It must have been a year and a half ago that I came across a quote of Epictetus, about whom I knew nothing at that time. The quote read,
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”
Obviously, I couldn’t recall the exact words of the quote all by my own, it was only after a Google search that I found what I was looking for.
It was one of those pictures, where you’ve the photo of the author’s bust carved in stone on one side and the famous words on the other. I remember the detail because the things that were troubling me at that time somehow were related to the wisdom being imparted by the quotation and given the focused concentration, the quote caught my attention. I did not know about the root philosophy of those words or the person they were associated with.
I am sure I must have come across the quotations of various Stoic philosophers before that as well. But it wasn’t until recently that I thought of picking up the topic of Stoicism and actually read it in as much detail as I can for the reasons that I will be sharing shortly.
Admittedly, self improvement stuff like self help books have stopped making sense to me for a while now. I find them ineffective and ironically, counterproductive. It’s a big no for all those forced positivity words and videos that have found home everywhere. I consider them just another means of marketing a thought by taking advantage of the shortcomings of susceptible humans. Self improvement can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. So I was quite sceptical with regards to Stoic philosophy as well. But something about it fascinated me. I was of the opinion, if it doesn’t end up helping me in ways I expect, at least it is not going to be an absolute waste of time, I will end up collecting thoughts of wise men from across centuries.
The cruise began with reading the famous works of the big three: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. And frankly, my first impression of the philosophy wasn’t a pleasant one for various reasons. Below are some of those issues discussed, a few for which I have found the grounds as to why they are the way they are. My equation with the rest remains the same. Disagreeable.
A) As I had begun with reading the purest form of the philosophy that had suited the ancient thoughts and practices, I began wondering how do people today identify with it given how people like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday (probably the most prominent proponent of modern Stoicism) were so after it and selling the credo like anything? They happen to be an entrepreneur and a marketing executive, respectively, so I guess that’s self understood. There was this instant realisation, that the quotations that had lured me into reading more about the said philosophy provided a sort of veneer of antiquity to what is really a very modernised and a diluted form of the actual (ancient) philosophy.
B) The suspension of judgement and indifference:
Being indifferent to the negatives and hardships, I get it, but why are the pleasures of life met with the same treatment? For example, Epictetus at various places in his Discourses mentions how fun and even laughter is not good for the soul. Wait, what?
C) The glorification of suicide:
Another aspect of traditional Stoicism that is noticeably missing from nearly all modern versions of Stoicism (and thank you Lord for that) is the glorification of suicide. The idea of “noble suicide” was certainly present within certain Greek philosophical circles during the Hellenistic Period, and it somehow found its way into Stoicism during the latter’s infancy.
D) I had no idea what to do with frequent references to the gods as mentioned in every other text that I was coming across touching this topic.
Before moving forward, let me clear things a bit. I don’t identify myself as a Stoic or a critic of Stoicism. I happen to be an outsider driven by curiosity to learn a thing or two about it and then perhaps put that wisdom to the benefit. In my view, there are quite a few things we can learn from Stoicism, but Stoicism also has some serious pitfalls that are worth taking into account.
The thing that made me stick to it was the fact that it gave me the vocabulary for the concepts I already was aware of and a few of which I was unknowingly practicing. Besides, there was still a lot that was making sense to me and that I could relate to.
- The concept of cosmopolitanism, as can be found in the words of Diogenes of Sinope, who said, “I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world.”
- Self awareness and introspection. Plato asked, “…why should we not calmly and patiently review our own thoughts, and thoroughly examine and see what these appearances in us really are?”
To be upfront, most of us have no clue what drives us.
- Self discipline. “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” — Marcus Aurelius
To support the benefits of it, we have the Stanford University’s Marshmallow experiment.
The quotations from these authors expressed them well and clearly. These quotations, over time I realised, are essential to the modern brand of Stoicism. Which gets me to my next point. The aspect of Stoicism that I instantly clicked with was its practical nature. It turns out it was deliberately created to be understandable, actionable and useful. Practicing Stoicism doesn’t require learning an entirely new philosophical lexicon (although the associated philosophers are well known for having developed a rich technical vocabulary) or sitting at a place for hours at an end (nothing against Zazen). Instead, it offers an immediate, useful and practical way to find tranquility and improve one’s fortitude. Having had my share of reading secular Humanism, I had realised how vague the ethical principles can turn out to be in practice. It was a relief that wasn’t the case here.
Some of the concepts that I got introduced to through this were indeed novel. The likes of:
- Memento mori.
You’re mortal. Always remember it, not as a depressor but as a motivator.
- Premeditatio malorum.
I have heard a lot about positive visualisation. The stoics believe in the practice of negative visualisation. Joseph Murphy will surely disagree with this one, as will Rhonda Byrne and others swearing by the similar approach.
- Contemptuous Expressions.
Strip away the legend from the names and brands that encrusts them.
- Amor Fati.
Probably the only tenet where Stoics and Nietzsche see eye to eye.
- It’s all Ephemeral.
