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

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.

Amor Fati and The Acceptance of What is Necessary

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This idea of surrendering ourselves to something beyond our control is foreign to our natural inclinations as human beings. At our core we are meaning making creatures who tirelessly seek to rid the world of uncertainty, and have power over our natural environment. We develop myths, rituals, belief systems, and socio-political institutions all in an attempt to influence the outcome in our favour – to shape our own destinies. According to the author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the development of culture is humanity’s attempt to reduce the inherent unpredictability of the external world, to make order out of chaos.

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Despite the sophisticated technologies and narratives we develop, we remain at the mercy of Fate.  Our attempts to tame and influence the external world to our favor are futile at best. A friend gets suddenly ill, a natural disaster tears apart our community, we don’t get the job that we think we deserve. Through this we learn about the indifference of the universe. This idea is further exemplified in Seneca’s brilliant prose,

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves…….. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within

Seneca: On Tranquility of Mind

What philosophy and ancient wisdom teaches us is to embrace hardship and uncertainty rather than run away from it. Rather than seeking comfort or security, we must willingly plunge into the abyss – the great unknown. Leaning in to fear and discomfort is where growth and personal transcendence happens.

Plagued with a life of hardship and illness, Fredrich Nietzsche found solace in the idea of Amor Fati, the love of fate. In his book Ecce Homo he writes,

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.

Nietzsche is not asking us to endure what happens to us, but embrace it – love it. To accept times of embarrassment, despair and remorse is to comprehend that every experience shapes who we are and who we become. To embrace Amor Fati is to come to terms with who you are. It is not a call to resignation nor apathy. Rather it is an understanding of the inherent vulnerability of the human race, and an acknowledgement of the fact that there are things we can and cannot control. 

When I first came across this concept I was completely captivated, so much so that I wanted to get a tattoo (still forthcoming) of the phrase to have the opportunity to constantly be reminded of its significance. It’s a prompt that will encourage me that we always have the power to reshape or reframe events to give them a new meaning.  

We are too quick to judge and interpret situations without taking a broader perspective. Both Buddhism and Stoicism teach us that events in themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. Rather it is up to us to decide how we can interpret them.  While a time of hardship or difficulty may seem insidious in the present moment, you may look back on this period in retrospect as one of transformation and personal growth.

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Like the Stoic philosopher Seneca alluded to, in some shape or form we are all chained down to something beyond ourselves – be it the will of Nature, Fate or Fortune. Instead of engaging in a senseless fight against what is outside of our influence why not embrace it with open arms. Why not take ownership over it and imagine this was something destined for you?

 In times of doubt, chaos or uncertainty , remember Amor Fati. I can see of no other way to live.