As all Stoics know, excessive emotions, such as passion, are detrimental because they set us up for a fall, either from the aftermath once the thrill is gone or from disappointment in not having the thrill. Avoiding passionate emotion, such as irrational love (perhaps lust is the better word), anger, high pitched excitement, etc… makes sense in the Stoic ethos, and I have no quarrel there. I see a slight difference, however, between passion in its adjectival form and “a passion,” meaning a pursuit or interest to which one invests a great deal of time, effort, self- esteem, and other costs. Although less obviously detrimental, such passions do have a side that threatens tranquility (the Stoic goal). The easy answer is to pursue an interest but avoid going to extremes and allowing it to assume too big a part of one’s life. That certainly sounds like the reasonable (and therefore Stoic) approach. I have identified for myself another problem: the difficulty lies not in my excessive love for the pursuit, but rather in how much of the burden of my life the pursuit is shouldering. Stated otherwise, it is not so much a question of loving too much the particular pursuit, but in how much I am asking that pursuit to fill voids, take up slack, and otherwise make up for the shortcomings or difficulties in life. When that burden lands on an interest, the interest can become a love/ hate experience. Not only might I love doing something—maybe I don’t at all — but I place an undue amount of energy and focus on it because I am running away from some very troubling realities. I can start to even feel somewhat a victim of my passion—the safe harbor I have created has thorns, but where else can I sleep?
In the course of writing a paper on Stoicism recently, I have been forced to consider whether Stoicism actually offers a viable way to achieve happiness (or as Stoics term it, “tranquility”) or whether there are insurmountable impediments. Further, even if Stoic practices are accessible and practicable, what does such a “solution” look like? Starting with the last part of the question first, what is the goal of Stoicism? Or differently phrased, what will a Stoic life look like? That answer is personal and relative, but in general, a reasonable goal is a state of mind better than a non-Stoic one. A practicing Stoic is like the chubby guy at the gym. He is not in great shape, but how much worse would he be if he stopped going. Assuming one is sufficiently versed in Stoic ideas, one will know if the goal, moderate as it may be, has been reached. Does one feel on the whole a greater sense of tranquility – less of a nuisance to one’s self and others — from doing the following: applying reason in various ways to address situations from the extremely grave to the trivial, adapting when things are beyond control, recognizing the insidiousness of emotion and quelling it, keeping hopes in check, and exercising a strong self-sufficiency to escape externalities such as the opinions of others and outward success. If the answer is yes, then the Stoic picture is of a good and even life that is notably, though perhaps moderately, less embroiled, bitter, painful, confusing, antagonizing, and scattered.
As for impediments to becoming a Stoic, they exist; however, on the one hand they are clearly surmountable. Stoicism is extant if not current. I (and many others) have come across Stoic ideas, read about them, found value in them and made modifications to fashion my own guide to living. So clearly it is doable. Also, Stoic ideas are everywhere, if in different guises. We recognize hedonistic adaptation, we get the value of looking on the bright side, and some people even understand the virtue of not complaining. We have all heard the imprecation to have the wisdom to see the difference between things we can control and things we cannot. Without knowing it, people stumble upon the importance of keeping death in mind and eschewing externalities and public opinion. All of the foregoing are soundly Stoic notions. On the other hand, to counter any chance of vast success, the media bombards us with anti-Stoic ideas. I hypothesize that the problems of youth are fostered by the media and would be greatly remedied by Stoicism. I name the young particularly although not at all exclusively as victims because they are more susceptible to the media. From hocus pocus hoping, to the exaltation of destructive emotion, to endorsements of complaining, to a maniacal focus on external events — the media seems like a confluence of weak and unphilosophical brains fueled by a lack of all reasonable thought. I might last suggest that a lack in education, or of a certain kind of education, undermines the chances of Stoicism for any given individual; if one does not use one’s mind to think critically, Stoicism is out of the question. It is, after all, about using reason — thinking rather than giving into emotion.
