If you’re stressed and exhausted and University seems to be closing in around you, but you don’t exactly find self-help books, meditation, religion, or any of those other types of stress management systems to work, perhaps philosophy is for you! Also if you’re often overwhelmed by the ridiculous jargon and complex thoughts that philosophy usually brings, then this beginner course may be most helpful.
Whilst there are obviously many different philosophical thoughts and systems that explore these ideas, today I would like to introduce you to Stoicism. However, I am not referring to the contemporary usage of the word: referring to heroes who are resilient to pain, unemotional, don’t experience grief or joy, or generally describing hypermasculine characters in much of literature; these characteristics have little in common with the original philosophy.
Also, I apologise to any philosophy students if this article is too simple or facile, but making it more accessible is an important aspect I’m trying to bring.
Stoicism is an ancient Greek Philosophy, initially developed by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. Other notable philosophers of Stoicism are Epictitus, Seneca, and even the emperor of the Roman Empire Marcus Aurelius! Nelson Mandela also reportedly read much of Aurelius’s work whilst imprisoned in South Africa, and it helped develop his attitude of peaceful reconciliation upon being released from prison. It may seem outdated from its 2300 year old inception, but there is actually a movement led by notable contemporary philosopher Massimo Pigliucci to revitalise it in a modern sense. Stoicism has also been a dominant system of thought throughout history, inspiring and combining with many different movements and philosophical ideas. At its core, it is a development of self-control and fortitude to overcome destructive emotions, without completely extinguishing these emotions altogether. Supposedly it enables a person to develop clear judgement, inner calm, and freedom from suffering. This seems pretty fantastic, but does it just sound like more empty promises?
The system of thought began when Zeno was shipwrecked at sea, had nearly died, and lost most of his possessions. His situation in life was terrible, and the natural reaction would notably be despair, grief, and potentially surrender to the cruel realities of life altogether. According to legend, however, he arrived on the shore of Athens, went to the library and found inspiration in Socrates’ work (I mean who didn’t), and then started to study and create his own system of philosophy stemming from the contemporary movement, Cynicism.
Stoicism, unlike many philosophical systems, is considered more of a way of life, with practice, training and constant refining, incorporating logic, Socratic reasoning (we don’t need to know that for now), self-dialogue, and a sort of meditation to maintain one’s focus on the present. It has many parallels to Buddhism, with its own ancient Greek differences. They also believed in egalitarianism as a part of their doctrine, which made them one of the few movements that was against slavery, or at least some of them wanted the slaves to be treated ‘nicely’, which was a pretty big deal in ancient times.
Stoicism is based on the fundamental idea, that the natural order of the world, “logos”, is formed by many complex connecting strings of cause and effect, which are for the most part, beyond our control and our realm of influence. Further, it teaches that external events are neither good nor evil, but instead are equally out of our control. Thus we must treat them the same, responding similarly to the highs and the lows in life.
This leads to clear, unbiased and self-disciplined thinking, based on using the four cardinal virtues – wisdom, temperament, justice and courage. Whilst we don’t need to go into each of these values in too much detail, they speak to how we should react to situations: for wisdom, being logical and clear-headed; for temperance, practicing self control, restraint and moderation; for justice, treating each other fairly even when someone has done something wrong or a situation goes awry; and importantly courage, but not only courage in the face of adversity or hardship, but courage in everyday life.
This may all seem very easy on paper, but perhaps a little harder in reality. Things start to make more sense when we consider the idea of Logos. With so many complex webs of cause and effect external to us, often we think we can change them and then ideally that will change our circumstances, which will subsequently improve our attitudes and mindset. Or otherwise, we distress over the horrible situation we’ve found ourselves in. But the Stoics instead realise and accept that we cannot change our external situation, they resign to the reality of their incapacity to change the world around them. For the Stoics, the only thing, and most important thing, that we can change, is how we react internally to our situation and the world around us.
A famous quote by Epictetus claimed that, “we suffer not from the events in our lives, but from our judgements about them”. This is one of the basic tenets of Stoicism. As opposed to frantically trying to change our external events, or stressing and despairing over things that are out of our control, we train ourselves to better respond to the situations we find ourselves in, prioritising our internal attitudes and responses over their external origins.
