourself to discomfort involuntarily to build up resistance (e.g., going lightly jacketed on a cold day), fasting occasionally, sleeping on the ground instead of a bed sometimes, but they take up a smaller space within Stoicism than zazen does in Zen, where the practice is daily.

Gratitude and Impermanence

In addition to equanimity and joy, cultivating gratitude has been immensely helpful. In the midst of illness, especially a prolonged and sometimes painful one, it’s easy to focus on the pain or the unfairness of it all. I seem to have a high tolerance for pain, but still there have been moments when the pain in my gut drove all other thoughts from my mind. However, by learning to mentally distance myself somewhat from the pain, it becomes much easier to bear. From a cosmic perspective, my pain and indeed my very existence are irrelevant, but even from my perspective properly cultivated, it’s difficult to get depressed about pain and illness when I have a loving family, great friends, a good job, a pleasant if modest house, adequate health insurance, etc. A cynic might say, of course you’re fine with all that good stuff going on! But plenty of people with far more material benefits than I are anxious or depressed. No matter how much luck you have–and I eventually understood how very lucky I’ve been in my life–without understanding that luck and being grateful for it you can still be miserable.

A incentive towards gratitude is realizing the impermanence of, well, everything, a lesson of both Stoicism and Buddhism. The egoistic desire that the world be just as we want it at all times is accompanied by the belief that good things at least are or should be permanent. But everything dies. As the Buddha would put it, that which is capable of arising is capable of passing away. Some people might find this a harsh lesson to learn, much like the lesson of their cosmic insignificance, rather than a simple fact of existence. Instead, we can use the knowledge of impermanence to increase our gratitude. Epictetus counsels us, when we’re leaving our house for example, to kiss our children goodbye and to remember that this might be the last time you ever see them. How many people grieve the loss of a loved one by thinking, “if only I’d told them how much I loved them” or “shown how much I appreciated them” or some such. They didn’t learn the lesson of impermanence, which is that the time to tell them you love them or show your appreciation for them is always now.

When my daughter was young, I formed a mindful habit. I spend a lot of time with a computer at home, reading, writing, grading, etc., and if it’s not a computer it’s a book. However, whenever my daughter would come into the room to see me, I would put away the computer (or smartphone or book) and attend to her. I might not win a “world’s greatest dad” competition, but now that she’s grown and off to college, I can rest content with the knowledge that I didn’t abandon possible time with her to “just finish this one thing” that ultimately wouldn’t matter anyway. Some people might actually prefer to spend time staring at an electronic device than spend time with their children, but I’m not one of them. If you truly understand the truth of impermanence, you can at least make that choice mindfully, and be grateful for the time you have, either with your smartphone or your child (or friends, or parents, or whatever).

A Path of Some Kind

Mindfulness is popular now, especially the variety some call McMindfulness, where the goal isn’t really to develop mindfulness, but to use mindfulness to accomplish some other goal, often one that someone else sets for you. In Untangling Self: a Buddhist investigation of Who We Really Are, Andrew Olendzki considers the misuses of such popularity:

There is considerable enthusiasm for mindfulness these days, as long as it does not threaten to make us wise. Corporate tycoons would like to bring mindfulness into their world to help give them a competitive edge, as long as they do not have to spend too much of their valuable time meditating, and only if they can be reassured they will not lose their killer instincts and get all mushy and compassionate. And they are interested in training their workers in mindfulness, as long as it makes them more diligent and accepting of their duty, and does not raise troublesome ethical questions or throw them into a midlife crisis that leads them to drop out to do something more meaningful with their lives.

If mindfulness is about making you a better worker, or more efficient, or some such, it’s popular in workplaces. “Do yoga, work harder,” as an article on the co-optation of relaxation put it. ACRL has published a book on mindfulness for librarians that lists many practical professional benefits as librarians become more mindful of themselves and the people around them. It’s worth reading. I’ve also seen practical benefits, and a lot of this post is about how my Stoic Zen approach to mindfulness has enabled me to come through an unpleasant ordeal in good spirits. I’m not knocking the practical benefits. And, fortunately, I already thought my work was meaningful, so I don’t need to drop out and do something else.

However, the more I study and practice, the more convinced I am that mindfulness, and the meditation that helps develop mindfulness, are relatively empty without some sort of path, whether that path is adhering to the traditional Stoic virtues–prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude–or to the Buddhist Eightfold Path–Right Understanding, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Concentration, and Meditation–or to both, or to some other ethical path. Attempting mindfulness just to make us more professionally effective or personally happy misses the point, which is to make us wise. There’s a paradox, where not pursuing practical benefits somehow brings more practical benefits, because the desire for practical benefits is just another ultimately unfulfillable craving from which we should detach ourselves. The craving for practical benefits is a trap. Thus, I’ve been trying to get past the egoistic obstacle that sees only immediate benefits in order to tread some kind of path to eudaimonia.

If I no longer get angry and scream at drivers who cut me off in traffic, or I don’t get depressed or despondent while dealing with months of debilitating health, the result isn’t just that I’m happier–in both the eudaimonic and hedonic senses–but that I’m less foolish because I’m more free from delusions and irrational expectations about what the world owes me. Expecting pleasant traffic or great health and being disappointed when I don’t enjoy them says nothing about traffic or health, but a lot about my illusions.  In both Stoicism and Zen, a significant goal is to see the world without illusion, to free ourselves from the conditioning of ego or culture that blinds us to reality. Stoics call this living according to nature, Zen Buddhists call it enlightenment. Until we reach Stoic sagehood or Zen enlightenment, we’re all suffering from a form of mental illness according to these perspectives. Even if the perfection of sagehood or enlightenment is never reached, we can still try, and those on the path are progressors or bodhisattvas depending on the wisdom tradition.

I wouldn’t call myself a progressor or a bodhisattva just as I wouldn’t call myself a Stoic or a Zen Buddhist, since I’ve come to think of labels for whatever path I’m traveling to be like the finger pointing at the moon. Despite a growing interest in Zen, I’m not yet interested in committing to a sangha or publicly taking the precepts. I consider myself someone seeking wisdom wherever he can find it, and who wants to live more peacefully and joyfully in the world, and this is just the most practical wisdom I’ve found so far, alongside the yes-saying, life-affirming, self-overcoming Nietzschean existentialism I cultivated in my youth. I’ve been trying to tread a path and incidentally am happier for it, even as I feel the burn. And if it somehow makes me a better librarian, that’s just a lagniappe.

Recommended Books on Stoicism, Zen, Buddhism, and Meditation

Aitken, Taking the Path of Zen

Becker, A New Stoicism

Epictetus, Discourses and Handbook

Goldstein, Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Awakening

Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Maezumi and Glassman, On Zen Practice: Body, Breath, and Mind

Nhat Hahn, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

Nhat Hahn, The Miracle of Mindfulness

Radcliff and Radcliff, Understanding Zen

Sellars, The Art of Living: the Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy

Seneca, Letters on Ethics (aka, Moral Letters)

Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice

Yates, The Mind Illuminated: a Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness

Professional Contingency and the Cosmic Perspective

This blog is approaching its tenth anniversary, and I realized that its tenth year has been one of silence. Partly I’ve been working (slowly) on another book, partly I’ve been chairing a really busy ACRL committee that produces lengthy documents, and partly I’ve less incentive to blog since one provocative librarian has ceased publishing laughable false dichotomies about libraries and another has ceased all public activity due, supposedly, to “threats and politics.” I feel at my best as a critic. But mostly I’ve turned my mental free energy to other things and have generally found a negative correlation between eudaimonia and social media engagement (the subject of another, perhaps ironic, blog post I haven’t finished).