At the conclusion of my above-mentioned paper, which brought me close to core Stoic ideas that I know well but can always rehearse, I concluded that Stoicism does give the best chance for the calm happiness of tranquility and for a salubrious sense of mental independence for any given person. It is inherently an individual fix; few are enough, one is enough. Is there the chance for wider application to correct wholesale the flaws of “human nature”? To borrow from the faint white writing on the eight ball, “outlook not so good.”
December 4, 2013
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Dear Seneca, or should I say, “Salve Magister,”
You have on many occasions given Stoic advice through letters to friends, so perhaps I might impose upon you with my own particular difficulty in achieving the tranquility that is the Stoic goal. I have no philosophical school where I can gather with young and old students of philosophy under a columned portico, as you have, to refine or rehearse my philosophy. I have only your essays and letters to read and, I might add, the book of one other acolyte: a tidy and modern compendium of Stoic thought that is helpful. You, unlike him, however, seem genuinely interested in helping others create their own Stoicism: to develop the faculty of reason as the tool to blunt the brutality of negative and excessive emotion, curtail pointless thinking, vitiate the power of external events, and find the present moment satisfactory.
So what is my problem? It is one of practice more than of understanding. I am too often at the whim of external events and I am at times at a loss to keep my thoughts from wandering into the past and future with painful consequences. As for the first, I suffer too much my external losses more than I am jubilant about any external gratifications. Actually, I have few gratifications and minimal expectations, so going overboard with joy is less of a concern than withstanding the blows that fate has handed to me. With regard to my thoughts drifting to the past and present (those two vast regions over which I have no control) I have fears, yes that would be the word, of the future, although Reason repeats the senselessness of that: how do I know there is such a future? After all, I might die tomorrow. Such thoughts of possible future pain and losses are pointless and serve only to disturb my tranquility. And the past—I have cured myself to a large extent of the worst symptoms of nostalgia, but transience can still afflict me. That nocturnal creature still waits for the dark and quiet moment to spring.
How troubled am I by these two weaknesses in my philosophical practice? To do my feeble Stoicism justice, I will point out that I understand that the mind is its own place—an apt summation of the centrality and vitality of the internal world, penned by John Milton, a writer centuries after your time. A mind, i.e. the rational part of a human being, has the power to create its own tranquility, and the “place” is the world within ourselves, free from the buffets of daily events. As you have noted, the person who is raised up or cast down by external events is bound to be cast down much of the time and made miserable. And why should such externalities enjoy sych great weigh and power anyway when so much is trivial? For the external world, I try to confront events as an inevitable series of pleasant and unpleasant curiosities, knowing that things can always be worse, and that I have not been bereft of much good fortune, even in my misfortunes. My misfortunes have made me who I am, and the person who has not known suffering is as limited in mind and character as an infant. Also, I discount the views and opinions of others, valuing only those belonging to a few people who create with me an audience unto ourselves. Yet, I find myself “hoping for good news” –a compliment, an acknowledgment, recognition, a job.
Further to my credit, regarding emotions, I will say that Stoicism is a bulwark, and without it I would flounder in a morass of emotion, even worse tangled in the belief that such an emotional state was necessary and typical. To that end, I do keep death in mind to lend perspective in its own unique way, and I do remember that suffering forms the common lot of us all; I do grasp the usefulness of suffering, the triviality of most occurrences, and the pointlessness of pointless thinking and that dwelling on the unchangeable past and remote future, over which I have no control, constitutes the most pointless kind of thinking. I do cling to reason as what we have that distinguishes us from other animals and I do see emotion for the evil that it is. However, I do not do any of those things with sufficient consistency.
Have you any techniques for teaching Reason how better to confront and conquer these errant thoughts and encroaching feelings? Or maybe you could state the same ideas, just packaged in a new, handy aphorism, or made accessible through comparison, anecdote, or example?
