I’m a fan of Stoicism, for all that I’m still a baby stoic and thus don’t have an expert opinion. But when has a lack of knowledge stopped anyone from pontificating?
I’m still a beginner, just wading into the waters, picking up bits of the philosophy here and there and incorporating it in much the same fashion.
My theme for 2020 – be a good person – came from the Stoic readings I undertake. Being an objectively good person and living a good life was seen as the most important thing in life by Stoic thinkers. It seemed to be a reasonable proposition and not a bad way to live your life.
Think of the good life as the supreme amount of happiness and fulfillment that can be attained by a human being. Not a bad place to be.
You get there by working at it, by working on your character development. By striving to be wise, courageous, temperate, and just. I’m thinking of getting those words tattooed on my torso.
It’s slightly more complicated than the above phrase makes it sound and yet it’s a simple philosophy as well. To me, it seems eminently logical. While there are not as many originating texts as other religions and philosophies might have, there are some and there are modern writings as well, all of which can be used to help the student grow and develop.
I found a reasonable and brief summary of each of the four basic qualities that one should strive to develop in order to have a good life in a recent reading. *
- Wisdom, which can also be called prudence, refers to excellent deliberation, good judgment, perspective, and good sense;
- Courage or fortitude includes bravery, perseverance, authenticity, honesty, and confidence;
- Self-Discipline or temperance (a virtue I surely need to work on) includes orderliness, self-control, forgiveness, humility; and
- Justice or fairness includes being good-hearted, benevolent, and engaged in public service.
I find readings and analyses and descriptive lists like the above eminently helpful when one is working on developing a cogent philosophy. I like concrete plans and lists. They help when you’re evaluating your actions. They help in the development of a game plan for life.
I try to consume a couple of Stoic readings every day. This is the goal although the execution isn’t perfect. One is a reading from wherever: a chapter from a book, an article found on-line, a blog post. The goal is to deepen my knowledge and my exposure to Stoic thought.
The other piece is from a daily reading book * I acquired a few years back after diving into my first real encounter with the philosophy, The Enchiridion. *
I love compilation books: quotes of the day, thoughts of the day, gratitude, principles for happiness, things like that. I’ve purchased many over the years and pull them out from time to time for inspiration or comfort. The Daily Stoic is the first one I’ve consistently interacted with.
Stoicism is sometimes referred to as a precursor of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Both emphasize analyzing and challenging thoughts. There are, however, important differences. Stoicism is about ethics and values in a way CBT is not. CBT is about changing problematic thinking; stoicism about living the good life. The end goal differs significantly.
Beyond addressing problematic thinking, Stoicism is about using right thoughts to inform right actions.
Some view stoicism as a philosophy of detachment, as a way of living that’s unfeeling. They think the goal is to reduce ourselves down to the level of automatons. To me, this seems like an inaccurate analysis, though again, not an expert.
My interpretation of the readings suggests Stoics were not against feeling or emotion; rather, they were in favor of seeing the world accurately, living by reason, and staying detached from externals. They were fans of reasoned thought. This does not imply a withdrawal from social life. They held as important relationships and society and considered living well in those areas imperative. But the ultimate goal was the good life, achieved via correct thinking.
Epictetus was quite clear on the proper role of the mind:
“The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent. What then can pollute and clog the mind’s proper functioning? Nothing but its own corrupt decisions.” (Discourses, 4.11.6-7)
It’s a long list with a lot of things to pay attention to but a closer review leads to the conclusion that they are of a type. The qualities listed work together; they balance and reinforce each other. They are also, according to Stoic philosophers, necessary. Nothing here, however, suggests or requires detachment or removal from the socio-political sphere.
The ideas are simple but not easy. Focus on what you can control. You control acting excellently in terms of your character, in choosing to be wise, courageous, temperate, and just. Epithets such as the above help provide direction on how to do so.
Epictetus expounded on the initial quote. He helpfully defined each of the supporting components in turn, providing us with a clear road map.
Choice: Choose to undertake right actions and think right thoughts. This then begs the question: what is “right”? It is, in part, remembering what is in your control, what is up to you. A great many things aren’t. You control what you think, to an extent, and you control what you do, to an extent. That’s it. Other people, what they do and think, are beyond your control. So are the random occurrences that make up life.
