On Stoicism27 Nov 2020
Stoicism refers to a philosophy of life, and a Stoic is someone who lives by this philosophy. This is not to be confused with stoicism (with a lowercase ‘s’), which means “suppressing happiness, pain, and emotions in general” in the modern sense. I like to think of myself as an aspiring Stoic. I try to embody this philosophy, but currently do so imperfectly. In this post, I share my understanding of Stoicism and thoughts about about how it has been helpful to me.
The Dichotomy of Control
The core tenet of Stoicism is that there are things that we can control and things we cannot control, and we suffer when we confuse the two. It is only harmful when we worry about and attempt to control things that are not under our control. By paying attention to the difference, we can focus on the things that we have at least some control of. Here is a passage from The Enchirdion (emphasis added):
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.
So what is in our control? Our own actions. Anything that is not our own actions including our own body, wealth, knowledge, and reputation are not under our control. This perspective is hard to buy the first time. I was opposed to some of these ideas initially.
How is my knowledge not under my control? The difference is that I can take actions to improve and increase my knowledge by reading books, listening to others, and debating questions. And these actions are under my control. Some of these actions may enable me to learn more effectively than others. Some of these actions have a higher probability of effecting change. But there is always an underlying uncertainty. My knowledge may or may not increase through these actions. The consequences are not under my control. Besides, there are various external factors. Age will diminish my brain power and fade away memories. That is not under my control either. It is easy to confuse our ability to take actions that improve our knowledge with our knowledge itself.
The same is true for many things in life. We often confuse our ability to act with our ability to effect. This confusion sets us up for disappointment when things don’t go the way we want them to.
The Stoic’s Decision Tree
I like to remind myself constantly about the Stoic’s Decision Tree.
Disclaimer: This is just my rendition. If you google “stoicism flowchart” you will come up a whole slew of other interpretations.
A second idea I introduce here in this flow chart is “virtue.” Stoicism is not about throwing your hands in the air. Your actions need to be guided by your morality. This is what sets apart Nihilism from Stoicism. A Nihilist believes that the world has no meaning, rejects all morality, and acts accordingly. A Stoic assigns morality and virtue to things under their control i.e., their actions. As someone who believes that there are things such as “right” and “wrong,” I find some solace in the Stoic’s perspective.
Often, I find abstract philosophical ideas to be intangible. So here are some examples of where Stoicism has been applicable to me in recent times.
Internet failure: This quarter (Autumn 2020), I teach two recitations (quiz sections) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On my fourth day of teaching, my internet went out an hour before I had to log in to teach. Typically, I would have lost my mind blaming others for poor internet (we all love to blame our internet provider don’t we!). And for a minute, I did start to panic. But going back to the Stoic’s Decision Tree, internet connectivity is not under my control. So why should I stress myself worrying about it? Instead I should be thinking about what I could do. I asked my roommate who was responsible for setting up the router to fix it and used my phone as a hot spot to teach in the meantime.
Applying to grad schools: This was the most stressful part of my undergraduate career. Especially when admission season rolls around and the only emails I received were rejections. I had to remind myself that the outcome of the admission process is not under my control. I could write the perfect essay, craft the perfect CV, and my letter writers could nominate me for a Nobel prize. Nevertheless the outcome is outside of my control.
Receiving rejections can also be very demoralizing. Especially when the same applications make you hyper-conscious of external factors. In addition to the Stoic’s Decision Tree, I had to remind myself that external validation (a.k.a. the decision of the admissions committee) does not define who I am. This is definitely no easy ask, and it is still a work-in-progress.
Bombing an exam: This is a textbook example. I prepare really hard for an exam. But I walk out knowing that things didn’t go the way I hoped they would. Once again, my preparation strategy is under my control. My performance on the exam is not fully under my control, however. It could just be that the exam was inherently very difficult. Or maybe the exam tested me on a different set of skills than I was anticipating. This is not to diminish the feeling of betrayal or despair. It is to simply know there there are factors outside my control that affect the final outcome.
Some Common Misconceptions
Here are some questions and misunderstandings I had over the years that have since been clarified.
Don’t emotions define human beings? Why would you choose to avoid experiencing emotions?
Stoicism is not the same as not feeling. Your emotions are not under your control. Happiness, sorrow, pain, love, loss are all natural. It is easy to confuse the passages in The Enchiridion with not feeling. How you react to these emotions are, however, under your control. Feeling anger and frustration are alright. Your reactions to these emotions are what you need to be aware of.
Clearly I have very little control over issues like climate change. Are you suggesting that I should not worry about them?
When you are actively concerned about something, you come up with a plan and tasks that you can act upon. Herein lies the distinction. You can act in a way that reflects your concern and is aligned with your values. The outcome of the actions, however, are not always under your control. For instance, take climate change. You cannot, singlehandedly reverse it. But you can take actions that reflect your beliefs and values. You can educate others. You can participate in demonstrations. You can perform scientific research and studies. These are within your control. Your friends may not listen to you. The demonstrations may not be successful. Your research’s funding may get pulled. These outcomes are hard to sit with, but remember they are not always under your control.
If the outcomes of my actions are not under my control, why should I care about them in the first place?
Remember virtue. A Stoic’s actions are guided by their morality. A Stoic cares about issues and acts on them because it is the right thing to do.
A Final Note
What is under my control? The definitions are blurry if we go beyond “our own actions.” And sometimes thinking in terms of our actions alone is not enough to inform our decisions. We need to be able to characterize the strength and nature of the power our actions have. This is somewhat difficult to do. I will defer the reader to an essay reflecting on power written by Ellen Considine.
There are other tenets of Stoicism that I do not discuss here. These include amor fati (love fate) and memento mori (remember death). These are ideas that I am still grappling with. So I will reserve those too for a future time when I can thoughtfully reflect upon them.
For those intrigued by my musings, here are some books that may be of interest