After years of exploring philosophy and coming from a dogmatic religious background, I have decided to follow stoicism for my own reasons. Started with “Letters of a Stoic” by Seneca. Anything I should expect on my journey? Anything you wish someone would’ve told you?
Seneca is a great place to start, as is Marcus Aurelius. Here are a few tips.
From How To Be A Stoic
During the recent Stoic Summer School I have taught in Rome, one of the exercises for the group was to come up with a list of short phrases summarizing key Stoic teachings, to keep handy for everyday practice. Below is the list (which, I’m sure, could easily be expanded), organized according to Epictetus’ three disciplines of Desire, Action and Assent, with each phrase accompanied by a sourced quotation and a brief explanation. (Here is a downloadable version for ease of use.)
DISCIPLINE OF DESIRE (virtues of courage and temperance)
Some things are up to me, other things are not up to me
Arguably the most fundamental doctrine in practical Stoicism, certainly for Epictetus, is the dichotomy of control: focus on the stuff you can act on, take the rest as the universe will serve it to you (very similar to the famous Christian Serenity Prayer).
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion I)
The famous Stoic reserve clause: your plan is always subordinate to the occurrence of things you cannot control.
“When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’” (Epictetus, Enchiridion IV)
There goes my cup
From The Book of Life
‘Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society. It had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain.
We still honour this school whenever we call someone ‘stoic’ or plain ‘philosophical’ when fate turns against them: when they lose their keys, are humiliated at work, rejected in love or disgraced in society. Of all philosophies, Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful for our uncertain and panicky times.
Many hundreds of philosophers practiced Stoicism but two figures stand out as our best guides to it: the Roman politician, writer and tutor to Nero, Seneca (AD 4-65); and the kind and magnanimous Roman Emperor (who philosophised in his spare time while fighting the Germanic hordes on the edges of the Empire), Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 to 180). Their works remain highly readable and deeply consoling, ideal for sleepless nights, those breeding grounds for runaway terrors and paranoia.
Stoicism can help us with four problems in particular:
At all times, so many terrible things might happen. The standard way for people to cheer us up when we’re mired in anxiety is to tell us that we will, after all, be OK: the embarrassing email might not be discovered, sales could yet take off, there might be no scandal…
But the Stoics bitterly opposed such a strategy, because they believed that anxiety flourishes in the gap between what we fear might, and what we hope could, happen. The larger the gap, the greater will be the oscillations and disturbances of mood.
From How To Be A Stoic
If you are into infographics, you may want to check out these quick summaries of basic Stoic ideas:
History. Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium (modern Cyprus) around 301 BCE, and it takes its name from the Stoa Poikile (painted porch), a public market in Athens when the Stoics met and engaged in philosophical discussions with anyone who was interested. A second major figure of the so-called “early Stoa” was Chrysippus, who is actually credited with elaborating most of the doctrines that are still associated with Stoicism. The early Stoics were of course influenced by previous philosophical schools and thinkers, in particular by Socrates and the Cynics, but also the Academics (followers of Plato) and the Skeptics.
The second period of Stoic history, referred to as the “middle Stoa,” saw the philosophy introduced to Rome. Cicero (not himself a Stoic, but sympathetic to the idea) is one of our major sources for both the early and the middle Stoa, since otherwise we have only fragments of the writings of the Stoics up to that point. The third and last period is referred to as the “late Stoa,” and it took place during Imperial Rome; it included the famous Stoics whose writings have been preserved in sizable parts: Gaius Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
From Roger Johnston
Stoicism saved me in a way. My last deployment to Iraq was particularly trying. I was medivacced out with just three weeks left of the deployment. I recall as the helicopter crew chief told me we had crossed the Kuwait border and that I was safe, I was relieved that I survived a war zone, but was under no illusion that I was “safe.” I’m a son of a Vietnam vet. The war did not end for him when he got home, in many ways it had only just begun for me. Relief quickly faded to resolve as I was determined not to suffer the same fate as my father: being angry at the world.
During recovery, back in the States, I could tell that my deployment had changed me. Infuriated would be a good word for how I felt 10 years ago during as I began to mend. Google militant atheist and my picture would show up and I would look pissed in it. I felt betrayed by my country, coopted to fight for profit and gain. I had seen so much suffering. The anger was poisoning everything, and what made the poison spread even further was that I was angry because I was angry. I had turned into my father.
From The New Yorker
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus was born a slave, around 55 A.D., in the Greco-Roman spa town of Hierapolis—present-day Pamukkale, Turkey. I first encountered his teachings in 2011, shortly after moving from San Francisco to Istanbul. I lived alone on a university campus in a forest. In the midst of a troubled long-distance relationship, I sometimes went days without talking to anyone but my boyfriend’s disembodied head on Skype. I was demoralized by Turkish politics, which made both secularists and religious people feel like victims. If you were a woman, no matter what you were wearing—décolleté or a head scarf—someone would give you a dirty look.
The first line of Epictetus’ manual of ethical advice, the Enchiridion—“Some things are in our control and others not”—made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we will live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ ”
From How To Be A Stoic
STOICON ’16 just ended in New York City, and according to one of our speakers, Bill Irvine, it was the largest gathering of Stoics, ever: 331 attendees. It was, more importantly, an amazing opportunity to meet and mingle with people from different parts of the world who are interested in, or regularly practice, Stoicism as a philosophy of life. All the talks, and one of the workshops, will soon be available as video on YouTube (stay tuned for announcements!), but let me give you a flavor of what happened this past Saturday in the Big Apple, just to whet your appetite.
The first speaker of the day was Don Robertson, with his inimitable Scottish accent. Don, who is the author of the very first book on modern Stoicism that I read — Stoicism and the Art of Happiness — talked about the connection among Stoicism, mindfulness, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (he is a licensed practitioner of the latter). He pointed out that Stoic mindfulness is different from techniques aiming at emptying your mind of wandering thoughts, for instance, as it is done in some strands of Buddhism. The Stoics meant it as a cognitive exercise to constantly remind themselves to live by focusing in the here and now (hic et nunc), as well as by paying attention to the ethical dimension of everything they do (though both of these concepts are also found in Buddhism).
Julia Annas, one of the foremost scholars in ancient philosophy and author of Intelligent Virtue, rhetorically asked the audience if Stoic virtue is as off-putting as it seems, proceeding to regale us with an in-depth analysis of apparent paradoxical concepts, such as that we are all equally unvirtuous, and yet we can make progress (see the “drowning man metaphor“); or that the Sage is like the mythical phoenix, i.e., a state that can never be achieved by actual human beings. But if so, then why bother trying? My own take on these questions is that the Sage is an ideal, and it doesn’t matter if any such man or woman ever existed, it is simply something to strive for. As for the apparent paradox that we can make progress (we are all prokoptontes) and yet we all equally lack virtue, I take it to be the Stoic way to remind us to be humble, that the job is really never finished, it continues to the end of our lives.