On Stoicism

Even if one is not interested in the philosophy of stoicism, it is extremely useful to decipher the spirit of the Ancient Roman people, just by the popularity that stoicism once held. Historians often points out the range of stoicism, being popular from slaves all the way up the Emperors themselves. No doubt this was because the practicality and usefulness of the philosophy.

To give a brief overview of stoicism, taking one of the many meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sums it up perfectly:

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.”

This quote is useful in that it includes many of the ideas presented in stoicism: the seek for truth, the refusal of evil’s effect on you, the bond between man, the acceptance of divine, and negative visualization.

The concept of negative visualization is what I find as the most practical in stoic thought. For instance, I know that my dishwasher will break at some point. I can see if it gets old and begins to malfunction, but if I continue to ignore the problem and pretend it’s not there then I’ll be more upset when it breaks. But, if I accept that it will soon break it won’t have any effect on me. Epictetus addresses this in maxim to of the Enchiridion:

“With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind or contribute to use, or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup of which you are fond- for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child, or your wife, that you embrace a mortal- and thus if either of them dies, you can bear it.”

Now obviously Epictetus took a more extreme view than Aurelius did. It is understandable considering Epictetus was a slave and had a considerably hard life, but the essence of the quote still remains regardless: if you expect the worst, then when it eventually comes, it will not affect you.

Going back to what Aurelius said, why not exercise these thoughts in the very dawn of each day? I consistently encounter people each day that annoy me, but I do not let it get to me. I know that each day they will annoy me, it is in their nature and outside of my control, and soon enough I stop noticing them. I expect their actions and therefore it does not affect me.

Stoicism has had it’s critics, and rightfully so. Two main critics have been the two philosophers Hegel and Bertrand Russel. In his “History of Western Philosophy” Russell states he views stoicism as a doctrine of:

“We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy”

Which displays the grievances many people have with stoicism: that it is a doctrine of indifference and numbness, that is gives up the search for happiness. It is all just criticism, but I believe that certain aspects of stoicism are meant for those with extremely hard circumstances. For instance the late James Stockdale, who for a period was a prisoner of war in a Vietnamese jail, wrote an essay titled “Courage Under Fire” in which he discusses the uses of the stoic philosophy of Epictetus to cope with his situation. This again shows the practical side of the philosophy.

Another criticism is that the philosophy is dated, which to an extent it is. However, the ethical side can still remain in our modern time. The perfect example of this comes after the tragic shooting in Paris just some weeks ago. The world responded largely with hate and bitterness. But a man named Antoine Leiris, who’s wife was murdered in the incident, wrote a response to the attackers. The entire rebuttal is incredibly stoic in attitude and echoes the maxims of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca. The video can be found here:

The last criticism of stoicism comes from their acceptance of a Divine Being, and therefore the refusal of free will. Stoicism is an extremely deterministic philosophy on the grounds that all events are preordained by god, and therefore outside the individual’s control and the individual’s worry. This fits with the stoic concept of denying worry to events outside one’s control, but it doesn’t quite fit with the agnostic spirit of today’s attitude. However, it has been suggested that one can take a pantheistic read of the stoics. Meaning that you can replace the aspect of god with the nature of the world outside our control and it holds the same meaning. Whether or not this is a viable solutions is debatable. It must hold some meaning, because Baruch Spinoza, the famous thinker on pantheism, held Seneca as one of his favorite philosophers.

With some last remarks I want to give some practical advice somewhat ignored by the stoics at times. As any person interested in politics knows, there are many people whom do not listen to reason, even when faced with the truth. And though this does not directly affect you, this person’s right to participate in politics while denying truth does affect you a great deal. Maxim 22 in the Enchiridion says:

“If you have an earnest desire towards philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to have the multitude laugh and sneer, and say, “He is returned to us a philosopher all at once;” and “Whence this supercilious look? ” Now, for your part, do not have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you, as one appointed by God to this particular station.”

