The Stoic’s Songbook

I’ve been vaguely aware for a long time that I need to know more about Stoic philosophy. I recently came across a review of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine and decided to read the whole book, after which I decided to read some of the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus.

Stepping back from all that now, I would still like to avoid the pomposity of claiming I’m a Stoic, but the label does seem to approximate my “approach” to life as well as any other. Epictetus advised that “in the very act of kissing a child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow.” Irvine calls this negative visualization – the Stoic practice of visualizing the loss of the people and things one loves and enjoys in life as a means of preventing oneself from taking them for granted or becoming acclimated to pleasure. This “ancient Stoic practice” sounds very familiar to me. Negative visualization is a fancy term for something that I just do out of habit. I don’t know how I acquired this habit. But I may have something of the Stoic about me whether I call it that or not.

I was listening to The Avett Brothers’ I and Love and You at the same time I was plunging into Stoic philosophy because, well, I listen to that album all the time. I don’t know anything specific about the Avett’s religious or philosophical views; they are probably Christians. But at least three songs from that album strike me as having strong Stoic themes. I referenced one of those songs before in this blog in a Quote of the Day post about facing death. And I previously posted another Avett Brother’s tune from a different album that perfectly and beautifully depicts negative visualization. In “Murder in the City,” a man ponders the possibility of being murdered before returning home from the city and is inspired by his musings to observe as if from the grave:

Always remember there was nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.

This is just one band. I had picked up on and identified with these themes even before I would relate them to Stoicism. So are Stoic themes abundant in popular music? I doubt it, but I’m realizing they pop up again and again on my mp3 player.

And so I decided to compile a few Stoic tunes that flow thematically from various Stoic principles. These are the songs that happened to occur to me over the last few days, and are the ones that also happened to be on Youtube for my readers’ instantaneous listening pleasure. If there are other songs that should not be overlooked, I would love to hear suggestions.

  • On valuing and seeking a life of tranquility:

Stoicism assumes a life of tranquility is worth pursuing. Not everyone might agree with this assumption. I witness many who seem not to. This song is not perfect, because satisfaction (especially self-satisfaction) is not quite the same as tranquility. This song also goes a bit too far in suggesting one can’t be wealthy and a Stoic (Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emporor). But it seems a good starting point nonetheless. And who can deny the Stoic persona of the aged Johnny Cash:

  • On negative visualization:

A less folksy alternative to “Murder in the City,” in this Nada Surf song the dead invite the living to “See these bones” because:

what you are now, we were once
just like we are, you’ll be dust
and just like we are, permanent

  • On using humor and self-deprecation to deflect insults, avoid anger and cope with grief:

This is an admittedly odd choice. But this song gets closer than any I can think of at the moment. The song could be interpreted in various ways. Even some Christians seem to have embraced it per my brave venture into Youtube comments on the video (they see it as a no-atheists-in-foxholes-FU to nonbelievers). The song has some quality about it, however, that should make Christians uncomfortable as well. The song may be about realizing the comedy in the absurdity of the human condition and being able to laugh about it.  Despite the tragedies that could befall us (which the song artfully catalogs), we are invited us to laugh with God because:

God can be so hilarious, ha, ha.

  • On taming pointless and externalized desires:

Internalizing ones desires is another important Stoic principle. “I want to be a famous novelist” when internalized becomes “I want to compose a work of long-form fiction of which I am extremely proud.” Yes, this is another Avett Brothers song. I can’t help it. Look at these lyrics:

I am sick with wanting and its evil how its got me
And everyday is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think I’m almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more

  • On periodically denying oneself of the creature comforts and basic necessities that most of us can take for granted:

Irvine relates the story of his mother in a nursing home, unable to swallow fluids, but achieving obviously immense gourmet connoisseur pleasure from sucking on ice cubes. This song reminds us:

You don’t miss your water/ Until your well runs dry

  • On wanting what you already have:

This particular song hits home for me on this issue. Because I always fancy I could be happier if I lived somewhere else.

Do you like where you’re living?
Do you like what you do?
Do you like what you’re seeing
When you’re lookin’ at you?
Do you like what you’re saying
When you open your face?
Do you got the right feeling?
Are you in the right place?

  • On accepting those things over which you have no control:

There are plenty of songs to choose from in this category, from the annoyingly chipper “Que Sera, Sera” to pretty much anything by Tom Waits. I chose “The World Keeps Turning” because it comes so close to despairing:

They always say he marks the sparrow’s fall
How can anyone believe it all?

But zooms out from personal loss and suffering with the repeated refrain and Stoic insight, “The world keeps turning”:

  • On dying the good death:

Stoics necessarily spend a fair amount of time thinking about death (see negative visualization above), not out of fear of death itself but out of fear of “mis-living.” Though Christianity and Stoicism overlap in some respects, this is one crucial difference between the two approaches to life. Christianity promises life after death, and, in doing so, extracts the most powerfully active ingredient from negative visualization – the finality of death.

