Stoicism

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Stoicism is a philosophy of life concerned with the management of emotions with the goal of producing tranquility and a clear mind. This follows subconsciously from adopting a stoic worldview and hence the modern interpretation of a stoic as someone who actively suppresses emotions is different from the classical interpretation of a stoic as someone who simply does not act passionately on such emotions.

One way to think about it is that emotions depend and follow from expectations. If expectations are exceeded, a typical person will be happy. If events fall short of expectations, a typical person will be sad. The stoic ideal is to become emotionally unattached to expectations. If one's will is in accordance with what happens (nature), one is virtuous. Negative emotions would simply be observed and pass through the person rather than be reacted upon.

The stoic understanding of nature is what is today understand as the universe plus religion. Using a Christian vernacular, stoics saw no difference between "the work" and "the workman". Stoicism is thus a form of pantheism and when stoics speak of nature they speak of what is today covered by the natural sciences combined with a form of ethics.

The stoics believed that nature was best understood with reason. Today we would call reason science. Their reason was built on formal logic like modern science. Ancient stoics spent a lot of time figuring out how the world worked---understanding Nature's mind (in modern parlance their efforts would include the question of how God thinks). Obviously, much more is known about the world today compared to ancient times. However, the religious connection has been broken into two parts. The stoics believed that humans were the only ones capable of understanding reason. This also means that the stoics believed that only humans were capable of religious understanding.

A modern summary would be that a stoic is someone with a free will who lives according to scientific principles and experiences life (including emotions) in an objective (not subjective) matter.

Because of it's application of rational thought to emotional states and the focus on an objective and rational understanding of the world, it could be considered an ideal philosophy for engineers, scientists, or in general the MBTI Rational mind.

Stoicism was the dominant philosophy of Greece and Rome until it was replaced by Christianity.

Stoic Techniques

Negative Visualization

Generally moderns prefer to think in terms of positive visualization. For instance: "How great would it be if only I had a brand-new car," or "I wish I was in great shape and had a six-pack," but this can be dangerous. After all, if you had a brand-new car or six-pack you wouldn't indulge such thoughts, so when your reverie ends you must confront the fact that you don't own these things.

On the other hand, with negative visualization, you imagine you don't have some wonderful thing that you do in fact have. For instance, you might imagine what your life would be like without internet access, or a loved one, or if you were blind. After deeply visualizating such a life, returning to the present is awesome. "How awesome is it that I have internet access and can access the rest of the world for a few bucks a month! How great is it that I have this loving, supportive wife! It's wonderful that I have eyesight!"

The end goal of negative visualization is to develop contentment with all the things we have, to appreciate them more, and (in the case of people or pets) let them know how much we appreciate them.

Dichotomy of Control

Stoics believe that any matter is either under one's control, or not under one's control. By definition, matters outside one's control cannot be influenced by expending time, energy, or attention. So these things should just be accepted for what they are, and time/energy/attention should be focused on things which can be controlled.

For instance, suppose you're upset that Christmas marketing starts so early in the year. Store owners make that decision without your input, so it is outside your control. Stoic advice would be to either accept the new world order and drop the issue entirely; or to direct energy at related issues that you can control. E.g. whether you visit retail stores in the first place, whether you pay attention to decorations while you're inside stores, or whether you make your views known to management.

An oft-used example is mortality. Humans are mortal and so everyone will die; this is a fact outside anyone's control. Worrying about death will not change that fact, and in fact wastes some of one's limited lifetime. Stoics accept this fact and proceed accordingly, making the most of the time they do have, and perhaps taking steps to improve their long-term health and longevity.

The effect is to not only avoid negative emotions, but also to direct attention away from ineffective hand-wringing and toward action that is likely to achieve desired outcomes.

Famous Stoics

  • Zeno of Citium
  • Cato the Younger
  • Musonius Rufus (Epictetus teacher)
  • Seneca (very rich Roman senator)
  • Epictetus (Freed slave and generally ascetic)
  • Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor)

It is worth noting that stoicism was a dominant philosophy at the time. The people above are known because their writings have been preserved, sometimes only in fragments or indrrectly. For example, everything known about Epictetus are from student notes.

Resources