Friday, March 1, 2019

Stoicism in Six Points

I keep getting asked: what is Stoicism, in a summarized version?

First off, the goal of Stoicism, is to seek a flourishing human life; a fulfilling life through excellence of character (arete).  It is also said the goal and end is eudaimonia, which is defined as happiness or well-being.

To achieve a fulfilling life, three phrases come to mind along with three disciplines or practices.

1) focus on things in your control
2) live according to nature
3) virtue is the sole good

The Three Stoic Disciplines
- Discipline of Assent
- Discipline of Desire
- Discipline of Action

focus on things in your control

The logic is, if you seek to be happy by getting something you do not have 100% control over, you will be frustrated.  Alternatively, if you want to avoid pain or distress about something you do not have 100% control over, you will fall into pain and distress.  Most things in life, are not 100% in your control; Stoics call these externals.  Examples: health, wealth, weather events, actions of other people.

What is in your control?  Your attitude, perspective, judgement, motivation and desire.  Notice where these things come from: from you; your brain; they are internal to you.  This is where you must spend your time and attention in order to achieve a fulfilling and flourishing life.

live according to nature

One weekend night, after eating a bowl of ice cream, I set the bowl down on the floor next to the couch I was sitting in.  My wife and I went to bed and we heard the "clanging" of silverware on ceramic.  We thought our son was in the kitchen.  My wife got up to check on him, and called his name through the doorway.  But he didn't respond and the clanging continued.  She was perplexed.  Then she heard where the noise was really coming from.  Our dog, Fritz, found the empty bowl and was licking it.  He couldn't help himself - it was his nature to lick the empty bowl!  One of the defining qualities of all animals is to eat.  Humans share this quality with animals.  But it is not what makes us unique.  What is our unique nature?  We think; we have emotions; we talk; we write and we can reason with logic.

So when the Stoics say we should live according to nature, we ought to live according to our unique nature; we ought to think and reason.  More specifically, we ought to think and reason about how to live our unique life (our place in time and space and circumstance) in such a way as to lead it to a flourishing and fulfilling end.  Although somewhat simple, I think it still makes the point: consider the movie Kung Fu Panda 3 and how Po trains the seemingly inept Pandas.  He focuses on their unique natures to teach them (see this clip).  The unique trait of each panda enabled them to flourish at Kung Fu.  Likewise, humans' unique ability to think and reason enables us to flourish as human beings.

virtue is the sole good

Related to our unique nature as humans is our ability to live a virtuous life.  Humans are the only animals that can live a life of virtue.  Stoics focused on the four main virtues of temperance, courage, justice and wisdom.  If a Stoic desired and sought to exercise temperance, courage, justice and wisdom, they would flourish as a human being and find fulfillment.  Seeking a virtuous life is both in our control and in accordance with our nature.  Therefore, the Stoics would summarize the entire philosophy as: virtue is the sole good.

The Three Disciplines, as described by Pierre Hadot, are ways to put these concepts into practice.  There is a lot to explain about each discipline, but I will try to get to the heart of it succinctly.

discipline of assent

The discipline of assent is the process of strengthening our hegemonikon to assent (agree) with only valid impressions and to disagree or ignore invalid or incorrect impressions.

The world is filled with external events.  We are confronted with and bombarded by these events incessantly.  These events "propose" an idea or opinion to us and then we have to decide if we agree or not with that proposition.  But before we agree or disagree, we need to deconstruct events and things.

The best way to practice this discipline, is to lengthen the pause between event/thing and your impression of it; and then decide to agree or disagree.

Epictetus said, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, 'Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test'" (Discourses 2.18).

Another quote that I quite like goes, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."  I've heard this has been attributed to Viktor Frankl, but I'm not sure if that is confirmed or not.

discipline of desire

As you work on lengthening your pause or space between an event/thing and your judgement of it, you need to begin to ensure your desires are properly grounded.

You should desire two things.

First, macro/global/universal events that are out of your control.  You should work to align your desires with the desire of the cosmos / the universe / Zeus / God / Gods.  This can be difficult in some circumstances, but the Stoics would say, "Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)

Pierre Hadot puts a unique perspective on this by making macro events exceptionally personal.  In in his book, The Inner Citadel, he says, "This brings us back to the theme of the present. A particular event is not predestined for me and accorded with me only because it is harmonized with the World; rather, it is so because it occurs in this particular moment and no other. It occurs in accordance with the kairos ("right moment"), which, as the Greeks had always known, is unique. Therefore, that which is happening to me at this moment is happening at the right moment, in accordance with the necessary, methodical, and harmonious unfolding of all events, all of which occur at their proper time and season.

To will the event that is happening at this moment, and in this present instant, is to will the entire universe which has brought it about." (see p. 143, as well as p. 75, 260)

Second, you should desire and yearn for opportunities to practice virtue.  Virtue is the sole good, according to the Stoics.  Therefore, in every event and circumstance, you should desire and be motivated to practice some virtue (wisdom, justice, discipline, courage) according to the how the situation and context dictates.

connecting this to the discipline of assent, as we lengthen that pause, we then need to ask ourselves, "what can I learn from this?  What virtue can I exercise given the situation?"

discipline of action

Having lengthened your "pause" in judgement and having learned proper desire, you are now willing to act.

I am not well versed in Epicureanism, but I have heard and read many other aspiring Stoics discuss the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism.  The Epicureans believed pleasure was the sole good and believed the best way to accomplish this was to "to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires." (source)  One way to achieve this was to disengage with society and seek tranquility in a garden or peaceful place.  Indeed this sounds wonderful and peaceful; however Stoicism offers this same peace and tranquility while engaging with society.  For the Stoics, virtue is the sole good and the only real way to practice virtue is in society.  One cannot practice discipline, courage, wisdom and justice unless there are other human beings around, who would give the aspiring Stoic opportunities to practice said virtues.

Furthermore, Stoics would bring others into their circle of care by wanting others to flourish.  The technical Greek term for this is oikeiĆ“sis.  It can be roughly translated as "familiarity" or "affinity".  Practically speaking, it means each of us as individuals, are naturally programmed to care for ourselves, physically and logically.  While we practice to be better at that, we can also extend our circle of affinity to those closest to us, then on to an ever-widening circle, until we have that same affinity to all citizens of the cosmos; we become true cosmopolitans.

Albert Einstein provides a great visual for circles of compassion:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

With these two principals in minds, (acting with virtue in the context of society and viewing all people as "in our circle of care"), Stoicism gives us the tools to enter the world every day and engage with others and keep our tranquility.


I know I may have taken a bit more time to explain all that, but hopefully the read wasn't too long.  If you want more in-depth analysis on this, I suggest you read my blog post On Happiness - Part Two: Stoic Style.

Also, I highly recommend The Path of the Prokopton Series by Chris Fisher.


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