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
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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