Is Stoic joy an oxymoron?

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Stoicism is misunderstood. People think a Stoic is emotionless like Mr. Spock.

It’s a view I’ve been guilty of promoting.

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, philosophy professor William B. Irvine describes how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism is relevant today.

His key point is that Stoicism is about finding tranquility through self-control.

Stoicism isn’t about repressing emotions. Nor does it advocate indulging them.

Emotions are a reflex. And negative emotions such as anger, grief, fear, and anxiety can be destructive.

Stoicism isn’t about repressing these emotions. Nor does it advocate indulging them. Instead, Stoicism offers practical techniques for minimizing negative emotions.

Irvine says it’s okay for a Stoic to enjoy people, possessions, wealth, popularity, and health. But a Stoic will prepare for the eventual loss of these things. Stoics, like Zen Buddhists, believe all things are impermanent.

More to the point, Stoics place the most value on something that cannot be taken from them – their character.

Stoics realize that their happiness cannot depend on external things that they don’t control. If your happiness is based on wealth or relationships, which someone can take from you, then your happiness is not really yours.

Don’t expect the world to conform to your desires.

There are things you have no control over, such as the weather. There are things you can influence but not completely control, such as other people.

Then there are things you have complete control over. You can choose your values. You can set your goals.

But a Stoic doesn’t expect the world to conform to her desires. Instead, she embraces the moment because wishing things were different will only lead to misery.

Stoics don’t advocate a passive approach to life, however. Irvine says your best bet is to set internal goals, such as being as persuasive as possible or giving it your best shot. But you must be willing to let go of the desired outcome if it doesn’t go your way.

Balance is central to Stoic tranquility.

Balance, then, is central to Stoic tranquility. Stoicism isn’t about being emotionless because you can’t control the fact that emotions arise. Instead, there’s an equilibrium between indulgence and repression.

Ironically, practicing Stoicism means becoming more emotionally aware so the Stoic can put these emotions in perspective. And that requires the use of reason.

One technique Irvine recommends is negative visualization. Imagine losing something dear to you, and imagine handling that gracefully.

It’s a tough sell, but preparing yourself for the loss will help you cope when it happens.

Besides, most of us waste time thinking about things we want but don’t have. Envisioning the loss of things we do have makes us appreciate them all the more instead of taking them for granted.

Stoics place little value on people’s criticism or praise.

Irvine offers other pieces of practical advice. Our goals and values are ours, so we should take care not to let other people’s opinions derail us.

The human desire for social status can be a huge downfall. Status is conferred on us by others and can just as easily be withdrawn. For the sake of tranquility, Stoics advise placing little value on people’s criticism or praise.

Irvine quotes Roman Stoic Seneca, who said that “to know how many people are jealous of you, count your admirers.”

That might sound cynical, but flattery is often a tool for manipulation. Ever notice how easily people go from idolizing someone to despising them? Jealousy is the consistent element.

If your self-worth is based on other people’s positive opinions of you, then they own your self-worth – you don’t.

Learning to laugh at yourself helps you shrug off your faults. And if you can see that you’re not really so great then you’ll be less dependent on other people’s praise.

How do Stoics deal with anger?

Anger may be the most common negative emotion. How do Stoics deal with anger? Irvine says you lose the ability to distinguish annoyances from genuine harm when you coddle yourself and avoid life’s difficulties. The smallest discomfort becomes unbearable. Facing hardship head on builds confidence and makes annoyances easy to deal with.

Being overly sensitive, though, leads to thinking of yourself as a victim who is entitled to retribution. You might even develop a sense of entitlement that the world should conform to your desires.

That sense of entitlement becomes anger when the world is indifferent to your desires. Entitlement also leads to a lack of responsibility because you think the world must change for you – you don’t see that it’s you who must change.

Related to realistic expectations is reflecting on the impermanence of all things. This too shall pass. Irvine recommends imaging the situation happening to someone you don’t know. Would you think it’s a big deal or would you think it’s trivial? If it seems trivial then you have no business getting upset about it.

He also recommends that you remind yourself of times you’ve angered other people. You can quell your anger by remembering that you’re no better than anyone else.

Laughing at yourself when you’re feeling angry is also a great technique for chilling out. It’s hard to be mad when you see how silly you’re being.

Force yourself to slow down and to relax your facial expression. And once you’ve calmed down, apologize.

Modernizing Stoicism.

Finally, Irvine admits that he’s modernizing Stoicism. No ancient Stoic talked about negative visualization (though likely they would have approved).

