Tag Archives: stoicism

Interview with Michel Daw

I recently met Michel Daw through facebook. Michel posts philosophical comments on a daily basis, and I rapidly discovered that he is a stoic. Very taken with the ideas I’ve seen from him, I thought an interview for Pagan and Pen was in order, and he agreed. So, here we go…

Bryn: Can you tell us a bit about your spiritual background and path?

Michel: I would be happy to.  I hold a B.A. in Psychology and Computer Studies. Following this, I was drawn to Seminary where I received my Diploma in Pastoral Care. Before re-entering the secular workforce, I obtained 4 College Certificates, focused on computer and office productivity. I also received a Diploma as a Teacher of Adults from St. Lawrence College, Cornwall, ON. I have been teaching Adult in business and classroom settings for over 2 decades now. I continue my education and professional development, sometimes through seminars and training. I am certified in Instructional Delivery and Curriculum Design by Langevin Learning Group, Ottawa, ON. I currently manage an international Training team for a software firm.

Nevertheless, I am not a fan of labels and denominations for myself. If anything, I am a Seeker. I have explored many facets of Christianity, (including some very contemplative forms), and have examined it closely. I have also looked at Buddhism (a little), Atheism and both Secular and Religious Humanism. I have studied and participated in pre-christian religious reconstructions (mostly Hellenic in nature), due to their focus on nature. I have been part of neo-pagan groups, both local and international, for almost 30 years now. My wife and I sometimes participate with the Unitarian Church in our area. They claim to have no final answers, and do not ask us to accept any.

I find though that I achieve the greatest and most consistent elevation of soul when I observe, contemplate and consider this amazing universe in which we live. I echo Carl Sagan’s sentiment. I find it elevating and exhilarating to discover that we live in a universe which permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we. The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together. The cosmos is also within us for we are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

I actively recognize our biological connection to each other, our chemical connection to this planet and our atomic connection to the cosmos. I celebrate those connection in ways that seem appropriate to my wife and I.

I first came across Stoicism in late 2000 when reading Volume 2 of the Harvard Classics, which included The Last Days of Socrates, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I then found Stoicism again in the first volume  of the Penguin Great Ideas series, On the Shortness of Life, by Seneca. Since then, I have read literally dozens of books on Stoicism, some dating back hundreds of years, some published as late as last year.  This philosophy intrigued me, and this started me on the  decade long (so far) quest to live a Stoic life.

To be a Stoic is to live conformably to Nature, and thus experience our true place in this vast universe, to grow into our full potential, to truly flourish. It is to express the promise of excellence that is within each of us, living rationally in accordance with science, reason, and as a contributing part of the global community.

That being said, I have taken to heart the advice of Epictetus, noted Stoic teacher from the Roman period. “Never call yourself a philosopher [or in my case a Stoic], nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them… So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business… Do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.”

So my Stoicism is more than a study, it is a daily Practice. Each morning, Pam and I read a passage from a Stoic writer, and consider their advice. We often note that advice, or our opinion of it, on Facebook and our blogs. We then seek to implement or strengthen that practice in our daily life. These ‘spiritual exercises’ are having a definitely having an impact our flourishing and serenity. When faced with challenges that once frustrated us, we now examine them for what is in our control, and what is out of our control. We then pour all of our energies in the tasks over which we have influence, and release the rest to the workings of the universe. 

Our practice also takes on longer term spiritual exercises. For example, during Halloween, a time of year reserved by many traditions to recognize our debt to those  who have passed from our lives. Pam and I recognize our past mentors and family using Marcus Aurelius’ example, as written in the first book of the Meditations.

I consider myself a student of Stoicism. Thus when I fail to act according to Stoic principles, I do not bring the philosophy into disrepute, but highlight how much more I must learn. I continue to study to obtain a still clearer and more solid foundation in Stoic Ethics, which I believe can best be achieved by first learning, then practicing, then teaching. I teach Stoic principles seeking opportunities to live out Stoic theory and Practice as part of a greater community.

Bryn: Which piece of stoical writing has influenced you most?

Michel: There are two ideas that have struck me.  Stoics have a kind of catch phrase that can be roughly translated as ‘Living according to Nature.’ The word used for Nature is Phusis. It has several layers of meaning. Phusis is more than the natural world of plants, animals etc. although it does include it. It also encompasses the entire natural order to the universe, from the birth and death of stars, right down to the subtle interactions of sub-atomic particles and beyond (in both directions). You can think of phusis as the process that turns an acorn into an oak, carbon into diamonds, start-stuff into people.  Phusis is also the limiter, that says that a particular oak will be so tall and so broad, if the conditions exist for it to do so. In human terms, Phusis urges us not only to live according to, and in harmony with, the Natural realm, (which I feel is in perfect attunement with the Druid’s focus on the earth and its inhabitants) but to explore our own personal Phusis as well. In other words, part of experiencing fulfillment is to Fulfill the Promise of Your Nature.