This song, “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital),” contains the earnest pleadings of someone unable to face impending death, mostly because of too late realizing all he took for granted while healthy:

  • On examining yourself and developing a philosophy of life:

This song is an honorable mention for this keen observation (emphasis my own):

You can spend your whole life workin’ for something
Just to have it taken away.
People walk around pushing back their debts,
Wearing pay checks like necklaces and bracelets,
Talking ‘bout nothing, not thinking ‘bout death,
Every little heartbeat, every little breath.

*Optional footnote on Stoic themes (or the lack thereof) in Dylan’s music

Those who know me may wonder at the lack of Dylan songs in the above list. There is a reason for this. I am more familiar with his catalog than any other songwriter and, despite scanning the Dylan files of my memory, nothing (with one exception noted below) really jumped out at me. In so far as Stoic references exist in Dylan’s poetry, they are in fragmented bits and pieces. Dylan lacks, it seems, strong Stoic tendencies.

I can’t say this surprises me. Other than his time as an evangelical Christian and his earlier phase as a leftist protest singer, he has famously refused to be the consistent spokesperson for “-isms” of any kind. He is, he has said, just “a song and dance man.” Put another way, he has portrayed himself as following no philosophy of life, only his own muse. In that way, he seems almost self-consciously the democratic man of Plato’s Republic, a specimen previously noted on this blog. I probably give him too much credit, but I like to think he had this in mind when he condescended to the British press that they shouldn’t expect to understand his music because the songs he writes are “American songs.”

That is just Dylan. Would I want him any other way just to have small affirmation of my Stoic tendencies? Definitely, no.

But he did write at least one song that bears recognition in this context.  The song is “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” recorded in 1962 but not released until 1991. Its focus is on living fully, of ensuring one does not “mis-live” before one “goes down under the ground”:

Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadows with the green grassy leaves
Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

The song even points to the aforementioned distinction between Stoic and Christian philosophy in a reference to the nihilism inherent in apocalyptic Christian beliefs:

There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
’Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Update: An addendum to the list here. I can’t believe I missed one of my favorite songs.

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8 Responses to The Stoic’s Songbook

  1. Danny says:

    I enjoyed this post, Seth. The discussion of philosophy was educational, and I’ve got some new music to check out. I don’t love the Regina Spektor song on your list, but I do like her music in general. You’re not the first friend to suggest the Avett Brothers, so I’m going to give them another listen.

  2. sethink says:

    I don’t really like the Regina Spector song either. It’s so fucking smug. I need to find a better song about laughing away adversity.

  3. Lance says:

    Hi Seth,

    Just wanted to say awesome post! Thank you so much for taking the time to put all these thoughts together.

    Found you by way of a little net serendipity. Searching on my possible future blog name (apt metaphor) lead me to your picture of you (and your daughter?) and then *bam* Stoicism?!? *click* I discovered Stoicism literally days ago. I loved your threading of Stoic ideas and music. I’m still searching out my bases, compiling sources. Weird coincidence eh?

    Anyways – I have been just another ambivalent, apathetic, air-breathing agnostic in recent years, and I am quite interested in finding reasons-to-be that I can explain to others in plain-words. Unifying and expanding on my life-lessons-learned and weaving the wisdom of my mentors into something cohesive and based in simple reasoning is the missing ingredient in my life right now. Why has it taken so long to find even a hint of this? I’m not sure.

    Well gotta run.

    Here’s to tranquility and a life worthy of living,


  4. sethink says:

    Hi Lance, my fellow Stoic. Thanks for reading. So what did you name your blog after all? Not seeing Apt Metaphor out there.

  5. Michel Daw says:

    Hey Seth.

    Awesome blog. And welcome to the unofficial ranks of the students of Stoicism. I know Bill is tickled pink whenever someone learns something from his book. BTW the translation of Musonius Rufus he mentions at the end of the book is available through

    I am going to follow you, if you don’t mind. Cheers!

  6. Pingback: A Love Song for Monday: “When the Deal Goes Down” | SeThink

  7. lmayhew says: not too substantial lyric wise but has an anthem quality for marching to death. this may be a more Romantic hijacking of stoicism – facing death as as ecstatic plea rather than a simple action. what do you think?

  8. lmayhew says: and here’s another regina spektor song. I think almost a stoic dismissal of the lament she ought feel. a similar “world keeps turning” phase to waits. except she might be just saying that it wasn’t a big deal – it wouldn’t have been hard to overcome no matter a commitment to logos – easier than the pain waits seems to overcome. But though Spektor may come across as superficial, I think she or at least another person singing this song, could be leaving a lot of pain unsaid, singing this to wash it away and get back to a non-despairing goal.

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