Of all things I was awakened from my dogmatic slumbers by a Medium article encouraging library managers to embed creativity in their libraries. I say “of all things” because I’m all for creativity in the workplace, I’m not a library manager, and I have no particular objection to any advice in the article, with the small quibble that I’m not sure how one can have scheduled time together to “be creative” that has no agenda and can be used for “learning, play, investigation, fun,” but that also needs an “eventual outcome.” That sounds like a hidden agenda, but considering some of the librarian meetings I’ve attended over the years, a hidden agenda is probably better than no agenda at all.

That library manager reports that she’s spoken to “creatives newly employed in the library industry” who find a “dogged unwillingness to change” entrenched, and who “also speak about the meanness of our profession as long term staff members, often now middle managers, allow their own feelings of not being nurtured as a professional to affect their management practice of their team members.” That’s a pretty serious charge coming from these creatives, to which my response is, 1) I’m completely unsurprised, since even non-creatives like me have found professional lethargy an occasional hindrance; 2) I’m not a manager, middle or otherwise, so I’m not hindering anyone as far as I know; and 3) hey, wait, are you talking about people like me who have never been “nurtured as a professional”? You are, aren’t you. You’re talking how mean I am and psychologizing about my feelings. That’s not very nice.

Probably not many librarians would call me mean. I doubt any would call me nurturing, either, although I do strive to be collegial. I certainly don’t want to defend any mean librarians, because I’ve known a small number who have been downright malignant and it wouldn’t bother me at all if they died slowly and painfully as long as I didn’t have to listen to them complain about it. (A couple of those librarians might indeed call me “mean,” but that didn’t sound mean, did it? I’ve gone unnurtured so long it’s hard for me to tell.) I have even tried in the last several years to encourage some newer librarians (not nurture, but still) in ways I was never encouraged, even if it is entirely in my self-interest to do what little I can to keep smart, engaged people working here. And I believe library managers should be encouraging and nurturing and all that, but I know they often aren’t.

But there’s another, unnurtured, feral part of me, shrugging, humming, and slowly tilting my head from side to side saying, “hmmm, well, maybe there’s another perspective.” It could be that “long term staff members” are being mean; it definitely happens. They could also be bitter or envious as they see enthusiastic newer colleagues and reflect on how little they’ve accomplished in their life and career. However, there is a possible non-malignant explanation for the behavior of long term librarians that doesn’t entail them being mean because they were never nurtured as professionals. They might not be mean, just indifferent, and that indifference might have an understandable existential rationale, which might itself offer some small consolation.

A former colleague of mine once related some advice he received early in his library career. Someone told him that the library had been there long before he was hired, and would be there long after he was gone. The same is likely true for you and your library, and in a case of a library like mine, it was here long before I was born and will likely persist long after I’m dead. And, unless you accomplish something exceptional, your work in that library will leave little to no lasting, significant change. That isn’t meant as an insult. I believe the same thing about my work, and I have a high opinion of myself both personally and professionally.

Our professional lives are as contingent as our personal lives. We were all born through a series of arbitrary events, thrown into a world not of our making, and will die without, in all likelihood, having affected the lives of more than a relatively small group of people, all of whom will also eventually die. Our work is much the same, only shorter. Where we work and what we do is mostly a matter of chance and luck, good or bad, and once we’re gone we’ll be replaced, if we even are replaced, and the workplace will continue to function.

Despite this professional existential contingency, we sometimes think of ourselves as necessary. Sometimes that’s because we’ve identified ourselves with one of the roles we play, like the waiter in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Instead of performing the tasks of a librarian, people play at being librarians, and conflate their selves with their current arbitrary professional roles. You may have encountered librarians who believed that the library wouldn’t run without them, that not just their position, but their person, was necessary for everything else to continue functioning. They need to believe that their contingency is really a necessity, but I believe they’re living in bad faith.

Consider this when thinking about the seeming indifference or resistance of your colleagues, especially the “long term staff members.” One of the things “long term staff members” learn is the contingency of other employees, if not perhaps of themselves. When you’ve been at a library long enough, especially one that employs lots of people, you learn that individual people come and go and yet the library keeps functioning. Sometimes if they leave the library everyone is worse off for a while, maybe a long while, but everyone adjusts. People are resilient, and there’s a lot of ruin in an organization. Thus, it might not be that the librarians who have been around for a while are trying deliberately to frustrate you, it could just be that they know how contingent your professional existence is.

In the wrong frame of mind, this might make you feel bad. Some people apparently feel anxiety at the thought of their own contingency. Why doesn’t everyone recognize my brilliance and defer to me, you might ask yourself. That question is probably even more puzzling if you actually are brilliant and full of great ideas that would make the library a better place for everyone and not just you. Some of the best and brightest librarians I’ve known and respected have been the most frustrated at the “dogged unwillingness” of entrenched librarians to change. I’m not dismissing that. I’ve felt that frustration myself.

If you feel like your colleagues aren’t listening to you and aren’t changing fast enough to suit your tastes or aren’t nurturing you enough, you might find some consolation in reflecting on the contingency of your own life and how it might be viewed sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity. From a cosmic viewpoint–the “view from above” that Stoics recommend to put yourself into perspective–your life, your work, and your contributions ultimately don’t matter very much, but the same is true of your problems. Something that seems frustrating at work almost certainly isn’t important when viewed from the cosmic perspective. That’s also the perspective that almost everyone else has about you, because while it’s difficult to approach a cosmic perspective about our own importance, it’s relatively easy to gain one about other people, especially people who aren’t your close friends or loved ones.

Now it could be that you’re just a more compassionate person than I am. I’ll grant that’s entirely likely. I won’t fight for the moral high ground here. It could be that you REALLY care about ALL the people you work with, that you consider their well being as much as you do your own, that you’re incapable of viewing other people as anything but visceral extensions of your own emotional state and that you feel their pain as you feel your own. Other people look around the library and can find people they dislike and whose departure would be a cause for celebration. Maybe it’s their asshole boss, or that toxic colleague, or whomever. But not you.

If you’re like that, then you might be incapable of understanding the cosmic viewpoint and putting your problems into a larger perspective. Also, you might be incapable of functioning as a human being. But if you’re capable of feeling emotionally indifferent to the problems of even one of the people you work with, or to any of the 7.3 billion people estimated to be alive right now, then you might be capable of something resembling the cosmic viewpoint, and it might lessen the frustration you have with workplace problems that are relatively trivial.

Being frustrated by the slow pace of change or the indifference of long time staff members to your designs seems to me to be relatively trivial even from many non-cosmic perspectives. Institutional oppression and workplace bullying seem far worse than indifference or resistance. More serious issues emerge as you expand outwards to whatever you’re unhappy with about the state of the nation, human rights violations around the world, global trafficking in humans and weapons, the dangers we humans likely face from climate change, and the current scientific consensus that in about 4 billion years the earth will be too hot to sustain any life and in 7 billion or so it will be engulfed by the expanding sun–and that’s before we even leave the perspective of the earth.