The concept that had actually driven me towards this set of beliefs remains the one I mentioned at the beginning in the form of the quote. Being a control freak that I am, I had long back realised it was doing me no good. But there are certain things that one cannot change about themselves in a trice. So whenever I come across such troubled state, I try to adopt the philosophies that are practical and opposing the element of my identity in question. For example, I found great help in the movement of Minimalism to put my hoarding nature to rest. Before it was almost impossible for me to let go of the things that had any memory value associated and I would end up with clutter followed by associated anxiety. I thought of trying the same here.
So back to the Stoics and their trichotomy of control — that is, they divided the happenings into things that lie within one’s power to change and things that do not and things that partially do. Most suffering, they said, comes from our erroneous belief that we have power over things we actually cannot control. Their solution is to focus on what we can control: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions, instead of external events.
Stoicism, being a school that focuses on personal ethics, advocates that people should accept their circumstances and be content with what they already have. That’s how they will be able to achieve, what Aristotle calls, eudaimonia (roughly translates to “happiness”).
I remember discussing this philosophy with a friend once, who expressed how he found this philosophy cold as it pertains to containing the human emotions, something that makes us human. He went on to joke if I ever hit my foot against the edge of the table accidentally, instead of screaming in pain while uttering the — humanly expected — words of, “Arggghh! Damn you table!” my response would instead be “Arggghh! What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!”
Funny as it sounds, this factor was exactly something that had troubled me initially. In this pushing for the self-mastery of emotions, Stoicism makes humans, less ‘human’. How good/bad is that?
It’s human desires after all that have brought modern civilisation where it is now. The industrial revolution, and the internet was an outcome of human desire but so was the nuclear weaponry. The truth that one realises over time is that one cannot separate the good emotions from bad. There is no demarcation when it comes to being affected by them. It’s not always unpleasant to contain our desires. So it won’t be wrong to call the suppression of good desires as a consequential damage while trying to contain the desires in general.
Coming to the criticism aimed at it, we have Friedrich Nietzsche calling Stoics “extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders” who choose to see things falsely. And Jean-Paul Sartre was of the opinion that Stoicism is a dodging that aims to keep both master and slave in their places. So according to him, Stoicism is pernicious to freedom.
That said, Sartre believed that emotions were primarily effective not because they help transform the world around us, but because they allow us to deal with our own perceived impotence. At the same time, he is of the view that emotions like grief and despair are capable enough of overwhelming us to the point that we fail to recognise how we might be empowered to change the situation. This turns things a bit confusing from here.
The truth is, Stoicism is much more than about putting ones emotions under control — it’s about how to live ones life well and why one should do so. The best part of all: it can help one learn more about oneself.
No wonder the Stoic way of life has made its way into modern Psychology, finding its application in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which is based on the idea that how we think (cognition), how we feel (emotion) and how we act (behaviour) all interact together. Our thoughts determine our feelings and our behaviour, indicatively.
It all makes sense when the philosophy is adopted in practice and the focus is less on bickering for the sake of it and more on real-world pragmatism.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The aim is to not be an “armchair philosopher,” but live by the theory. Which is to say to bring the philosophy back to living the virtuous life, not just for the academic arguments.
Stoicism is one of the four Ancient Greek value theories, the other three being Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Cynicism. Value theories in philosophy teach us what makes a good life, whereas moral theories tell us how we should act. The best thing about such philosophies is that you ain’t bound to adhere to the all-or-none rule. One can adapt the parts that go well with ones understanding and leave the rest to the pages of literature.
Where there is an adverse event, Stoics try not to let it ruin their tranquility, and instead, they try to derive character-building benefits wherever possible. I am aware that the principles of Stoicism can’t be applied to all the spheres of life. Also, when it comes to accepting things, if a person accepts everything that comes their way, they really accept nothing that comes their way, if you think about it.
There are times, when we have to resist, protest, and create the possibilities of change. The key is to know when to apply what. Because more often than not, complaining about things is nothing but a pointless activity.
I can tell it does help a person not only during the times of crises but in the day to day dealings as well, accumulating good habits to develop on the grounds of morality and provides a framework for thinking about important questions.
Nothing is inherently good or bad about Stoicism. The philosophy of Stoicism just like any other philosophy has its strengths and weaknesses. However depending on the depth of understanding of the philosophy, and its application in every day life, changes will happen which anyone could view as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s not the full picture, obviously, but compared to a lot of self-help literature, Stoicism can be quite useful. It toughens you up a little, that’s for sure. Its principles may have started long ago, but Stoic strategies are as applicable today as they were then.
My tryst with Stoicism, especially the “stoic calm”, will go on at least for a while now or maybe until I find a succedaneous ideology pertaining to the subjects discussed or even better, a number of them simultaneously.
Ending on a quote by the Emperor Marcus Auerilus (who happens to be the face of modern Stoicism),
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
As Captain Jack Sparrow would say in layman’s terms, “The problem is not the problem, the problem is your attitude about the problem.”
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (not very moral to read someone else’s diary, but anyway)
- Discources by Epictetus
- The Enchiridon by Epictetus
- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
- The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
- The Obstacle is the way by Ryan Holiday