I have taken up Stoicism as a practical life philosophy. My main source of information about Stoicism is Massimo Pigliucci’s blog “How to Be a Stoic,” which I highly recommend. I find Stoicism therapeutic, and in fact various modern cognitive therapies such as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy have consciously drawn on the insights of the ancient Stoics. One of those insights is that we humans have a strong tendency to upset ourselves and that with work and discipline we can stop.
Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions, but rather about having some rational control over them, deciding which emotions are worth giving into and which aren’t. The Stoics teach us to be truly concerned only about those things we can control, which are pretty much just our judgments and reactions to everything else, which we can’t control. Stoicism also teaches us not to have a demanding stance toward the world, which is not constituted to conform to our preferences.
The goal of Stoic practice is to achieve eudaimonia, which can be translated as happiness, or better, an inner state of flourishing. Put another way, Stoics strive for a radical self-sufficiency. All externals over which we have no ultimate control are called “indifferents.” They are indifferent in the sense that our inner peace and happiness, our eudaimonia, do not depend on them. Indifferents fall into two categories: preferred indifferents—wealth, health, success, etc.—and dispreferred indifferents—illness, poverty, failure, etc.
Stoicism teaches a virtue ethics, which stresses character or virtue as the source of ethical behavior as opposed deontological ethics, which stresses observing a set of rules. The four Stoic virtues are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. At this stage in my life as a prokopton (one who is making moral progress), I am emphasizing the virtue of wisdom, which I interpret as the will to rationally intervene in irrational thinking and behavior. So far I have achieved the following:
- I no longer shout at uncooperative inanimate objects such as can openers and tell them to fuck off.
- I try, mostly successfully, not to work myself into a frothing frenzy of hostility toward drivers who hold me up by turning left at busy intersections.
- When a woman in the check-out line at the supermarket waits until her groceries are all checked through before starting to fumble around in her bottomless purse for her credit card to pay, I am less and less likely to utter curses under my breath and imagine blowing her away with an AK47.
- Although I am convinced that organic food is a marketing scam aimed at well-heeled idiots, I am getting better at not pointing this out to friends who buy organic food, and when I do, I no longer worry about my friends thinking I’m an asshole since I now recognize that I have no control over what my friends think.
Each day I meditate for a while on a saying of one of the ancient Stoics. Here are a few of my favorites:
“The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when everything will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.”― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Is your cucumber bitter? Throw it away. Are there briars in your path? Turn aside. That is enough. Do not go on and say, ‘Why were things of this sort ever brought into this world?’ Nothing is intolerable nor everlasting – if you bear in mind that it has its limits, and if you add nothing to it in imagination. –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you need is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” ― Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”—Epictetus