October 23, 2020


What did the Stoics ever do for us? (John Sellars, 21/10/2020, Standpoint)

Perhaps it's worth starting by saying what Stoicism is not. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism (with a capital "S") has little in common with the "stiff upper lip" usually associated with lowercase "s" stoicism. Indeed, a study conducted this summer during the height of the UK lockdown has shown a negative correlation between genuine ancient Stoic attitudes and the popular image of stoic emotional suppression. The Stoics were indeed tough on some emotions--anger, jealousy, bitterness--but more well disposed towards other positive ones, such as joy. Participants in the same study reported after a month of following Stoic advice a 15 per cent decrease in negative emotions along with an 11 per cent increase in positive emotions, a 14 per cent increase in life satisfaction, and a 13 per cent increase in resilience. If resilience sounds like something you might be able to benefit from right now, Stoicism might be just the thing for you.

So how does it work, and who were these Stoics? The school started and developed in ancient Athens, where members of the burgeoning school would meet at the Painted Stoa on the edge of the marketplace, hence the name. The modern revival of Stoicism merely glances at the early Athenian Stoics, though, and relies instead on later Roman Stoics, notably Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Of these, it was Epictetus who articulated a couple of key ideas that have been foundational for the revival. The first of these is often called "the dichotomy of control". There are some things that we control and there are some that we don't. Much of our frustration and unhappiness comes from misclassifying things; most of it comes from thinking we can control things that we can't, and then getting upset when they don't conform to our will. So, what does Epictetus think that we control? He suggests that in fact it's very little. We control how we think about things, and that's pretty much it. We certainly don't control our bodies, which can and do get sick whether we like it or not, let alone everything else going on around us. We can of course try to have an impact on those things, but we can't control them completely. We ought not to expect things to work out the way we would like, because often they won't. This is the power of realist thinking.

Closely related to this thought is the other key idea, which Epictetus put like this: "it's not things that upset us, but our judgments about things". The frustration we feel when things don't go our way is not caused by the event itself--whatever that may be--but by our reaction to it. But, as we saw in the dichotomy of control, how we think about things is the one thing we do control. I am upset if I lose something that I judge to be valuable, but the negative emotion is caused not by losing something; it is caused by the judgment. After all, if someone else lost the same thing while being largely  indifferent to it, they might barely notice it missing. Together, these two ideas from Epictetus set out the central idea of Stoicism, namely that our wellbeing or happiness is not dependent on external circumstances or events but is in fact something entirely within our control. It all comes down to how we see things. This is what makes Stoicism a philosophy for uncertain times, as indeed all times are.

Tom Wolfe is the great Stoic writer of our time.

Posted by at October 23, 2020 8:29 AM