On becoming a Stoic

Zeno's tombstoneSo, you want to be a Stoic. William Irvine, in chapter 19 of his Guide to the Good Life, suggests that you begin now, and prepare yourself to be mocked.

He points out that practicing Stoicism requires effort, since it isn’t going to be easy, say, to engage in negative visualization, or self-denial. He is right, of course, but I can think of precious few things that are worth pursuing in life and don’t require any effort.

Here is a more interesting point, though: “if you have a philosophy of life, decision making is relatively straightforward: when choosing between the options life offers, you simply choose the one most likely to help you attain the goals set forth by your philosophy of life.” Now, that may sound a bit too rigid and simplistic, but let’s remember that Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. As such, its demands can be negotiated and even, if need be, revised. So with that caveat in mind, I think Irvine is right: developing, or adopting, or modifying, a philosophy of life helps one set up her priorities, and makes it easier to follow through.

Irvine claims that if people hear of your “conversion” to Stoicism they may mock you, and goes so far as to suggest practicing “stealth Stoicism.” I think that’s going a bit too far. I have definitely not experienced the mockery he refers to (though I can, occasionally, detect unusual looking smiles in some of my friends and colleagues…), but even if I had, what is it to me? Other people’s opinions do not concern me as a Stoic.

As for the “stealth” part, well, clearly Irvine himself isn’t following that advice (I mean, he writes books on Stoicism, and a good thing it is, too!), and one can argue that neither did Musonius and Epictetus, who were very well known teachers. If the advice is not to flaunt one’s Stoicism in order to make oneself look good, or to focus more on one’s actions than one’s verbalization of the philosophy, then yes, for sure. But if Stoicism truly is a useful philosophy of life I think it is a good idea to tell other people about it. Perhaps they’ll be more inclined to take a look once they know that one of their friends or colleagues is a practicing Stoic.

Why should one consider becoming a Stoic? Irvine summarizes the advantages of practicing Stoicism as enjoying a degree of tranquillity, experiencing fewer negative emotions (like anger), and experiencing more positive emotions (like delight in the world around us).

He says Stoics have a three-pronged approach to achieve this: i) they do their best to enjoy things that cannot be taken away from them, like their character; ii) when they enjoy things that can be taken from them (which is fine for Stoics, unlike with the Cynics) they remind themselves that they could lose them, but that this would not be a big deal, because those things are indifferent to one’s moral character and value; iii) Stoics avoid becoming “connoisseurs,” the kind of people who are so used to luxury and exoticism that they lose the ability to delight in the simple things in life.

The chapter concludes with Epictetus’ suggestion that one needs to begin practicing Stoicism right now: “When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Enchiridion, 51, 2).

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29 thoughts on “On becoming a Stoic

  1. Yes, I think labeling oneself an X or a Y like this, particularly with regards to philosophical or ethical approaches, has its costs and benefits. One benefit, as you note, is that of what one might term proselytization: it gets the word out, and might help convince others to do the same.

    On the other hand it does have the cost, or at least a potential cost, of setting oneself up for conceptual rigidity, self-deception, and conceit: “I am an X so I must do A!” Well and good if one can manage it, but also a potential recipe for self-deception if one cannot. For example, as you say “people’s opinions do not concern me.” I could say the same: just as with the Stoics, one of the Buddha’s famous injunctions is against worrying about what people say about one. Nevertheless at least I would be deluding myself if I said that people’s opinions did not concern me. To be clear: they should not concern me, but in fact they do. Part of the practice of learning how to manage this is first to be aware of my own shortcomings. Sometimes labels can get in the way of this.

    Also there is the cost of conceit towards others: “I am better than him because I am an X and he is not.” Again, something we may know to avoid, but something that the label can foster.

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  2. My biggest problem with stoicism is the concept of “indifference”, and this is a case in point: should I be indifferent to others opinions? Everything I know I have learned from other people – indeed I am reading this article precisely because I am not Indifferent.
    I am sorry if this is a little off target – it is because I am so often wrong that I value other people’s judgements.

