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#TIL - How To Be a Stoic

Remember the play, Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare? People of my generation who studied in ICSE schools, will have swotted over it in class. It was while studying Julius Caesar that I first heard of the term Stoic.

Marcus Brutus was a Stoic, and we learnt that Stoics were people who had trained themselves to not feel emotion - neither pain nor pleasure, neither grief nor joy. Certainly Brutus is depicted in Julius Caesar as a guy who showed little emotion - a critic commented that “he spoke of the death of his wife as if she had left on a trip”.

There are other sects who also try to escape from feeling emotions. They do this by cutting themselves off from society - ascetics for instance. Stoics are not like that. They feel called to a higher purpose and do all that they can to stay engaged with society and carry out their duties - but all in an emotionless way. Thus Brutus thought it was his duty to kill his friend Caesar, in order to save his country from ruin.

Around the time that I was studying Julius Caesar, I was also listening to songs by Simon & Garfunkel. One of their songs that I loved is called I am a rock, and ends with the following lines:

I am a rock, I am an island

And a rock feels no pain

And an island never cries

As an awkward teenager who was learning to deal with his emotions, this philosophy appealed to me. I thought it might be wonderful to be immune to emotions of all kinds.

Life moved on, though. I didn’t learn much more about Stoics then. Four decades later I heard a podcast where the guest was a Professor called William Irvine, who is a practising Stoic and has written several books on it. The interview fascinated me and I decided to read his books - this post is based of his 2009 book called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

So What is Stoicism Actually?

The whole world seems to think that Stoics are people who suppress all emotions, but it turns out that they only want to be free of negative emotions. They like to feel joy and happiness. So they have techniques that help them deal with negative emotions. Suddenly Stoicism sounds attractive again.

Professor Irvine says that Stoics want to live a life of virtue, and they place a lot of value on tranquility. The whole point of life is to be happy, but not get too depressed by the sorrows and troubles you face. In this respect, it is quite similar to Buddhism and several other religions that were all born in the sixth century B.C.

Aside: the sixth century B.C. was an amazing century. So many amazing thinkers lived in that era, that the historian, Will Durant, called it the “shower of stars”. In India, Buddha and Mahavir founded Buddhism and Jainism. In China, Confucius and Lao Tzu founded Confucianism and Taoism. In Iran, Zoroaster was born and established the Zoroastrian religion. In Italy, Pythagoras was revolutionising more than just mathematics. While in Greece, Thales and Anaximander started the philosophical tradition that led to Socrates & Plato a couple of centuries later, and which till today underpins Western civilisation.

What seems to be common among all these great thinkers, is a focus on the brain and character of the human being. These thinkers were rebelling against religions that believed human beings were mere pawns in a game that Gods were playing among themselves. Thales was the first person to explain natural phenomena through rational rather than super-natural means. Pythagoras was the first to put forward the idea that the planets move according to mathematical equations and came up with several other scientific ideas including, of course, the Pythagoras Theorem.

The thinkers from the East weren’t so much into science, but were definitely moving away from mysticism. Buddha, Mahavir, Confucius and Lao Tzu all provide detailed instructions on how human beings should live, and their world-view had only a limited role for God. And even then, there was space for just one God and not a pantheon of Gods.

All these thinkers recognised that while human beings had a rational brain, they were also influenced by their emotions. Often the emotional and rational parts of the self were in conflict, and hence the ways of life that they preached were all about how to manage the two sides.

Stoicism has a toolkit on how to do this. The big difference between Stoicism and the others is that the Stoics did not preach a life of denial. They were not ascetics and believed in enjoying the good things in life, without getting attached to them. Perhaps this is what makes it an attractive philosophy today.

The Stoic Toolkit

Back to the book. Professor Irvine says that the core Stoic techniques are:

  • Negative visualisation

  • The dichotomy of control

  • Letting go of the past… and the present

  • Self denial

  • Meditation

The focus of all of these techniques is to use your mind to control your emotions. Negative visualisation is all about imagining the worst and being prepared for that. Then if it happens, you are ready for it. If anything better happens, you are happy.

The dichotomy of control is the one I need to really learn. It is actually a trichotomy. Everything that happens can be divided into three types - events that you can control completely, events that you can’t control at all and those where you have partial control. We have no control over events like whether the sun will rise tomorrow, so we should not concern ourselves with those. We have complete control over the goals we set for ourselves and our values, so we should focus on that. And then there are events like a game of tennis. We don’t have total control over the outcome, but we can control how much effort we put into practice. The more we practice, the better the chances of our winning. Here we should focus on the effort rather than the result.

This sounds so simple and obvious, but is hard to do. We can see sports coaches drilling this into the heads of the players. “Don’t worry about the result, focus on the process and the results will follow”. In some ways, the Bhagwat Gita says the same sort of thing. If only it were as easy to pull this off.

The trichotomy of control leads to the next principle of forgetting about the past and the present. We can only influence what will happen in the future, so that is all we should focus on.

Self denial is an interesting tool. Stoicism allows its followers to have luxuries and riches, but asks them to not get attached to them. As the author and Stoic, Ryan Holiday, says, “to have but not want, to enjoy without needing”. How do you do that? By actually periodically denying yourself some luxuries. Actually living without the things that you think you can’t do without. That will help you appreciate them more and prevent you from escalating your desires.

Finally, meditation, a familiar tool. However, Professor Irvine says that Stoic meditation is very different from the Buddhist kind. The latter is all about keeping your mind blank and still, while the Stoic meditation is more like a review of the day. Go through everything that happened and figure out what you could have done better, how you could have kept your cool and so on.

The Modern Stoic

From Marcus Brutus to Simon & Garfunkel, Stoicism has the power to attract. And to help people live a better life. This book by William Irvine helps to modernise the philosophy and make it relevant to people today. I wish I had learnt these techniques earlier in life, but Prof Irvine seems to have taken up Stoicism only in his fifties, so perhaps it is never too late.

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