Or “How I’ve always wanted to be more like Spock most of my life.”
Based on what I have discovered, being a stoic is something that I have been trying to be, and is well worth working on.
I am not in general a huge fan of declaring oneself to be a member or a follower of any certain kind of philosophy. That always strikes me as being needy. The requirement to somehow label what you are doing and belong to a group that follows it, is somewhat distasteful to me. I’m just not a great group guy. Of course, having said that, I will now explain how there are elements of the stoic philosophy which I can agree with and try to follow the best of my ability.
I have been vaguely aware of Stoicism since my early education in England. But I had never really taken a very close look at it until just recently when I listened to a podcast that discussed it. I was browsing podcasts and saw something about modern Stoicism. It caught my interest and while listening to it, I realized it matched, to a large degree, the way I try to live my life. That was what prompted me to write this article about it.
For me, at least, I find that if I can articulate something clearly, it enables me to both understand it and (if I so choose), to execute it properly.
Stoicism was a school of thought that was developed by a Greek philosopher (Zeno of Citium) about the third century BCE. Simplifying drastically here (because I do not want to write an extremely long article of the analysis of the original school of Stoicism), some points of interest about Stoicism are:
• Live a good life by being good and developing the cardinal Stoic virtues: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance.
• Don’t let your emotions be controlled by your circumstances. Instead, keep control of your emotions regardless of circumstances.
• Minimalism is not a bad thing. Neither is being successful and wealthy, provided that isn’t the be-all and the end-all of your existence.
• Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are three well known Stoics. A lot of their material is available in Kindle format for free or very cheaply.
The general modern usage of the word stoic means somebody that is emotionless, and goes through life exhibiting little or no emotion regardless of the stimulus. As far as I can see, based on the research I have done, that bears little or no resemblance to the actual philosophy of Stoicism. Nothing wrong with emotion provided that you keep the 4th pillar of Temperance in mind. So, the initial start of this article is said more than a little ‘tongue in cheek’. I do not actually want to be as Spock was portrayed.😉
I have no interest in approaching Stoicism like a philosopher. I am not interested in the slightest in analyzing nuances of modern Stoicism versus the original school of thought, how one philosopher or the other has interpreted Stoicism in one way or the other, etc. I am simply interested in cherry picking the elements of Stoicism that I feel have the most value to me.
The podcast [Stuff You Should Know] that I was listening to puts it well. There is a phrase in English “To get someone’s goat”. [This seems to have originated from a nebulous old wives’ tale that keeping goats in with other livestock kept them calm and happy, so if you took the goats away, the livestock would be unhappy. No real validation of this however being actually true] But, back to the original point … As they put it, the essence of modern Stoicism is to “Protect your goat from being got”. I love it.
I feel the best way to approach this is the trichotomy of control.
First; there are things over which you have no control. And there are many things like that in life as we all know. There is absolutely no point in wasting one iota of energy being upset or stressed about stuff over which you have no control. And regardless of the effect it may have on you, deal with it as best you can, but don’t waste energy being upset or stressed about it. Easy to say. Oh, so hard to do. For me at least.
Secondly; Things over which you do have control. Complete control. For example, your own personal habits, your own personality, etc. These are things that you absolutely should spend time and effort to control so that you are the best person that you can be.
Thirdly; These are things over which you have partial control. The original school of Stoicism, as I understand it, only addresses the first two categories. But it is clear to me (and I just went through this earlier this week) that there are a lot of situations where you don’t have complete control but you do have some partial control. In fact, I think the majority of life is like that. And the essence of what to do in cases like that, is the best that you can. You work on modifying or changing whatever factors you actually do have control of so as to meet the situation in such a way that you are as prepared as you can possibly be. Now having done that, at that point you should, to the best of your ability, stop worrying about it. And when whatever happens actually comes to pass, one way or the other, even if it turns out to be the worst-case scenario, don’t beat yourself up over it.
