Familiar Stoic Ideas, Part I


Anyone reading about Stoicism would no doubt encounter a familiar idea or two; ideas that have been adopted in times and systems postdating Ancient Rome. I have entitled this post “Part I, simply because there are so many Stoic sightings that I predict there will be later “parts” on this topic.

One example is the pillar of the AA credo about accepting what one can’t change and knowing the difference.  As one will have read in this blog, relinquishing regret over the past and anticipation over the future, and realizing how much of a present situation and the people in it one cannot control are core ideas in Stoicism. Stoicism points out that probably the only thing one can control is oneself; and even if emotions rise unbidden, through the exercise of reason, we should be able to master them and maintain or achieve some tranquility. How, in a concrete example, is such mastery over emotion to actually occur?  In the context of one unwelcome emotion, fear, I read a book once called “Mind, Body Mastery” –not a Stoic book at all, but again, expressing a Stoic idea without realizing it.

The particular technique proposed by the author was very simple, although simplicity in self-help books takes a lot of pages of preparation and anecdotes.  The technique involves recognizing the feeling, accepting it, and putting it into context in order to reason with it (very Stoic indeed).  In this book, the fear at issue arises from doing a sport that has inherent and pretty high risks of injury such that it undermines your continuing the sport or liking it much if you do continue.  The kind of thinking to pursue involves the following: think why you have undertaken the sport; realize that you are fortunate to be doing it and that you got into it because of a love for it; think about the last attempts at it that went well; breathe deeply and stop clenching teeth and tightening the shoulders—keep breathing deeply.  Well, all that hardly seems like a great revelation, but it does help.  Fear is an emotion that can serve a purpose (unlike grief; see my post “The Mystery Emotion), and certainly did in the early days of the species, when, like horses, fear triggered a completely rationale impulse to run. If we are trying to keep our aim or our balance or remember what comes next in a sequence, fear is a hindrance—an emotion that no longer helps but harms. In horseback riding, which is my pursuit that gives rise to fear, there is a double detriment from fear; you pass it on to the horse very easily, which is the last thing the horse needs.

Maybe Seneca never advised breathing deeply; however that is not a problem in connecting the notion to Stoicism because that philosophy urges us to develop our own thoughts and expand our personal notions on how to best approach life.

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