by Antonia Macaro ............................. The Stoics are not short of fans these days. Their ideas frequently pop up in self-help and popular psychology books, as well as in all sorts of mainstream publications, such as the Guardian, Prospect and Psychologies. This is not too surprising: especially the later texts by Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – burst with wonderfully apt advice about how to live. Far from the abstractions of some moral philosophy, which often give little assistance on how to lead a good life, Stoic authors wrote perceptively about daily concerns, and this is how they gained lasting relevance.
Yet, if you started delving into Stoic literature, you might find some of the advice repugnant, even shocking. In Epictetus, for instance, you would find this exhortation: “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you are kissing; and then you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” As for Marcus Aurelius, you would be told that sex should be thought of as “something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.” So is Stoicism really a life-affirming philosophy that can truly help us to live better lives in the modern world or a fiercely radical perspective, intriguing but too remote and demanding to have any real relevance to our daily conduct? Or both?
Stoicism is a complex philosophy in which ethics was an integral part of a tightly woven system that also included logic and what they called physics but is clearly more what we would now call metaphysics. John Sellars, senior philosophy lecturer and author of Stoicism and The Art of Living, explains that Stoic physics involved the idea of a “divine rational mind that pervades all of nature, which is the soul of the world, and of which all our individual souls are fragments. A lot of Stoic arguments about how we should respond to fate, and particularly bad fortune, is predicated on the thought that there is this divine providential mind organising the whole process.”
If we wished to live a Stoic life, therefore, we would need to concentrate on exercising rational choice, which is the only thing they consider truly up to us, and learn to challenge any initial judgements that mislead us with the appearance of value. The emotions and desires stirred in us by the things we mistakenly regard as valuable in life are avoidable disturbances and impediments to leading the rational life, and should be eradicated. We should constantly remind ourselves that anything befalling us that does not pertain to the sphere of choice and action is not in our power, so we should follow our destiny without complaint. Like a dog tied to a cart, in Epictetus’ analogy, we can either choose to trot behind it willingly or be dragged kicking and screaming.
We would still be allowed to pursue our natural inclinations to some extent, since the Stoics attributed a degree of value to what they called “preferred indifferents” – things we would rather have than not. Richard Sorabji, professor emeritus of philosophy and author of Emotion and Peace of Mind among many other books, points out that “by Antipater’s time they are saying that it is your duty to do everything in your power to secure these natural objectives, for yourself and for other people.” But our primary allegiance must be to our rationality. Epictetus reminds us that “the good is thus preferred above every form of relationship. My father is nothing to me, only the good. – Are you so hard-hearted? –Such is my nature, and such is the coin which god has given me.” No wonder the Stoic sage (sophos) was a more or less mythical figure.
So what are the problems with adopting Stoicism as a modern philosophy of life? One worry is that a lot of its foundational beliefs, such as the idea that our rationality is a fragment of the divine, or that emotions are disturbances created by false attributions of value, clash with what we in fact know about the world. Therefore any advice based on them might be misguided. Recent findings in neuroscience, for instance, show that far from always being a hindrance to reason, emotions are an integral part of it. We evolved to have emotions for good reason, and without them it is hardly possible to navigate one’s way through life. Of course emotions can also get us into trouble, and frequently they do, but the answer is most certainly not to eradicate them (were that even an option).
The Stoic theory of value has been explicitly rejected by two leading academics in the field, Martha Nussbaum and Richard Sorabji. When I talk to Sorabji he soon mentions the “unacceptable face of Stoicism”, which he steers clear of. I ask him whether he agrees with Epictetus’ advice about aiming not to be distressed when bereaved. “No,” he replies, “it’s best to be absolutely shattered, because the rest of your life would otherwise have been spent in this detached way, always thinking ‘I’m kissing a mortal’. It can’t be good. How could it be a good life to spend most of it detached from the people you’re closest to just so that you don’t suffer some years of distress at some point? That can’t be a sensible equation.” He acknowledges that disowning this aspect of Stoic doctrine leaves him as vulnerable as anyone else to grief, “but there’s an even bigger price I would pay if I did buy it.”