Meaning there are some men who’s opinions cannot be changed and do not listen to truth, but you as the philosopher, hold truth and must try to lead men in that direction. If men do not wish to find the truth, then it is nothing to you. If you acquire anything but the truth, then abandon it and continue your search. Instead, continue to seek truth, because even if men deny it, by your efforts they will still benefit from it.

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22 thoughts on “On Stoicism

  1. I find it strange that, for some people, philosophy is ‘dated’. Philosophy deals with fundamental problems in diverse areas of reason and so, by definition, it transcends ‘dates’. Though, I omit with some frustration that you can find ‘trends’ and ‘turns’ and insidious ‘dogmas’ in philosophy. I rarely pay attention to them myself, though.

    It is impossible that the practice of inquiring into fundamental problems can ever become outdated–unless, of course, we’ve settled all fundamental problems, which we have not. Though, you do have periods of human history where ‘dogmas’ rule and I don’t dispute that philosophy can have individuals who flirt with dogmas. I just dispute that flirting with a dogma is philosophical.

    The least a philosopher can do is admit their theoretical defense of a dogma, which alone can be dated, but whose philosophical defense now implies a revival . . . In short, philosophy can’t ever be dated, because it is not just a name referring to an institution, it is a human practice of reason and inquiry into fundamental problems.

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    • While I understand your point, certain aspects can be revealed to be false, and therefore outdated. Notably early ideas about epistemology and physics. For instance Aristotle’s ideas about cosmology would serve no scientific benefit to a reader besides having a more comprehensive view of his thought. Science has long proven it to be falsified.

      Some aspects cannot be outdated, such as ethics, history, ect. as they continue to be relevant with little more revelation by science. And it’s important to note that even if a philosophy can be termed “outdated” that it does not imply the reader will take nothing out of it.

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      • Indeed, but now we are talking about ‘certain aspects’, by which we mean scientific theories and-or scientific claims made by a philosopher on the basis of certain observations. Those observations delineate the limits of a scientific theory. This is not picking out Aristotle’s ‘philosophy’ or his philosophical claims, nor does it delineate the practice of philosophy. Where we can find Aristotle’s philosophy and its contribution to scientific theory like cosmology is in his treatment of fundamental questions in science such as ‘what is matter’, ‘what is being’ etc. Now, to understand properly Aristotle’s philosophy and its contribution to science means to comprehend his definitions of matter, motion and being etc., which are fundamental concepts and-or tools used by Scientists. From there, one can apply them to our contemporary observations to formulate a scientific theory. This is why we consider philosophical claims and inquiries to be fundamental. In short, there is a difference between a scientific theory and a philosophy or an inquiry into fundamental problems and-or concepts, which we need to bear in mind for the sake of intellectual integrity.

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  2. I think the philosophy of stoicism is one of the most analyzed and least understood. Many also associate stoicism with self-denial, denial of pleasures of the flesh and soul. In my view it’s not (and I could be totally wrong too), but it warns that over indulgence of anything is not good, and that it’s good to practice moderation and restraint. It’s the ancient’s way of telling us “all good things come to an eventual end”, the better prepared you are for it, the pain one experiences with that end is better. But while something great is happening, there’s nothing that prevents you from enjoying that. And lastly, no, you can’t change stupid, you can’t change stubborn if they don’t want to change themselves and wasting your breath and time talking someone out of their stupidity makes you more stupid than they.

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  3. Interesting. Embarrassingly enough, this is my first encounter with the philosophy of stoicism, but through your words has served well in intriguing me to delve further.

    At first glance, the numbing of emotional pain seems like a given; but I can’t disregard the feeling, that grief born from loss, is always an essential tribute and compliment, to the positive impact of which people and events have provided to our lives. Again, I’m completely uninformed and have yet to study, but a novice outlook of mine sees the whole thing as rather bleak, cynical and fatalistic. Pragmatic in doses, but to a fault.