The emphasis isn’t on decreasing negative emotions. That isn’t what the choice is about although it’s a happy side effect. The emphasis is on choosing to act with reason and choosing to act according to our values.
Thoughts come unbidden into our minds. However, we then have a choice. It is here that Stoicism and CBT overlap. You can analyze the thoughts and accept, reject, or modify based on the decisions you’ve made as to how you want to live your life. You can challenge the automatic thinking and make it better.
Refusal: Choose to resist temptation. Rather than facing temptation and staring it down, however, Stoics like Seneca suggests a more pragmatic approach. Refusal comes easier if you avoid temptation in the first place.
“Stay away from places where [you] might see things that will stoke old cravings, “just as he who tries to be rid of an old love must avoid every reminder of the person once held dear.”
Changing our behaviours for the better is hard. Harder still when we keep in our orbit the things that challenge us. For years, I abused benzodiazepines. I vaguely realized I was in trouble but it seemed unimportant. Important was the emotional numbing the pills promised. I stopped taking them in treatment but I still struggle. I still crave the relief they promise. If I had a bottle in the medicine cabinet, it’s likely I’d indulge. Far better to keep things that might make me wander off the path I’ve decided to follow out of my life.
Yearning: Yearn to be better. Stoics argue you should only focus on the things in your control. You should only worry about the things that are up to you, that are in your sphere of influence. Wasting time on things that you cannot impact in any way is seen as a waste of time. Better to focus on those things that you can affect and that will help you in your growth. Yearn to grow and develop into a wise person. Want it.
Repulsion: Repulse negativity, bad influences, and what isn’t true. The goal of Stoic thought isn’t to minimize negative feelings, but see the world as it is and cultivate virtue. The emphasis isn’t on decreasing negative emotions but on acting with reason and being committed to acting on our values.
For the Stoic, negativity and the like are a choice. I struggle with this some – I don’t view my depression as a choice. The action I choose moment-to-moment are though, and they can be in line with pushing back against the demands of mental illness.
The emphasis is less on reducing the negative emotion as a goal in and of itself than it is on choosing right thinking. A lot of effort can be spent fighting negative emotions. A better choice is getting out of your head and acting with virtue. Moreover, focusing on reducing negative emotions can make them worse by feeding them with attention. *
Preparation: Prepare yourself for what lies ahead and whatever may happen. Anticipate. Embrace what is and live your best life within that reality.
Practice Meditatio Malorum. Plan for what might go wrong; and add a reserve clause to your goals, such as “fate permitting”. I will achieve the things I set out to accomplish today, fate permitting.
Do your best knowing that what happens is ultimately out of your control. Life proceeds as fate allows. Remember Amor Fati – love everything that happens. “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.” (Epictetus).
Turn obstacles into opportunities. It’s not so much what has happened as how you perceive what has happened. “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” (Marcus Aurelius).
Purpose: Purpose can be tricky. Luckily, the Stoics once again have a plan. All you have to do is follow the guiding principles (I wonder if there’s a wall hanging?):
Live in agreement with nature; live a life of virtue (the good life); focus on what you can control; take action; and differentiate between things that are good, bad, and indifferent. The latter can be either preferred or dispreferred like wealth or ill-health but ultimately, they are irrelevant.
Do the right thing. You achieve the good life through right action.
Finally, be mindful. Be aware of how you are acting and ensure your actions conform with your philosophical beliefs. Stoic mindfulness is about being aware of how to act well or ethically in the present rather than simply focusing our attention on the present moment without a particular ethical goal. * This is another way in which it differs from CBT.
Assent. Commit to this course of action. Commit to being free of self-deception about what’s actually in our control; what is up to us and what is not up to us*.
Embrace reality, even the bits that hurt, and cultivate your character.
*The Enchiridion or Handbook of Epictetus is a short manual of Stoic ethical advice compiled by Flavius Arrian, a 2nd-century disciple of the Greek philosopher Epictetus.
*The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and The Art of Living. Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. (New York: Portfolio, 2016).
*Stoicism Isn’t about reducing negative emotions. Caleb Ontivaros. October 8, 2019.
*What is Stoicism. NJLifehacks.