Stoicism: 10 Themes and Excerpts/Activities
Outline/Lecture Notes on Stoicism
Part I: Overview of Ten Stoic Themes
Concept: Stoicism is an interesting, therapeutic, and calming philosophy. It’s a philosophy and way of living that has greatly enriched my life and the lives of many people in history. In this unit, you will read Epictetus’ Enchiridion and excerpts from Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s On Anger. To help you better understand these works and write your paper, I’m giving you this quick overview of ten Stoic themes. Keep in mind that some of the themes overlap.
1) Recognize what is under your control and what isn’t under your control. Don’t worry about what isn’t under your control. This is the most important Stoic theme; all other themes connect to it in some way.
Examine the chart below to better understand this theme.
|Under my control
Ø My reactions or how I think of these events (i.e. “soul,” “mind,” or “opinion.”)
Ø My emotions (especially the beliefs/judgments supporting certain emotions). My choice to assent to the emotion.
Ø Virtue/doing the right thing
|Not “really” under my control
Ø External events like death, the weather, and what others do.
Ø Body (It will get sick and die)
Ø Pleasure and Pain
Ø Property (I could lose it through theft, weather, etc.)
Ø Fame, reputation, or what others think of me (I can influence, but not control others).
Ø History/my personal history
Ø Outcome and Consequences
Notice you cannot control the weather, but you can control your reaction to it. Will you make complain all day about the weather or make the most of it?
Nor can you control your body. Although you can choose to eat healthy, exercise, and get plenty of rest, you cannot control your body’s vulnerability. Eventually, you will get sick; your body will die.
You cannot control pleasure and pain, but you can choose to be virtuous even if it causes great physical pain, for you have a mind and can be the captain of your life.
You cannot control your property, like your house, car, or jewelry. You can lock them up, but there is no guarantee that a natural disaster or thief won’t take them away. Therefore, don’t attach your identity or your happiness to your property. You are not your property, rather you are the mind that chooses to identify or not identify with the property.
You can control what others think of you to some degree, but ultimately another person’s thinking is uncontrollable precisely because it is their thinking. Don’t become a slave to what others think; don’t become a people pleaser. Don’t lose your mind (something you can control) to the whims of others (something you cannot control).
Death isn’t really under your control either (though the time of death may be).
So, don’t worry about fame, reputation, death, or anything not under your control. Instead, recognize that only your soul is under your control, your soul being your inner life of thoughts, reactions, emotions, and choices. You cannot control external events, but you can control your reactions. Others can touch your body, but they cannot touch your soul (unless you let them).
For the stoic, it’s permissible to try to manage the uncontrollable, but you shouldn’t attach your identity or happiness to controlling it. Say to everything you cannot control: “I can be happy and good with or without you. My happiness and goodness is based on what I can control.”
Epictetus: Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you (Enchiridion, 1).
Epictetus: Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away (Enchiridion).
2) Conform your will to the divine order of the universe. The Stoics believed people should conform to the perfect order permeating the universe. Sometimes this is translated as being satisfied with what you have instead of constantly seeking to fulfill desires.
Some people criticize this Stoic theme because it seems to support passivity, to being content with what you have instead of working towards better goals or a better world. The critic seems to say that the Stoic is too complacent with the status quo, or the stoic is one who is perfectly content to be fat, lazy, and live in a trailer down by the river (To quote Chris Farley).
However, a deeper reading supports the idea of contentment no matter what happens, not passivity. Marcus Aurelius is a good example. He worked hard to make the world a better place, but didn’t base his happiness on the results because the results were outside of his control.
Another example: one of my students wants to be a professional athlete. He interpreted Aurelius’ quotes on this theme as saying he should try as hard as possible, but he shouldn’t be devastated if he is unsuccessful. That is, he will be content whether he is successful or not. He will be content with trying his best (something under his control), not with the uncontrollable outcome.
So, the Stoic doesn’t get upset or lose his mind when he fails to achieve his goals; rather he seeks goals and is at peace no matter the outcome.
