Stoic compassion

Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.

© Dave DuBay

Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.

After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:

When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”

At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.

Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.

This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.

By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.

Marcus says we should

See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.

This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.

Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.

Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.

Advertisements

Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”

Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.

Did Buddhism influence Stoicism?

Both teach nonattachment, impermanence, and interconnectedness.

Both advise self-control, especially when strong emotions are involved.

Both teach that how we think about things determines how we experience life.

Both say that we create our own suffering by constantly yearning for more while failing to appreciate what we have.

And most of all, both place a strong emphasis on virtuous thoughts and actions.

But there are differences as well. Stoicism focuses on reason rather than mysticism. Concepts like Nirvana and rebirth are absent from Stoicism, as is the Buddhist practice of meditation.

The historical record is scant. I created this crude timeline to show the key interactions between Greek and Buddhist cultures:

buddhism-stoicism-timeline

 

 

 

You’ll notice that there is no known interactions between Buddhists and Stoics in ancient times. Stoicism grew out of Cynicism, however, and Cynic philosopher Onesicritus did interact with Indian ascetics after Alexander the Great reached the Indus River. We don’t know if these Indian ascetics were Buddhist, though they could have been. Besides, Cynicism had independently developed asceticism and non-attachment prior to contact with the East.

After Alexander’s empire split into smaller empires, Indo-Greek King Menander I became a Buddhist. And through trade routes it’s possible that some Buddhist ideas made their way back to Greece. And Caesar Augustus is known to have met with a Buddhist Indian king. A century and a half later the Stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius emphasized impermanence and interconnectedness.

But this is all circumstantial. It’s possible that Buddhist thought had an indirect influence on Stoicism, first through Cynic contact with the East and later through trades routes. But if so, it’s unlikely that Stoic philosophers knew the Buddhist origin of these influences.

Why don’t people like me?

img_1026
Pima Canyon, South Mountain Phoenix, Arizona

It’s an often heard lament, especially from children. But the sentiment usually doesn’t fade with age. Instead it becomes more specific. Why didn’t I get the promotion? Why won’t he call me?

Our desire for approval (and fear of disapproval) is really a desire for social status.

 

 

True harm is failing to respond ethically

Epictetus was born a slave who learned at a young age that social status wasn’t up to him – and maybe not all it’s cracked up to be. Though freed later he didn’t try to climb the social ladder.

In his handbook (24.1), Epictetus points out that we “cannot be in a bad state as a result of someone else’s actions.” Other people may cause us pain, but that’s their shame. Only a poor response on our part brings us shame.

Besides, we don’t control whether someone likes us, praises us, agrees to a date, or makes a job offer. We do have some influence, but the final outcome isn’t up to us.

Self-worth can’t be given or taken away

If our self-worth is based on external validation and can be destroyed by other people’s disapproval then it’s actually we who are the destroyer. We’re destroying our power over something that’s under our control – which self-worth based on the kind of person we choose to be.

Is it better to be an honest and nurturing person who is despised by others, or to be a destructive person who nonetheless is admired by many? The dynamics of political power and wealth create dilemmas like this.

Epictetus warns against blaming others or blaming circumstances – or even blaming ourselves. Shit happens. Shit happens to us. But we don’t control other people or external circumstances. We can’t change the past. The only thing we can do is choose how we think about the situation, and what we choose to do about it. And it’s here that we can act ethically or egotistically.

Peace of mind

And that’s Epictetus’s formula for peace of mind. Let go of external circumstances that are beyond our control, and ask ourselves – before we act – what’s the right thing to do knowing that ultimately I must live with myself?

Doing the right thing has made some people into outcasts. For others acting ethically has led to a loss of reputation, or a loss of material goods that others wanted and pretended to admire us to obtain. But what does it say about us if we desire the approval of people like that?

The bigger picture

This doesn’t mean we should despise others or point a finger at them. After all, disapproval from others most often takes the form of moralistic finger pointing, so we’d be acting no differently from them.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes our shared humanity. Other people wrong us because of their errors of judgment or ignorance, but most things are minor in the grand scheme of things. Only we can harm ourselves by responding in kind. The best way to overcome the disapproval of others is not retaliation, but setting a better example.

Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Stoicism is a major theme in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in FullBut Wolfe portrays Stoicism as a religion rather than a philosophy. Yet, while ancient philosopher Epictetus believed in Zeus, it’s hard to find a Stoic today who worships Greek deities.

In Wolfe’s novel, Conrad discovers Stoicism while in prison. An out of work father, Conrad leaves a job interview only to see his car being towed. He hadn’t parked on the sidewalk – a truck parked behind him had pushed his car out of its spot. Conrad argues with parking enforcement to no avail. Then he goes to the impound lot only to find that the fee is higher than he was told. So Conrad attempts to break his car out of impound. He fights back when the attendant tries to physically restrain him, and even attacks a police officer who intervenes. Conrad believes he was justified, however, so he turns down a misdemeanor plea bargain and is convicted of felony aggravated assault.

Maybe if Conrad had been a Stoic beforehand he would have handled things differently. His attempts at persuasion having failed, he might have realized that an impounded car is not within his control. He can’t force others to do anything against their will, and choosing assault must also come with choosing the consequences.

After escaping from prison, Conrad assumes a stolen identity and begins working as a personal care assistant for business tycoon Charlie Crocker, who recently had a knee replacement. Crocker is deep in debt, but a corrupt politician offers to pull some strings with the bank if Crocker will serve as a political pawn.

Crocker asks Conrad for advice, and Conrad says, “To a Stoic there are no dilemmas. They don’t exist.”

Confused, Crocker asks for clarification, and Conrad tells him the story of Agrippinus. Emperor Nero had asked Agrippinus and Florus to humiliate themselves by acting like clowns – or face execution. Florus didn’t know what to do, but Agrippinus says that Florus will act like a clown while Agrippinus will not.

Why? Because Florus had already considered the possibility of acting like a clown. Agrippinus, instead, tells Nero, “It’s up to you to do your part, and it’s up to me to do mine.”

Point being, your only true possession is your character.

Crocker decides to sacrifice his business empire (and lose his trophy wife in the process) rather than be the politician’s clown. Then he becomes a Stoic evangelist.

Wolfe does a great job of illustrating a central Stoic idea – that there are no dilemmas when you’re asked to sacrifice your character. Maybe that’s why Stoicism appealed to early Christians. It echos Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”

This underscores the point that Stoicism is a philosophy independent of any religious tradition, though it can intersect with many different religions – or no religion at all.

How to become a better person, according to Epictetus

Tamarac, Florida
Tamarac, Florida

Most of us want to grow as individuals, to be better today than we were yesterday. But if we’re honest, we fall short too often.


We need a plan. And Epictetus has one.


He says we must focus on three things:

  • Our desires (including what we wish to avoid);
  • Our motivations to act or not act (and whether we’re organized or careless);
  • And what we assent to, including whether that assent is based on reason and reality, or if our judgments are hasty and based on false beliefs.

But as Mick Jagger famously put, you can’t always get what you want. When our desires are frustrated it’s easy to get upset and act irrationally. And then we fall into undesirable situations. That is, we unwittingly assent to things we’d rather avoid.

We can go too far in the other direction, though, becoming numb and detached. Epictetus warns against being “unfeeling like a statue.” This advice contradicts the stereotype that Stoics are emotionless – but the stereotype is wrong. Instead, he reminds us that we are social creatures and we should honor our natural desire to connect with others.


Life is like a banquet.


Epictetus says life is like a banquet. If something we want is offered to us, accept it – but don’t be greedy. If we don’t want it then decline it. If something we want isn’t offered to us then let it go.

We must remember that the entire world is interconnected. Virtue increases connection, but beliefs and actions that create disconnection can lead us to behave destructively. And anger (wanting to strike out against someone) and wanting to prove superior status through attachment to external things like money and power (which we can never really control anyway), all lead to disconnection.


Gimme three steps, mister.


The first step is to be honest with ourselves about what we truly desire, and what we wish to avoid. Otherwise, we’ll go about things in a backhanded way and end up where we don’t want to be.

The second step is to understand what’s up to us and what’s not up to us. Or put another way, what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.

The only things that are up to us are our values, motivations, and choices. Other people, events, and so on don’t belong to us. So if we desire something we must be willing to let go of it because realistically we know it might not come our way.

Finally, consistency is important – take note of moments when we’re not at our best and what lead up to it. Then we can be on guard in the future.