Stoic – A person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.
The word “stoic” is associated with apathy or lack of feeling, but stoicism is not about banishing all emotion, just the negative ones. Stoicism is a philosophy of life. A philosophy of life is a way to live a GOOD life, which is separate from religion which is about to live a MORAL life. The intentions, how you deal with the world, that is what incorporates a philosophy of life.
Stoicism can be summarized as thus: Live a life where you are happy with what you have currently and what is present. Not in the sense that you should not never strive for better things, but in the sense that the present is the present and you should enjoy it. It should not be about pleasure or comfort, it should be about regardless of the circumstances you should be able to experience joy.
So to introduce myself to Stoicism, I researched some background and read Guide to Good LIfe: Art of Stoic Joy
History of Stoicism
Stoicism started as a philosophy in Greece by the philosopher Zeno, who adapted a few other philosophies and made Stoicism. It was then spread as a school of philosophy and adopted by a few prominent Romans, the most famous being Cato and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. An offshoot from Cyncism, the basic idea being that you should enjoy the good things in life but you should not cling to them. You should also avoid the more carnal pleasures such as sex and wealth, things that you should not pursue ever. Zeno disagreed on that point and form his own school allowing Stoics to be wealthy but not cling to that wealth.
Tenets of Stoicism
One of the primary tenets of Stoicism is the visualization of what could possibly go wrong, perhaps your parents could die or you become disabled. The second part is to visualize how you would deal with that. This gives you two benefits: it helps you appreciate your life as it is right now and that it could be much worse off and it helps you realize that even the things you can imagine excluding death can be handled. It’s annoying, it would be troublesome, but by no means it is the end of the world.
Another aspect of this negative visualization is that is also a preventive measure on the opposite idea. Where you think of how something could be better. Anyone ever have that moment where you wish something more exciting was happening, or you wish you were someplace else, or you committed to something and you’re missing out on something else fun and now you regretted your decision? This is for that scenario, instead of imaging what the other event could be like and how amazing it would be. Instead visualize staying at home sick or something so you appreciate where you’re at. At least that’s my modern day interpretation of the idea.
Some people can undertand that there are people who are in the world who don’t have running water and can appreciate just having that. Or having full control of your body, or being able to eat whatever you want, there’s tons of things that you can look to make sure you appreciate your life.
Separation of Control
In life there are three things: things you can control, things you can influence, and things you can’t control at all. Things you can control includes your ideas, your virtue, your dreams and aspirations, things that are within the realms of your own thought process and decision making process. The things you can influence are perhaps winning a ping pong match, you don’t have full control over wether you can win or not but you have partial control over your own body and your ability to win. The things you can’t control include what others think of you, fame and fortune, and the past.
This idea is prevalent in LOTS of religions and philosophies throughout the world, of letting go of things you can’t control. The Serenity Prayer goes:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
The things you can’t control are things that influence your life all the damn day: the weather, traffic, perhaps a teammate screws something up. There is no point in expending any time worrying or trying to fix these things, nothing you can do will influence them in anyway and they are out of your control, ESPECIALLY the actions of others. Getting frustrated when someone else screws up has no benefit, everyone will make mistakes.
There are things you have some influence and control over, the example in the book repeatedly was playing tennis. I’m going to use ping pong as an example since that’s more relevant to me. I could say “I want to win a game of ping pong”, so what do I have control over? I have a semblance of control of my own body and my own ability, but I have no control over the other person. Maybe they are exceptionally good today, maybe they aren’t, either way the other player creates a variable of instability that you cannot control in this scenario. So instead of making the external goal of “I want to win this game”, make an internal goal of “I will do the best of my abilities” or “I will focus on getting a good top spin”. This puts everything in your court (pun intended, maybe that’s just tennis, do ping pong matches courts?)
The last items are the things you can control entirely. These are things like your own moral values, dreams, and your choices. Morality is the biggest indicator here because the pursuit of virtue is an important part of stoicism, you should strive to live a just life and a life according to reason that goes beyond our base evolutionary concerns. You should help your fellow man since that is part of ensuring a better environment for all.
The most important thing you have control over is your own ability to make choices based on your desires and impulses, not in the sense that you can prevent these desires and impulses but that you can control them. That you can push past pain or that you can avoid the short-term pleasures. Avoid eating that donut now so you can have body you wanted (if anybody tempts me with a donut after this blog post I’m gonna be pissed). This leads to the next tenet of Stoicism actually!
Make yourself uncomfortable
Another tenet of Stoicism is the intention to make yourself uncomfortable, at first the author mentions walking around barefoot or turning off the heat during a cold day and I thought that that was the most retarded thing I have ever heard. The point of this intentional discomfort is to give you two major benefits: to train you when those discomforts occur and to make you appreciate comfort when you have them. As I said, the examples he first stated sound dumb but the idea was sound. But other discomforts include things such as exercise or public speaking, things that make you challenge yourself. Thing that make you feel socially awkward or uncomfortable, its the basic idea of going outside your comfort zone. The man who has handled all types of discomfort will not have a fear of the discomfort in the future.
Basically, this comes down to willpower. And just like making yourself uncomfortable is important, controlling your own pleasure is also equally important. A critical aspect of stoicism to deny yourself pleasure sometimes, if there are chocolates at work you need to deny yourself this pleasure in order to control your will power. So one tip they have developed on this, to avoid yourself pleasure you can substitute one pleasure with another, if you somehow resisted eating chocolate that day, you can at the end of the day take pleasure in the fact that you have gained some semblance of self control and feel vindicated in that. The pleasure of self control can be something that can hold you off on more short-term pleasures.