This theme also touches upon Stoic Metaphysics. For the most part, the Stoics were pantheists and believed that the universe was permeated with a fiery Logos. This universal fire is divine and every human has a spark of it within. Since we cannot change this beautiful reality, we should live in harmony with it. That is, we should conform our desires to this reality rather than trying to make reality conform to our desires. Submitting to this reality will lead to peace of mind.
|Epictetus: Don't demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well (Enchiridion, 8).
Epictetus: Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another's (Enchiridion, 17)
Aurelius: Whatever is agreeable to You, O Universe, is so to me, too. (Meditations).
3) Understand your emotions. Don’t repress or assent to all emotions. Many people believe the Stoics are emotionless, but this isn’t true. Stoics seek to understand each emotion in order to give assent or dissent to the emotion.
For example, you may feel anger at the action of another, but the anger dissipates if you realize the other is ignorant or did not intend the act. Another example: I may feel sad because I believe I’m either a complete success (100) or a complete failure (0). The Stoic could help me see this sadness is based on a false judgment since I could be partially successful (70), or successful in one area but not another.
This type of cognitive therapy is one many therapists still use. Indeed, there is evidence that Ellis derived rational- emotive therapy from Stoicism.
Of course, some negative emotions may be caused by a chemical imbalance, but the stoic or cognitive approach still works for the many people with destructive emotions based on false beliefs.
In the end, the Stoics show far less emotion because they understand that most emotions are simply errors in judgment, and they have conditioned themselves to think about emotions before giving their assent to them. Their advice is to avoid ‘becoming’ the emotion, don’t go with the flow. Rather, think about the thinking that created the emotion. Doing so will give you control over your negative emotions.
|Epictetus: Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things (Enchiridion, 5).
Epictetus: If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you? (Enchiridion, 28).
4) Do the right thing no matter the cost. Stoicism maintains that the only thing you can really control in this life is your soul/mind, and the way to protect it is to live a life of virtue. Do the right thing even if it hurts and don’t complain of the hurt.
According to Stoicism, your central focus in life should be conforming your mind to reality, which leads to virtue, integrity, and doing the right thing. Conforming your mind takes time and effort, it’s as if you are sculpting yourself. . .you are creating habits of thought and behavior that are realistic and, therefore, virtuous. In short, living a virtuous life is a form of training.
The stoics also emphasized the moral value of motive. I cannot control the outcome but I can control my motive, so I should focus on acting from a good motive. Finally, the stoics believed you should do the right thing simply because it’s right, not because it brings about happiness or is in your self-interest. In short, Stoic ethics is very similar to Kantian Ethics.
|Aurelius: If, in the whole compass of human life, you find anything preferable to justice and truth, temperance and fortitude, or to a mind self-satisfied with its own rational conduct and entirely resigned to fate, then turn to it as to your supreme happiness. But if there be nothing more valuable than the divinity within you, if all things are trifles in comparison with this, then do not divide your allegiance. Let your choice run all one way, and be resolute for that which is best. As for other speculations, throw them once for all out of your head (Meditations).
Aurelius: No man can do me a real injury because no man can force me to misbehave myself (Meditations)
Seneca: The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live.
Aurelius: An emerald shines even if it’s worth is not spoken of.
Seneca: Virtue is nothing else than right reason
5) Understand that events are not problematic; rather it’s your thinking that makes them problematic. Adjust your beliefs and expectations to fit reality.
One meaning of this theme is life is much more beautiful when you prepare yourself for what will happen each day. For example, you will most likely encounter long lines, jerks cutting you off in traffic, ignorant people, and so on. If you expect such things to happen, you won’t be as angry or disturbed when they happen. That is, you won’t lose your mind (which is the only thing you can control) if you prepare your mind for reality . . . “keep it conformed to reality.”
