We do this to our philosophies. We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasising all the wrong features. This is how Buddhism becomes, in the popular imagination, a doctrine of passivity and even laziness, while Existentialism becomes synonymous with apathy and futile despair. Something similar has happened to Stoicism, which is considered – when considered at all – a philosophy of grim endurance, of carrying on rather than getting over, of tolerating rather than transcending life’s agonies and adversities.
No wonder it’s not more popular. No wonder the Stoic sage, in Western culture, has never obtained the popularity of the Zen master. Even though Stoicism is far more accessible, not only does it lack the exotic mystique of Eastern practice; it’s also regarded as a philosophy of merely breaking even while remaining determinedly impassive. What this attitude ignores is the promise proffered by Stoicism of lasting transcendence and imperturbable tranquility.
It ignores gratitude, too. This is part of the tranquility, because it’s what makes the tranquility possible. Stoicism is, as much as anything, a philosophy of gratitude – and a gratitude, moreover, rugged enough to endure anything. Philosophers who pine for supreme psychological liberation have often failed to realise that they belong to a confederacy that includes the Stoics. ‘According to nature you want to live?’ Friedrich Nietzsche taunts the Stoics in Beyond Good and Evil (1886):
O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power – how could you live according to this indifference? Living – is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living – estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative ‘live according to nature’ meant at bottom as much as ‘live according to life’ – how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourself are and must be?
This is pretty good, as denunciations of Stoicism go, seductive in its articulateness and energy, and therefore effective, however uninformed.
Which is why it’s so disheartening to see Nietzsche fly off the rails of sanity in the next two paragraphs, accusing the Stoics of trying to ‘impose’ their ‘morality… on nature’, of being ‘no longer able to see [nature] differently’ because of an ‘arrogant’ determination to ‘tyrannise’ nature as the Stoic has tyrannised himself. Then (in some of the least subtle psychological projection you’re ever likely to see, given what we know of Nietzsche’s mad drive for psychological supremacy), he accuses all of philosophy as being a ‘tyrannical drive’, ‘the most spiritual will to power’, to the ‘creation of the world’.
The truth is, indifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living. Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.
If we can’t always go to our philosophers for an understanding of Stoicism, then where can we go? One place to start is the Urban Dictionary. Check out what this crowdsourced online reference to slang gives as the definition of a ‘stoic’:
Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.
Group of kids are sitting on a porch. Stoic walks by.
Kid – ‘Hey man, yur a fuckin faggot an you suck cock!’
Stoic – ‘Good for you.’
You’ve gotta love the way the author manages to make mention of a porch in there, because Stoicism has its root in the word stoa, which is the Greek name for what today we would call a porch. Actually, we’re more likely to call it a portico, but the ancient Stoics used it as a kind of porch, where they would hang out and talk about enlightenment and stuff. The Greek scholar Zeno is the founder, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius the most famous practitioner, while the Roman statesman Seneca is probably the most eloquent and entertaining. But the real hero of Stoicism, most Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.
He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match. He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words. These are the only words we know today as Epictetus’, consisting of two short works, the Enchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments. Among those whom Epictetus taught directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; his Meditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).
Among those Epictetus has taught indirectly is a whole cast of the distinguished, in all fields of endeavour. One of these is the late US Navy Admiral James Stockdale. A prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years during that conflict, he endured broken bones, starvation, solitary confinement, and all other manner of torture. His psychological companion through it all were the teachings of Epictetus, with which he had familiarised himself after graduating from college and joining the Navy, studying philosophy at Stanford University on the side. He kept those teachings close by in Vietnam, never letting them leave his mind even when things were at their most dire. Especially then. He knew what they were about, those lessons, and he came to know their application much better than anyone should have to.
Stockdale wrote a lot about Epictetus, in speeches and memoirs and essays, but if you want to travel light (and, really, what Stoic doesn’t?), the best thing you could take with you is a speech he gave at King’s College London in 1993, published as Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993). That subtitle is important. Epictetus once compared the philosopher’s lecture room to a hospital, from which the student should walk out in a little bit of pain. ‘If Epictetus’s lecture room was a hospital,’ Stockdale writes, ‘my prison was a laboratory – a laboratory of human behaviour. I chose to test his postulates against the demanding real-life challenges of my laboratory. And as you can tell, I think he passed with flying colours.’
‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate’
Stockdale rejected the false optimism proffered by Christianity, because he knew, from direct observation, that false hope is how you went insane in that prison. The Stoics themselves believed in gods, but ultimately those resistant to religious belief can take their Stoicism the way they take their Buddhism, even if they can’t buy into such concepts as karma or reincarnation. What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who […] is the invincible human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’
Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity, and it’s part of what Seneca was extolling when he wrote what he would say to one whose spirit has never been tempered or tested by hardship: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.’ We do ourselves an immense favour when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery – and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there.
Another shrewdly resourceful Stoic mind-hack is what William B Irvine – in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009)– has given the name ‘negative visualisation’. By keeping the very worst that can happen in our heads constantly, the Stoics tell us, we immunise ourselves from the dangers of too much so-called ‘positive thinking’, a product of the mind that believes a realistic accounting of the world can lead only to despair. Only by envisioning the bad can we truly appreciate the good; gratitude does not arrive when we take things for granted. It’s precisely this gratitude that leaves us content to cede control of what the world has already removed from our control anyway.
How did we let something so eminently understandable become so grotesquely misunderstood? How did we forget that that dark passage is really the portal to transcendence?
Many will recognise in these principles the general shape and texture of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Indeed, Stoicism has been identified as a kind of proto-CBT. Albert Ellis, the US psychologist who founded an early form of CBT known as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) in 1955, had read the Stoics in his youth and used to prescribe to his patients Epictetus’s maxim that ‘People are disturbed not by things but by their view of things.’ ‘That’s actually the “cognitive model of emotion” in a nutshell,’ Donald Robertson tells me, and he should certainly know, as a therapist who in 2010 wrote a book on CBT with the subtitle ‘Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy’.
This simplicity and accessibility ensure that Stoicism will never be properly embraced by those who prefer the abstracted and esoteric in their philosophies. In the novel A Man in Full (1998), Tom Wolfe gives Stoicism, with perfect plausibility, to a semi-literate prison inmate. This monologue of Conrad Hensley’s may be stilted, but there’s nothing at all suspect about the sentiment behind it. When asked if he is a Stoic, Conrad replies: ‘I’m just reading about it, but I wish there was somebody around today, somebody you could go to, the way students went to Epictetus. Today people think of Stoics – like, you know, like they’re people who grit their teeth and tolerate pain and suffering. What they are is, they’re serene and confident in the face of anything you can throw at them.’
Marcus Aurelius started each day telling himself: ‘I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people’
Which leads us naturally to ask just what it was that was thrown at them. We’ve already noted that Epictetus had the whole slavery thing going on, so he checks out. So does Seneca, in spite of what many have asserted – most recently the UK classicist Mary Beard in an essay for the New York Review of Books that asks: ‘How Stoical Was Seneca?’ before providing a none-too-approving answer. What Beard’s well-informed and otherwise cogent essay fails to allow for is just how tough it must have been for Seneca – tubercular, exiled, and under the control of a sadistically murderous dictator – no matter what access he sometimes had to life’s luxuries. It was Seneca himself who said that ‘no one has condemned wisdom to poverty’, and only an Ancient Greek Cynic would try to deny this. Besides, Seneca would have been the first to tell you, as he told a correspondent in one of his letters: ‘I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital.’
Marcus Aurelius lay ill in that hospital, too. As beneficiary of the privileges of emperor, he also endured the struggles and stresses of that very same position, plus a few more besides. I know better than to try to improve on the following accounting, provided in Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life:
He was sick, possibly with an ulcer. His family life was a source of distress: his wife appears to have been unfaithful to him, and of the at least 14 children she bore him, only six survived. Added to this were the stresses that came with ruling an empire. During his reign, there were numerous frontier uprisings, and Marcus often went personally to oversee campaigns against upstart tribes. His own officials – most notably, Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria – rebelled against him. His subordinates were insolent to him, which insolence he bore with ‘an unruffled temper’. Citizens told jokes at his expense and were not punished for doing so. During his reign, the empire also experienced plague, famine, and natural disasters such as the earthquake at Smyrna.
Ever the strategist, Marcus employed a trusty technique in confronting the days that comprised such a life, making a point to tell himself at the start of each one of them: ‘I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.’ He could have been different about it – he could have pretended things were just hunky-dory, especially on those days when they really were, or seemed to be. But how, then, would he have been prepared to angle both into the wind and away from it – adapting, always, to fate’s violently vexing vicissitudes? Where would that have left him when the weather changed?