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  3. Massimo, Please know that I embrace much about Stoicism. I just want to take issue with only one aspect of your post: “they do their best to enjoy things that cannot be taken away from them, like their character.”

    While both Christian and Stoic place a great emphasis on character, Christians would certainly feel uncomfortable with the admonition “to enjoy…their character.” Admittedly, we enjoy the fruits of a good character, but to “enjoy…their character” sounds a bit idolatrous.

    Why? We delight in perfection, in the character of God. This is no mere pedantic distinction. When we instead delight in ourselves, we become dependent and attached to our own personhood. We must see ourselves as having a good character and therefore depend on seeing the goodness in ourselves.

    Interestingly, Stoics value self-examination and self-correction. However, if we delight in ourselves and then depend on this delight to carry us through the day, we will not be clear-minded about seeing our many faults and failings – something that is very painful but needful.

    But yet, we need to have such a delight and a hope but not a delight that will interfere with our growth. However, by the wisdom of God, we can have both. If our delight, enjoyment, and hope are in God and not in ourselves, we can remain sober enough to see and judge ourselves as our delight in the One who loves us carries us along.

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  4. David,

    “should I be indifferent to others opinions? Everything I know I have learned from other people – indeed I am reading this article precisely because I am not Indifferent.”

    Excellent question. No, you shouldn’t be indifferent to others’ opinions in that sense. Indeed, Epictetus is clear that, for instance, if someone’s opinion stings of criticism, and yet you think highly of that person, perhaps you should get over yourself and see if he had a point.

    The sense in which one ought to be “indifferent” to others’ opinions is distinctly Stoical: one should not allow other people to dictate the worth of what you do in terms of your focus on what truly counts for the Stoic: moral self improvement. I hope this helps.

    Daniel,

    “While both Christian and Stoic place a great emphasis on character, Christians would certainly feel uncomfortable with the admonition “to enjoy…their character.” … Why? We delight in perfection, in the character of God. This is no mere pedantic distinction.”

    Appreciated, you are right, that distinction is not pedantic. But it is also not available to me as an atheist, of course. (It wasn’t to the Stoics either, because even if they believed in the divine nature of the Logos, this was an embedded nature, instantiated everywhere in the universe; they didn’t believe in a creator God.)

    And your point is certainly valid: one ought to be careful not to fall into self-congratulation and self-adulation. But Stoicism is hard enough to practice as it is: the Stoics are pretty darn hard on themselves already! The idea here is that one ought to be proud of one’s accomplishments in the area of moral self-development (no false modesty is necessary), while at the same time constantly reminding oneself that she is not a Sage, and will likely never become one…

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  5. I am just about finished with Irving’s book, and have enjoyed reading it. I am generally in agreement with a stoic view of life, but I do have some concerns. I think they are more substantial than being just semantic. They involve both my perception of evolutionary psychology and my observations of how people really cope – at least those who seem to cope well with life’s hardships. I don’t know whether to make these comments on any of your entries on the book, or somehow submit them separately. Rob

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  6. Massimo: “But it [belief in God] is also not available to me as an atheist.”

    Why not reconsider your paradigms? Aren’t you merely saying something like, “Believing in the ‘Indeterminancy Principle’ is not a possibility because I am a determinist?” Well, perhaps you might reconsider your determinist (or atheist) position? (Sorry, I don’t mean to be abrassive. I really respect so much about your Stoic commitment.)

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  7. Rob, feel free to comment whenever you think it’s most appropriate, this an informal forum anyway. I’m curious about your take on evopsych vs Stoicism. I am myself an evolutionary biology, but fairly skeptical on evopsych claims (long on hypotheses, short on evidence).

    Daniel,

    no offense taken, no worries.

    “Why not reconsider your paradigms? Aren’t you merely saying something like, “Believing in the ‘Indeterminancy Principle’ is not a possibility because I am a determinist?””

    But whether the universe is or is not deterministic is an empirical question that I think may eventually be answerable by science, so at the moment I’m agnostic about it, and will let physicists work it out.

    I don’t think empirical evidence will ever resolved the question of God, and on balance I think the arguments are against it. I’m open to revision, but I’ve been thinking about this for decades, and so far I haven’t seen reason to change my (tentative) conclusion.