Consider too how two different people may react to the same situation. Let’s say they both step on a tack. The first person cries and screams and then complains about the tack all day long. The second person steps on the tack, calmly removes it, and then forgets the event ever happened. Notice the difference between these two people lies in their thinking, not in what happened to them. The fact that the second person is not disturbed shows that much suffering comes from how we think, not what happens externally.
Perhaps Shakespeare was correct when he said there is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Perhaps, too, Shakespeare wrote this after reading Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca.
|Epictetus: Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.
Aurelius: Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' and you are rid of the hurt itself.
6) Live with compassion and respect for human rights. I mentioned earlier that the Stoics believed in a universal, divine, pantheistic, and fiery logos and that every human has a spark of this within. That is, we are all one blood and body; everyone we meet is an intrinsically valuable brother or sister.
As in Christianity, this Stoic mindset makes it possible to see everyone’s humanity: Roman and foreigner, slave and owner, male and female. All are intrinsically valuable and possess rights since all have the divine spark. The proper response to this worldview is compassion for all humans.
The Stoic worldview also creates humility since it maintains that everyone is a part of the fire that makes the whole. Each of us is a piece of the puzzle. Each of us is intrinsically valuable, divine, and beautiful.
In short, far from repressing emotion, the stoic mind supports a strong sense of compassion and a grounded belief in human rights.
As a sidenote, it’s also interesting to compare Christianity and Stoicism. Both emphasize recognizing what’s not under your control and both ask you to submit to something higher. Research the “Serenity Prayer” to see the similarities.
However, there are also differences. the Stoic conception of God, when present, is more pantheistic, and most Stoics didn’t believe in an afterlife. Also, most stoics were materialists; they believed all was matter. Another topic for an interesting paper would be to continue this comparison of stoicism with Christianity.
|Aurelius: Mankind is therefore under one common law and so are fellow-citizens; and the whole world is but one commonwealth, for there is no other society in which mankind can be incorporated.
7) Cultivate right thinking through daily activities like meditation, premeditation, contemplation, reflecting, and journaling. The Stoics engaged in all of these activities.
For example, as you read the stoics, you will find that they often ask you to meditate on your death, especially the decomposition of your physical body. Among the benefits of dwelling on your death are a greater appreciation for the present and a larger and more accurate perspective of life. Such a perspective will help you prioritize your desires and immunize yourself from stressing about trivial things.
Briefly thinking on the death of others also helps one prioritize. For example, remembering that my parents could die tomorrow makes me want to call them, to enjoy the time we have together.
The Stoics ask you to dwell on your worst-case scenarios each day: imagine that you won’t get the job, you will get sick, your spouse will leave you, etc. The purpose of these meditations isn’t to depress you, but to help you be happier by adjusting your expectations and helping you be prepared.
For example, I won’t lose my mind in anger if I prepare myself for long lines at the grocery store. If I think about the possibility of failing, I will see that it’s ok to fail, which will make me less anxious about failing. If I deeply understand that I will be fine no matter what happens to me in an external sense, I will live more happily and more peacefully. That is, I won’t lose my mind.
Finally, the activities that cultivate right thinking are not difficult. You can do many of them pretty much anywhere in a matter of seconds. This is a strength of stoicism since many religions seems to require a great deal of time to master meditation or ritual.
|Aurelius: Soon you will have forgotten all and all will have forgotten you (Meditations).
Epictetus: Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything (Enchiridion, 21).
8) Understand the external world is determined, but you have inner freedom to choose your attitude towards these determined events.
This theme clarifies the first theme, what we can and cannot control. The Stoics are determinists, but they seem to believe in internal free will. They say we cannot really change externals, but we can change our reactions and attitudes about externals. We can control our actions and choose to do the right thing no matter the cost.
The Stoics think that understanding the deterministic nature of the universe will make you more forgiving towards others since you will recognize that people are controlled by forces beyond their understanding.
