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.

Reasoning with Misfortune

Following up my previous post, which considered hardship as subjective, I now admit that such reasoning only goes so far, at least for me, and I cannot confront any number of situations as anything other than really unfortunate.  What to do then as a Stoic?  My representative Stoics, Seneca and John Keats (the latter of whom I have dubbed a Stoic although he did not so designate himself) suffered greatly and considered ways to reconcile themselves to hardship.  Neither one, nor do the Stoics generally, explains the existence of hardship.  Seneca simply accepted that we are all chained to fortune, everything we have is on loan from fortune, and there is no supplicating for a change or avoiding what is fated to arrive.  To grasp the reality of hardship the Stoic way is twofold:  find a use in suffering (as Keats and Seneca both did) and consider that things could be worse.

Rather than paraphrase the views of Seneca and Keats on the use of suffering, which I have already done in my paper “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats” that appears under the heading “John Keats” on my main blog page, I will explore my own ideas, informed by my predecessors and my own experience and thought.  First, although I do find a use for hardship, I nonetheless abhor the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  Bad experiences can make us jaded, distrustful, bitter, and impart any number of other grim sentiments about life.  It is not possible that one could undergo something momentous, whether pleasant or awful, and remain unchanged, and there is no reason that such change must always be beneficial.  However, troubling, tough, and dire experiences and suffering do make us more learned.  If we have never had a loss we can know nothing of grief.  Experience teaches.  We are a sum of all that we learn and I think in that context more is better—being learned is beneficial to us and those around us.  I have little respect for the person who has not suffered, unless he or she is still very young, because he lacks knowledge.  So, I might prefer not to be pummeled by misfortune, but when I have experienced it, I will have increased my knowledge and my worth.  To be around people who lay claim to good luck and happiness (that kind of happiness produced by external events) does not appeal to me. I find their company annoying and I cannot respect them greatly, if much at all.  I prefer the tried and tested, who from experience also will have learned that there really is no need to complain, or that there is not any relief to be gained from it.  Last, it is possible that we suffer less as we become accustomed to the awful and painful in life, and therefore our suffering does serve us.  The metaphor there would be calloused hands no longer hurt when gripping the ax whereas the tender, untried hands become raw and painful.

To digress slightly on the topic of suffering, I have to recognize that Christianity got it right in having a figure who suffered.  Other religions lack that. The gods of antiquity not only did not suffer they were capricious and cruel.  Of course, God in the monotheistic religions is inherently capricious and cruel also, but “His” actions are clothed in mysterious ways and metaphors.  My attraction to Keats, and his place among my lares and penates, arises from his suffering: his losses, his struggle to survive as a writer, and his illness, leading to his early death. (Of course he was also the best of poets and a wonderfully likeable human being, judging from his letters).

The other Stoic approach to a bad situation is to consider how much worse things could be, and through that realization conjure a bit of tranquility. So, you have lost your job; what if you were also getting a divorce?  And if you have lost your job and are getting a divorce, at least you don’t have cancer, and so on.  The flip side of that is valuing what you have: I am getting a divorce and have lost my job, but I have two children and good health.  I long ago came upon the related idea that, given the ever flowing and changing current of events, we cannot be sure that such and such a bad thing was really worse than something else that could well have happened.  To illustrate that point, I offer the following parable, told to me by an acquaintance; as she did not invent it, perhaps it is commonly told in certain circles.  A man and his son lived in a poor village. One day the boy found a horse and brought him home.  The villagers were envious and said that he was lucky.  However, the horse threw the boy and broke his leg, and the people said that he was unlucky to have found the horse.  The next week the army of the cruel King came into town demanding conscripts. They hauled off all the young men, but left the boy because he had a broken leg.  The people shook their heads at how lucky he was to have escaped the army.  The story could go on and on with alternating good and bad events like a parlor game or a busy activity in a creative writing class.  This thought process is related to the basic notion that things could be worse, except rather than focusing on what you still have to lose, you consider that you have no idea what else might have been in store at the time of the awful event.  Yes, I missed the train, but if I had been five minutes earlier, I might have had an accident driving to the station; after all, bad things are the product of random, unforeseen and swift occurrences and they are ever rising and striking.

A second Stoic approach for keeping tranquil when misfortune strikes is to not care too much, thus whatever is lost was not so highly prized that its absence is devastating.  If I achieve a sound Stoic attitude, I will not cling to my property (or all those things on loan from fortune, including relationships and positions in society), as to be upset when the flood washes away my home or when in Ancient Rome the Centurions show up to appropriate my home and banish me to a barren island.  I must admit, I falter here.  I can accept that we are destined to suffer, that we should accept what we can’t change without complaining because, if for no other reason, complaining is pointless, and I can hold the view that I will be a more learned person from the terrible event, and that things could always be worse— but I can’t prepare effectively. No matter how much I realize that I might lose my home, I will find it a grievous misfortune, not alleviated by forethought.  Not surprisingly, I also have a hard time with the principal of living frugally and without attachment to possessions.  Well, Stoicism is not about achieving perfection—Seneca and Keats acknowledged that very few are sages, or as Keats called them, the truly “disinterested.”  I will not be a sage, but I can be more tranquil, and that is better than not.