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  8. In addition to those two possible means of verification – Is it possible that one could rationally opt for supernaturalism over naturalism to best account for the physical laws, fine-tuning of the universe, DNA, the cell, life, consciousness, reason, objective morality, and logic?

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  9. Daniel,

    again, if by “possible” you mean logically so, yes, of course. But I’ve given a hell of a lot of thought to all those topics, and my conclusion is firmly on the other side. Which doesn’t mean I’m right, of course.

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  10. Massimo, Thanks for your patience with my continual Christian prodding. Meanwhile, please know that I have only respect for your pursuit of the virtuous life through Stoicism.

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  11. Daniel, the appreciation is appreciated… 😉 As I’ve said before, one of the attractive features of Stoicism, in my mind, is precisely that we can reasonably differ on our metaphysics, and yet agree on a common pursuit of virtue and excellence.

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  12. Thank you for your reply – I really appreciate your time. I should have replied sooner but I am still thinking about the ideas. I believe my problem lies with the negative connotation of the word “indifferent”; in modern English use it is not a totally neutral term. But it is silly to get hung up with terminology.
    I much enjoyed the Christian/non – Christian debate above. It seems to me that the big strength of the Stoic message (messages) is their personal nature – the demands they make on us, whatever our beliefs. Provided, of course, that we all subscribe to a general understanding of “arete”
    Thank you again for your time

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  13. David, Although Stoicism might seem to provide a neutral and valueless self-help answer to the good life, it too is loaded with assumptions/presuppositions/beliefs:

    1. That there is such an ontological thing as virtue or the good life apart from our subjective and changing feelings about it.
    2. That we can know it.
    3. That we can assess it. (Perhaps we are being myopic about assessing the results.)
    4. That there is an objective goal for living the “good” life…

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  14. David,

    “I believe my problem lies with the negative connotation of the word “indifferent”; in modern English use it is not a totally neutral term”

    Funny you say that, someone raised the same issue recently at the Modern Stoicism Facebook forum. I guess my take is that this is an issue with several Stoic “technical” terms (e.g., apatheia), but that it’s good to try to retain the original Stoic terminology for two reasons: i) pay homage to the ancient thinkers who came up with it; ii) these become teaching moments, so to speak, to engage others in conversation about Stoicism. Besides, some ancient Greek terms are coming back precisely because there is no clear English equivalent, like eudaimonia.

    “It seems to me that the big strength of the Stoic message (messages) is their personal nature – the demands they make on us, whatever our beliefs”

    Indeed, that, for me, is one of the major appeals of modern Stoicism.

    Daniel,

    “Although Stoicism might seem to provide a neutral and valueless self-help answer to the good life, it too is loaded with assumptions/presuppositions/beliefs”

    Yes and no. First off, those are arrived at by rational discourse, not by fiat. Which means that each and everyone one of them can be negotiated and interpreted. Of course, if one rejects many or most of the original Stoic tenets then one is simply not doing Stoicism. I mean, the philosophy is flexible and it can evolve, but only up to a limit.

    Second, there is actually no need to go “ontological” about those commitments: one can simply say something along the lines of: “IF you think that moral virtue is crucial to a good human life THEN Stoicism may be the philosophy for you.” I don’t claim it is a philosophy that works for everyone.

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  15. Thanks Massimo! I appreciate your thoughtful responses. However, I do want to take issue with one of your conclusions: “no need to go “ontological” about those commitments: one can simply say something along the lines of: “IF you think that moral virtue is crucial to a good human life THEN Stoicism may be the philosophy for you.”

    However, I do think that the Stoic needs to go “ontological.” If you pursue the virtuous life for the purpose of the benefits that you will accrue, I think that these benefits will be disappointing. As you admit, it requires much time and hard work. Therefore, in the meantime, we have to be convinced of the ontological rightness of what we are doing or we will never persist.

