Practical Stoicism in a Nutshell

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

If the stupidity and irrationality overrunning our culture are getting on your nerves, let me suggest the philosophy of the Stoics as an antidote. I've written a new book on the subject (The Practicing Stoic—available here), and Eugene has kindly invited me to talk about it this week. Yesterday's post explained the book's general approach. Today I will summarize the most practical claims that the Stoics made about ethics—about how to live, not about metaphysics. A summary like this is necessarily a bit irresponsible, but it will be useful if you don't already know much about the subject and are deciding if you want to learn more. So here is a 1,000-word synopsis of the applied side of what the Stoics taught:

[1.] We seem to go through life reacting directly to events and all else in the world. That appearance is an illusion. We react to our judgments and opinions—to our thoughts about things, not to things themselves. We usually aren't aware of this. Events come to us through lenses of judgment so familiar that we forget we have them on. Stoics seek to be conscious of those judgments, to find the irrationality in them, and to make them more accurately.

[2.] Stoics stake their well-being on what they can control and let go of attachment to what they cannot. We generally can't control events, or opinions of others, or whatever else is outside ourselves. The Stoic thus considers money, fame, misfortunes and the like to be "externals" and regards them with detachment. A Stoic still has preferences about those things, and so would prefer to avoid adversity and would rather have wealth than not have it. But attachment to those results is a guarantee of anxiety. It's against Stoic policy to get worked up about things that aren't up to you.

These first two points call for a kind of reversal. We tend to waste energy on things that aren't up to us, and to be barely conscious of the matters of mindset that are up to us. Stoicism tries to turn that pattern around, and to move one's center of gravity to a more useful location.

[3.] Stoics seek detachment from externals by looking at them from unexpected points of view—comparing things or events to the scale of the world, or seeing them as they would look from far away in space or time, or viewing your own actions through the eyes of an onlooker, or regarding what happens to yourself as you would if it happened to someone else. They likewise treat mortality as a source of inspiration: being mindful that existence has an end, and that it can come anytime, puts daily life into an ennobling light. In short, Stoics seek to move easily between perspectives that encourage humility and virtue and that dissolve the misjudgments we live by.

[4.] The Stoics analytically dissect the stuff of our inner lives—desires, fears, emotions, and the rest. The judgments behind them are usually found on inspection to be false or idiotic. We humans tend to desire whatever we don't have, to be contemptuous of whatever we do have, and to judge our state and success by comparisons that are arbitrary and pointless. We chase money and pleasure in ways that can bring no real satisfaction; we pursue reputation in the eyes of others that can do us no real good. We torment ourselves with fears of things that are more easily endured than worried about. We overlook the present moment because we are preoccupied with future states that will in turn be overlooked when they arrive. Stoics also are close students of invisible costs and benefits: the wealth gained not by having money but by being indifferent to things it can buy, for example, and the destitution created by frittering away our time with less concern than we guard our property. There is much more, of course, but this suggests the flavor of the Stoic approach.

It might seem doubtful that observations of this kind could change the way one feels about anything; you might suppose that people can't be talked out of feelings that they weren't talked into. But sometimes they can. Besides, one point of Stoicism is that, without realizing it, we often were talked into our stupidities—by our culture, and by ourselves. (You will notice that some Stoic teachings resemble those found in other philosophical or spiritual traditions. Many readers will find the Stoic path to those conclusions more rational and congenial.)

[5.] Stoics take a different view of adversity than is conventional. They don't seek pain or hardship, but they try for a mindset that isn't thrown into disarray by those things and that is able to turn them to good. It is inevitable to meet with what we don't want in life; but unwanted developments produce great achievements, strong characters, and other things we do want. Stoicism therefore means applying imagination to developments that seem unwelcome and using them as a kind of building material. The Stoic takes whatever happens and puts it to use.

