There is no bible for Stoicism, nor does it proffer the prospect of everlasting life, which are a couple of reasons Christianity gained much more popularity over the centuries even while the two philosophies shared the same time frame for their early development and share many of the same values. However, unlike Christianity, Stoicism is much more interested in life than death. Whereas Christian theology and ritual are centered on the contemplation of death and resurrection—on a continual bargaining for the prospect of an afterlife, Stoicism is focused on achieving tranquility while living where death is an inevitability that should be met with dignity and grace. Furthermore, contrary to popular (and superficial) stereotypes, Stoicism does not embrace the humorless, bereaved, and austere character of the ascetic; rather it seeks joy through purpose and welcomes the celebration of success. Nor does Stoicism have one deified teacher. While Christianity had Jesus Christ as its earthly leader (and “Son of God”), there is no Mr. Stoic. Stoicism had both Greek and Roman teachers who came from various levels of social, economic, and political power. Zeno of Citium (Greek), Cleanthes (Greek), Chrysippus (Greek), Panaetius (took Stoicism from Greece to Rome in 140 BC), Epictetus (Roman), Musonius Rufus (Roman), Seneca (Roman), and Marcus Aurelius (Roman) are some of the more important contributors you will encounter when studying Stoicism.
Owing to the lack of paper and printing at the time, there are few documents that survived that can inform us about Stoic philosophy. Stoicism (even though largely theoretical) was a practiced philosophy taught through oral discourse rather than the written word. Its name is derived from the Greek word stoa, which means colonnade or porch where the philosophy was taught through public lecture and discussion. Dialogue, letters and short essays comprise what little is available to scholars who wrestle with (and over) the philosophy as they attempt to apply Stoicism to contemporary issues and affairs. In this post, and the concluding post in this series that will follow next week, I will summarize my interpretations of the principle tenets and disciplines of Stoicism. Scholars may quibble with my interpretations (as is the scholar’s wont), but my objective is to make Stoicism accessible and relevant—for your use today—rather than become mired in a professorial game of bushy-browed niggling. Applied diligently, Stoicism provides powerful disciplines to employ in order to steel thyself and achieve a fulfilled and tranquil life.
1. You are in control of your destiny. Although you do not control everything that happens to you, you do control how you respond to that which affects your life. Your response, or whether or not you respond at all, are nearly always within your control. Let’s unpack that concept a bit further with two realizations. First, one of the great skills in life is knowing what to respond to and what to ignore. You will find that much of your meaningful outcomes (successes and failures) emanate from a small percentage of that which you have responded to, or engaged with. Over time, pay attention to those few things that produce most of the meaningful outcomes in order to improve your causal acuity—your capacity for discretion about where you focus your time and resources. One of the big mistakes I have witnessed when coaching young executives is that they feel they must be in the middle of every issue, event, and reconciliation thereof. Notwithstanding the inconvenient fact that hyper-involvement is humanly impossible, the simple reality is that your success rate will rise proportionally with your capacity to discard and/or ignore those things that require large investment of personal capital while only contributing marginal (rounding error) effects. The first question to ask is: “Does the opportunity set (issue, company, organization, initiative, etc.) respond to intelligence? Then, if that hurdle is cleared, assess the importance or payoff of the desired outcome. In my experience, only about one-in-five pass these tests. Be stingy with your commitments.
Second, realize that while you control your response, such response is a product of how you interpret the events and the context surrounding the issue, which emanate directly from your cognetic system. (Know thyself before steeling thyself.) This is, in effect, the cognetic system’s job: to interpret factors relevant to the issue and, thereby, simplify that which is before you to enable your decision—your response. This is why it is so important (through solitude summits and mindful meditation) to keep your cognetic system healthy. Seeing things as they are, and in harmony with your cognetic system (in which you have carefully curated your knowledge and beliefs), are critical to maintaining internal and external integrity that assures you do not fall into the trap of debilitative dissonance or worse: moral suffering. Virtue, defined by Stoics as being “wise, just, courageous and moderate,” is a fundamental tenet of Stoicism that can only be assured if your interpretations faithfully reflect your cognetic system producing responses that honor the essence of what you know and believe. Similarly, tranquility—a fundamental aim of Stoicism—is only possible in a state of harmony by and between one’s cognetic system and the actions born therefrom.