I await your response in the certainty that your thoughtful words will lead to greater wisdom and tranquility and I will be less of a burden to myself and others. If not, I will re-read your writings, take recourse to literature, stick to Reason, and attempt to carry on with the given day as if it were my last.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
Sonnet 30, William Shakepeare
Is there a distinction between seeking happiness and working to avoid or allay unhappiness? I have the impression from newspaper articles and radio programs on psychological studies and self-help books that the goal is to achieve happiness—to figure out how happy people got that way and emulate them or undertake some practical exercises to achieve a state of happiness.
In reading Seneca’s letters and essays (my primary source for Stoic thought), it appears that Seneca addressed ways to counter unhappiness more than ways to find happiness, which he calls tranquility, as distinguished from an excited state of joy or immersion in pleasure that some might equate with happiness. Although he does not categorize the kinds of unhappiness, per se, I have gleaned them from Seneca’s writings and added my own observations, which would meet with Seneca’s approval, as he strongly advocated each thinking person to extrapolate, appropriate, and create his/her own philosophy. By the way, I think that view is one of Seneca’s most distinctive and valuable.
To each of the following categories of unhappiness there is a multifaceted use of reason applicable, which may be equally useful to the other categories, just as there is some overlapping among the types of unhappiness: a current tough situation; remorse; defeated hopes; anger, general ennui, and grief. In the following discussion, when I speak of “you” I am simply addressing myself, since making use of a philosophy for living takes repetition and work.
A Current Tough Situation
This is one of the few instances where matters might still be somewhat within your control. Stoicism does not advocate apathy, so do all you can. In fact, while we can do something we are usually not emotionally overcome and unhappy. If control is waning and we are stuck in a situation beyond our control, then think:
1. Things can always get worse. All the alternatives to your current situation are not knowable and any number of them might have occurred and have been worse than the present situation. If one knew of them, then what a relief this predicament really is. Anything that can happen to others can happen to you.
2. Is it really so bad? With effort, a dispassionate mind will find some consolation in it. If the situaion includes any of the other “bad situations” set forth below, apply the respective remedies set forth for them. In the scheme of things for humanity, how bad is it? Are you enslaved, about to be thrown to the lions, sent into exile, writhing in pain from an incurable disease? The poor wretch who has nothing but a loin cloth can still be glad he has the loin cloth.
3. Time to take inventory. If you think you are bereft, think realistically about what you have. Probably many things you have as consolation you are taking for granted. What you have is as good as what you no longer have or think you want.
4. Study death and never lose sight of it. Those things that you take for granted might fall into the hands of death at any moment; have you lived this day as if it were your last in your endeavors and your relationships? If not them you have deluded yourself about mortality.
This is the category of things past: that vast realm of regret, nostalgia, sentimentality and yearning so perfectly described in Shakespeare’s sonnet. Any events that are passed are things over which you have absolutely no control. I wonder how many times in a day I have to tackle this brand of emotion. Reason tells us that thinking about such things to our detriment serves no purpose; it is unreasonable because there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking. Does it get anyone from point A to point B? I think sometimes we almost feel obliged to engage in such pointless thinking, as if we owe it to someone or to ourselves; but again that is in our own minds and achieves nothing purposeful. If you feel so obligated, give yourself permission to stop thinking about such things. The exercise of thinking about what you have control over and don’t is fundamental; reason will discern one from the other and guide you to drop the pointless. One other minor thought—regret about a past action taken or omitted is particularly vacuous because given the situation, who you are, and that you acted at the time with reason, then, you would do it again.
Think about hoping and understand what it is. It is not preparation, it is not fate dealing you a blow—it is all in your perception of things in the uncontrollable future or views of others. Nothing has really occurred except in your own mind; the mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Living in hope of something is a life lived in anticipation and derelict of the living moment. It is akin to living in fear. Seneca described it as follows: “Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor do I find it surprising that they keep company, for each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring. The cause in both cases is failure to adjust ourselves to the present and a tendency to project our mental processes into the future. Foresight . . . is turned to mankind’s disadvantage. No one confines his misery to the present.”