Funnily enough, as some people who know me well have heard about, I just went through a situation like this a few days ago. And in many ways, I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. I had a situation where there was a backup generator for a facility that needed to be taken down for servicing. It was in an area where there are frequent power outages. But there was no choice, the generator looked like it would have to be out of service for period of maybe 24 to 48 hours. Now, I made all the preparations that I could in order to be ready for the case where we had a power outage while the generator was being serviced. That part I think I did reasonably well. Where I feel I failed, was that I then proceeded to worry anyway about the things that I couldn’t control, I.E. whether there would be a power outage during the servicing. That is something I really need to work on.
And another of the things that I have discovered about myself over the last couple of years, and I’m still trying to figure out how to fix it, is in many ways I am indeed a people pleaser. In general, I want to help people. In addition, I want the people that I respect and like to feel that, well, that I respect and like them. And I have noticed in particular, that when people that I’m close to are getting upset about something, I will work myself up into a state of indignation just so that I am in tune with them. I have got to stop that. In many ways, I have succeeded in acceptance about the things over which I have no control. You just have to work around or through these situations. And getting upset doesn’t help. And here I find myself intentionally sabotaging myself … to no good purpose. Yet another area of self-improvement.
I think the essence of Stoicism for me personally is as follows:
• Lead a moral life. Be good.
• Trichotomy of control – “Don’t let your goat be got.” – I agree this is hard work.
• Keep the four pillars in mind; Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance.
One last explanation, since I found myself misunderstanding this. Morals versus ethics. I’m discussing this because one of the primary tenets of Stoicism is to lead a ”moral” life.
Ethics and morals basically relate to the concept of “right” and “wrong” behavior or conduct. And they should not in fact be used interchangeably, although they often are.
As investigation showed when I started to research it, ethics are guidelines that are provided by a source external to oneself, such as a religion or an organization. Whereas morals refer to your own intrinsic principles regarding right and wrong.
And lo these many years I been thinking it was the other way around. Okay, no problem, I can adapt.
So, when Stoics talk about leading a moral life, that is basically trying to live one’s life as a good human being based on rules that you yourself provide. Of course, if you have a bad moral compass, that’s not going to be a good thing. But, speaking for myself, I have a high degree of confidence in my own compass.
Ethics, as I have seen in my lifetime, are to a very large extent driven by the cultures in which those ethics evolve. And as people may know from having read my blog I am not a strong believer in culture. Mainly because what I always see is its negative aspects. And I don’t have a high opinion of people who use their “culture” as an excuse for doing something that is clearly not right. I’m sorry if this upsets anyone, but I think, as a blatant example, in today’s world, it is absolutely absurd to treat women as second class citizens simply because a medieval mindset says that its ok.
Ethics, by their very nature, are dependent on other people for their definition. So, if you have a charismatic leader (Hitler, the Pope, the various imams prosecuting Jihad, Jim Jones [Jonestown Massacre], to name but a few) they can push people to adopt the ethics that they believe are germane to the situation. And weak-minded people will follow. And as both history and current events clearly show, organizations and cultures (as driven by their leaders) don’t hesitate to change the intent of the ethical definitions based on what seems convenient at the time. Ethics also seem to be governed by both professional and legal guidelines. And I have no doubt in my mind that many of the professional and legal guidelines currently in existence are a bunch of bollocks. But yet, because they are enshrined in “law”, one is viewed as aberrant if you question it. Even when the byzantine tangle of these guidelines can be shown as self-contradictory or nonsensical.
Morals on the other hand are independent of culture and should be generally consistent, although of course, if the individual changes then of course their morals can change as well. My view of morals is that they are ultimately a personal definition of what is right or wrong. And I have no problem living with that. I have confidence in my ability to judge what is right and what is wrong. Hence, I can agree whole heartedly with the tenet that Stoics should lead a moral life.
If you are interested in researching further, a simple Google search will reveal more sites than you can shake a stick at.