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    • Stoicism can produce a bleak outlook, at times cynical, but this is only the a small bit of the ethical side, there are other aspects. I suggest reading the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius as a starting point, and then read Epictetus. Links to both are provided above

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    • my homegrown, resident version of stoicism would have it that such a realistic view may not stop your heart getting broken, it will very possibly help avoid shock and offence to the mind, to the rational part of us at least. Your mind doesn’t have to break every time your heart does.

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      • Valid; I appreciate the pragmatism, but personally, it seems difficult to reflect on times of grief and suffering, without accounting for mental trauma and beliefs that were present in those times (struggl
        inge to hypothesise enduring these events, without “shock and offense to the mind”).
        Could be a personal factor; I cannot without effort, begin to visualise a tangible divide between the heartache and mental strain. A broken mind, can help to articulate why broken heart is painful in the first place, which may inspire either heightened bitterness or gratitude.

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    • I think reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations without context an easily paint Stoicism as something gloomy, morose, and bordering on nihilism. For centuries, Marcus Aurelius was considered all these things because of a misunderstanding of just what the so-called ‘Meditations’ were, and what its purpose was. Anachronistically, we have thought of it as a private journal, a diary, a notebook of philosophical concepts, etc. But as Pierre Hadot’s groundbreaking philological research has shown, the Meditations was more like a book of mental exercises designed to help re-frame his perspective toward a broader universal view of life, rather than one confined to one ego’s ‘passions’.

      Hadot’s book The Inner Citadel is an eye-opening study on the Meditations– indispensable for anyone with an interest in Stoicism. More broadly, Hadot’s book What Is Ancient Philosophy? is an invaluable survey of the different Greco-Roman schools of thought. I cannot recommend these two books highly enough (or anything else Hadot has written for that matter).

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  4. I always thought of acceptance of death as not necessarily expecting the worst, but rather of conditioning oneself to a fundamental truth. It’s not incompatible with an expectation that we will have many long years of productive relation with the person that we value, and may even cherish.

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    • I agree, it’s not waking up every day and expecting to die, but simply the knowledge that it is inevitably coming. The quote from Epictetus shows us that he never doubted the longevity of his relationship with his wife and children, but simply accepted that as mortals they would eventually cease. The reminder of that may even cause a more cherished relationship.

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    • Because of my own beliefs, death is accepted. It must be because I will experience it. I don’t have any doubts about this rationally, emotionally, or spiritually. Until that time comes, I try my utmost to live to the fullest in accordance with what I am capable of.

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  5. I have briefly, perhaps too briefly, periodically and over time, looked at the concept of stoicism. This essay helped re-focus the image. I hold to a very supportive life-long philosophy similar to stoicism, though I only found that out: “Expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.” That approach literally forces someone to become quite philosophical about everything. One aspect of stoicism mentioned here in a back-hand sort of way is personal detachment, something that I also ascribe to. “When none of it matters, it will all be yours” – another sort of “mantra” if you will that allows one to “magically” steer through life’s endless shoals and come out unscathed and laughing, or at least satisfied, at the end. Detachment is not cold if entered into in order to enlighten oneself, and to be free to observe without interfering. I call it compassion.

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  6. Have you ever viewed contemporary society and masculinity through the lens of stoicism? That perhaps being “emotionally repressed” has been conflated with “control of emotions”. I view Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as two of the more revealing writers on the topic, and a red thread so to speak in their writings appear to be accepting reality as it is, rather than how one wishes it was, or sees that it could be.

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  7. Some interesting points. It is tempting to see Stoicism as gloomy and negative with the assumption that happiness is not possible, but this would be inaccurate. Stoics believed we should be happy and experience positive emotions as much as anyone else; the goal is to reduce our experience of negative emotions by reflecting on our responses to external stimuli, realizing that much of our stress comes from blaming the world and others for how we feel (complaining of the things we can’t control). Stoicism is about recognizing our spheres of influence and using this to live happier lives. A large part of doing this involves taking responsibility for our own happiness.

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