We have also learned from studies in psychology that our awareness of and control over our own attitudes, motives and intentions are much more limited than we might have hoped, and that we tend to underestimate the role context plays in our actions. It is reasonable to believe that we have a certain amount of control, and that this can be increased, but it would be foolish to convince ourselves that we are endowed with anything like unfettered rationality and complete freedom to choose how to respond to things. In fact, our freedom may be fairly constrained.
But if we want to avail ourselves of the wealth of advice in Stoicism while hanging on to what we know about the world, our best bet may be a “pick and mix” approach. This was endorsed by the Stoics themselves, says Sorabji. ‘”The third and most famous of the early Stoics, Chrysippus,” for instance, “said he was perfectly willing to help people with their emotions even if they didn’t share the Stoic beliefs.” And that’s how Sorabji uses Stoic philosophy too: “rather eclectically – I choose the bits which I find helpful and I don’t take the full theory.”
This approach is not entirely unproblematic either. First of all we need to decide what to choose and on what grounds, if we have abandoned the metaphysical foundations. According to Sorabji that is not so difficult: “Try it. It takes a bit of time to get into a habit, perhaps. But try it out.” The claim that we can find useful advice in Seneca’s letters, for instance, is easily tested by reading Seneca’s letters. And “although I’m taking only a modest part of Stoicism, it’s not modest in its effects. I think it has wonderful effects.” That may be true, but it can be difficult to know what advice to appropriate and what to reject unless we have some conception of the good life. If we haven’t thought this through, we might end up with the wrong bits of advice.
If, for instance, we have accepted the advice to put inner tranquillity above all else, we might be tempted to avoid getting emotionally close to people for fear of future suffering. This may not be the best plan if we wish to have a fulfilling life, as Sorabji clearly stated, since it could lead to an impoverished life narrowly focused on avoiding pain. Yes, tranquillity is a good thing. But it should not necessarily trump all other values. So when we follow Stoic advice we need to be at least aware of the danger of smuggling in more Stoic metaphysics than we had bargained for. From everything we know about psychology, understanding and managing emotions is more likely to help us to live a good life than trying to eliminate them.
Another danger, ever-present in popular references to Stoicism, is that of pruning so much that its spirit is lost or subverted. For example, Epictetus’ view that “it is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things” is often quoted as the foundation on which CBT (Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy) and REBT (Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy) are built. It is true that Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, respective founders of these therapies, were influenced by Stoic ideas. There is certainly an overlap, “a family resemblance”, says John Sellars. At the very least both Stoicism and these modern therapies revolve around a central idea that “to have an emotional response to something requires a cognitive process,” as Seddon puts it.
But it would be misleading to overstate the similarities. CBT and REBT aim at helping people to overcome troublesome emotions by modifying their beliefs. The ultimate goal is that of relieving clients’ distress. Like most other modern psychotherapies, they are hands-off about what clients should value in life. Stoicism, on the other hand, was a radical philosophy that aimed at restructuring the aspiring Stoic’s worldview. It was indeed conceived of as a kind of therapy for the soul. But like other forms of ancient therapy it was “didactic and moralistic”, as Christopher Gill writes in “Ancient Psychotherapy”. It is in a way ironic to use Stoic ideas, which drastically redefined the good life, in the service of a conventional notion of happiness, of an unexamined “feeling good”.
One thing is not in doubt, however, and that is that there is indeed a lot of useful advice to be found in the Stoic literature, which can assist us to live better if we are a little discriminating. So what might the Stoics be especially well placed to help us with?
Three things, says Sorabji. One is their “advice about how not to get emotionally worked up completely needlessly about everyday things. I accept that’s a small part of what they thought about emotions, but they would have approved, I think. The second area is the idea of thinking about who you are and who you want to be in making decisions in life. The third area is [what they say regarding] our weaknesses and foibles. I haven’t found any ethics, ancient or modern, that’s as good as that. They are only three little patches of Stoicism, but they are terribly important. Their importance is much greater than the proportion they form of what Stoicism is.”
For Seddon, on the other hand, “the main thing is to follow Epictetus’ teaching, which is to be aware of what is external and what is internal, so it’s not what happens that matters, it’s how I engage with what happens that matters.” So if you’re frightened of something, for example, you might think to yourself,
that’s external to me, it’s not in my control, I’ll just do what I have to do to be a good person, and that’s the best I can ever do.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Plutarch, who wrote essays about the importance of being aware of the dangers and effects of anger. Both men agreed that if left untreated, anger can do irreparable damage to the mind, spirit and relationships.
