Are you a stoic? The Allure of stoicism

1. Saint Rita of Cascia

The schedules of saints Judas and saint Rita must be busy.  Saint Judas, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes and Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of sterility, abuse victims, loneliness, marriage difficulties, parenthood, widows, the sick, bodily ills, and wounds, embody the tempests human being go through in the journey of life.

The question of how to live has been alive in every culture, religion and society. How should we tackle life’s challenges? And how should we face up to the ultimate challenge, reality of our mortality?

Throughout history, religious leaders, scientists and philosophers have tried to answer the question: how can we live a good life? How should we deal with life’s problems, react to adversity and prepare for death?

Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of sterility, abuse victims, loneliness, marriage difficulties, parenthood, widows, the sick, bodily ills, and wounds,

2. Etymology of Stoicism

Stoicism, a philosophy of ancient world, offers lessons on these aspects, on the practicalities of living a good, virtuous life, foregrounding friendships and handling daily frustrations.

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor popularized it. Marcus, the emperor-philosopher, wrote his most famous work, Meditations, as a personal guide for his own self-improvement.

Stoicism is often misunderstood. When we say someone is stoical, we imply they are rather passive; tolerating what comes to them without question or emotion. But in reality, Stoicism is not at all passive, and it is not about suppressing emotion. It is about what we can do to lead a good life.

Marble burst of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a leading stoic

For a nervous flyer fretting turbulence, a dieter struggling to shift stubborn pounds, many of us expend energy on things we cannot change.

Epictetus taught.  We must make the most of what we can control. And accept what isn’t in our power to change. This sentiment is widely known, but less widely followed. What is in the power, or control, of the nervous flyer?

What can he do to prevent an in-air catastrophe? A little. He can choose whether his trip is necessary, and if so, which airline to choose. What he cannot do is control or influences anything once in the air.

By now, he must accept the circumstances he is given, in this case, relying on his pilots, air traffic controllers, the weather and other factors outside his control. To fret further is a waste of energy.

This shouldn’t be seen as encouraging passivity. Rather it provides powerful instruction to focus on the things you can influence.

You are due for a promotion. You think you have performed well. But you continue to agonize about the office politics that could get in the way or colleagues who may provide competition.

A better approach would be to think like a Stoic. Satisfied you have done what is in your power to do, wait and accept the news calmly, whether good or bad.

Socrates, who heavily influenced Stoics and Western thinking, provided a model, albeit an extreme one. When a political opponent accused Socrates of impiety and eventually had him condemned to death, Socrates could have escaped thanks to helpful and loyal friends.

But he refused, telling his upset friends that he had to uphold his moral duty to accept the law and the justice system, despite its blatant misuse. We don’t get to bend the rules on the occasions when they don’t favor us, he argued. He accepted his death to maintain his integrity, to the cost of his friends and family.

Living with virtue was important to the Stoics. But what exactly did they mean when they talked of a virtuous life? There are four aspects of virtue – temperance, courage, justice, and, most importantly, wisdom.

These concepts of virtue have been fairly consistent throughout philosophical and religious history. Thomas Aquinas’s system of “heavenly virtues” kept the four Stoic ones and added faith, hope and charity.

Massimo Pigliuci’s book, How to be a stoic, that inspired this essay.

3. Cato and the inevitability of death

Cato was a senator in Rome and unusually committed to moral virtue. When he became a military commander, he marched, ate and slept alongside his men, who loved him for this.

He was also incorruptible. As administrator and tax collector for the island of Cyprus, he refused opportunities to enrich himself, as was normal at the time. Instead, he dutifully and honestly collected taxes to be sent back to Rome.

When Julius Caesar declared war on the Roman Republic and attempted to secure dictatorial power for himself, Cato fought him to defend the Republic, its institutions and values. Eventually, facing defeat, he killed himself rather than be captured, which would have handed Caesar a propaganda victory.

As the historian Plutarch describes it, Cato stabbed himself but did not immediately die. He lay bleeding, his bowels hanging out of his body. His doctor tried to save him, but Cato – seeing his physician’s intentions – tore out his own bowels and died. In death as in life, Cato was a model of virtue: sacrificing himself to avoid giving his morally contemptible opponent any political advantage.

