In this day and age it is far too easy to become addicted to our ego. Through the internet and social media, we long for instant gratification and praise. Consequently, we become consumed by the notifications, the ‘likes’, and the comments as we continually search for validation. We are inclined to boast our feats, our good deeds and accomplishments to others. However, through this, we lose perspective of the original intentions of our actions.
The Stoics looked to nature and assessed how the world natural operates to understand how humans should act. It follows from this that humans are rational and social animals. As human beings, we flourish through our collective efforts in society not in isolation. In fact, the degree in which we are able to cooperate and collaborate to build complex and sophisticated civilizations is uniquely human. This trait sets us apart from other species.
In this quote Marcus Aurelius recommends that we perform good actions not for the sake of praise or adoration, but for there own sake. Selflessly working towards improving the lives of others is what being a human living in a society requires of us. It is in our nature, just as it is in the nature of a bee to make honey or a vine to produce grapes. Therefore, we must not demand recognition or compensation for our good deeds or seek external validation.
In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw profiles the lives of World War II Veterans who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of freedom. These soldiers were not motivated by fame or acclaim, but rather fought because it was ‘the right thing to do’. They performed their duty to their country and to their fellow citizens with honour and humility, not with pride.
Humility is not a sign of weakness but
rather a virtue. It demands that an individual be honest about their own
abilities. Furthermore, it requires one to be content with their own self-worth
and refrain from comparing themselves to others.
Follow Marcus Aurelius’ advice and do what is expected from
you, not because you will profit form it, but rather because it is the right
thing to do.
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.”
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:
Discipline of Desire : Deals with what we should and should not want
Discipline of Action : Addresses ethics and focuses on how we should act
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.”
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.
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
be aware of any closures or delays be listening to news beforehand
of the delay
e-mail my manager to inform them of the delay
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
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
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.