Monday 14 August 2017

The Modern Stoic

Oil on canvas by Robert Burridge
Posted by Lina Ufimtseva
The ancient Stoics famously consoled themselves by accepting the inevitable. Through this, their purpose was to endure and to govern their negative emotions. Today, this has led to the misconception that being stoical means to be devoid of all emotion. Rather, it is to be devoid of passions, in the old sense of the word—distress, lament, lust, even excessive delight (including, for example, malice or ostentation).
Here is the crux of the matter: how then does one control excessive passions or negative emotions? This further leads us to the question: what do negative emotions result from? Usually they result from a disparity between desire and outcome. Simply put, when we cannot control what happens around us, we are nettled, riled. All people inherently have a God-complex. We want to plan and control our lives as we see fit.


We exercise control over our negative emotions when we reduce the disparity between desire and outcome, consciously reducing the desire to govern the things we have no control over. Thus we increase our happiness and satisfaction. I visit the airport. My flight is delayed. A friend of opposite persuasion to that of the Stoic—call him the ‘impulsive’ person—gets agitated because he desires to be on time. I, as a stoical person, realise that this is outside the realm of my control. The Stoic therefore might say, ‘The flight is only delayed by two hours. It's not as though it is cancelled.’

Following this logic—namely, that Stoicism reduces the disparity between desire and outcome—being stoical can make one a more buoyant person than the non-Stoic. An impulsive person might react to unwanted surprises with grumpiness, or drama, which can exhaust the patience of others. A stoical person, on the other hand, turns the lack of external control into the abundance of internal control. This may include such reactions as humour, or a quick wit. The Stoic need not be confined to dispassionate or boring responses.

The wisdom is learning to gauge when something is out of one’s control or not. For instance, my friend and I at the airport could have gone to the information desk, and asked if there was another flight with two empty seats—which often happens at airports. This would be an example of practicing Stoic virtues.


Paradoxically, Stocism in itself may lead to positive feelings. Consider the after-effects of destructive passions: drinking too much, or burning the house down. Naturally, this would leave one with destructive feelings in the morning, or may hamper relationships around one (people don't like people who burn a house down).

I may enjoy the illusion of power that destructive behaviour momentarily brings about, yet at the end of the day, it robs me of joy and liveliness. It is generally not sustainable to burn houses down, or to drink excessively, without harming one's own esteem. Stoic virtues therefore aim to increase and sustain satisfaction.

Courage is another virtue of the Stoic. To laugh in the face of a nuisance (such as a delayed flight) or in the face of danger, takes courage. Such courage generally raises one's self-esteem, as long as it is done in humility. With the raising of one's self-esteem, one becomes happier, and loses the need or desire for impulsive behaviour. So the Stoicism which might seem emotionless or boring can actually be a deep sense of satisfaction.


Now this leads us to the inner experience of the Stoic, and begs the question what it means to be such a person. Is one boring by being perceived as being boring, or is it important to be perceived by others in a certain way? Which is more true? My own perception of myself, or other people's perception of me? Which is more objective?

What one person perceives as a boring reaction (say, not reacting at all) might be perceived as cool and level-headed, even inspiring, by another. A friend seems to touch the quintessence of it: ‘There is a certain beauty and elusive joy that comes from embracing the absurdity of the things that lie outside of one's control.’

'A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, 
and against nature.' —Zeno of Citium.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

An unusual and interesting post, which has moved briskly up the rankings. I have two questions, and they both have to do with the presuppositions of the Stoic, and where these would lead us.

1. Disparity between desire and outcome would seem to have everything to do with what one, oneself, considers to be disparity. Supposing your friend at the airport is shot dead in cold blood. ‘Hmm,’ you say, ‘to be expected. Let me get a refund on his ticket.’ Might not Stoicism lead to any which values?

2. Worse. What if the disparity between desire and outcome steadily diminishes as you come to learn what life is. ‘Love turns cold. To be expected. All people are dishonourable. To be expected. The stars will all go out. To be expected. The whole sorry mess ... to be expected.’ What would keep you alive?

Keith said...

A captivating essay, Lina.

There’s a lot to mull over here. I’ll offer just a few thoughts, focusing on the consequential questions you pose to the reader at the end: ‘What it means to be a person. Is one boring by being perceived as boring, or does being something negate the opinion of others? What is more objective? My own perception of myself, or other people’s perception of me?’

My view is that neither ‘my own perception of myself’ nor ‘other people’s perception of me’ represents objective reality. That is, neither perception — my own or another person’s — has any more truth-value (is any more valid) than the other. Either may be right; either may be wrong. Either may be partially right; either may be partially wrong. Both may be right; both may be wrong. There is no contradiction — or no 'negation', as the essay puts it.

