Monday, January 31, 2011

Being Stoic

Recently this book arrived at my house from the library.  A Guide to the Good Life is a book that talks about the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.  I read an article about Stoicism a little while ago and found it really intriguing and the book is even more so; I think I might have found a philosophy to call home.  A quote:

We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty.  For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point.  After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass.  It could, after all, have been broken or stolen.  And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are:  they are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and -miracle of miracles!- allow us to see what they contain.  This might sound a bit silly, but to someone who has not lost his capacity for joy, the world is a wonderful place. To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass, and it is half empty to boot.

I love these guys!  Stoicism to most people today would mean a lack of emotion and the suppression of both joy and anger, love and hate.  Stoicism the philosophy is very different though as it is dedicated to the pursuit of positive emotions and the avoidance of negative emotions.  The basic goal is tranquility, being entirely happy with the way the world is and unworried about how it might be.  A Stoic, in theory, does not worry about how things might have gone or how things are but only about how things might be.  The past is done, there is no benefit to feeling bad about the way things were.  We cannot affect the present, so it is the same as the past, but the future is something we can affect so we concern ourselves with how we can make the future the best it can be.  In the same way a Stoic tries not to be concerned about the parts of life they cannot control.

I cannot control whether or not the economy will go badly, so I will not worry about it.

I can control whether or not I have a job to some extent, so I should concern myself with doing a good job and making sure my employer knows the value I bring.

I have control over myself so I make sure I bring a positive attitude and confidence to my job every day.

The Stoics also dedicate themselves to regularly reminding themselves of how much worse things could be.  They believe in sometimes wearing inappropriate clothing for the weather to better appreciate how good our proper clothes are, eating very simple food so that we can be happier about usual fare and dressing poorly so that we might be more joyful about wearing the clothes we normally can.  They even go so far as to regularly imagine how things could go wrong:  Imagine I was crippled in an accident, imagine my partner died, imagine my children ran away, imagine my greatest rival mocking me.  The idea is that if you remind yourself how much worse the world could be you will be very pleased in seeing how much better than that it is.

After reading about their ideas I was amazed at how much of Stoicism I already practice.  Some of the origins of their ideas are a bit too religion-esque for me, but that is unsurprising since they were thinking and practicing back in ancient Greek and Roman times.  I already practice their negative visualization, I strive to worry about that over which I have control and not concern myself with that which is beyond my control and I have tried for years to retain a childlike sense of joy at anything and everything.  Certainly much of what the Stoics believe is reflected in pop psychology and any other source of good advice - looking on the bright side and avoiding situations that might make you angry or sad isn't exactly unique to them.  That said, their philosophy as a whole feels very right to me and their ideal 'the sage' is the sort of person I want to be.


  1. I have a label!! BB

  2. Thank you for posting this. I must read more about this philosophy as it seems to be the philosophy I have held all my life.