A Stoic Approach to Fear

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Seneca: A Stoic Life

One of the things I admire about the Stoic philosophers is that they embodied the wisdom that they preached. Seneca, one of the three notable Stoics (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), used the philosophy of Stoicism to navigate the turmoil and uncertainties during his life.

Although he maintained a high status in ancient Rome as a politician and financial clerk, Seneca was forced into exile by Claudius, and ordered to commit suicide by his former student – the tyrannical emperor Nero. 

In a typical Stoic fashion, on his death bed, Seneca urges his friends, family and followers not to fear death. Dying with dignity and courage, he argues that it is only through death and the ephemeral nature of our existence which gives life meaning. It is not the duration of one’s life that is of significance Seneca claims, but rather the endeavours and meaningful pursuits that one engages which makes life worthwhile.   

 In his consolation to his friend Marcia over the death of her son, Seneca writes that we should always be prepared from the unknown, directly confront our fears and cherish our existence. Nothing should be taken for granted.

That person has lost their children: you too, can lose yours; that person received sentence of death: your innocence too, stands under the hammer. This is the fallacy that takes us in and makes us weak while we suffer misfortunes that we never foresaw that we could suffer. The person who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.

Seneca, On Consolation to Marcia

Letters from a Stoic

One of the more notable works left behind by Seneca is the Letters from a Stoic. Near the end of his life, Seneca wrote 124 letters to his friend Lucilius offering philosophical insight and consolation, highlighting many of the key themes in Stoic philosophy.

My favourite in this collection is Letter 13 – On Groundless Fears.  In this letter, Seneca encourages Lucilius to practice resilience providing  questions to consider when assessing the validity of his fears.

Many of our fears Seneca notes are unfounded. We can not control the external world, but we can control our interpretation of it. Much of what we fear are fabrications produced by our mind which, if properly evaluated and critiqued, have no basis in reality.

 Even if unfavourable events do come to fruition, we do not know what the future holds. It may perhaps be a blessing in disguise.

To expand and identify these key ideas these I created a graphic which summarizes the questions and maxims Seneca urges us to consider when we are faced with anxiety or fear. In the thought bubbles are direct quotes from Seneca’s letter which speak to these concepts.

If you want to listen to an audio version of these letters I highly recommend Tim Ferris’ Tao of Seneca.  

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Ramblings on Personal Sovereignty

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I aspire to be an independent thinker. One who adheres to a clear set of authentic principles, and can hold their own against the tyranny of the majority.

I long to be free from ideology and dogma, free from the imaginary boundaries and limitations of this group or that group in the time of the culture wars.       

Why should I pursue endeavours purely to appease others or act in a way contradictory to my nature?

A term I feel particularly drawn to during this time of chaos is personal sovereignty. As Jordan Hall describes it,

Sovereignty is the capacity to take responsibility. It is the ability to be present to the world and to respond to the world — rather than to be overwhelmed or merely reactive. Sovereignty is to be a conscious agent.

To me, being a sovereign individual entails being in the driver’s seat – being in control.

It means having the awareness and insight to be able to cut through the noise and find the truth in a world that is increasingly politicized and divisive. 

That is not to say, I must reject conformity or social norms at all costs. Rather it is to use discernment and reason to act on the most logical course of action.

This has become increasingly difficult in a time where corporations, the media and politicians are constantly fighting for your attention, dollars and votes.  

Who to believe?

Who to trust?

Where can truth be found?

My hope is that the practice of mindfulness and Stoicism will allow me to see things more clearly, as they are – from an objective standpoint. To not be thrown around emotionally by the headlines, but have greater control and autonomy over my reactions to external events.

It is difficult to flow against the grain, to risk being wrongly accused and be viewed as an outcast. However, this is what a commitment to Truth requires. As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us,

Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

On the Duality of Life

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Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final

Ranier Maria Rilke

Regardless of who we are or where we are born, we cannot escape one of the most inevitable experiences in life, the certainty of suffering. While we desperately try to find stability, we soon realize the inherent state of change and decay in the world. Birth and death, love and loss, pain and pleasure – life is an intricate interconnected web of opposing forces. 

Faced with the negative aspects of this duality we are given two options – to escape or to embrace. Nietzsche argued that personal transcendence and fulfilment require us to overcome our difficulties. To affirm both the good and the bad experiences is to accept and acknowledge our existence as human beings. As Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays,

We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of dischords as well as different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life.

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The French philosopher Albert Camus reflects on the story of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus who was condemned by Zeus for his deception and immoral behaviour. His eternal punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it fall down once he reached the top of the summit.

Camus uses this story as an analogy of his philosophy of absurdity. The Myth of Sisyphus represents the conflict between our innate search for meaning and order and the seemingly random and indifferent nature of the universe. Despite the absurdity of Sisyphus’ punishment, he writes ‘we must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ Camus believes that the best alternative for Sisyphus is to accept and come to terms with his circumstances embodying the notion of amor fati – loving one’s fate.

We can also opt to find meaning in our suffering, and seek for the lessons it can teach us. We can tolerate these hardships if they are the necessary steps, we must endure to reach a higher-level goal. Fulfilment comes to us not when we take the path that is most convenient but rather the road less travelled.

Compare the euphoria one gets after a tough hike up a mountain versus an individual who takes a car or gondola. It is precisely the trials and tribulations we endure during the difficult hike which makes our enjoyment of the peak so much more meaningful.

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An appropriate metaphor for these philosophical ideas is that of the artist. An artist can use difficulty and hardship as resources for their creation. They turn melancholy, sadness and confusion into beauty and awe. As Nietzsche brilliantly writes,  “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” We are attracted to great art because it accurately depicts the vast range of emotions we experience – from hope, to sorrow and self-understanding.

Alain de Botton notes in his book The Consolations of Philosophy,  

What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image. Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it.

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Hence, I think it is important to remember that what seems immediately pleasurable to us may not be good for us down the road, whereas unpleasant experiences may be help us cultivate the positive virtues we need.