Cato’s example may feel a little extreme, but for Stoics, that was part of the point. Inspired by the grueling experiences of people like him, we can surely conjure up the courage to rise to the challenges in our own lives.

Few of us are as willing to face death as Cato. Indeed, many of us have a nagging fear of death. It is understandably troubling to consider the reality that one day; your consciousness will no longer exist.

Statue of Cato the Younger, a honorable man, about to kill himself.

Epictetus did not share these fears. He said, “I must die, must I? … if soon, I dine now, as it is time for dinner, and afterward when the time comes I will die.”

Stoics calmly thought about death. Why does wheat grow, Epictetus asked. Is it not simply so that it can ripen and later be harvested? He was saying that, just like wheat and all living things, we humans grow, ripen – or mature – and eventually die.

To pray for a man not to die is, Epictetus said, to pray for them not to ripen. We regard it as normal that wheat is harvested or dies and give it barely another thought. The only difference between wheat and us is that we are capable of reflecting on our own mortality.

But this does not change the reality; just because we have consciousness, and wheat does not, why should we waste time and energy fearing our deaths?

Stoics argued that you should constantly remind yourself of the impermanence of things, including humans. This way, you will better accept death and better appreciate life.

Epictetus said that, when it comes to things and people to whom you are attached, you should remind yourself of their nature. When you kiss your wife or child, he said, tell yourself you are kissing a mortal. You won’t be so upset if they are taken from you.

This seems a little shocking at first. But what Epictetus is teaching is not that we should be indifferent toward humans. Rather, he is suggesting two things.

Firstly, we face the reality that our loved ones are impermanent. And secondly, for this very reason – that our partners or children may die – we should regularly remind ourselves that they are precious.

We should, according to Stoics, take mortality seriously. But instead of finding stress in anticipation of death, we should find care and appreciation in life. Pause and reflect; put yourself in the shoes of others, and you will better handle provocation and misfortune.

In modern life, it is easy to be provoked to anger or frustration by any number of day-to-day irritations, from an insulting colleague to the inconsiderate passenger in a matatu eating smelly food.

If you break a glass, one you are a little fond of, you might react with some small sadness or irritation at your clumsiness. But were you to see a friend breaking a glass, you might quickly say “bad luck, never mind” and then think nothing more of it.

There’s a lesson in the way we react to others’ small misfortunes. We should accept our own misfortunes with greater equanimity.

So next time someone is rude to you, and anger starts to rise inside you, stop for a minute. Reflect on your situation, and put it in the context of others’ misfortunes, and you may find you can remain calmer amid the misfortunes of life.

4. Friendships

How many true friends do you have? In an age of social media connectedness, it can seem that the word “friend” is somewhat vague. Friends and acquaintances are often confused.

Ancient Greeks were lucky enough to have a richer vocabulary than we do, and the philosopher Aristotle talked of three types of friends, only one of which the Stoics regarded as important.

First, friendships of utility. These relationships based on mutual advantage. You and your favorite hairdresser, you are not friends as such, but you get along, chat about your lives, and, of course, you both benefit from the relationship. So are some work colleagues.

Second, friendship of pleasure. Your drinking friends, the girls you go out for a drink with. We’d call them friends, but the relationship doesn’t have to be particularly deep, it just has to bring some pleasure in the here-and-now.

Third, friendship of the good. We might call friends in this category our true or closest friends – the people with whom we find an affinity in personality that doesn’t require a business relationship or a mutual hobby for support. These ones, we are tolerant to their weaknesses.

Only the friendships of the good deserve to be called friendships. They would not deny the importance of the others but class them as preferred indifferent: perfectly reasonable things to have, but less important than the virtuous aspects of your life.

What do you do when you are with friends? You should, Epictetus argued, speak less about gladiators, sports and foods, and more about the important things in life.

We don’t talk much about gladiators today, but we do spend a lot of time talking about sports stars, actors and other celebrities. For Epictetus, such subjects were banal and empty. It may be easier to chat about Beyoncé’s latest album than, say, the pursuit of a good life. But Stoics weren’t much concerned with what was easy, preferring what was rewarding and virtuous.

Where conversations are about challenging topics, over time, you might find friendships more rewarding.

Stoicism can guide us toward a better life. In accepting what we can and cannot control, focusing on behaving with virtue, and by reflecting carefully on emotions and experiences, we can make better decisions and live a more virtuous life.