Of course, one criticism of stoicism is that if all the universe is determined then I cannot choose to conform or not conform to it. If determinism is true, I am forced to conform or I am forced to not conform. Although the Stoics were silent on this issue, I have interpreted practical Stoicism to support external determinism and internal free will. This means the Stoics were not pure hard determinists in the modern sense, but they believed in an internal ability to alter the way we see the world.
|Aurelius: Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone (Meditations)
Aurelius: Put yourself in mind, every morning, that before that night you will meet with some meddlesome, ungrateful and abusive fellow, with some envious or unsociable churl. Remember that their perversity proceeds from ignorance of good and evil; and that since it has fallen to my share to understand the natural beauty of a good action and the deformity of an ill one; since I am satisfied that the disobliging person is of kin to me, our minds being both extracted from the Deity; since no man can do me a real injury because no man can force me to misbehave myself; I cannot therefore hate or be angry with one of my own nature and family. For we are all made for mutual assistance, no less than the parts of the body are for the service of the whole; whence it follows that clashing and opposition are utterly unnatural (Meditations).
9) Because of their worldview and training, Stoics show calmness, humility, discipline, and indifference to pleasure and pain. It’s interesting that the modern meaning of Stoicism still captures these ideas, especially the idea of “being calm in the face of adversity.”
This theme overlaps with others and is a consequence of them. Stoics are calm because they are prepared for all scenarios and understand what is really important. They are indifferent to their own pleasure and pain because they understand pleasure and pain to be external, beyond their control. They are disciplined because they are guided by mind and virtue, not solely by pleasure or pain. They are not hedonists.
It’s important to understand that the Stoics give us a worldview, a philosophy of emotion, and various techniques (like premeditation) to help us achieve these virtues. These virtues don’t arise in a vacuum, they arise from the fertile soil that is the Stoic Worldview.
|Aurelius: Look upon things as reality presents them. When incense is thrown upon the altar, one grain usually falls before another; but it matters not.
Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands (Meditations).
Epictetus: These reasonings are unconnected: "I am richer than you, therefore I am better"; "I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better." The connection is rather this: "I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;" "I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours." But you, after all, are neither property nor style (Enchiridion).
10) Stop Whining; make the worst out of difficult situations
The Stoic worldview equips people to get the most out of life. Understanding emotions, they won’t pity themselves in difficult times. Understanding Nature’s Order, they will be more forgiving of what others do. Understanding the divine spark in each of us, they will not hate people who create adversity. Rather, they will calmly face adversity and thereby transform it into an advantage.
For example, my student may fail to become a professional athlete, but he could take his training and become successful in other areas (e.g. a great coach). Or perhaps the experience will simply help him become wiser and gain control over his mind.
Of course, Stoicism is not for everyone. For example, most stoics didn’t believe in an afterlife or a personal creator. Stoics also, arguably, overemphasize the rational elements in emotion. Still, there is much in stoicism that can enrich your life. It’s a philosophy that has helped many people live nobly and peaceful in difficult times, and one that will continue to have this positive impact on those who take the time to seriously study it.
|Epictetus: Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself (Enchiridion, 19).
Part II: Some Questions on Stoicism
- List 3 things you can't ultimately control and why you can't control them. 2. Explain what the stoics mean by "we should conform our will to the Natural divine order, not try to make Nature conform to our will." Do you agree or disagree? Explain. 3. Explain why stoics are not "emotionless," as some people mistakenly believe. Or, how did the stoics evaluate emotions? 4. Explain why two people may react differently to the same situation (e.g. step on tack, long line at grocery). How can this insight improve one's life? 5. Too much pessimism can be harmful. Can too much optimism be harmful? Explain. 6. In your opinion, what are the strengths or weaknesses of Stoicism.
Part III: Watch Alain de Botton’s Youtbue Video entitled “Seneca on Anger.” This is a different video than my video above. Take notes and discuss.
- Is Stoicism a product of its time? Explain.
- Explain Seneca’s insights about anger and emotion.
- What point was the narrator making by riding a bicycle and pulling a dog on a leash?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of Stoicism?