The essays in question were Seneca’s On Anger and Plutarch’s On Avoidance of Anger which can be found in the books Seneca: Moral and Political Essays and Plutarch’s Essays respectively.
There was also a study done by author Van Hoof, L in a book entitled Strategic differences : Seneca and plutarch on controlling anger, where both the Philosopher’s essays are compared and analysed. Here is the following abstract from the aforementioned book:
“In a span of less than a century, Seneca and Plutarch both wrote works arguing against anger. This article studies these texts as speech acts, that is, as discourses through which the authors, by various means, seek to produce a certain effect in their readers. The comparison of several parallel passages from Seneca’s On Anger and Plutarch’s On the Control of Anger with regard to genre, philosophical technicality, rhetorical strategies, and specific argumentation brings to the fore how Seneca, in his plea for the eradication of anger, instills a concept of virtue substantially different from what most Romans would be familiar with, whereas Plutarch promotes the control of anger as an important part of the way a gentleman presents himself in a civilised society.”
“A quarrel is quickly settled when deserted by one party; there is no battle unless there be two.”
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Anger turns the mind out of doors and bolts the entrance.”
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Anger is like those ruins which smash themselves on what they fall.”
“Had I a careful and pleasant companion that should show me my angry face in a glass, I should not at all take it ill; to behold man’s self so unnaturally disguised and dishonored will conduce not a little to the impeachment of anger.”
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Anger: an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
“Lamentation is the only musician that always, like a screech-owl, alights and sits on the roof of any angry man.”
Let us go through each cause whilst applying stoic thinking:
1. Stress: What is causing you to be stressed and then ultimately to become angry? Maybe you should not set your goals too high and try not to do too much in a short period of time. Stress and anger is usually directed at oneself because of the need to instantly perform when called upon. You must learn to relax and do things at your own steady pace, which may help you achieve more in the long run.
2. Pain of words said: Why let the mention of something painful, that may have happened in the past, affect you in the present? What is causing you pain are not the words themselves, but your own judgment of past hurts that affect your character in the present. Everything outside of yourself should not affect the mind, especially a mind that is governed by reason.
3. Intolerance: Why be angry because someone is of a different race, religion or political belief? Or you may just dislike being in the presence of a particular person. You have become both intolerant and angry with a psychological illusion and not the person themselves. Tolerance is acceptance – and once you can accept that person as a human being only then the intolerance and anger are both eliminated.
4. Difference of opinion and stubbornness: You will need to realise everyone is entitled to their own opinion, including you. You must try to be both open minded and objective in conversation. Once you don’t let personal feeling enter the arena, anger will be locked out of the gates of rationality and reason for good.
5. Impatience: Patience as they say, is a virtue, and I have been guilty for being impatient and then angry more than once. The reason for my impatience is due to me comparing my ability to someone else, and then thinking that they should be able to easily pick up something that I have had experience in. I must learn to show patience and be reasonable with people of all different levels of ability. Show respect and you would have gone a long way in dealing with impatience.
6. Physical altercation: This cause has to be avoided at all costs because of the serious consequences that can happen. It is imperative for you to learn to manage anger at an early stage before it gets to the stage of you becoming physically violent.
7. Invasion of personal space: You must have realised by now that you’re not the only one on this planet. Yes, it is a bit overcrowded and people can be unaware at times rushing from A to B, but you must have some patience and reason to think to yourself that nobody actually bumps into you by purpose or wants to invade your personal space by choice.
The simple and practical thing to do when you feel the anger arriving is to first hold to silence, leave the situation immediately and then count to ten in your mind whilst performing deep breaths. This gives the brain enough oxygen to keep stress levels down whilst giving the voice of reason time to regain possession of the mind.
You must learn to control anger and not let anger control you. You are creator and master of this negative emotion, which should give you the power alone to throw anger into the dungeons of obscurity, never again for it to attempt usurping your kingly position of contentedness and equanimity in your life.
Lastly, one should try to be stoic in attitude and application to attain a temperament of a saint – something which, I admit, is perhaps impossible in this stress filled world. Worth a try anyway.
source http://www.philosophypress.co.uk http://www.knowledgereform.com