2. Accept the past for what it was and remain optimistic about the future. A stoic maintains a vigilant focus on the future, while accepting the past as it is. It is true that humans learn more from failure than success, but once those lessons are learned, move on. There is little you can do about things that were, or was. Stewing about the past diminishes your capacity to succeed in the future. Stoics do not participate in victim culture, which seems to be a rising, even popular, social modality today. There is nothing more anti-stoic than participating in the blame and shame game of those held captive by their miseries (whether real or perceived). And, be ever mindful about how you evaluate success in the past, present, and future. Those addicted to fame and fortune, as measured principally in public acclaim and material possessions become hostage to their wants and desires that have a curious way of expanding to bigger and better things to sustain a superficial sense of satisfaction, which is prima facia evidence of their actual lack of value; satisfaction remains ever beyond the grasp of those who pursue the next round of applause or shiny object. Chasing hedonistic desires is an endless loser’s game. To the stoic, fame and fortune are matters of indifference. Moreover, stoics view with contempt anything—especially trivial pursuits of fame and fortune—that threatens the attainment of tranquility.
Stoics maintain that if one pursues a virtuous life, consistent with the constraints of Nature (capital “N” in the sense of a holistic entity), tranquility is assured. I will add to this stoic discipline the aim of transcendence—particularly in politics—that compels one to rise above partisanship and serve truth and Nature above the pettiness of partisan rancor. Transcendence requires a sense of selflessness and the dismissal of popular anxieties promoted by pundits and politicians who are more interested in audience ratings and self-aggrandizement than in improving the welfare of their fellow citizens. Optimism aimed at worthy outcomes engenders transcendence and a state of tranquility.
3. Seek truth and live in concert with Nature. One of Stoicism’s most basic subscriptions is to the pursuit of reason and truth, which also means practicing the corollary: rejecting magical thinking and deceit in all of its forms. I have been described as one who does not suffer fools. Another, perhaps nicer description is that I honor knowledge and do so in concert with the realities of the natural and mystical world we live in—with Nature. Stoic practice involves the pursuit of truth with all senses and faculties trained on the detection of bullshit, which in the current Age of Deceit has become a constant challenge. Detecting the deceits of others is fairly easy, the harder part is calling it out and assuring neither you nor others become its victims. As we have seen with Donald Trump, power and position can cause many—indeed millions—to accept deceits as truths for various (usually selfish) reasons. This is what I call magical thinking: the distortion of reality to affect an outcome consistent with the way we wish things were rather than the way they actually are. The problems with magical thinking are many, but above all is the fact that decisions made based on falsehood, or not in concert with Nature, will, sooner or later, result in failure. Actions based in deceit or that are incongruent with natural realities are fundamentally unsustainable.
The much more difficult task is detecting deception and subverting it when we deceive ourselves. Self-deception is the most debilitating practice of all because it is the hardest to detect and correct. Checking one’s own magical thinking—a closed-loop internal process—is the most challenging aspect of self-awareness. Fooling thyself has no place in steeling thyself. Finally, the aesthetic and mystical values of Nature are many, but perhaps Nature’s most important attribute is that it reflects pure truth; it never deceives even while we—caught up in our selfishness and deceit—threaten to destroy it. As modern stoic, John Sellars describes, “Nature isn’t blind and chaotic; it is ordered and beautiful, with its own rhythms and patterns. It is not composed of dead matter; it is a single living organism of which we are all a part.” The poetic justice is, of course, that Nature will cleanse itself of humanity if we prove to be a formidable parasite within its realm. We can fool each other and ourselves, but we cannot fool Nature. We cannot fool the truth.