Anger and Various Forms of Dissatisfaction with Others
Dwelling on an incident caused by another that makes you angry is in the category of things that are past and beyond your control so that continuing to think about them is pointless (unless you can take some purposeful action to vindicate yourself and if you can you will be less troubled by the insult or injury caused). Even if you would describe the situation as-ongoing, do you really have control over another person in this instance? Probably not. These negative feelings are an example of attaching importance to the outside world and its opinion. Self-sufficiency and your own inner resources should be your bolster, not the external world which will always change. Anyone who is raised up or cast down by the external events handed by fate is bound to spend much time cast down. You have also handed over to another person the power to make you feel uncomfortable; that person is not thinking about you, why should you devote any thoughts to him?
A general lack of enthusiasm and restlessness is, I suspect, what a lot of people feel when they say that they want to find happiness. A blasé or jaded attitude or even a melancholic one has enjoyed a certain cache at times and in certain circles. If you engage in the thinking outlined in the first category of unhappiness, you should come out of it. If not, Seneca says that nature has given us all a way out, should we want to get the jump of death. Above all, don’t complain—comfort thyself; why should anyone else have that responsibility?
Here we come to that strange, behemoth, and pointless emotion, grief. It has no evolutionary value to us as a species or to any of the animal species that suffesr from it. A case can be made for anger or fear having some value—grief is valueless. Seneca admitted that sorrow is stubborn and that reason must capitulate for a time. That is not to say that thinking does no good at all—it is a critical as ever. Thoughts I have found that help (particularly in poetry) make clear the naturalness of death and the shared experience of all humanity. As John Keats wrote in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law when the death of Tom, his younger brother, was imminent: “ I have Fanny (his sister) and I have you—three people whose Happiness to me is sacred—and it does annul that selfish sorrow which I should otherwise fall into, living as I do with poor Tom who looks upon me as his only comfort—the tears will come into your eyes—let them—and embrace each other –thank heaven for what happiness you have, and after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all Mankind, hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness.” Amen. When Tom died, the letter bearing that news was notably brief for a wordsmith like Keats—he declined comment. He hardly ever mentioned the experience of his brother’s death again in his letters, even though his brother died in his arms after he had cared for him through his illness. Only in his last letter did he make a reference to him, when he wrote that his sister reminded him of Tom. I think that exemplifies the truth that some things can be beyond words.
The direct prescription for happiness that Seneca does offer, and which I came across as a predominate notion in David Hume’s essay on Stoicism, is devotion to intellectual pursuits. A mind engaged in the higher order of thinking that only the human brain is capable of induces happiness. Amen.
How much does any of this work? There is nothing I am more skeptical of than the testimonial, so I hate to invoke “my own experience.” Skirting the personal, I will point out that I, or anyone, certainly have the ability through thought of becoming miserable and therefore ought to have the power through thought of feeling better. If I give myself over to thoughts of the past, mistakes, shortcomings, failures, losses, I have gone down the path of the sonnet by Shakespeare; the sighing and weeping and moaning and ruminating, will ensue for me, just as for the speaker of that poem–all pointless. In the poem by the way, the consolationat the end is thinking of what is present and worthy; in the sonnet it is a particular individual. Stoics would continue to point out that placing all your happiness on one person is fraught with problems, but that is another trail to follow. Right now, I want to establish that using reason–thinking and not thinking pointlessly– is not an empty exercise. Feelings are rarely helpful, often painful, and no negative or excessive emotion should run riot in our lives. Freedom from being roiled by emotion, attended by the prescribed use of intellect, sets the best course for tranquility that I have ever come across and is the truth lying under so many current psychological approaches and their layers of anecdotes, data, studies, and chapters.