Is it paradoxical to say that we should combine confidence with caution? Doesn’t caution seem like the opposite of confidence?
In book two of his Discourses, Epictetus says it’s a matter of knowing what to be confident about and what to be cautious about. And most of us get it backwards.
He says there’s no point in stressing over what might happen or what has happened because we can’t change the past and we don’t control the future.
But we should be cautious about things that are within our control – namely, our values, motivations, and choices. Yet, it’s far too easy to deceive ourselves about our selfish motivations.
Most of us, however, fear things that are not up to us. What if my flight is delayed? What if the stock market crashes?
But at the same time we can be overconfident, insisting we’re right and that our motivations are pure. Epictetus says this can lead to recklessness disguised as self-confidence.
To be deceived, then, or 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 reasons that outside events are neither good nor bad. But how we respond to them can be good or bad.
And when thinking about the best way to respond to these events we should second guess our true motivations. We must first make sure we’re not lying to ourselves about our true intentions. And we must make sure we’re not examining the situation with distorted thinking.
Epictetus even says we shouldn’t fear death. We’re all going to die one day anyway. Whether we lived a good life is what matters. But that can’t be decided on our deathbeds because the past is gone and there is no future.
Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. From his students’ notes we have four discourses, a handbook, and a few fragments.
In the Enchiridion (or handbook) Epictetus wrote that external events are not up to us. And though we can exert varying degrees of influence, our desired outcome isn’t guaranteed. But our goals, values, and actions are up to us. It’s important to know the difference, and what to do about it.
If that sounds familiar it’s because someone cribbed it and called it the Serenity Prayer.
Epictetus’s discourses have a different flavor, though. The same themes are repeated. But Epictetus talks a lot about God in his discourses – to the point where it almost reads like a religious text.
Ancient Stoics (like almost everyone in the ancient world) believed in deities. Other Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, were not atheists but didn’t place as much emphasis on God.
Stoicism today is neither explicitly theist nor atheist. Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion, and it can accommodate almost any personal faith or lack thereof.
Knowing what is and isn’t ours.
Epictetus advises us to turn unfortunate circumstances to our advantage. Lust is an opportunity to cultivate temperance. Pain can help us improve our endurance. And verbal abuse is a chance to develop a thick skin and learn patience.
The key, Epictetus says, is knowing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Things that don’t belong to us are other people, wealth, power, and even our reputations. The danger is that wanting what someone else has means letting that person control us.
But how we think about our impressions of the world and what we choose to do about it are ours.
What can really harm us.
Most of us expect harm or benefit from external things, but wise people expect harm or benefit from themselves. The Stoic virtues of being just, temperate, and self-controlled are central to human excellence.
When people criticize us it’s often because they think they have a moral responsibility to do so – but usually they’re just projecting an internal psychodrama. But don’t confront them. Instead, we should remind ourselves that their opinion has no value.
Progress means less blaming and praising of others, being less defensive, and not being so swayed by flattery.
On the other hand, anxiety is caused by wanting something that’s not within our control. Nothing lasts forever. If we lose something, we should willfully surrender it.
Epictetus adds that life is like a banquet. If something is offered, accept it – but don’t be greedy. And it’s okay to refuse what is offered. But if it doesn’t come our way, forget about it.
Reason is a skill. Cultivate it.
Tying all this together is the Stoic view that reason separates humans from lower animals. As such, Epictetus advises us to learn to desire what we have, not what we don’t have. Expect the unexpected, even if it’s undesirable, so we can be prepared. Focus on our sphere of control – our values, choices, and actions.
He says life are like dice, which indifferently fall where they will. But making skillful use of where they fall isn’t indifferent. We should train ourselves to avoid vice and endure the things that peeve us the most.
Meditations is a disjointed book. It’s the personal journal of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), which he called “To Himself.” He didn’t intend for it to be published, so he didn’t bother to do much polishing.
