Updated: May 31, 2021
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a book titled How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. This book, written by Donald Robertson, is a thorough introduction to the philosophical world of Stoicism. The title refers to former Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurellius, a lifelong student of Stoicism.
At this point, I’m only halfway through the book, and with no previous knowledge of Stoicism, or any formal education of philosophical schools, I am very much an amateur.
However, amateurism has its advantages, and my limited knowledge of Stoicism allows me to think very generally, and to consider only the information that I need to practice at this point in my life.
Assuming that you are in the same boat as me, our Stoic amateurism will allow us to apply certain ideas that fit our needs, while not reading too deeply into the beliefs that we cannot readily put into practice. I sincerely hope that this post will equip you with a skill, or new perspective that will enhance your ability to conquer the challenges that the year 2020 has provided us with.
The Basic Tenets of Stoicism:
“Fire burns just the same in Greece as in Persia, but Men’s judgement about what’s good or bad vary from one place to another”
First and foremost, Stoicism focuses on the self, and the ability to live a life of virtue. Stoic history outlines four virtues to be guided by:
The best way to understand how these virtues work together is to consider wisdom as the purpose in life, allowing us to live a life of virtue; while the following three virtues can be understood as the application of wisdom to different areas of our lives. Robertson outlines it as follows:
Wisdom- To be obtained and utilized, in order to live a virtuous life.
Justice- Wisdom applied in the social sphere, and relationships with other people.
Courage- Wisdom applied to our ability to master fear, and overcome obstacles.
Moderation- Wisdom applied to our ability to master desires, and ‘unhealthy passions’ that interfere with our ability to live virtuously.
Stoic philosophy is rooted in the user’s ability to transform unhealthy emotions into healthy ones. This is a critical point to be made for the effectiveness of Stoicism across all generations, from 100 AD to the 21st Century. We are never able to be entirely free of unhealthy emotions, but we are in control of replacing those negative emotions with positive ones.
Consider this the next time that you have something that you perceive as negative happen to you. Once you recognize that your perception of the event is negative, you then have the opportunity to transform that negative emotion, the thing that happened to you, into something positive, something that happened for you.
I’ve always connected really well with the idea of two fields of energy being released into the world, by each individual who inhabits it. At all times we are performing two actions: first and foremost, we are processing external events that are happening ‘around us’, and reacting to them through either positive or negative emotions. Secondly, we are being influenced by the energy fields that surround us. If the people that we surround ourselves with are exhibiting negative fields of energy, then we are susceptible to being influenced in a negative manner. Likewise, if we surround ourselves with positivity, then the battle becomes much easier to fight, and we find it much easier to transform our perceptions of daily events into something that exudes positive emotion.
The Process of Finding True Freedom:
“What we feel is a choice”
The beauty of Stoic philosophy is that we always have decisions to make, and with nearly an unlimited amount of decisions to be made each day, it seems that none are ever final. If you make a mistake one day, the following day affords you the opportunity to act differently, and to live in closer alignment with your goal for a virtuous life. Wisdom is not born out of perfection; rather, it is crafted through trial-and-error, countless missteps, and the courage to make necessary changes, in order to discover your true-self.
Each day we are pulled in multiple directions, unsure of where to focus our energy, and how to adapt to changing circumstances. When things become hectic, or we are caught off-guard by something that we didn’t expect, our emotions takeover. Epictetus, one of the more impactful Stoic Philosophers of his time, taught his students to distinguish between two stages of response.
These stages can be applied to any situation that arises in life, and should be understood as follows:
Stage #1: Initial Impressions
These are involuntary (meaning we don’t control them) reactions to an external stimulus. Epictetus states that these reactions don’t come from faulty judgement, but rather “an emotional reflex arising in the body which temporarily bypasses reason”.
Stage #2: Voluntary Judgements
At this point, we processed the circumstances enough to be able to react to our ‘automatic impressions’ that occurred in stage one. It is in these moments that we decide how to react with action. Epictetus says that the wise will not continue to follow the initial ‘negative’ emotional reaction, but will “reject them as misleading, view them with studied indifference, and let go of them”.
As we can see, it is Stage #1 that makes us human, and the decision that is made in Stage #2 that determines our ability to live virtuously, for ourselves and others.
Our ability to perform ‘voluntary judgements’ that are in alignment with our virtues is a skill. And like any skill, it is developed through practice. Practice is imperfect, and requires reflection in order to be refined over time. Stoic philosophy emphasizes nightly reflection as a critical structure. Reflection allows you to recognize areas of your life where you may not have lived up to a high-standard; or to put it in more Stoic terms: you failed to live in a virtuous way. When we reflect and adapt we are putting wisdom into practice, we are developing our ability to replace the bad with the good, and we are setting the bar higher for the life that we intend to live.
The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent:
One primary doctrine of Stoicism is the belief that virtue is the only true good, and vice is the only true bad. All else should be viewed as indifferent, as it is open to interpretation, and can be looked at through different perspectives. Stoic philosophy views good and bad strictly through morals, therefore things such as health and sickness, wealth and poverty, friends and enemies, or even life and death would all be considered indifferent, as they don’t solely lead to virtue or vice.
While it is perfectly understandable to prefer wealth to poverty, health to sickness, and life to death, our preferences alone can’t designate an external thing as good or bad. As Robertson explains, “External advantages such as wealth may create more opportunities but in themselves they don’t have the kind of value that can ever define a good life”. Consider the reality that one person’s ‘good’ fortune in winning the lottery, may just turn into their greatest downfall if their virtues doesn’t allow them to act appropriately under the circumstances.
If nothing else, Stoic philosophy makes it very clear where our attention and energy should be geared towards: our virtues, as created through internal thoughts and emotions, that are then showcased externally through our actions and interactions in daily life.
Stoicism in 2020:
Fast-forward from 100 AD to the year 2020, and the basic tenets of Stoicism are as applicable as ever. Despite the ever changing landscape of our nation, a worldwide Pandemic, and racial inequality that has no place in any society, we are in control.
Yet, we have to make the decision to take charge of our lives. We must become practitioners of our minds, not allowing a negative reaction to determine our actions, as well as not allowing a short string of positive emotions to convince us that our work is done. Whether you align with a specific religion, philosophy, or social group, we should all look deeply enough inside of ourselves and understand one thing: We can be better. Not only can we be better, but considering the overwhelming circumstances, we have to be better.
In many senses, ‘being better’ is not an exciting process. It requires putting instant-gratification on hold, in order to invest in the future. It requires daily practices such as an assessment of your values, a reflection on your actions, and a plan to act and react more appropriately in the next opportunity. Being better means becoming a lifelong learner, being humbled by your experiences, and going beyond the surface-level in our efforts to connect with others. For as a society, if we can all do just a little bit better, the impact would be world-changing.
In the words of Maya Angelou:
“We are more alike my friends, than we are unalike”.