4. Knowledge is power and must be nurtured with an opposable mind. Knowledge emanates from education and experience; in the vernacular of the cognetic system it is developed in the empirical frame as intellectual capital. In the traditional model of education, school was to be substantively completed by the time we reached adulthood. Then, we were to augment such school-based learning with experience to attain wisdom. Today, largely due to the demands of the modern world and the availability of enabling digital technologies, educational opportunities are now accessible throughout our lives. Intellectual capital may be developed throughout life such that knowledge can enjoy a completely dynamic system as long as we are active participants.
In my generation, which was steeped in the traditional format of school, then work, then an undetermined number of years of retirement, then death, it has been interesting to watch my Boomer cohorts either embrace the new dynamism of knowledge development, or stubbornly and defiantly hold fast to the old paradigm. The stubborn ones endure mid to late life as little more than death without dying; they are surrendering in the face of victory. They usually fall victim to intellectual sclerosis, or a hardening of the mind that is typically manifested through growing bouts of anger and frustration as the world moves forward without them. And yes, Donald Trump could be their mascot.
The questions to ask of yourself and others to determine if you/they possess a sclerotic mind or a dynamic mind are: Do they view the world as a zero-sum game where limits define options, or a world awash in possibilities? Do they see issues as black or white, good or evil, or are they intrigued by the nuanced spaces between? Do they have the ability to see and argue different sides of an issue—possessed of an opposable mind—or do they easily dismiss other options in favor of their predispositions? Are they deliberative or impulsive? Do they surround themselves with people who can replace them, or with those who see them as irreplaceable? Are they curious, or are they certain? Are the unknowns a source of fear, or a venue of creative opportunity? Those who are open to new sources of knowledge—through both education and experience—easily pass these tests. A dynamic mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of—that transcend the moment.
5. Practice negative visualization—a critical element of steeling thyself. First, a warning: negative visualization can be an emotional challenge, so practice it from a position of strength when you are able to complete the exercise without victimizing yourself with emotional strife. Threats, like opportunities, are exogenous variables; their occurrence is beyond our control. However, remembering that we do not control everything that happens to us, but that we do control our response, negative visualization recognizes that bad things happen in life and we may as well prepare for them so that when they are encountered, we have, in effect, rehearsed our response. Negative visualization is a framing device that allows us to steel ourselves in advance of life’s perils. It acknowledges the inevitability of setbacks, which become tests of character and ingenuity that, if handled properly, lead to strength. It also has the effect of bolstering gratitude in the present—to appreciate especially those we love today—before they are lost. Visualizing the sudden loss of someone or something can spark a renewed level of appreciation.
How would you deal with an illness or traumatic injury? What if a loved one dies? What would happen if you lost your job, or your life savings was lost? What if a natural disaster takes your home? Today, many folks I know are extremely concerned with the potential reelection of Trump. What will you do if these things happen? Will you be a victim of circumstance or will you be prepared with a plan? What are the immediate effects of these negative threats? What are the medium and long-term effects? What can you do now to ameliorate these effects? “I never thought it would happen to me” is not a useful answer. Yet, this is what we hear most when people are struck by an unforeseen event that causes them extreme loss and sorrow.
Start with foreseeing the biggest threats by asking, “What would devastate me?” Then, run each threat and its effects out to its logical endgame. Identify what elements or negative effects you can impact today with preemptive action. Often, this requires little more than a discussion with other people who might be similarly affected to agree on a What if? plan. In planning for my mother’s death, I organized a plan with both my siblings and my mother that dealt with everything from funeral arrangements to disposition of assets. Sometimes, securing insurance can mitigate the effects—especially in property losses; check to see if yours is adequate. My wife and I live in a heavily forested region of the Colorado Rocky Mountains that, due to climate change, is becoming more susceptible to wildfire. Recently, we executed a wildfire mitigation plan that was very expensive and required the removal of many trees to create defensible zones. It was not only expensive; it was actually emotionally painful to conduct “responsible deforestation.” But, in effect, we were taking some pain today to offset a potential calamity; not only might we and our home survive, the remaining trees will be healthier and have a better chance of survival as well. As the Roman Stoic Seneca suggested, “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” In steeling thyself, being surprised is acceptable, being ill-prepared for what comes next is not.
Next week: Stoic Disciplines 6-9.