On Compliments and Anger
The biggest thing about Stoicism that I found interesting was that you should shrug off and ignore compliments. Compliments should not give you pleasure; for one pleasure is dangerous and having the willpower to control pleasure is important. If you derive pleasure from compliments you might start seeking them out which in turn gives other people the control. You have put validation in the hands of others instead of yourself.
How many of you spent your time checking to see how many likes on Facebook something got? Wether a new picture is super liked or super commented on, this is all external validation. Reteweets, favorites, whatever. Klout scores? It’s all putting your self-worth and control in the hands of others, do you want to be influential? The influence and fame is all things that Stoics feel that you should not pursue, for you are now giving control over others, not yourself. Is that what they are for? I know I’ve done it and I have a bad habit to check facebook far too often. This is of course null if you perhaps work in social media, where the garnering of these likes / favorites are a sign of your influence.
Insults are the same way, they should not be taken to heart as they are usually a slight offense. From the book:
Take the insults of your fellow humans to be like the barking of a dog. When a dog barks, you might make a mental note that the dog appears to dislike you, but you would be a fool to become upset by this fact.
Kinda rude way to think about it but it’s the same idea, if someone insults you, ignore it and shrug it off. It does no benefit to work on a counter insult, honestly it’s best to respond with humour. I will append something on this idea though that Stoics do not address. Of course criticism from someone you respect is another story and should not be taken as an insult, but should be thought about but the Stoic philosophy never seems to address this? It’s kinda a weird little missing piece of this entire thing. Criticism and insult cross lines depending on who it’s from and how they phrase it, so be careful about that. But even the idea of not being invited to a party that others are invited to is insulting, why be insulted? Why bother yourself with it?
This of coures leads to anger, it is easy to be angry and even righteous anger has a great feeling to it, when you know you’re right and can be angry over it but it’s important to get rid of these feelings too. The first thing that you should always do with anger determine if you can do something about it, are you angry about something you can control? If you can, you should change if it. But usually we get angry at something out of control, and that is when anger is pointless. It makes us frustrated and drains us and unless it can be funneled into something productive what’s the point of it? If you’re angry over something you can influence, say you’re angry at a friend over some slight that he or she did. You can talk to them, address the scenario and understand the reasoning and help ensure that this kinda situation doesn’t happen again. There are better things to do in life than be angry over something.
Pursuits & A Simple Life
One philosophy of stoics is the idea of living a simple life. Of course different stoics argued about different levels of simple life and wether you can have a simple life living in a palace or not, but the point is that while you can have wealth, you should never cling to it. The point of a good life and a good outlook on life is that you can enjoy the simple things and the complex things but never grow attached to them.
The example in the book hit a little close to home for me personally, he mentions the man who feasts on delicious delicacies and thus will never appreciate the simple things. I know I had this situation where I had spicy edameme in Tahoe last year and now normal edameme doesn’t taste as good. So I’ve lost my previous love of a single food because of a taste of something better.
This is one of the tenets of Stoicism that I’m not sure I agree on, I understand now I can’t really appreciate regular edamame anymore now that I know something is better out there for me but this is a pretty easy slippery slope to settle in life. More importantly, what did I like about it that I know that I enjoyed it so much, will that help me discover other things that I enjoy as much? Why can’t there be something better for me out there and I should constantly pursue it? Why live a simple life and only eat bread and water when you can enjoy great tasting food. The Stoic argument would be of course that someday you will not be able to enjoy that food and being sad about it would just be a disappointment.
I understand that reckless consumerism is bad, and when you buy things in order to get that thrill of having something new and that small pleasure of it. You should buy things that will provide you pleasure for countless times and not something that will do it once. A good habit is to avoid everything that you will use “one day”, there’s no point in having those “one day” scenarios excluding first aid kits and medicine. Things that will reduce my time and effort freeing my pursuits I can also willing agree on. I feel a simple life is important but pick and choose the things you own carefully.
This is a very simple note, do not worry and fret about the past, keep your mind in the present and the future. This all relates to the idea that you cannot control things and the past is something you can never ever control.
The one thing that I have a problem with Stoicism is that I don’t fully comprehend how it works with ambition. I guess the idea is your happiness shouldn’t be tied to something outside of your external control. Example: the kid who wants to be an astronaut. He will have to work very very hard to do it, he will have to put in a lot of time and hope the right circumstances work out. But without that line drive without that desire and ambition, can he really do it? He’ll be competing against countless others who are more recklessly pursuing it. Can stoic philosophy work with those who want to pursue something grander and greater than themselves or does it go against it? Stoicism is rarely declared as a religion or anything of the sort thus it is hard to find out if people who have achieved great things are also stoics. The lack of a missionary part of the stoicism is also critical to this. Aurelius as Roman Emperor could have spread Stoicism but because of the way the philosophy is structured, it has no reason to spread.
I have not summarized some other parts of the book that he mentioned that I felt were just not all useful. Including: how to deal with a nursing home, the philosophical soundness of Stoicism, wether modern interpretations can fit with the more religiously defined reasons for Stoicism, and a lot more history.
Another weird thing in the book is that I feel the author has taken this to an extreme, he mentions explicitly that he seeks discomfort and insults just to test his resolve. It almost sounds like he has created a fetishism around testing his own ability to handle insults.
So obviously stoicism does not apply to everyone, but the author argues that everyone should have a philosophy of life. The regrets of the dying tend to circumspect around one thing, they wish they had spent their time differently because what they sought and pursued ended up not being as rewarding (I worked too hard, I wish I had spent time with friends & family, etc). Stoicism says what you have right now is rewarding if you view it as such and the mindless pursuit of things that such as fame and money have no benefit. This is where I can agree with the philosophy, having a framework so you can enjoy your life regardless of what goes wrong with is important, maybe looking back on it I’ll regret the things I didn’t do?
I’m not sure if stoicism could be a valid philosophy for myself but I feel it has good advice.