Stoicism to improve your life

“All cruelty springs from weakness.” – Seneca the Younger

Philosophy, not solely confined to the writing of academics, can, in some ways, be seen as a way of living. For people to turn to philosophy for the answers to their common struggles and for ways of improving their life isn’t as far-fetched as it would initially seem when one studies the role philosophy had for the Ancient Greeks and Romans. For many Americans, Stoicisms holds answers, yet still remains an incomplete explanation of an individuals’ relationship with emotions.  

Stoicism (with a capital S) refers to a set of philosophical beliefs by scholars of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoic philosophers emphasizes that “virtue is the only good,” and humans should act in accordance with their health, money, and leisurely activities in virtuous manners. What many people pick up on today, though, is the relationship between Stoicism and emotion: one that emphasizes acting in accordance with “nature” and avoiding destructive emotions that are caused my faulty judgements. The virtue that one seeks is found by placing one’s will in agreement with nature, and, the virtuous person would find themselves free from anger, envy, wrath, greed, and other malevolent feelings. In contrast to the more colloquial “stoic” (with a lowercase S), one is not forbidden from expression emotions at all, though. Only those in accordance with virtues and in agreement with nature should one exercise. 

Through its many interpretations and revivals between the Greek and Roman civilizations, people could find a sense of meaning and order in an increasingly confusing and twisted world. Even in today’s era of post-truth discourse and distrust of any forms of media and education, one might choose a worldview driven by the Stoic desire to abandon all unnatural forces and chaos and, instead, live humbly with nature. The rise of the importance of autonomy and agency in progressive movements over the past century could even be argued as causes for these modern-day Stoics to believe they have the power to make decisions for themselves despite unstoppable, immovable forces.

Many contemporary thinkers, even scholars with training in the social sciences, have turned to the Stoic philosophy. Today’s thinkers and writers emphasize citizens to adopt these Stoic principles to overcome their difficulties and remain strong through times of darkness. Some recent examples include a selected set of discourses, How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. Pigliucci draws from his own personal experiences and creates judgements on objective grounds such that he can create a style of living and philosophizing for readers to live moral lives. Even writers on creativity tell us secrets and tips of Stoic scholars to unlock our true potential, such as Paul Jun’s article “The Stoic: 9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos.” And, falling into more self-help based learning, Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness have proven popular among the general public. Cognitive behavioral therapists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck(and individuals seeking self-therapeutic methods), can’t change the world, but they can help people change their outlook. The Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale itself holds the potential to gauge an individual’s health. American writer Larry Wallace calls Stoicism a mind-hack. We can look up to Marcus Aurelius and his fortitude in trying to break through to his own self and understand how the forces in the world are. All were equal, from ruler to slave, under these Stoic beliefs. Even I, in writing memoirs about my life experiences and struggles, often appeal to my education in Stoic philosophy in overcoming difficulties that outside of my control. 

It seems enticing. Prima facie, the idea that people can only face their struggles of things that are in their own control and that they should abandon all else could motivate just about anyone. It seems to toughen people up so that they forget about things that they can’t control. In a way, it’s a cool detachment that can help people understand the darkness. It makes anyone feel that their actions and beliefs are grounded in objective views of the world as they live in accordance with Nature. You also get to call yourself a Stoic, which sounds really cool. Who wouldn’t want to look up to figures like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca the Younger?

Yet, Stoicism, like many other ways of thinking, has its shortcoming. It can be immoral for one to show attachment of love or affection to anyone in their life if they choose to live on a path of nature. The way Stoics choose to forego certain pleasures, lest they risk falling to dangerous emotions, can mean they aren’t able to form the necessary and beneficial attachments as a human being. 

Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus uses a simile of a passenger aboard a shift moving at the hands of nature itself to describe the tricky situation brought upon by Stoicism. The Stoic passenger would have to solely move in accordance with that ship and follow wherever it sets sail. He or she wouldn’t even be able to bring aboard family members, large amounts of food, or anything else they treasured. This simile, though prosaic and simplified, illustrates how Stoic philosophers may give in to forces of slavery, impassioned by their own feelings and at a loss of being able to act in accordance with them. Without even looking towards their fear of death, a Stoic might even choose to die rather than suffer existence. 

Stoicism is also at odds with the writing of several Existentialism scholars. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Stoics fell to the naturalistic fallacy, that one assumes that something natural is good on the grounds that it is natural. It’s easy to see how this “natural” justification could run into issues with findings of evolutionary biology and their implications on human nature. It’s very troublesome for one to assume that all of our genetic predispositions of actions related to sex, societal norms, and visceral emotions (such as disgust, fear, distrust, etc.) are all natural, normal, and moral. Would we then justify racism on the grounds it’s natural to fear people who are different than us? Other implications like our sexual tendencies could be used to give a moral excuse to acts of sexual assault.

“But what is philosophy? Does it not mean making preparation to meet the things that come upon us?” – Epictetus (Discourses 3.10.6, trans. Oldfather)

Finally, I’m very skeptical of cognitive behavioral therapy and mind-hacks in general. I haven’t seen the appropriate evidence to show that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective form of therapy and much of the evidence I’ve seen don’t show enough methods of cognitive behavioral therapy to prove it’s effective. I don’t trust mind-hacks as appropriate ways or methods to making one’s life or experience better as I’m a firm believer that deliberate reflection and introspection is a much more suitable method. Any philosophy that is promising to lift your mind and make your life better should be examined with a dubious skepticism, especially one that falls on simplistic truths such as changing your worldview and losing a grasp of one’s emotions. Despite theses limitations and disadvantages, one can’t help but admire the strength and perseverance of Stoic philosophers and how that has helped many Americans find peace with themselves. Maybe, even if people don’t capture exactly what the Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers envisioned, they can find a glimpse of it. 

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