Stoicism: Makes sense in 2021 or not? 🤔
What is Stoicism? What are its pros and cons? + Applying the best bits to your life.
Hi, Ravdeep here. 👋
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What does the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Greek philosopher Epictetus and the Roman statesman Cicero have in common? They are all great Stoic philosophers of their time.
Ok great but what is Stoicism? 💎
Have you heard the phrase “It is no use crying over spilled milk”? Well, Stoicism is the philosophy behind this particular phrase. In a nutshell, Stoicism teaches you to be content with what you have, accept how things are and stop worrying about everything outside of your control. By following these principles, you waste less time worrying and can now focus on living your life well. We will discuss this in detail later, first let’s find out the history behind it.
Where it all started? 🎬
Stoicism was founded in Athens, Greece, around 300 BC by a man named Zeno. Zeno first studied Cynic philosophy after which he moved to Plato’s Academy and then started his own school at the central market in Athens. Zeno started his school by standing on a porch in the market and talking to anyone who happened by. In time, he had a regular group of people standing and talking philosophy there with him. The porch became his school. The word for porch in Greek is Stoa, and the men who met there to talk philosophy soon became known as the men of the porch, or Stoics.
Stoicism became the pre-eminent philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome and flourished for nearly 500 years. It re-emerged as a popular philosophy in the Renaissance when people returned to reason rather than faith to find answers about how to live.
Let’s get back to the philosophy 💬
Stoicism is a philosophy of life that teaches you how to think, not what to think. It teaches you to achieve tranquility, aka the absence of negative emotions like jealousy, anger, hatred, etc. by helping you see the world objectively. Stoicism can also teach you to stop caring about the things that are out of your control and focus on those things that are within your grasp to alter. It also helps you appreciate what you have even more.
Is Stoicism all about suppressing feelings? 🙃
Hey, I didn’t say Stoicism is perfect, sometimes it does make people suppress their feelings which can work against them in social situations but that is mostly a problem with the people who have not fully understood this philosophy. Stoicism is not about:
Separating emotions from "thinking"
How many misunderstand Stoicism is by comparing it with “Spock Logic”, which is “having emotions, will use a mental technique to suppress it”. Stoic philosophers had definitely not seen Star Trek, and when they thought about emotions, they had the implicit assumption that you will experience emotions consistent with your beliefs in any given scenario.
Read the following passage from Epictetus, and look how obvious this implicit assumption is:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Someone who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.
Now let’s talk about the Pros and Cons of this philosophy in very simple terms ✅
What Stoicism does get right: 👍
Focus on things you can control, ignore the rest.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” - Epictetus
Accept pain and don’t chase pleasure.
The Stoics rightly noticed that most of the stupid shit people do, they do because they think it’s going to make them feel good. People have a tendency to overestimate the benefits of something that feels good in the short-term and underestimate the costs in the long-term. Chasing things like status, wealth and excitement can backfire terribly.
A good life is a virtuous life.
Stoics said valuing highly abstract principles such as honesty, integrity, courage, etc.—or what the ancients would call “virtue”—was probably the healthiest thing we can do, both for ourselves and our relationships and society.
The Stoics were fond of a practice they called Memento Mori, or “Remember that you will die.” While that sounds dark, there’s a real practical application to thinking about one’s own death.
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. - Marcus Aurelius
The problems with Stoicism: 👎
It is impossible to detach from our emotional reactions and remain rational.
The Stoics argued that because emotions are generated by external events, and external events are outside of our control, we should therefore detach ourselves as much as possible from being affected by them in an effort to remain rational.
But does this mean we should be entirely indifferent to harm? Should we sit by if someone else is being treated differently? What if an external event only affects a group of people and you’re not a part of that group? These questions arose in the Stoics’ time and the question of how much we should detach from our external experiences has been up for debate ever since.
The Stoics went astray on these emotional questions simply because their understanding of human psychology was much simpler than it is now. Plato famously posited that the human mind had two parts: a horse and a chariot. The horse was our emotions and the chariot was our reason. Everyone back then assumed that the goal was then to tame and train our inner horses to behave and do as they are told.
We should care about starving kids in Africa, the climate change, atrocities happening all over the world and much more. This is simply being human. The question is not about shutting out the outside world, but rather having the correct prioritization for the things that happen in the outside world versus our internal thoughts and feelings.
I know this was a heavier issue than the ones I’ve sent before but I’ve always been fascinated by Stoicism and tried to use the good parts of it in various facets of my life. Let me know what your thoughts are on this philosophy and have you been using these principles yourself or something remotely similar. Just reply back to this email to reach out to me!
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