Some might consider this point of view bleak, but I don’t share that interpretation. Worry, anxiety, obsession with others, the fear of embarrassment or failure–these can all thwart our attempts to change our circumstances for the better, and all of them are unimportant from any but our narrow personal perspective. If knowing that the earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun doesn’t hinder your will to act, why should knowing that some of your colleagues aren’t enthusiastic about your views or are indifferent to your contingency hinder that will? If you act to foment change, to improve your professional life or your library, what’s the worst that will happen? People who don’t care about you anyway will get irritated? You’ll fail? The worst that can happen, from the cosmic perspective, isn’t really that bad, so why not go ahead and try?

The people who do most to improve the world don’t worry about the indifference of others. They act to create the world they want to see. Embracing your own contingency and trying to adopt the cosmic perspective can be enervating or invigorating as you choose, and it can prepare you to do whatever you can to change things, and to feel less personal frustration over the things you can’t control.

The Research Essay from an Instructor’s Perspective

[The following is adapted from a talk I gave to colleagues who provide library instruction for first-year college writing courses, but have never taught one themselves. I thought similar librarians might be interested in the research essay from an instructor’s perspective.]

A little bit about my background with writing instruction. I started teaching writing, or rhetoric as it’s called there, at the University of Illinois in 1992. Except for a year when I exiled myself from academia, I either taught writing or worked in a writing center from then until the end of 1999 when I finished library school. I came to Princeton in 2002, and from 2002-2009 I taught seven writing seminars in the Princeton Writing Program. So I have a lot of experience on both sides of the instructor-librarian relationship.

The goal of a writing seminar is to teach students to be able to write argumentative, academic essays using sources, and in many ways this is an unnatural act. Take a look at the Elements of the Academic Essay, which the writing seminars used for years to provide a common vocabulary about writing, and which many other writing programs use. (They now use a variation of it.)

Elements of the Academic Essay

  1. Thesis
  2. Motive
  3. Evidence
  4. Analysis
  5. Keyterms
  6. Structure
  7. Stitching
  8. Sources
  9. Reflecting
  10. Orienting
  11. Stance
  12. Style
  13. Title

13 elements of the academic essay. That’s a lot to cover. Where does the library portion come in? Evidence (maybe), sources (again, maybe), thesis. Evidence could include sources handed out in class, interviews, etc. And the sources might be suggested by an instructor or by the references list in a scholarly encyclopedia. My writing seminars mostly focused on the work of John Rawls and responses to him. If you read the Rawls entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and follow the references, you won’t need to do much library searching.

Some of these are more difficult than others. It’s harder to formulate a thesis than a title, but students even have trouble with titles. In an essay about John Rawls, the title might be “John Rawls.” Not very indicative of what the essay is about.

Students come in as strong writers at a basic level, but they haven’t had much experience writing argumentative academic essay using sources, and it’s a big transition.

In the Princeton Writing Program, there are four essays, but the first three are the most important, and develop in a sequence. Typically, the first essay works with one or two sources and involves interpreting and forming a thesis about those. The second essay usually adds in a few more sources to write about. And the third essay is the research essay.

Librarians usually come in for Essay 3, but the first three essays are a continuum teaching students how to read, interpret, and use scholarly sources in an academic essay. For each essay, there’s a draft (D) and a revision (R). In between those the instructor comments on the draft, makes suggestions for improvement, and meets individually with the students to discuss the revision. The sequence goes D1 R1, D2 R2, and D3 R3.

As an example, I’ll discuss my own teaching. My last writing seminars focused on the work of John Rawls, a Princeton A.B. and PhD who was possibly the most prominent political philosopher in the English-speaking world in the past century. We’d start with a 25-page excerpt from his first book A Theory of Justice. Rawls is a complicated thinker and a dense writer, but we spent a couple of weeks discussing the excerpt, focusing on just a few ideas: the Original Position, the Veil of Ignorance, Justice as Fairness, and the Two Principles of Justice. In the first essay, students were to make some argument about Rawls.

In D1, most students struggled with his work, and some would wildly misinterpret him, building a strawman called Rawls and making bold claims attacking that instead of engaging critically with what he actually wrote.

There were two problems.

First, reading and interpreting difficult texts is, well, difficult. Nietzsche, who was trained as a classical philologist and thus a very careful reader, somewhere writes that most people read every fifth word of a text and then try to work out a meaning from that. That’s pretty much what most students did on their first pass through Rawls. Reading difficult texts and interpreting them carefully isn’t easy, and the students don’t have much experience doing it. Rawls is probably more difficult than many of the readings in a writing class, but eventually students will venture out into the scholarly literature which can often be difficult to understand for novices in a field.

Second, people tend to quickly form strong beliefs based on little evidence, and then accept evidence that confirms their beliefs while ignoring counter-evidence. That leads to bold, unsubstantiated claims and sloppy interpretations.

Princeton psychologist emeritus Daniel Kahneman studied fast thinking and slow thinking. We tend to make snap judgments and then come up with reasons to defend them. Learning to think slowly and evaluate evidence is difficult because that’s not how we normally think. Studies of motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases conclude the same thing. Some studies have even shown that if people strongly hold beliefs, then presenting them with an undeniable refutation of those beliefs only reinforces their commitment to them. Science is telling us what David Hume told us a quarter century ago. Reason is a slave of the passions.

Students are sometimes like the people Michael Shermer describes in his book Why Smart People Believe Weird Things. They believe weird things (in this case about Rawls) because they’re really good at coming up with smart reasons to defend beliefs they developed by non-smart means.

A good writing seminar should help students break this habit and think more like academics: careful reading, detailed analysis, qualified claims based on the evidence. Even if writing instructors don’t realize it, they’re trying to suppress and retrain natural mental instincts formed over a hundred thousand years of human evolution, and instead teach students to develop their beliefs based on a careful consideration of all available evidence. Compared to that, searching Summon or the catalog to find a few books and articles is fairly easy.

The instructor then comments on the draft. Many of my comments would be pointing out misinterpretations, which usually meant showing that some bold claim the student made about something Rawls supposedly supports was refuted by some other part of Rawls the student ignored. Sometimes there were structural or other issues as well. The revision, R1, would be a little better. Students would have dealt with my counter-evidence and qualified their claims.

In D2 students are a little better still, more careful in their interpretations and more cautious in their statements, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Reading and interpreting carefully. Developing beliefs based on the evidence. Classes spend 5-6 weeks on teaching these skills and the elements of the academic essay before ever tackling the research essay.

By D3, they’ve gotten better, but now have to use the same skills on sources that the class hasn’t read and discussed together. We librarians step in and show them the basics of library research and how to find books and articles, and we make it pretty easy for them with discovery layers. Even then we might be fooling ourselves, since we know that most of the traffic to our electronic resources is driven by Google, not our databases.

Regardless, finding the sources is a lot easier than the task of reading, analyzing, and synthesizing them into a careful argument, and that’s the major goal of the research essay. All the students are familiar with the very basics of online searching. Librarians teach them to do that in a more scholarly way. It’s all the other stuff that’s new to them.

In D3 there are a series of stages: the research topic, the research question, and the thesis statement.