The second is from Epictetus. Some things are in our power, and others are not. In our power are the opinions we hold, and the choice of what to pursue, what to prefer, what to avoid, and what to reject. In a word, whatever are our own acts. Not in our power are our body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. Only choices are up to us, results are out of our control. If we therefore pour our energy into those things that we actually can control, and release those things that are not in our control, we will be able to give the energy we have to things that make a difference.

 Bryn: What would you recommend as reading for someone new to all of this?

 Michel: Hmmm that is a good question. It all depends on what you are looking for from Stoicism. 

Pop-Culture Stoicism: Both The Stoic Art of Living (Tom Morris) and Guide to the Good Life (William Irving) provide a general introduction for some Stoic ideas by bringing out popular themes into a modern context, leaving out any real rigor or challenging life adjustment.

Academic Stoicism: If you are interested in the history of Stoicism, a good introduction is John Sellars’ Stoicism. Information without application.

Scientific/Atheist Stoicism: Lawrence Becker’s ‘A New Stoicism’ dispenses with the now unpopular ‘spiritual’ aspect of Stoic practice and attempts to reinvent it for a post-modern scientific society.

Practical Stoicism: If you are interested in learning about Stoicism as a personal practice, Keith Seddon’s ‘Stoic Serenity’ is a great place to begin if you want to work on your own. Originally conceived as a correspondence course, this book includes some history, some philosophy, some practical work. 

TheStoicLife.org: My personal website, where I am slowly developing a course to guide students through understanding and adopting a Stoic Life. As Stoicism was created as an Art of Living, this course will offer six months worth of weekly lessons to allow for a gradual adjustment to Stoic thought and practice. The aim is transformation, as opposed to only education or information. This is at its very beginning however, with only the first two lessons up. Whether it is successful or not remains to be seen.

Bryn: Thanks for sharing this. Fascinating stuff, I shall be browsing your website at the very least.

Honouring my Grandmother

Had my grandmother lived long enough, today would have been her 90th birthday. Diana Patricia Beatrice Barton (Barty to her friends)  died a few years ago, and I still miss her. At the date closest to her birthday, I sing songs of hers at folk club, as a way of honouring her memory. In previous years that’s been a private thing, but my son is sharing it this time round.

In many ways, I am a pagan because of my grandmother. Both of my parents explored Wicca when I was a child, and I grew up in a house full of books on myth, folklore, magic… I met witches, had a few interesting experiences along the way. But none of these things actually made me pagan, they just helped when I realised I was.

 It all came down to one conversation with my grandmother.

Like many teenagers, I wasn’t an especially happy creature. There were reasons. Not extraordinary reasons, most of them to do with being a lost and confused young person with low self esteem, convinced that I was too fat to be loved, struggling with my parents separating, hungry for affection but not knowing how to do relationship, socially inept, painfully shy, self conscious, and full of need that nothing seemed able to answer. At the time it seemed like a very big deal, but I had only seen molehills and had yet to learn that mountains are something else entirely.

My grandmother had a much harder life. Hers included horrendous poverty, divorce when that kind of thing wasn’t very socially acceptable, abuse, and dreadfully poor health. She had far more to be unhappy about than I did, but she handled it with grace, and stoicism. As a self obsessed teen, I didn’t really appreciate that, but I think I see more looking back than I did at the time.

I can’t remember why I was having a bad day. Which says a lot about whatever had made me miserable. She told me, quietly and without judgement, that when things were getting to her, she would go outside, and look at the sky and the hills. She reminded me that nature is beautiful, and always around us, and that whatever else is happening, the beauty of nature is something to find joy in, take comfort from, and trust.

I took those words onboard, and from that day I started looking around me more, taking notice, and learning to care. Boys might be fickle and unkind. School might be stifling. Family life might be uncomfortable. The hills were always there, constant, dependable, full of beauty and their own kind of magic. Thanks to her words, I learned to see.

Since then it’s been a process, deepening that relationship with the natural world, letting it feed my soul and ease my heart. Most people are not much use in that regard, and it took me a long time to learn not to be so people-centric in my affections. The hills do not approve of me. I do not need them to. That works. I can cry into the wind, howl to the soil when my heart is breaking. Being able to do so makes it easier to manage those ever-challenging human relationships that tend to cause all the pain.

My grandmother considered herself Christian, but on her own terms. She could tell a person’s character from their handwriting, and had premonitions. She saw ghosts. I don’t know much about what she believed, I think it was a private thing for her. But she took me chasing rainbows as a child, taught me to bake, and some needlecraft, shared her art, stoicism, and love of nature. That I am a pagan now, is very much due to her. So today, I honour her memory.