Aurelius’s journal rambles a bit. But his perspective comes down to the notion that, “All is as thinking makes it – and you control your thinking. Remove your judgments and there is calm” (12.22).
Life is Like a River
Many of his musings are metaphysical speculation. Today’s scientific knowledge renders some of it moot. The rest parallels Buddhism in some ways. The Buddha lived many centuries before Aurelius. So who knows, maybe some Buddhist ideas had already made their way West by the second century A.D.
Aurelius likes the analogy of a river (5.23-24 & 6.15). The universe is a constant succession of change. Things that exist or which are coming into existence are quickly swept away in the ceaseless flow of time. Even some aspects of what is still coming into being have already been extinguished.
All things vanish into the past. We cannot gain a foothold but must go with the flow and not worry when some things race past us. So ambition or indignation at our lot in life is folly. Considering all of existence, we are but the tiniest part. And we’ve been assigned only a brief and fleeting moment of it.
Everything is Connected
Depressing? Not really. Everything in the universe is interwoven, so we are all connected and stand in relation to all things. We can think of others as part of a large extended family. And that’s the common spirit, the unity of all being (6.38).
Being in relationship to the whole, we should not resent any part of it or do anything anti-social. We should be happy with whatever happens to us because the whole contains nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6). All is right in the world in the sense of being just (4.10).
I find that last part hard to swallow. Being tortured or catching a nasty disease and dying a painful death are things I should be happy about because it benefits the whole? How does it benefit the whole? Certainly it sucks for me.
Aurelius’s psychology says nothing external can touch the mind. If something external causes us distress then it’s not the thing itself but rather our internal judgments of it. Reducing anxiety is a matter of correcting our misjudgments (4.4 & 8.47).
And we shouldn’t be concerned about other people slighting us because this mostly stems from ignorance, not maliciousness. Identifying someone’s flawed sense of what good or bad, right or wrong, can help us put other people’s negative judgments of us into perspective without getting angry (6.20 & 7.26).
Besides, why should we desire praise from someone who has a negative view of life? (8.53)
Dangers of Hedonism
Negativity is often the result of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Bad people often enjoy pleasure while good people suffer. Nature is indifferent, so expecting the world to be different only leads to resentment. And avoiding pain leads to fear of what might happen in the future, while pursuing pleasure can lead to taking advantage of others for one’s personal gain (9.3-4).
It’s better for us, like Nature, to be indifferent – in the sense of impartial to cause and effect, which is the inevitable result of fate (9.4-5). After all, healthy eyes don’t want to see only one color. A healthy nose can handle any odor, not just pleasant ones. So a healthy mind is ready for anything life might throw at it (10.35).
Aurelius repeatedly says that the ultimate is to be indifferent even to death. We’re all going to die one day anyway.
His determinism is also a hard to swallow. Is it really possible to be indifferent? It seems that would require having no sensation at all. Maybe accepting external events (even if it’s a bummer) is a more realistic goal.
Reason is Humanity’s Strength
But Aurelius is right that we control nothing outside of ourselves (though we can have degrees of influence in some situations). Aurelius says that reason – which we all possess – is like sunlight: a steady, inexhaustible stream that flows in all directions. Its path is straight. Sunlight settles on an object and doesn’t slip off. But it doesn’t do so forcefully. Sunlight isn’t violent. Rather, it illuminates whatever it settles on (8.57).
Anger, however, is not reasonable. Anger just causes more grief. And anger is a sign of weakness and pain. There’s strength in keeping your cool (11.18.8).
Kindness is invincible if it’s without pretence or fawning. Kindness can diffuse aggression because in the face of kindness the other person will have no cause for further aggression. This doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather correcting his vice by living rather than preaching virtue (11.18.9).
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.
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.
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 core 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.
Stoicism’s core idea is straightforward: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest of it. Stoicism appealed to Roman soldiers who had little control over their lives but faced great danger. And some took Stoicism to the extreme of subjecting themselves to great pain without flinching. That’s Stoicism’s dark side.