The research topic is first, and there’s no point meeting with us as librarians before they have that. The topic is broad, and could come from some class readings, instructor suggestion, initial interest of the student, or wherever. That’s the point they need to do some preliminary research, which will just be their first round of research.

Then comes the research question, which is best formulated after some searching, but more importantly some reading. Students have to read and understand enough about the topic to know what questions can be fruitfully asked and what questions are already answered or impossible to answer.

Then, they have to research and read more to develop a thesis, a debatable claim they can support from the evidence.

To distinguish these stages, I’ll use a possible example about Rawls.

The topic is John Rawls’ concept of  “justice as fairness.” This is what is known as a “lens essay,” looking at some subject through the lens of Rawls’ work.

Rawls argues that justice as fairness requires us to imagine what a society might be like if we designed it from behind a “veil of ignorance,” what he calls the “original position.” What kind of society would we want to live in if we had no idea what place we would have in that society? Rawls answers that question at length. He argues that we would secure basic individual liberties, make sure positions in society were equally and openly competitive, and that social and economic inequalities would benefit the least advantaged. So we could look at some current social arrangement and ask, is it just?

But let’s complicate it by adding an animal rights perspective suggested by the work of Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton philosopher. This would be a double lens essay, looking at animal rights through the lenses of both Rawls and Singer.

We could come up with a research question:

What if we applied Rawls in the way that Peter Singer might think about? Blind to species? What kind of society would we come up with if we not only didn’t know our human place in society, but didn’t know if we’d occupy the place of a human or a dolphin?

If we thought about and researched this more, we might come up with the following thesis:

When we view John Rawls’ theory of justice through the lens of Peter Singer, some non-human animals would possibly benefit from rules of justice formed behind the veil of ignorance, and some homo sapiens might lose consideration.

This is still more of a working thesis. It should be more specific about the consequences, but first, the student would have to, in Hegel’s words, work through the labor of the notion to develop the complete argument, responding and reflecting on the related sources, such as Mark Rowlands’ non-speciesist response to Rawls and Hallie Liberto’s and David Svolba’s responses to Rowlands, both easily found through a simple PhilPapers search.

Like the introductory paragraph—which should be written last when you know what you’re actually introducing—the final thesis should be written after the argument is complete and you know what you’ve actually argued, and then you should go back through the essay and cut out everything that isn’t related to it. It’s hard work.

To conclude, students aren’t used to reading difficult texts, interpreting them carefully, arguing with them, reflecting on them, and developing an arguable claim from the sources they find instead of just believing stuff and hoping to find evidence for it. These skills are difficult to learn, which is why what passes for discussion and debate out in the world is so terrible. The lack of these skills and training explains why there are people who fervently believe we’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.

And because of this, when it comes to learning how to write an academic research essay using sources, finding the sources is probably the easiest thing the students are going to learn. It’s everything else they have a lot of trouble with. The librarian’s role in the process is important, but relatively small considering all the other things students have to learn to write good academic essays.

Sci-Hub and Information Apartheid

From what I’ve read, the methods Sci-Hub uses to acquire material range from the dangerous and stupid (e.g., providing strangers access to your network) to the illegal and unethical (e.g. phishing scams). Both of those are bad. However, the ethics of the existence of the repository itself is very debatable, and aside from the possible network security problems, most academics, including most academic librarians, probably aren’t going to care that much about Sci-Hub. While I’d prefer to see a more universal sharing of preprints along the lines of arXiv or PhilPapers, preprints aren’t what scholars have access to, so that’s not what they share with Sci-Hub.

A couple of things to consider. One reason this might be popular, and why people might contribute to it, is the contradiction between the sharing culture of academia and the commercial culture of most scientific publishing, which I’ve discussed before. Researchers don’t take copyright of scholarly work seriously because the very concept of making scholarly research unshareable is unthinkable to most of them. Doing research and disseminating the results is what researchers do, and they’ve been doing it for centuries. That’s why they publish in the first place. Most of them probably don’t even realize they’re giving up their right to legally share their research; hence all the takedown notices from Elsevier to Academic.edu. Researchers at scientific corporations might be different, but academics just won’t care about this. It’s a clash of values that can’t be reconciled.

Secondly, nobody without a financial stake in perpetual copyright is going to be especially concerned about the existence of Sci-Hub as such. A publisher over at Scholarly Kitchen was very hostile about SciHub and kept repeating that it’s illegal. True, it is illegal, but it’s not necessarily unethical. It’s illegal to share an Elsevier article with someone who didn’t pay their $35. It was also illegal for African-Americans to drink at “whites only” drinking fountains or stay at “whites only” hotels throughout much of the American south until just a few decades ago.  Apartheid was legal in South Africa until not that long ago, but that didn’t make it ethical. It being illegal didn’t make it unethical, and Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently laid out the case against unjust laws in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

In the U.S., copyright exists “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Once that “limited time” becomes almost perpetual, which it basically has, there’s a moral case for arguing that current copyright law is unjust law that creates a form of information apartheid for researchers who aren’t affiliated with the relatively wealthy institutions that can afford the access. Disney drove this more than Elsevier, but Elsevier especially has demonstrated hostility towards any sort of sharing, either by authors of the published works they wrote, or the government with works it funded.

Combining the sharing values of academic research, the creation of information apartheid, and the reliance upon a copyright system that many consider to be unjust and unethical, plenty of researchers, perhaps the majority, have no moral qualms about sharing scholarship as such. Everything about the culture of scholarship implies that sharing is considered the norm, from Academia.edu to the IcanhazPDF hashtag. And the legal argument isn’t persuasive to people who think the copyright system has been rigged for commercial interests at the expense of the public, and that probably includes most people who both a) know anything about copyright, and b) don’t have a financial interest in perpetuating the system against the public interest. A clash of values can’t be resolved by appealing to law that both sides don’t support.

There was a Chronicle of Higher Education article about how librarians were supposedly “caught between journal pirates and publishers.” However, I don’t consider myself caught at all. As a representative of the library, I present the library’s official position on copyright, knowing full well that scholars don’t care because their academic values are more important to them than profits for commercial publishers. While I uphold the law in this matter, I don’t have to agree with it or think it a just law, both because I share those academic values and because I believe copyright law is now at odds with the public interest, and that some bad actors among otherwise beneficial publishers have supported an unnecessarily restrictive information apartheid to unaffiliated researchers.

Instead of lecturing librarians about how we should feel about this situation, publishers would more fruitfully spend their time asking why unaffiliated researchers or researchers in poor countries should be excluded from results of international research considering the vast amount of money they’re already making off of libraries in richer countries that aren’t in danger of dropping their journal subscriptions because of something like Sci-Hub. Figure out a way to disseminate information to the people who need it, or consider sharing with the less fortunate a form of “fair use,” and librarians will applaud you for it, because that is what we value. Create information apartheid and appeal to rigged copyright law, and most of us aren’t going to be very concerned about it. I’ll follow the law and people at my university have so much information privilege they probably will to, but I have no sympathy for certain publishers who are so hostile to academic and library values.

