Stoicism: You Always Have a Choice

Writing about the horrors he endured during the holocaust, Victor Frankl reflects on a principle that is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl states that:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. 

Frankl writes about the immense suffering that he and his fellow prisoners experienced in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. He nonetheless maintains that even in the most dire of situations, we still have the freedom and autonomy to decide how to react to external events.

This idea aligns with the Stoic notion of the ‘dichotomy of control’ which I explored in an earlier post. That is, we should focus our efforts on our inner dispositions, namely what is in our power. We ultimately can not dictate how the events in the outside world will unfold. However, the value judgements and perspectives that we assign to our circumstances is something that is up to us.

As the modern Stoic writer Ryan Holiday notes, difficulty does not have to be seen as a sign of weakness or defeat. Rather, challenges and obstacles offer unique opportunities to develop new skills and may provide us with the wake-up call we need to change our course of action. Sometimes what we initially perceive as failures may turn out to be ‘blessings in disguise.’ One of the more notable examples of this is the case of Apple founder Steve Jobs who was initially ousted from the company he created. Jobs didn’t let this define his life however. He used this as an opportunity to create and reshape existing companies (NeXT and Pixar) and critically examine his leadership style. Upon return to Apple in 1997, he led the charge in making Apple largest companies in the world.

The ability to step back from our emotional impulses and view things from a rational and objective viewpoint is an important skill to develop to navigate the ups and downs of life. Furthermore, we must always be aware of what we can and can not control. If one considers the key aspects of their lives, they will realize that many things are outside our scope of influence. We don’t choose our parents, our up bringing, the country or socio-economic status that we are born in. Stoicism can help us make the best out of the hand that we are dealt with in life.

Stoic philosophy can act as an antidote to a world that can sometimes feel chaotic and unpredictable. In fact, many principles of Stoicism are used in modern day cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat mental health issues including anxiety, substance abuse and depression. Some of similarities between the ancient school of philosophy and CBT[1] include:

  1. Using logic to question our irrational beliefs, assumptions or emotions
  2.  Accepting our circumstances, and refraining from assigning value judgements to events.
  3. Understanding what you can and can not control

In sum, both CBT and Stoicism emphasize the importance of constantly challenging your initial impressions or reactions towards events or circumstances. Furthermore, both doctrines advise us to slow down, look at events from a rational perspective and refrain from impulsive behaviour.

I will end this post with a quote from the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius which provides a good summary of key points in this article:

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII

Hope you enjoyed this week’s post. I will dedicate one more post on Stoicism and then move on to the philosophy of mindfulness.

AA


[1] If you would like a deeper dive into the similarities of CBT and Stoicism I recommend reading The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

4 thoughts on “Stoicism: You Always Have a Choice

  1. I think you summed up modern Stoicism’s focus on the dichotomy of control and its relationship to CBT quite nicely. I’m also a fan of Viktor Frankl and always thought his quote—“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” summed up Stoicism quite nicely. You have a great post. Keep on writing.

    Like

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