So I thought today I might share with you a bit about the philosophy of life that I have chosen to follow, Stoicism. Now to start off, I’m a shit Stoic, but the good thing is that with each passing day I am presented with a new opportunity to better follow my philosophy. Unlike religion, Stoicism isn’t about reaching a point of perfection, it is instead about striving to be the best person you personally can be, while realizing that perfection will always be outside your grasp. This allows for constant practice and bettering oneself throughout life.
So before I get very much farther into this article I’d like to discuss a few things that Stoicism is not.
- Stoicism is not a religion – Stoicism isn’t about pleasing a deity or about working towards a reward after life. The Stoics were materialists believing that only those things we can truly experience exist and things outside of that are “indifferent” to us, or in other words not to be worried about.
- Stoics are not cold-hearted – Today’s common usage of the word stoic shares little in common with Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is not about simply acting as if nothing bothers you but in choosing what things to react to and what things to let pass by. The ancient Stoics spoke of the quiet joy and cheerfulness that life as a Stoic could provide.
- Spock is not a Stoic and Stoics are not Spock. – Going with the last point is the idea that Stoics are chained to logic, living an unemotional life. As stated in the last section, it isn’t about living a life free of emotion but about understanding emotions to a better degree and stopping yourself from getting too emotional.
So anyway, with those few points made I will begin by stating that Stoicism had three branches initially to their philosophy, Physics, Logic, and Ethics. I will not be going into Physics and Logic as they are both topics that had basically fallen out of usage by the time of the three major Stoic authors that we have today. I will be dealing primarily with Stoic Ethics, though I might delve into the other two if it is deemed necessary to explain a point more fully.
So let’s get started…
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” – Epictetus
According to the Stoics all of life falls into two categories, with a few small subcategories for clarity, those categories are things within our control and things outside of our control. Stoic ethics is about how to live “in accordance to nature” by dwelling only upon those things within our control.
So what things do we have control? We control our opinions, our choices, our wants and desires, as well as our own physical actions. What don’t we control? Everything else.
Most modern Stoics would add to this the category of things not quite under our control as well as things not under our control but influenced by us. An example of something not quite under our control would be the final grade on a group project, since you could work your hardest but if the others don’t pull their weight the final grade could be poor. An example of something influenced by us but not under our direct control would be a national election in which we vote but have very little say over the end result.
The Stoics believed that much of human strife is caused by dwelling upon those things outside of our control. If we instead shift the mental focus inward and worry about only those things that we can control our life can reach a state of contentment. Many of life’s ills can be avoided simply by realizing that no matter how hard we try to change a situation, the control is not ours and thus our efforts are futile.
Let’s put this into perspective with a few examples…
For the last month three months you have eagerly anticipated a week off of work. You have made plans for that week to go to the beach, have a picnic, take a long bike ride in the country as well as other things in the outdoors. The week arrives and instead of the warm and sunny weather you were expecting, it is cold and rainy. What do you do?
Well you have a couple of choices.
- You could choose to carry on with your plans. Enjoy a rainy day at the beach, a rain-soaked picnic, and a long, cold, and wet bike ride. This could result in your health taking a turn for the worse and being forced to take even more time off of work.
- You could complain bitterly about how nothing ever works out for you, how the universe is against you and how life just plain sucks.
- You could have prepared in advance for the possibility of rain and had a separate schedule of things to do. Go to a movie, visit a museum, go to a friend or family members house.
Notice how none of those choices included snapping your fingers and instantly having the sun come out, the rain go away, and the week be as perfect as you believed it would be? The Stoics believed that most people go with choices 1 or 2, when in reality they should have gone with number 3, as it ensures them the greatest degree of happiness with the least amount of risk involved. Choice number three prepares you for if it is sunny or if it is rainy and allows you to enjoy the time off regardless of the weather.
We would all like to believe that we are immortal and that life will continue to go on, as it is now, forever. However we know in the back of our mind that it will someday end. Death is an unknown and so to many folks it is a chilling thought. How are we to deal with it?
Once again we are given a few choices…
- We can live as if we are immortal. Pretending that there is always going to be time to do everything we want to do in life. Death? Not me, I don’t even think about it. The only thing on my mind is reaching retirement age so that I can finally start enjoying life!
- We can live in absolute fear of death. Never taking any risks and leading a life that is dull but safe. Death? I want to avoid it at all costs!
- We can accept that death is a thing that we all must one day experience and choose not to fear it. We can live today knowing that it could be our last chance to experience a sunset, listen to the rain, enjoy the kiss of a loved one, or feel the warmth of a fire.
Once again the Stoics would say that the majority choose 1 or 2 but the best choice, number three, is the way to go. Stoics saw death not as something to be feared but as an experience we all must accept and live with. Living without fear of death but also with the knowledge that life is finite allows us to enjoy our family and friends to a much greater degree than if our mind was constantly focused on simply living as long as possible.
As with the examples, Stoics realized that you could not control the weather or change the fact that you will one day die. They instead choose to plan ahead, consider alternate courses, and accept the end of life with dignity and courage. Life is far too precious to waste on those things that I have absolutely no control over.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this jaunt into the philosophy of my life. Remember, I’m a shit Stoic but I’m still a Stoic. You too can be a shit Stoic if you choose to be. Thanks for reading!