Calculating My Odds

Donald Trump and his ilk are fearmongering about terrorism and President Obama wants to calm my nerves. Maybe it’s just that I’m congenitally not a worrier, but in my daily life I’m not in the least worried about being the victim of a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, by ISIS, right-wing extremists, or anyone else. Mass shootings and attacks are horrendous, and I can’t imagine how horrible it must be for the people who survive them and the loved ones of those who don’t, but anyone’s actual chances of being involved in one are extremely slight.

According to shootingtracker.com, there have been at least 462 people killed and 1312 injured in 353 mass shootings this year, which is already more than the 383 people killed last year. They define a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed or injured, which is a broader definition than the government has used. (Compare that to the 30K or so people killed in auto accidents each year.) According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. currently has a resident population of 322,367,564, giving me a 0.00000143% chance of getting killed in a mass shooting this year by the broadest definition. That’s almost literally a one in a million chance, the phrase we use when something is so unlikely that we won’t bother to worry about it.

Of those 353 shootings, 2 seemed to be related to Islamist terrorism (Chattanooga and San Bernardino), resulting in 19 deaths and 19 injuries. That’s from a site called thereligionofpeace.com, which is trying to prove how murderous Muslims are. By being so diligent in tracking deaths by Muslims, they ultimately show that Muslim terrorists have been responsible for .006% of the attacks and .041% of deaths in mass shootings this year, making my chances of being killed this year by a such a terrorist infinitesimal. So thanks, anti-Muslim website, for reassuring me.

But since deciding what counts as a mass shooting is difficult, let’s look at the most conservative data. Mother Jones magazine has been tracking mass shootings since 1982, and they use the criteria of four or more people killed, which means they don’t consider the recent Planned Parenthood attack a mass shooting, since “only” three people were killed. According to Mother Jones, there have been four mass shootings in the U.S. this year. According to shootingtracker.com data, there were 41 such shootings so far this year. However, they include domestic shootings such as this one and this one, which, while perhaps indicative of a culture of guns and violence, are in a different category than mass shootings in public places with the intent to kill randomly. One more kink. In 2013 Congress lowered the federal number of deaths required: “the term ‘mass killings’ means 3 or more killings in a single incident.” That would allow us to add the Planned Parenthood attack to the four mass shootings tracked by Mother Jones.

So at a conservative estimate there have been 5 mass shootings in the U.S. this year: San Bernadino (14 dead), Oregon (10 dead), Charleston (9 dead), Chattanooga (5 dead), and Colorado (3 dead). Of the 5 shootings, 2 are related to Islamist terrorism, 2 to what I would consider right-wing extremist terrorism (Colorado and Charleston), and 1 (Oregon) to who knows what craziness. By this reckoning, this year, there was a 40% chance of a mass shooting being related to Islamist terrorism, and 46% of the people killed in mass shootings were killed by Islamist terrorists, but still more people were killed by non-Muslim white American men than were killed by Muslims.

That’s a large percentage, but of a tiny number of events, and by these standards my odds increase significantly and I have a 0.00000013% chance of being killed in a mass shooting, and a 5.89389322e-8% chance of being killed by a Muslim terrorist. So despite all the fearmongering, there have been 2 Islamist terrorism incidents in the U.S. this year, giving us individually an insignificant chance of having been killed in one.

[Update] If we expand this analysis over several years, it looks even better. According to thereligionofpeace website, there have been 89 people killed by Muslim terrorists in the U.S. in the last 14 years. (I’m leaving out 9/11 because that is WAY outside the norm.) That averages to be about 6.4 people killed per year. Dividing that average by an average population of 320 million people each year gives a likelihood of death by Muslim terrorist of 2e-8%. That’s even lower than my previous estimate, because the San Bernadino shooting was uncharacteristic, and the largest number of dead since 2009. That’s a 1 in 50,000,000 or so chance each year that I’ll die in a terrorist attack in the U.S.

Just as who you associate with might lead to a domestic shooting, where you work might as well. I work at a university, where bomb threats seem to be increasing. None have actually been bombed because while any dipshit can buy a gun and start shooting people, making bombs is hard, and none of the shootings seemed related to Islamic terrorism. According to this Wikipedia list of attacks related to post-secondary schools, there have been 6 such attacks this year, leaving 17 people dead (including the 10 dead at Umpqua Community College in Oregon). There are 4,140 public or private colleges in the U.S., enrolling almost 18,000,000 students and having tens of thousands of employees. Again, an infinitesimal chance even within the domain of higher education.

None of this is an argument against fighting terrorism and mass shootings or trying to stop gun violence. However, it is an argument that an abnormal fear of being killed in a terrorist attack or mass shooting in the U.S. is unwarranted, and that the fearmongering is little short of demagoguery. Yes, they could happen anywhere, but they’re extremely unlikely to happen here, wherever here is. If the goal of terrorists is to terrorize me, they haven’t won.

Conservative Librarians and Liberal Librarians

In my last post I claimed there were two kinds of librarians–those who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t–and that I’m the former kind. Being a divider makes things easy, because once you start looking at the world in that simplistic way you see divisions everywhere. Science and religion, the personal and the political, Guelphs and Ghibellines, really whatever binary that pops into my head can provide useful fodder for false dichotomies, straw men, glittering generalities, oversimplification, question begging, non sequiturs, well poisoning, red herrings, weasel words, and other varieties of sophistry.

I’ve spent much of my adult life learning and teaching how to find, analyze, and evaluate evidence to support justified beliefs and reasoned arguments, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m neither a librarian rock star nor a prominent keynote speaker, so goodbye to all that. Divide and conquer is now my maxim.

On to the latest division. We can divide librarians into conservative librarians and liberal librarians.

Conservative librarians like the status quo, for better or worse. They don’t like change and they struggle against it. In discussions about change, they try to obfuscate the issues with irrelevant arguments, fallacious reasoning, and anything else they can do to draw attention away from existing problems and ways to solve them. If anyone thinks that maybe a current situation has a few problems and people should try to solve some of those problems, conservative librarians will resist them, sometimes by writing angry rants incoherently smearing their opponents and sometimes by writing cautious, overqualified essays subtly impugning the professionalism of those who disagree with them.

Conservative librarians have no positive goals. Their goals are entirely negative. First, stop any changes to the status quo. Second, stop conversations about changing the status quo, and if that’s not possible then obscure or derail the conversations. They will never come out and just say, “I like the status quo and I don’t want it to change no matter what and I wish you’d just shut up.” And they resent being called conservative and will deny it vehemently, because if it’s acknowledged that they’re conservatives opposed to all change regardless of its merits, then their arguments, such as they are, will be immediately ignored by most people.

On the other side, we have liberal librarians. Liberal librarians are more open to change because they’re smart, fun loving, and easygoing. The status quo doesn’t provide them with any particular comfort and they don’t fear the possibility that things might change if it means improvement. They don’t want chaos, but they don’t mind experimentation and gradual progress. They like freedom of discussion not only for themselves but for other people. They don’t try to shut down or obscure conversations. Quite the opposite. If liberal librarians have any flaw, it’s that they tend to discuss things to death. They’re open-minded and perhaps a tad too idealistic. Sometimes they dream too big, but they believe that while utopias don’t exist they still provide motivation to make a better world than we have now.