And ancient Stoics disagreed with Epicureans that the world consists of atoms. Epicureans disagreed with the Stoic belief that the gods determine our fates. Irvine concedes that Epicureans have won this debate.

But none of this answers the question of whether Stoicism will bring joy.

We’ll only know by trying it.



The Painted Porch

Stoicism is valuable.

Stoicism has a bad reputation. I’ve criticized it in the past. But my misunderstandings were based on the colloquial sense of stoic in contrast to Stoicism as a philosophy.

And Stoicism’s IMG_0307core idea is a good one: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest.

The problem with suppressed passions is that they come back to bite us in the ass. Besides, emotional detachment isn’t self-control. It’s cheating, like painting the exterior of your house without renovating the interior. It looks good until you peek inside.

But Stoicism isn’t about emotional detachment. It’s about how to deal with intense emotions. Don’t lose your cool. Think clearly. Keep a level head.

Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – solution based psychotherapy focused on becoming more aware of how our thinking influences emotions and behavior. After all, emotions happen. We can’t stop that. But we can control our reactions. Marcus’s claim that, “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” is CBT in a nutshell.

Or as Zeno of Citium put it, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” Zeno taught from a painted porch (stoa in ancient Greek) in the third century B.C. The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous is taken directly from Stoicism – change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and be smart enough to know the difference.

You can do what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.

Stoicism is about:

        • Doing what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
  • Being honest with yourself about how you feel even when it’s uncomfortable. But don’t suck others into your psychodramas. Instead, you should advocate for your needs in a calm, matter of fact way that takes personal responsibility rather than blaming others.
  • Cooperation being your first move. Don’t retaliate if someone fails to reciprocate, but instead keep that person at a distance or simply walk away. Even self-defense should be limited to whatever is minimally necessary to contain the situation.
    • Not playing into someone’s self-pity or enabling others by trying to save them from their self-destructive behaviors. Instead, put the ball in their court by asking them what outcome they want and how they plan to achieve that.
  • Non-aggressively confronting someone who crosses your boundaries and holding them accountable. This means not telling other people what to do. And if someone tries to impose themselves on you, making it clear that it’s your choice to make, and you don’t accept their demand.
  • Non-aggressive communication means approaching with empathy and keeping defensiveness in check. Speaking in the first person and taking responsibility (“My understanding is…” or “What I want to see happen is…”). It means not making it personal. Refraining from accusations, judgements, or psychoanalyzing others, and instead asking someone to further explain their viewpoint.


Eye in the Sky: A Not Really Movie Review

Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren and that guy from Breaking Bad (the kid, not the old guy). And Alan Rickman is in it too, which made me feel sad because of his recent death.

The premis (no spoilers!) is that British and American forces want to bomb a house in Somalia with four notorious terrorists whom they know are about to suicide bomb a crowded marketplace. But there’s a little girl selling bread next to the house, and she’ll be killed if they bomb the house. If they don’t bomb the house, however, then more people (including children) will die when the terrorists strike.

It’s a heartbreaking dilemma. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It reminds me of the trolley problem, which philosopher Philippa Foot first proposed in the 1960s. It concerns a long-standing debate about ethics. Utilitarians argue for the greatest good for the greatest number. But what if enslaving a small minority benefits the majority? Is that okay? Deontologists argue that the rules are the rules. Slavery is wrong, so it doesn’t matter if more people will benefit. Lying is wrong too. But what if the Nazis show up and ask if you’re hiding Jews in your attic? If the rules say you can’t lie then do you tell the truth?

The trolley problem asks you to imagine that a trolley is about to go off the tracks and kill five people. What if pushing a fat man onto the tracks will stop the trolley and save five lives? One man dies to save five – that’s the greatest good for the greatest number. But the rules say killing is wrong.

Foot was less concerned about what people chose than why they chose one or the other. It turns out that most people would not push the fat man onto the tracks. Actively killing one person feels worse than passively doing nothing, even if five people die. That ethics is primarily based on emotion with reasoning being more like a post hoc justification is one key finding. And that people are motivated to avoid taking responsibility for a situation is also important.

But the trolley problem is kinda silly. No one can really imagine being in that situation. The fat man’s body probably won’t stop the trolley. And you could just yell at the bystanders, “Hey, you morons, get away from the goddamn tracks!”

Eye in the Sky turns the trolley problem into a plausible, real world dilemma that anyone could imagine being in. Do they bomb the terrorist’s house knowing the girl will die? Or do they save the girl knowing that the terrorists will kill even more people? You’ll have to watch the movie to see what they decide.