[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, I have started a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]
E. writes: “I discovered you through the Rationally Speaking podcast. I’ve been into the skepticism movement recently and really enjoying it from an epistemological standpoint. I’m liking Stoicism for a sense of meaning and purpose to life, for personal ethics, and a way to handle setbacks and challenges. It seems like the original Stoics and Skeptics were often at odds with each other. How do you handle being in both camps? I am generally looking to Stoicism for my ethics, but skepticism for my epistemology. What are your thoughts on that approach? I like the idea of Stoicism and virtue ethics. But I don’t consider my personal temperament as good of a fit regarding my behavior vs my ideals. I sometimes struggle with compulsive or addictive behaviors, depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. These impact my ability to do my job as well as I’d like, interact with others the way I would like, etc. I’ve struggled mightily and tried nearly every avenue available to remedy these issues, yet they persist. As much as I like the idea of Stoicism, when I first started trying to practice it I just ended up feeling self-hatred for not being able to live up to the ideals of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice. I wasn’t able to emotionally muster indifference to some other challenges that hit at the same time and so I would say I wasn’t even making progress in those areas. I was struggling just to keep it together. For lack of a better term it was almost a type of scrupulosity. Have you found people who start out in Stoicism with these historical weaknesses of character are somehow able to stick with it and make progress? Do you have advice on not becoming demoralized to the point that it makes you slide backwards? Stoicism gave me some more lofty ideals, but the chasm between ideals and behavior was widened and made me feel demoralized.”
Dear E., there are two distinct issues that you bring up, and I’ll treat them in the sequence you present them, though the second one is both more complex and more important: i) Stoicism vs “skepticism”; and ii) the mismatch, as you perceive it, between Stoic ideals and your ability to put them into practice.
Let’s begin with Stoicism vs. Skepticism. As you know, I have been — and still am, to some extent — part of the “skeptic” community, but you seem to assume that modern-day skepticism is akin to the ancient variety that was in fact a rival school of Stoicism. They are not, which is why I use capitalization for the ancient school and lowercase for the modern movement. (This is different from ancient vs. modern Stoics, since both refer to the same basic philosophy.)
Ancient Skepticism had a variety of manifestations, but essentially it amounted to a fairly radical conception of epistemology, where an acknowledgment of human cognitive and perceptual limitations led the Skeptics — very differently from the Stoics, who had their own epistemological theories — to advocate agnosticism on pretty much every issue. (A good introduction to the ancient school, including an account of their disagreement with the Stoics, can be found here.)
The modern skeptical movement, by contrast, is more akin to David Hume’s famous take that a reasonable person proportions her beliefs to the evidence, as he expressed it in his landmark essay On Miracles. The dictum was then turned by Carl Sagan into the famous “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Modern skeptics are far from agnostic on a number of matters (they tend to be staunchly pro-science, and highly critical of anything they consider to be pseudoscientific). Moreover, unlike in ancient Skepticism, the modern version doesn’t come attached to any particular ethical philosophy, as humanism and atheism, for instance, are entirely logically detachable from skepticism, as I’ve argued here.
So the way I reconcile my Stoicism with my skepticism is that I think of the first one as primarily concerned with ethics and the latter as a form of intellectual activism aimed at combating scientific and rational illiteracy. I see no contradiction between the two, as the Stoics themselves advocated the study of natural science (part of their “physics”) and critical thinking (part of their “logic”).
Let’s get now to your second question, which as I said is both more difficult and more important. To begin with, I do think that some personalities are more or less apt to the practice of Stoicism. While the ancient Stoics thought they had arguments demonstrating the universality of their approach (which is why they were constantly in debate with the rival schools!), I think Stoicism is just one “form of life,” as some modern philosophers put it, that is, a cultural tradition that has a lot to go for it, but is ultimately one of a number of alternatives available to anyone wishing to adopt a personal philosophy of life (others include Buddhism, Christianity, even Epicureanism…).
As William Irvine puts it in his A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, developing a (suitable, helpful, somewhat coherent) philosophy of life is a broader and more important goal than necessarily embracing Stoicism: “Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive — that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living.”
It is possible, for instance, that your personality and the specific problems you describe would work better with, say Buddhism, because of some of its varied schools’ emphasis on a type of meditative practice aimed at calming the mind, and which has been empirically shown to be effective. Or perhaps, just to go on a limb, the ancient Cyrenaic school may be of interest to you. They elaborated a version of enlightened hedonism, that is of a hedonism that was still informed by virtue, where the goal of life is, in fact, pleasure, and yet it is pursued so that you own the pleasure and not the other way around.
(You also mention a tendency to addiction, though you don’t specify how strong it is, for instance if it reaches the level of a need for medical attention. In that case, CBT or another talk or medication-based therapy would be the first step, in order to help bring your mind back to a point of sufficient equilibrium from which you can then engage in a philosophical journey.)
All of the above notwithstanding, I still do encourage you to keep exploring Stoicism and to give it a chance for a little longer. Although I don’t experience that level of disappointment with myself and, as you put it, even of self-hatred for failing to live up to my own chosen ideals, I — and probably every other prokopton — do sometimes succumb to a sense of inadequacy at being so far from the Sage, or even from any actual role model (say, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousafzai).
But Stoicism itself does have resources to deal with this. Here is Seneca, in a famous passage where he explains his technique of evening meditation:
“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore?’A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.” (On Anger, III.36.)
I have made a practice of doing exactly what Seneca suggests, and to actually write it down in a personal philosophical diary, since (exactly, I just looked it up) 4 October 2014. Has that made me a perfect student of Stoicism? Hardly. But it has, in fact, had the sort of calming effect on the mind that Seneca describes, and it has become one of my most precious tools (thank Zeus for search capabilities in word processors!) of self-discovery and self-assessment. Know thyself, and much else will follow.