Liberal librarians like to take what they find and leave it better than they found it. Conservative librarians find this disconcerting because they always prefer what they have to what might be better, because even if the end result is better, the process of change is always bad. When liberal librarians talk about possibilities for improvement, conservative librarians focus on negative unintended consequences. When liberal librarians describe better ways of doing some things, conservative librarians will claim that any small improvements won’t make any real difference anyway so it’s pointless to try. When liberal librarians say they want freedom, conservative librarians will label that freedom tyranny.

There’s nothing either good or bad about conservative or liberal librarians. I’m not criticizing either one or implying that one of these is better than the other. Libraries need both. They need reactionaries who oppose all change and visionaries who can imagine better futures and how we might achieve them. Both are equally good. But it’s crucial that we divide librarians into these suspect categories so that we can discuss which kind of librarian we are or how I’ve misconstrued one side or the other or how maybe I’m just spouting nonsense. Otherwise, we might talk about something important.

Two Kinds of Librarians

Since the beginning of time, there have been two kinds of librarians: those who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t. Librarians who divide librarians into two kinds have never met a false dichotomy we didn’t like. We have an easy, simple vision of the world that’s very attractive for us and others, because reducing the irreducible complexity of existence to a series of false dichotomies simultaneously reduces the effort required for serious thought, and some of us are too busy running libraries to have time for serious thought.

The false dichotomy is a useful thing and beautiful in its simplicity. A scary thought is that there might be thousands of librarians motivated by a variety of values. It’s hard work to understand all of the values, much less the fact that even a single librarian can have multiple motives for action. Fortunately, we don’t have to understand it. We can just divide librarians using various false dichotomies. I’m dividing them into librarians who divide librarians into two kinds and those who don’t because it’s just a lot easier for me to understand the world that way.

Some people believe the world is a messy and complex place, and that even the world of libraries is complex. Those people frighten and confuse me. They believe that individual librarians have a set of sometimes conflicting values whose adherence requires balance, compromise, and negotiation. They might believe, for example, that librarians should act for the good of their individual library users, for the good of their particular libraries, and for the good of all libraries. That’s a lot to think about, though, and I prefer to make things easier on myself. Librarians either divide librarians into two kinds or they don’t, and if they don’t then they’re probably trying to force you to think about something complex that you really don’t have the time or inclination to think about. So don’t think about it.

It’s easy. I don’t. I just look out and see the two kinds of librarians. One kind, the dividers, are like me. They like things clean and simple. The great thing about such simplicity is how much time it saves me. Let’s say I encounter librarians writing or saying things that imply they aren’t dividers. With a wave of my mental hand I easily dismiss them, because if they’re not dividers like me, then they’re not worth paying attention to. If I’m being really generous, as I am here, I might warn other librarians to avoid them as well. Don’t pay attention to the non-dividers. They’re bad.

It gets even easier. Since I can tell almost immediately when a librarian isn’t a divider like me, I can warn everybody about how bad they are without considering any evidence whatsoever. You know who aren’t dividers? People who spend their precious time on things like “citing sources” or “critical thinking” when they’re dividing librarians using false dichotomies. Ugh. I have better things to do. You might think that if I had any respect for my audience I might cite some sources while making grand generalizations about librarians. But no, I assume my audience is as simplistic as I am and that they’ll fall for the same fallacies that I do.  Besides, citing sources takes work, and I prefer to write essays the way first-year college students write them. Hence my opening sentence and my complete lack of evidence for my claims.

Regardless, since I know that the world is divided between librarians who divide librarians into two kinds and those that don’t, and since I know that librarians who don’t divide librarians into two kinds disagree with me, and since I know that librarians who disagree with me are wrong and bad, then I don’t have to even examine them closely or provide reasons why they’re wrong and bad. The very fact that they don’t divide librarians into two kinds is proof enough that they can’t be trusted. Wrong and bad librarians like them hate libraries and their users. I can just dismiss them, and I implore you to do the same.

If we both share the same false dichotomy, that saves us from having to understand or engage with librarians who are wrong and bad because they disagree with us.  If we don’t share the same false dichotomy and you dare to criticize me, I have a way of dealing with that as well. I’ll repeat my false dichotomies and fallacious arguments ad nauseum until you get so tired of responding to my circular arguments that you just give up. I can copy and paste my claims into a comment box as many times as necessary. Really, it’s no trouble. And if I get the last word in, then I win the argument, because that’s how the Internet works.

You might think I’d come up with some arguments to defend my own beliefs instead of creating a false dichotomy, aligning myself with one side of it, poisoning the well against the other side, and hoping people will be gullible enough to have a discussion on my terms. But that’s hard work. Fallacious reasoning is much easier than critical thinking, it’s a lot more fun, and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. That’s why I like to keep things simple and easy.

Since things are so simple and easy, I don’t know why every librarian isn’t a divider like me. I could try to find out, I guess, but that would require understanding the values and motivations of the non-dividers, and probably engaging them at their own level, and if I do that things aren’t so clean and simple anymore, which means I’d be wasting time I could otherwise spend dividing the world into two kinds of librarians. If I was going to make that much effort, I might as well be a non-divider, but non-dividers are wrong and bad so I wouldn’t want to be like them. My argument is so airtight I might be suffocating myself.

A Modest Ebook Pricing Proposal

After the series of columns I wrote about ebooks for the Library Journal last fall, an ebook publisher emailed me and asked why my library wasn’t buying any of his ebooks even though they met every one of my criteria (DRM-free, unlimited usage, single title purchases, etc.). I tried a public response to that question here, basically saying that libraries generally have to choose a default for books–print or electronic–because they can’t afford both for all their titles. It’s all or nothing, and as long as people still want print books, I’ll keep buying them, which means that I don’t have money left over to duplicate each title as an ebook, no matter how great the ebook platform is. It’s just too much trouble trying to coordinate with publishers and approval plans subject by subject.

The thing is, I could have the money to do just that, if publishers weren’t trying to sell the same book twice, often for more than 200% of the cost of the print book. If the print book is $100 and an unlimited license to the ebook is $150, then buying both would be 250% of the print book price. If the ebook platform didn’t meet most of my criteria, I wouldn’t even think about buying it. Obviously librarians like me aren’t the target customers for publishers who want to sell technologically hobbled ebooks. However, often I would love to have an ebook version of a book, but couldn’t afford duplicates for so many titles.

Publishing is in transition, and that transition could last a very long time. According to recent statistics from the Association of American Publishers:

After slightly declining last year, eBooks experienced 3.8% revenue growth to an estimated $3.37 billion dollars. It’s worth noting that though the volume increased only slightly (.2%), over 510 million eBooks were sold in 2014. That’s nearly on-par with the number of hardbacks (568 million) sold in 2014…. Paperbacks, which remain the most popular format, also saw strong sales at $4.84 billion compared to $4.42 billion and units sold at 942 million compared to 882 million in 2013.

Print books are not going away anytime soon. Students and professors want them. Libraries buy them. Yet it’s also in everyone’s interest to support the development of good ebook platforms for academic libraries, which would be easier to do if more libraries bought ebooks even as they were still buying print books.

During the transition period, I’d like to see book publishers offering the same incentives for purchases as journal publishers did 15-20 years ago when journals were moving from print to electronic. I’d like to see an option for Print + Electronic at a price above just the price for print, but well below the price for currently buying a print book and then buying a duplicate ebook for more than 100% of the print book price. I don’t know what a fair price would be for such an arrangement. Journals were often about 10% more per year. Maybe even 20% for the right ebooks. If I had an option like that, I’d certainly purchase a lot more ebooks.