[6.] Stoics advocate enjoyment of pleasures that are natural, as opposed to the kind we invent to keep ourselves going on the hamster wheel. The usual Stoic goal is to enjoy or react or do all else with moderation and a sense of detachment. The detachment doesn't mean a lack of attention or interest. Think of it as moderation in one's relationships to external things. Stoics avoid getting elated or crushed or otherwise worked up about them. A large share of Stoicism might be viewed, in effect, as interpretation of two famous inscriptions above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself; nothing in excess.

[7.] Stoicism offers a strong affirmative vision of what life is for: the pursuit of virtue. That means living by reason, and thus with honesty, kindness, humility, devotion to the greater good, and involvement in public affairs. There is joy to be had in all this, though not the variety that comes from the acquisition of things or approval from others. The happiness the Stoic seeks is eudaimonia—which is roughly to say, living well. Virtue brings it about as a byproduct, and Stoics regard this as the only reliable path by which happiness can be secured.

[8.] Stoicism is meant to be a practice, not a set of claims to admire. It's hard work, because many of our judgments, and the fears and desires that follow from them, are habitual and hard to change. Taming the mind through reason takes the same kind of commitment we associate with martial arts or other demanding physical disciplines. In return, though, Stoicism offers sanity, liberation, and the good life.

If you like the sound of those ideas, The Practicing Stoic explores them in the words of the ancient philosophers who expressed them best. Tomorrow I will discuss some misconceptions about Stoicism.

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15 responses to “Practical Stoicism in a Nutshell

  1. Thanks. Thinking about picking up a copy of the book. Item 3 brought some Bible verses to mind. But also item 5 and the rest.

    “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self[a] is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

    1. Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life, which draws from multiple philosophical sources, shows that the human condition hasn’t changed all that much since the dawn of time, and through dint of practice, most cultures come up with what might be called Stoicism.

  2. From the Handbook of Epictetus, #33, line 18 or so: “Do not go indiscriminately or readily to people’s public lectures, but when you do be on guard to be dignified and steady and at the same time try not to be disagreeable.”

    In today’s terms, blogging in forums like this certainly constitute a form of public lecture. And to think, Epictetus thought of such nice rules of conduct over 2,000 years ago!

    I would add that you can be certainly be Stoic without being a passive wimp who allows bullies to push one around or allows crimes to be committed in one’s presence without personal intervention. Marcus Aurelius, after all, was a Roman general who chased and crushed renegade German tribes most efficiently.

    1. You’re saying we have to try not to be disagreeable on this blog? I guess this practice is hard work.

      1. I break a sweat every day. Especially responding to Reverend AK as in AK47

  3. Kindle version please. Sounds very interesting and touches on topics a friend and I have been discussing recently, so would love to at least take a dip. However, I do most of my reading via ebook.

    1. Dear me, yes please. I came into the comment section to make exactly this request.

      A book like this, I want to put dozens of bookmarks into. I want to have an index of my notes. A Kindle edition lets me do all that.

  4. I’d like to ask the author if they would consider publishing the book to Kindle. I’d be happy to still pay list price, I just find the Kindle format much more convenient.

  5. Mickey Rivers:

    “Ain’t no sense worryin’ about the things you got control over, ’cause if you got control over ’em, ain’t no sense worryin’. And ain’t no sense worryin’ about the things you don’t got control over, ’cause if you don’t got control over ’em, ain’t no sense worryin’.”

    1. Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

      Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

    2. +1 for Mickey Rivers.
      From the days when I was collecting baseball cards.

  6. Any chance of a kindle version coming in the future. I don’t know how to read “real” books anymore?

    1. Your grasp of punctuation has gotten shaky, too.

      1. Not enough coffee available to me this morning to allow for proper proofreading.

  7. Thanks for posting this. My favorite visual of a stoicism is like being a stone rolling down hill after a push…you have no control that you have to roll, but you can determine where you roll and hopefully where you end up.

    Western philosophy has so much to offer. Our schools can barely teach reading, writing, and math, and it is perhaps to much to ask them to teach philosophy as well.

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