Why this ancient philosophy is great — and what it lacks
Stoicism seems to be quite the rage recently. New books on this ancient philosophy have seen a rise in the past few years: The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson, even The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. And there have been Stoicons since 2012.
This newfound interest seems to be a reaction to the info overload and emotional flurry brought about by new media. People were already harassed by traffic and bosses and brats and the Joneses before Mark Zuckerberg was born…but now here come Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which constantly flood people with emotions, from disgust to delight to disdain to disappointment— sometimes all within one minute. People are drowning; they need safety vests. Stoicism comes as a lifeboat from heaven.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is not a boat: it is a Greek philosophy founded in 300 BC by Zeno of Citium. Other key philosophers of this Hellenistic-turned-Roman thought — spanning up to 300 AD — were Seneca, who has written the most; Epictetus who, wiser, delegated the task of writing to a student; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and perhaps the poster boy of Stoicism (“Ruler of the Known World — But Not Worldly”).
Stoics believe that no “disaster”, ultimately, is end-of-the-world kind of disastrous: that bad things can happen and do happen, and that we have the power to survive, move on, and not give a damn; that happiness equals virtue and self-mastery, not fortune nor fame nor health nor pleasure, which are all temporary and rot in the end; that our emotions and unbridled perception of the world can cloud our minds, making us fail to understand the truth of things.
Some people mistake Stoicism as absolute repudiation of emotions. In fact, it just abhors excesses. Joy, for example, is something that Stoics cherish. And while anger may be in their gamut of emotions, they try not to give it free rein.
What’s great about Stoicism
Stoicism can give you a more objective, more godlike, perspective. According to Alain de Botton on The School of Life, Seneca demonstrated this to a woman who was grieving his son’s death for years. Asking her to imagine going back to a distant past, flying over beautiful mountain scenes and then to the horrors of another place at that same time, Seneca pointed out that things can’t really be all that bad…and that her sufferings weren’t original or singular. Hence we actually can and would do well to expect the worst whenever something bad happens, knowing that “the worst” isn’t really so bad.
Harsh, right? But such is reality, and Stoicism wants to desensitize us to that. Often we are just too wrapped up in ourselves that we forget the bigger picture and our small role in it. (This is not to say, of course, that we are insignificant, but that there are things larger than ourselves. We can’t be divas.)
Stoicism also helps us to focus on the things we can control, thus promoting inner peace. A key tenet of Stoicism says,
There are things we can control, and things we can’t.
Hence there’s no use cursing the weather or other people, because in the end we really can’t coerce them to do something they can’t or don’t want. Instead Stoicism advises us to concentrate on practicing patience, temperance, courage — that is, virtues we can nurture and control in ourselves. It teaches that virtue is every person’s ultimate goal.
Lastly, in this age of too much emotional spontaneity (thanks to social media and the sentimentalism prevalent in mainstream media), Stoicism may seem like a raft in the turbulent waters of our soul. It helps us to detach ourselves from excessive emotions, treating those feelings as mere clouds in the sky of our minds. We can say, “No matter how cloudy or stormy the sky can get, the sun of reason and will shines brilliantly as ever.” So f*ck feelings — and time is our friend.
What Stoicism lacks
Despite its glories, however, Stoicism seems to lack something crucial to live a good life: juicy, smile-inducing hope.
Yes, expecting the worst may have its immediate and sobering benefits, but knowing that good things will happen in the end (even despite all evidence to the contrary) will catapult us to a much higher level of happiness now — one that is not merely having contentment (eudaimonia), but indeed having joy (gaudium).
Because if we remain at the level of fundamental Stoicism, life and the universe will seem like a mistake. Pointless. Meaningless. After death, nothing. All those knowledge and pains and loves and wisdom we have gained throughout our life will end up being eaten by worms.
But with hope, we can align our philosophy with that principle buried deep in our hearts: that life and the universe are for something better. That the perfection we had been pining for during our lifetime can have its fulfillment — finally — beyond the grave.
In conclusion, Stoicism is great…but add hope. Appreciate the present moment — with all the fireworks of emotions — but let reason reign. And when you see that your route is nowhere but to the worst, expect that if you pursue virtue nonetheless, you’ll ultimately get what is best.