Problem is, emotions happen. Repressing our emotions only causes them to rear their heads elsewhere, and in unexpected ways. It’s better to accept our lack of control over experiencing emotions and instead focus on controlling our reactions to these emotions.
But the world over, men are honored for their ability to endure physical and emotional pain without flinching. Men who show their vulnerability or who cannot endure pain are mocked and despised by women and men alike.
One perspective is that society teaches male pain endurance while disallowing expression of vulnerability as a way of training boys to become men capable of fighting in a war. A boy’s training may consist of enduring sports injuries; being bullied; learning never to cry; and hazing in the military, fraternities, and the workplace.
Male Stoicism has been challenged in recent years, however. Feminism rejected the narrow traditional female role and fought to make it more expansive and less rigid. And this changed the traditional male role by proxy: women need men to accommodate and support a less rigid gender role for women. Feminism also connected male insensitivity toward pain to men’s violence toward women. Further, second and third wave feminism have mostly been anti-war, thus opposing the push to socialize men as warriors.
Flexibility for the male role in ways that are not needed to accommodate an expanded female role, however, hasn’t been pursued to the same degree. But this creates a double bind. A man must know (without being told) when to adhere to the traditional male role, and when to step outside of the traditional male role to accommodate women.
This ethos has been integrated into progressive politics and ideology. For example, men must support women with greater emotional openness. But emotional openness that doesn’t reflect positively on women (such as a man talking about a woman’s controlling or abusive behavior) is taboo. This also applies to discussion of issues that don’t directly affect women, such as dads being treated like they’re disposable, boys falling behind in school, or male suicide being three to four times more common than female suicide.
As such, both traditionalism and progressivism promote male Stoicism to varying degrees. Feminists and progressives quickly put the kibosh on men who are emotionally open in the wrong way, sarcastically asking, “what about the menz?”, declaring that they “bathe in male tears,” or smuggly lamenting “masculinity so fragile.”
Traditionalists will tell a man to stop acting like a girl. Progressives don’t say that because it’s misogynist, but the intent of saying “don’t act like a girl” and “I bathe in male tears” is the same: they silence men’s emotional expression.
At least traditionalists are straightforward about it. But progressives are often passive-aggressive. They deny they’re promoting male Stoicism or being insensitive to men’s feelings. They claim that bathing in male tears is ironic. And it is ironic because it represents feminism and patriarchy being on the same page, though they fail to see that irony.
Considering this insensitivity toward men, how can we expect men to be more sensitive toward women? More to the point, if we only value men insofar as their actions affect women then how can we expect men to value themselves for who they are?
Yet, the advice that men simply need to open up is simplistic. To change society so that men feel more comfortable opening up we must:
First must recognize early 21st century expectations for male Stoicism, how both traditionalism and progressivism contribute to it, and how progressivism has worked to partially dismantle it.
Articulate the problem in order to challenge it.
Increase societal support for open male communication, even when it means looking male vulnerability in the eye and not putting women on a pedestal.
At the individual level, I’m trying to set the unhelpful aspects of Stoicism aside by:
Being honest about what I’m feeling even if I wish I didn’t feel that way, and even if someone else doesn’t want to hear it.
Articulating the emotion in a calm, matter of fact way. Though it’s a cliche, stating things in the first person (“I feel…”) is important for personal responsibility. Saying, “You made me feel…,” blames the other person.
Following up with a statement of my needs or wants in a way that respects other people’s boundaries, and without the expectation that others will respect my needs (because at some point my needs will be mocked).
Refusing to be treated like a doormat. Others might not respect my needs, but I can still set boundaries.
Recognizing the value of Stoicism’s message of chilling out when I lack of control over external things, even if the aspect of detaching from my emotional experiences or silently enduring pain as a path to self-discipline is not valuable.