    For years, I worked as a probation officer. It can be very discouraging work. The progress we think we are making can be absolutely shattered by the next arrest report. I therefore had to derive satisfaction from the fact that, at least, I knew that I was doing the right thing. Besides, and even more importantly, I had to know that what I was doing pleased my God.

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  16. Daniel,

    “I do think that the Stoic needs to go “ontological.” … we have to be convinced of the ontological rightness of what we are doing or we will never persist”

    I don’t think so. All we need is evidence that the practices, and the general philosophy, work. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to these sort of things.

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  17. Massimo, Can you feel comfortable saying, “I really don’t believe in the ontological existence of objective virtue, but I’m behaving that way for the benefits that it brings.”

    Besides, if virtue rests on a purely pragmatic basis, then pragmatism will eventually undermine virtue. Often, being non-virtuous yields the best results, like cheating once to get a job promotion that will pay dividends for years.

    Eventually, virtue, without either adequate pragmatic support or an ontological base, will erode like the diet that is once violated.

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  18. Daniel,

    perhaps you took the word “pragmatic” a bit too literally, my apologies for not being clear. I didn’t mean anything like “anything that works.” I simply meant that I like to have my ontologies as sparse as possible, and I believe a lot of work can be done without heavy metaphysical commitments.

    In the specific case of the virtues, I wouldn’t even know what it might mean to say that they “exist” in some sort of ontologically heavy duty manner. They are human constructs, like axioms in mathematics, or the rules of chess. And just like from certain axioms you can derive interesting, and even useful, mathematics; or from the rules of chess you can get complex and entertaining games; so from the axiom of the four Stoic virtues one can obtain the parameters of a fruitful, flourishing human life. Other parameters will work just as well, such those of a theist, or those of a Buddhist. The key, however, is that not all parameters will do: start with the axioms of a psychopath and you will get a horrible human being who inflicts pain on others for his own enjoyment.

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  19. Massimo, Are you entirely comfortable with your reply? While you deny that your justification is pragmatic, it seems that it is:

    “Stoic virtues one can obtain the parameters of a fruitful, flourishing human life. Other parameters will work just as well, such those of a theist, or those of a Buddhist. The key, however, is that not all parameters will do: start with the axioms of a psychopath and you will get a horrible human being who inflicts pain on others for his own enjoyment.”

    But then you spice your answer with a dash of ontology at the end. What objectively is wrong with “inflicts pain” if there are no objective moral truths?

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  20. Daniel,

    this dialogue may be reaching diminishing returns, at the least for now (besides, I’m about to go on vacation!). But yes, I’m comfortable with what I’m saying, otherwise I wouldn’t say it. Comfort on these matters to me isn’t a question of “entirely,” life’s too complicated for that. Let’s just say that I’m vastly more comfortable with my current take than with the alternative you are offering.

    Your objection boils down to the charge of moral relativism and how to do ethics, about which I’ve written plenty in the past. If you are curious, check this 7-part series at the old Rationally Speaking (the last article, linked here, also lists all the preceding one): http://goo.gl/kCZ1rf

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  21. That last article in the 7-part series is so good that I just read it twice in a row!
    ( http://goo.gl/kCZ1rf )
    Thank you for re-posting it. I remember reading it long ago, but now after studying Stoicism for a while, and reading your posts here, it is making deeper sense to me.
    Epictetus’ quote above reminds me of the famous t-shirt saying: “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”
    I have to say that friends and family are chuckling when I mention my Stoic practice. But the goals of my practice are focused on improving my character, not on “feeling good.” Everyone who knows me well sees some results of my practice, which are a joy and satisfaction with my life, the ability to start letting go of genuinely hurtful past experiences, and an increasing amount of personal courage and bold actions. I don’t really care what people think or if they laugh now that I am getting such excellent benefits from this way of living.
    Since I don’t have a god to depend on for “Truth,” it comes from within me. When I know that I have a good character and can depend on myself to do the “right” and courageous thing, that is all I need. I am not seeking “happiness,” only a chance to be more present and an active participant in my own life.
    Practicing Stoicism isn’t at all about the results, it is about the practice. Living life as the performance, not the dress rehearsal. The good results are simply chocolate icing on the vanilla cake of character.

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