From the publisher’s perspective, it probably looks like a bad idea. After all, plenty of ebook publishers are afraid of DRM-free ebooks or unlimited usage and think that libraries should buy their ebook offerings even if the ebooks make things harder for library users. “What? An ebook for only 20% of the print price? That’s outrageous.” I’d be willing to turn it around. How about paying full price for an unlimited use purchase of an ebook and throwing the print book in for free? In many cases, that would be quite a bit more than buying the print book. Amazon even has a feature like that for some publishers, and I’ve bought at least one print book because the price after I’d purchased the ebook was only a fraction of the ebook cost.

Either way, it’s more money for publishers than they currently have. The ebook platforms are built. Providing access to another library isn’t that difficult. If a library is still buying print books from a publisher instead of ebooks, then any money paid for ebooks would be better than no money for ebooks. Eventually, there might be a transition from print to electronic for most library books. Or Print + Electronic could become the norm, satisfying the large audiences for both on a given campus.

Thus, one answer to the question of why some librarians aren’t purchasing acceptable ebooks is that we don’t have an incentive to. We want the print books because our users want the print books. We would also like the ebooks if they met certain criteria, but paying more than 200% of the print book price to have both isn’t affordable or wise. A Print+Electronic pricing model like that of journal publishers would give libraries an incentive to buy ebooks they aren’t buying now and get money to publishers they aren’t getting now. If someone could make it work, it would be better off for everyone.

The Stoic Librarian

In the words of Jim Anchower, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. For the past three years I’ve been trying to put my best library-related stuff into my Library Journal column, and the pressure of trying to come up with interesting stuff every month wore me out some. Since February I’ve been out of the rotation for the Peer to Peer Review column, and for the last three months have used the time I might have spent thinking about and writing that column reading philosophy and the occasional mystery novel. The publication of a blog post about avoiding library burnout from Letters to a Young Librarian gave me the incentive to write a bit about what I’ve been reading.

The past few years I’ve been reading a lot about Stoicism, both the existing writings of the Stoics themselves–Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius–as well as a number of secondary books on Stoicism (I’ve included a selection at the end for anyone interested in further reading). Last summer I intensified that reading, and for the past few months have been trying to practice some form of modern Stoicism. Currently, I’m participating in a Stoic Mindfulness course online and am enjoying it. I also joined a Facebook Stoicism group. I don’t know about avoiding librarian burnout, but I do think that some Stoic practices help dealing with stress at work and what Sartre called the hell of other people.

First, a bit about what Stoicism is and isn’t about. I looked up the Merriam Webster definition of a stoic, which is supposedly “a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” Well, sort of. But just as the philosophy of Epicurus has nothing inherently related to enjoying fine food and drink, the contemporary definition of “stoic” has only a partial relation to either classical or modern Stoicism.

Put simply, Stoics seek a flourishing life devoted to human excellence, living according to our nature as rational and social animals, practicing the virtues of courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. There are several Stoic beliefs and practices that form a system. Bits of the system can certainly be used effectively without accepting the whole, and I’m going to give a brief summary of the some of the major parts as I understand them.

1) There are things that are within our control and things that are not, and we should concern ourselves only with the things within our control.

In our control are our own beliefs, emotions, and actions. Not in our control are events that happen to us, the actions of other people, and what Stoics sometimes sum up as our health, wealth, and reputation. Now, it might seem like some of that is within our control. For example, our health. People try to eat healthy and exercise, and this gives them some control over their health. That’s fine for a Stoic to do. But if I have a terminal disease, there’s really not a lot I can do about it other than suffer through it or commit suicide if the pain gets too bad. And, ultimately, I will die, which is perfectly natural and nothing I can control. Since I can’t control it, I won’t worry about it.

I can’t control events that happen to me, only the way I respond. So, yes, a Stoic “accepts what happens,” but only in the sense that Stoics accept that things happen they can’t control and work to not get upset or angry over those things because to do so is pointless. People can try to control events and can even have some success, but eventually they will reach a barrier they can’t cross. If there’s something I’d like a colleague to do for me, I can ask nicely, I can plead, I can angrily demand, but I can’t force the person to do anything. Likewise with my reputation. I can try to do my best at things, but I can’t control what other people think of me, so I try not to worry about it. I want to worry only about my own choices and actions, since those are the only things I control. I have no control over the past, so I shouldn’t worry about it. I can only control how I act going forward.

2) It’s not things that bother us, but our judgment about things.

This famous line from Epictetus strikes me as a truism, but is apparently one of the hardest things for people to accept. If someone does something and I become angry, that anger is all in my head. It doesn’t somehow inhere in the action of the other person. People can’t “make me angry,” I can only choose to become angry over their actions, which is completely different. If you believe people “make” you angry, you believe they can control your mind. I don’t believe that. This is easily demonstrable if I’m the only one angry. (I use anger as an example because that has always been my most deadly sin.) Adam Smith observed that if we see other people angry we rarely get as angry on their behalf, and indeed might find their anger unseemly. Stoics believe that we should look at events almost as if we were other people, to take the “view from above.” If the same event wouldn’t anger or sadden others, then the anger and sadness are all ours. Anger in particular harms the angry person more than anyone else. Nobody cares about your anger, except perhaps to know when you’re angry so as to avoid you. As La Rochefoucauld noted, we all have the strength to bear other people’s problems.

3) Take a mental step back from events and examine them as they are before applying a value judgment.

As Pierre Hadot reads Epictetus and Marcus, this is part of the “discipline of assent.” An event happens, say, someone makes a remark about me. Maybe a fellow librarian calls me “fatty, fatty four eyes” in an attempt to anger me. The event itself is that someone said something about me. Whether I believe the person thereby harmed me or not is a value judgment that I apply, usually almost instantaneously. I “assent” (apply a value judgment) to the “impression” of the remark (in Stoic jargon). But with practice it’s possible to mentally step back and consider the situation. Has that person really harmed me? Stoics believe that rude or insulting people are in fact harming themselves by making themselves more vicious. Vice-ridden people who can’t control their actions are like children who haven’t learned to behave properly. Mentally, I might say to myself, “do the actions of rude children warrant my anger or my pity?” Someone else might try to insult me doing what they can control, but I’m only insulted if I choose to find the remark insulting. With a lot of practice, that’s within my control.

4) Act justly for the common good.

This is part of the “discipline of action.” Instead of always considering myself above and before other people, I should try to think more universally. Despite the irrational misanthropy of some people, human beings are social animals and are born into the world dependent on other people. The Stoic philosopher Heirocles conceived of a circle of concern, and Stoics practice to extend that circle of concern steadily outwards from themselves, to their friends and family, fellow citizens, and eventually to everyone in the world. Stoics were the first cosmopolitans, citizens of the world. Check out this panoramic view of the Andromeda galaxy, a 61,000-light-year stretch of the galaxy nearest ours of the 100 billion galaxies in universe. Think about how insignificant our lives and concerns are from a universal perspective. Think also that most people, just like you, act in a way they believe is good and believe things they they believe are right. Think of all that humans have in common, including their ultimate death and insignificance from a cosmic standpoint. And then ask yourself why your selfish concerns are somehow more important than everyone else’s in the world.