Which perception — one’s own or another person’s — might be objectively true is therefore not just unknown but unknowable. In that vein, ‘being something’ cannot be determined, for the same reason. ‘Being something’ is, arguably, inseparable from perception. I suggest that our trying to square ‘my own perception’ with ‘other people’s perception’ results in only two subjective realities, of equal truth-value — not objective reality.

Might your thoughts on these matters — that is, to your closing questions — be markedly different?

docmartincohen said...

Great to see Stoicism being discusssed like this, and thank you Lina for sharing your insights. However, I myself would query whether you are presenting a rather artificial, 'received' version of the ancient doctrine. Here is what Epictetus says, for example:

From now on, then, resolve to live as a
grown-up who is making progress, and
make whatever you think best a law that
you never set aside. And whenever you
encounter anything that is difficult or
pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded,
remember that the contest is now: you
are at the Olympic Games, you cannot
wait any longer, and that your progress is
wrecked or preserved by a single day and
a single event. That is how Socrates
fulfilled himself by attending to nothing
except reason in everything he
encountered. And you, although you are
not yet a Socrates, should live as
someone who at least wants to be a

Epictetus, The Discourses

This kind of 'Stoic' is far from indifferent - indeed they are constantly striving!

Lina Scarborough said...

Thank you for your comments. Debate is always welcome and good.

The brief response to points 1 and 2 would be: stoic states - wisdom, courage, justice, temperance - guard against the escalation of apathetic values.

Now to expand, in your first question you are asking, if I may simplify, where the line between being stoic and being a sociopath - by definition, "a person with a lack of conscience" - may be drawn. Yes, the stoic would appear more emotionally shallow in the sense that the stoic would not be easily brought to strong emotional responses such as tears or hysteria. But let us ask: what is the stoic's goal in any given situation? We've outlined that stoics consoled themselves by accepting the inevitable. But what for? The answer: to be better citizens, to achieve greater social cohesion and harmony that comes from their inner sense of justice and wisdom. Instead between the two extremes of being overcome by grief or rage - i.e vices - and wanting violent retribution against the murder, and being completely indifferent, lies true stoicism: swift, benign justice. So, to lack empathy or to simply be callous in a tragic situation ("Let me get a refund on his ticket"), such as the sudden death of a friend, or of anybody for that matter, would speak against the stoic's values of justice.

Taking a stance of "life comes to an end - murder is to be expected" is a placid attitude. The stoic is not placid. The stoic is temperate. Being temperate implies that one can determine what is trivial and what is not. It doesn't see the point in pursuing a trivial matter further, yet allows significant matters to be dealt with in a level-headed manner. Being placid, on the other hand, implies one can hold and suppress a grudge and not explode, but it lacks discernment.

Don't misunderstand me - there is rational reasoning to salvaging the situation at least economically - the friend can't be brought back to life, but, for instance, the friend's family will need every bit of extra support in a tragic time, including the extra funds from the refunded ticket. However, this response would be merely be a second thought by the stoic.

Initially, the stoic will want to seek justice. Why? Because the stoic's attempt to reduce the disparity between desire and outcome is not achieved by reducing the expectations of a functioning citizen. Stoicism is meant to uplift noble desires, not blunt them. Practically, this means that the stoic will seek justice by first doing what can be done to eliminate the criminal, either by calling the police, leading others away to safety or disarming the criminal. When the first criteria of justice has been satisfied, that which can still be salvaged would be addressed. Only thereafter would the stoic go to get a refund in order to make the greatest use of those funds. I.e. Taking the money for one's self would not be the action of a stoic as it goes against the stoic virtue of piety.

Lina Scarborough said...

Now to your second question: what would keep the stoic from losing meaning in life? A great question. A so-called grateful indifference would keep the stoic alive. For this to be achieved there needs to be a fine balance of two parts - the acceptance of transience and a sense of wonder. Indeed, the stoic is encouraged to accept that change is inevitable and 'to be expected'. I shall let the masters speak for themselves; in his meditations, Marcus Aurelius said, "In the life of a man, his time is but a moment...all that is body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapors"."Keep the prospect of death, exile and all such apparent tragedies before you every day – especially death – and you will never have an abject thought, or desire anything to excess.”

So the stoic is called to temperance in the light of both outward sadness and inward elation. What is left? The search and reverence of something greater than oneself, something that is not transient. This meditation is taught to bring a stoic to inner peace. Marcus Aurelius was not blind to mankind's need for a certain something to keep mankind alive. I will close with another of his quotes: "Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Lina. Noble answers both. I'm trying to decide whether you have drawn out the essence that I missed, or are saying that the above wasn't really the essence of it, but here it is ... Your replies do nicely complement the essay, and are worth reading in combination with it.

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