Philosophy as a Way of Life: Stoicism

The Stoic Emperor: Marcus Aurelius

It is a simple question, yet one many of us seriously reflect on. How can we live a good life, a life that focuses on continuously improving one’s character, a life akin to virtue.

Few of us think philosophy is of any value anymore. Having taken philosophy courses in my undergraduate degree I have spent hours discussing this issue with friends and family. This is one of the reasons I have started this blog, as a way to demonstrate how philosophical ideas can provide us with an antidote to deal with some of the issues we face in modern society.

One of the reasons many people dismiss philosophy is because contemporary philosophy no longer focuses on cultivating and practicing wisdom. Rather it emphasizes discourse and semantics retreating from the original ideals of the Ancient Greeks who viewed philosophy as a way of life. Philosophy has moved away from the public square into the ivory tower. Pierre Hadot concisely summarizes this sentiment in the quote below:

“Philosophy—reduced, as we have seen, to philosophical discourse—develops from this point on in a different atmosphere and environment from that of ancient philosophy. In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a way of life, or a form of life—unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy.”

Pierre Hadot

Stoicism

When someone first hears the word ‘Stoic’ they may immediately picture an individual who is able to endure hardship or pain whilst demonstrating little emotion. However, this is a widely held misconception of the Stoics. They taught that one should not supress the emotions but rather have proper and rational judgements about them. Furthermore, Stoicism is a complex and sophisticated philosophy and can not be simply reduced to these modern stereotypes.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that originated from ancient Greece in early 3rd century BC and spread to Rome during the period of the Roman Empire. Stoicism can provide us with a series of practical exercises that we can incorporate in our day to day lives. It can assist us with navigating the complexity of modern life, dealing with hardships and setbacks, and provide us with a framework to continuously improve ourselves. Its greatest proponents included Epictetus (a former slave), Seneca (a Roman statesman) and Marcus Aurelius (an emperor).   

In How to be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci summarizes the 3 stoic disciplines, which captures a lot about the key themes and lessons of Stoicism:

  1. Discipline of Desire : Deals with what we should and should not want 
  2. Discipline of Action : Addresses ethics and focuses on how we should act  
  3. Discipline of Assent :Focuses on how we ought to react and respond to situations

The central tenant of Stoicism is something that you may be familiar with as it resonates with many wisdom traditions as well as religions. The ‘dichotomy of control’ is described by Epictetus in his Discourses,

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

Epictetus

The core idea of cultivating what you can control and accepting what you can not is also echoed in Christianity in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

We cannot control external events, but we can control how we react to situation. Likewise, we always can change our perspective of the scenario.  An artist or musician may be very talented at what they do, practice diligently and put their efforts in promoting their art. However, success or fame as an artist often requires something more than what is directly under our control. Perhaps some useful connections, a lucky break or ‘being in the right place at the right time.’

This is not to say that the artist should simply quit, but rather acknowledge what is in their control (cultivating their skills) versus what is not (fame, recognition, stardom etc.). Viewing things in this perspective will help them avoid a lot of unnecessary frustration or disappointment.

Let me give a personal example that may be familiar to a lot of commuters in Toronto. I take the subway daily to work and occasionally I experience subway delays or route closures. Being stuck on a crammed train and potentially being late for work is not pleasant. However, in these situations I can apply the ‘dichotomy of control’ here to put my mind at ease.

Under my control Not in my control
be aware of any closures or delays be listening to news beforehand the duration of the delay
e-mail my manager to inform them of the delay how other commuters react around me (ie. Frustration, anger etc.)
refrain from expressing anger or frustration  
make use of this time to learn something new and expand my knowledge through a book or podcast  

In a fast-pasted world that is constantly changing, applying the ‘dichotomy of control’ to our lives can help us put situations or circumstances in a new light or perspective. We can apply this exercise from everything to our health, work and personal lives.  

I’ll continue to write about Stoicism for the next few articles, but in the meantime,  I want to share some excellent resources if your interested in learning more about the philosophy.

Stoic Resources:

https://modernstoicism.com/

Daily Stoic: dailystoic.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3STjOKmuJhc (Daily Stoic- You Control How You Play)

Till next time,

AA                                                                                               

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