5) Learn to desire that things you can’t control happen as they do.

This one’s really hard, the “discipline of desire.” Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus are explicit that our lives will be happiest if we not just grudgingly accept things that happen beyond our control, but learn to desire that they happen as they do. Nietzsche wrote about the “eternal return,” and asked how we would feel if we knew we would live the same life over and over again and things would always happen as they do now. His life-affirming answer was amor fati, the “love of fate.” Stoics also try not to be averse to things happening they can’t control. Many, perhaps most, people fear death. But for the Stoic, death is nothing to be afraid of or avoid. We all die. It’s natural. We can’t avoid death. We can only control the way in which we deal with it. Stoics practice doing this by imagining things happen that ordinarily one might consider bad, such as the death of a loved one, and trying to emotionally deal with the impermanence of the world. Confer a line from the movie Gladiator, where Maximus is (supposedly) quoting Marcus: “Death smiles on us all. All a person can do is smile back.” Or an actual quote from Marcus: “The universe is change. Life is opinion.”

6) Cultivate apatheia.

The Stoics, like all ancient philosophers, had a goal of eudaimonia, sometimes translated as happiness but perhaps best translated as a “good life,” or a “flourishing life.” This isn’t to be confused with “the good life” in the sense of having wealth or possessions or infinite leisure, as some people use the phrase, because Stoics are indifferent to wealth. You can achieve eudaimonia whether you’re rich or poor. The chief difference of the Stoics was their desire for apatheia, which shouldn’t be confused with apathy. Whereas the Epicureans sought ataraxia (tranquility), the Stoics sought apatheia (“without suffering”; equanimity). It’s not all emotions that Stoics shun, but only the pathological ones, the ones that make us suffer, such as anger, extreme grief, depression, and anxiety. Good emotions, on the contrary, should be cultivated along with apatheia: love, joy, etc.

7) Be here and now.

There’s a lot of popular writing in the west extolling Buddhist mindfulness, which I’m all for (and heartily recommend this book, which is a sort of translation and commentary on the Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutta). But there’s also a western tradition of mindfulness. Roman Stoics had the phrase hic et nunc, “here and now.” Be always mindful of what you’re doing and of what’s happening to you. Monitor your responses to outside events, and to make sure you’re responding appropriately, not with knee-jerk emotions. Stay aware that you’re doing what you should be doing, and not lost in worries or ruminations about things you can’t control. It’s the hardest easy practice anyone will likely ever try.

8) Meditate on your actions.

Another parallel with Buddhism is Stoic meditation, but instead of meditating silently trying to empty the mind, to have a “mind like dead ashes,” Stoics meditate upon their forthcoming activities (in the morning) and their actions of the day (in the evening). Marcus wrote that he awoke and reminded himself that he has the work of a human being to do, and he wasn’t made so that he could lie in bed under warm covers all day. A warm bed on a cold morning is one of my favorite things, and during the winter I often reminded myself of Marcus’ pep talk. Wake up. Review what you have to do. Some of it might be difficult. You’ll encounter heavy traffic or unpleasant people. Think about it all beforehand and imagine dealing with it all with equanimity. Practice in your imagination the way you’ll want to respond when things happen.

In the evening, review your actions. Were you rude to someone? Did you get angry when someone cut you off in traffic? (I should note that my workplace and home life are fairly peaceful, and I find myself struggling with apatheia the most when I’m commuting.) Is there anything left undone that you should have done? Did you do everything as well as you could, and if not, could you do better tomorrow?

9. Virtue (arete) is the only good, vice is the only evil, and both are the result of our choices.

Like most ancient Greek ethics, Stoicism is a version of “virtue ethics.” Virtue is the usual translation of arete, which means something like excellence. So the virtues would be various human excellences. Etymologically, ethics is about character (ethos in Greek), so virtue ethics is about forming an excellent character through the proper use of reason and the practice of other virtues, especially courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. For the Stoics, the only good or bad things are choices we make. Everything else is an “indifferent,” which can be used virtuously or viciously. Thus, nothing inherently “bad” happens to you, because only things you choose to do viciously are bad. Neither do inherently “good” things happen to you, because goodness is part of our our choices, whereas things that happen to us are subject to our judgments about them. Thus, at every moment, our choices define the sort of character we have.

Then try some Buddhist meditation, too, because it’s good for you.

Okay, that’s a basic explanation of Stoicism as I understand it, leaving out some of the more technical language. When I first started reading Epictetus’s Handbook (my first classical Stoic text), a lot of it seemed commonplace to me, but I hadn’t realized how much Stoicism I’d imbibed through Nietzsche, existentialism, Thoreau and even the New Testament. Also, there are some remarkable parallels with Taoism. Though not so clearly articulated, #s 1-3 above were mostly ingrained in me already. I struggle a lot with #s 4-6, and find that continually recalling #7 and practicing #8 helps. Complete mastery of Stoic beliefs and practices would make one a sage, but the Stoics weren’t sure that any actual person had attained sagehood. Everyone giving it a try are progressors, just trying to get by in the world as best they can. All non-sages are fools, but there are fools who know they’re fools trying to do something about it, and fools unaware of their folly.

———————

Further reading:

Primary Works (there are many translations of these. I’m including ones I own.)

Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

If you want public domain versions of all these, taken mostly from the Loeb Classical Library translations, try the 99-cent ebook Stoic Six Pack. It has all of Seneca’s letters instead of just a selection, but I think starting with a selection is probably better.

Epictetus’ Handbook is short, compact, and full of wisdom. I’d recommend starting with it, then perhaps Marcus’ Meditations, selected letters of Seneca, then back to Epictetus’ Discourses, just a bit of each every day instead of all at once. Seneca has some useful essays as well, particularly On Anger. If you really want to branch out, there are works recommended in the books below.

Secondary Works

Beginners might want something less scholarly and more therapeutic. I’d recommend these:

William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Irvine’s book is the first one of these I read, and the one that got me started reading the Stoics proper, but ultimately I think he gets it wrong. His modern Stoicism is, I believe, really a modern Epicureanism drawn from the Stoic sources that sound most Epicurean, where the goal is tranquility rather than equanimity. In many of Seneca’s letters, he quotes Epicurus and draws Stoic lessons from him, under the belief that all true sayings belong to everyone. That’s my impression of what Irvine’s doing here. It’s a good read, though, and a modern Epicureanism would be a good thing. I’d also recommend his books on desire and insults, both of which have a lot of Stoic influence.

If you want something a little more focused on the historical philosophy of Stoicism, this is a good introduction:

John Sellars, The Art of Living: the Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy

I particularly enjoyed the chapter in Sellars on the “philosopher’s beard.” I didn’t know that in the Hellenistic period, Greek philosophers in the Roman Empire (e.g., Epictetus) tended to wear beards while most Romans shaved. It was part of living the philosophical life. I’ve had a beard for most of my adult life because my face breaks out in a rash when I shave, but maybe my face was just being philosophical the entire time.

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

These are both solid works of classical scholarship that provide an influential interpretation of late Stoicism, especially the “three disciplines” of Epictetus and Marcus. If you like thick scholarly books in philosophy, you’ll likely enjoy these.