Things Stoics Think About

A group of Stoics walk into a bar and fall into a lively discussion about the ways in which Stoicism has helped and the ways in which it has fallen short.  Or there could be a survey: “Which of the following best describes the ways that Stoicism has had a beneficial effect on your life…” (a) controlling my emotions in petty daily circumstances; (b) bringing an acceptance of the larger vicissitudes of life; (c) clarifying general goals to aspire to in my conduct for myself and in relation to others; (d) understanding the pitfalls in seeking joy, etc. . . Or conversely, in what situations do you feel Stoicism does the least good?

I will start the ball rolling by addressing the two ways in which I encounter the most difficulty in effectively bringing my philosophy to bear to enhance tranquility and self-sufficiency.

I have a problem with the really big picture. Stoicism proposes that nature is an unassailable given.  I find myself pointlessly pondering why it must be this way from start to finish.  As Woody Allen said, if there is a god, he must be an underachiever. Given the context in which we exist, I can set about making sense of suffering and death—but the context itself fails miserably by any common standards.  Suffering, pain, illness, decrepitude, injustice, acrimony, stupidity, self-serving insincerity, laziness, greed (and other grim nouns) define existence just because. And, please, let’s not say that there are many wonderful things as well—there are a few, but why are they not predominant?

Seneca delved into this question of a miserable context for individual existence, and it is clear from his discussion that he had the incidents of the daily life of an upper class Roman in mind when he laments the state of things. By the way, I cannot imagine how anyone would have kept a modicum of sanity in the Rome of Seneca’s day.  One trip to the Coliseum on circus day would have done me in—I despair of mankind at the thought of boiling lobsters alive and force-feeing geese so some pretentious palette can enjoy a delicacy; how would I tolerate the slaughter of scores of caged African animals, not to mention the hapless human victims.  He writes: “But to get rid of the causes of personal sorrow gains us nothing, for sometimes hatred of the human race possess us. When you reflect how rare simplicity is, how unknown innocence, how seldom faith is kept unless keeping it is good policy, when you recall the long calendar of successful crime, the profits and losses of lust, alike odious and ambition that no longer keeps its proper confines but rises to eminence though skullduggery, then the mind is plunged into black night and darkness envelops us, as if the virtues were overthrown and we could no longer possess them or aspire to them.”

He then continues to counsel to accept the world as it is with a dispassionate state of mind and with whatever tolerance you can muster.  That does not entirely address my underlying concern about why the world must be this way—but I can imagine Seneca’s response would boil down to acceptance of those things that we cannot control.  That is valid and must be coupled with a true, inner resignation, a degree of apathy, a letting go. By the way, Seneca, at that juncture of the above quote, veers into a related statement that I have pulled out of my pocket on many occasions, perhaps on a daily basis: “To be tormented by other people’s troubles is misery.” Considering that other people’s misery is usually something over which I have no control, dwelling on it is pointless—it does not help them and only disturbs me.

My second problem area is with the little things in life—and I know precisely why these situations test severely my Stoicism; because they are founded on expectations.  I expect my lap top to work every morning, I expect air travel to get me to my destination on at least the day of the scheduled arrival. Stoicism warns that expectations threaten tranquility; like having hope, expecting is living life in suspense, like a person in fear. That understanding is at odds with commonly accepted modes of thought, however. We feel very justified in these expectations; indeed when we doubt ordinary expectations we are blackly labeled pessimists. Therefore, to mitigate the distress of the common nit-picking annoyances of life I must paradoxically accord them a greater importance—the expectations associated with them must be diminished, just as those expectations and hopes on a larger scale (like having a good marriage or a fulfilling career or good health) and their unpleasant arrival must be greeted as in the ordinary course and as something over which I have only a small degree of, or no, control. Meeting the small distresses in that way might blunt their power to disrupt my tranquility.


The Goal

A few times in life we are asked to consider what our goals are, although that inquiry usually arises in a certain situation rather than in the larger context of life.  So, we enter college considering what our goals for a degree or an eventual job are; we marry with the goal of having a companion for life and children; for a new year we might have a goal to spend less money.  Overall, in how we want to live life on a consistent daily basis we frequently have no goal.  Stoicism proposes a goal: live a good life—but what is “good”?  First it is not concerned with morality, per se; the Stoic good life does not prescribe conduct toward others or a certain lifestyle as conducive to a good life, although once we lead the good life, we will necessarily act in a reasonable way towards others that replicates behavior common to notions of “moral” conduct.  Stoicism is self-centered, which serves it well because we are all ultimately selfish.  Stoicism suggests that the good life is one of personal tranquility.  Tranquility captures the idea of the golden mean, nothing in excess; why that is conducive to tranquility and the good life? If we are tranquil we are obviously not in the throes of agony whether resulting from passion, sadness, anger, or frustration, in short wracked by emotion–that is, victim of excess emotion. What is wrong with excess emotion?  Simply stated it makes us unhappy.  What about “good” emotions one might ask, great love or buoyant optimism?  Starting with the latter, I have noted in my life that a number of my greatest woes have followed moments of optimism, not even wild and baseless optimism, but well-placed optimism given the circumstances.  Feeling raised up to the point of exuberance was in itself uncomfortable in a tense unsettling kind of way, and when the resolution of the circumstances came about, in what I regarded as a negative way, I felt thrown into an abyss.  As for love, which we are told relentlessly is the highest good, there is nothing happy about the suspense of pending rejection, the coming undone of the knot of a relationship, or the inevitable onset of reality trampling imagined attributes of the object of our desire.  High-pitched optimism and love are just two examples of the harmful effects of excess purportedly “good” emotion, and it is easier to comprehend the negative nature of other emotions, even if not felt in excess, such as anger, frustration, envy, and jealousy. The tranquil mind can enjoy the ostensibly positive emotions, yet keep them within the middle range, and can reason itself out of the negative ones with the result that life will not be fraught with anxiety, disappointment, frustration, anger and sadness.  I wish to not go through life beset by such emotions, thus I have the goal of leading a tranquil life.

In the penultimate sentence of the above paragraph I was forced to use the word “reason” and that is the key word in starting toward our goal of tranquility.  It is the way and the light and the path and whatever other metaphor one pleases. Tomorrow I will discuss why reason merits such a central role in my living philosophy.