However that being said, this doesn’t go to the extreme. For example, if you see a car driving towards you, you don’t internally find calm and make sure your attitude towards immediate death is logical and clear. No of course not, you jump out of the way. These ‘external events’ are particularly aimed at things that are truly out of our control. For example, when you are writing an essay, you make sure you work hard (or don’t, whatever you want really), but regardless, do you best and once you have handed it in, it is no longer in your control. This is the point where you have relinquished your influence, so once you have passed this threshold, there is no point in stressing or anguishing that you forgot this or you didn’t quite do that. You can train yourself to accept your position or circumstances and find a ‘logical indifference’.
Another example could be when you are driving, and someone rudely overtakes you. It is out of your control to stop them or to do anything at all. It is only in your power to decide whether you get angry and yell at them and honk your horn; only stressing yourself out further. Either that, or just keep driving.
In many senses, Stoicism is about finding a ‘rational apathy’, but without the common desolation and hopelessness that is often attributed to apathy or indifference. The Stoics do not endorse passivity, but instead, claim by using this system one supposedly can become more active and courageous. You don’t have to not care about anything, but when something negative occurs, you need only care about how you respond, and less so about the situation. Stoicism also includes internal conversation with yourself, so if you do respond negatively to a situation beyond your control, you can analyse it, think logically as to why you responded that way, refine yourself and train yourself, so that the next time something like this occurs, you are able and ready to keep calm and react accordingly. There are also obvious advantages to this sort of behaviour, as becoming stressed, angry or just emotionally volatile can cause you to make rash decisions, become unwell, both mentally and physically, and sometimes even make a bad situation even worse.
Another way that the Stoics found their so-called Ataraxia, (which is similar to Nirvana in Buddhism), is by reducing their optimism. Seneca especially thought this was a cause for many problems and challenges for people. He thought optimistic ideas of the world and personal lives lead to unrealistic expectations, which can naturally make you respond in a negative way. This again does not push you towards the extreme where pessimism controls the way in which you behave, but just your expectations, so you are more capable of adequately and calmly responding.
An example might be if you have a test, or again an essay. Thinking that there is no chance you will pass and being so pessimistic you don’t even try, is allowing the pessimism to affect your behaviour. But trying to the level that you see fit, whilst considering there is a high chance you may not pass, allows you to actually finish what is required, and then when you get the final result, you are either pleasantly surprised, or not surprised at all. In neither case are you not despairing at the resultant mark after it has come nor despairing at the potential future mark you may receive. Often pessimistic outlooks are considered negative and harmful, but in the right dose and with rationality and calmness, it can positively change the way you respond to adverse circumstances.
Furthermore, Stoics try to deal with the present, they never obsess over the past and worry about something that has already occurred, as it is out of their realm of influence. The same applies to obsessing about the future. Whilst there are certain aspects of your behaviour and life that will decide your future, for the most part a lot of external entities/factors will occur that are well beyond your control, so why would we stress over the inevitable?
Obviously like all things, it takes training to achieve this form of stress management, but just start small when attempting to adopt a stoic lifestyle. Initially think logically, calmly and with a degree of ‘indifference’ to small external situations. For example, if someone accidentally pushes you when walking through uni, or someone says something potentially stupid or offensive in a lecture, as opposed to becoming overly emotional, just accept that it is beyond your control and anything you do in that present situation isn’t going to change what’s happened. And in the same way, reduce your optimism in small ways, have the attitude that the bus will be full of people and it will be an awful ride towards uni. If you’re right, at least you’re prepared, and if you’re wrong, hey, that’s just an added benefit to your day.
Ideally, by slowly training yourself in these ways, you can potentially find your own Ataraxia when facing exams, or huge assessments. Having ‘rational apathy’ to external events, ensuring you are calm and logical in bad or good situations, and retaining a healthy degree of pessimism, can potentially help us all with the extremely stressful life of a university student.
If you are interested to learn more there is plenty of literature out there, but the best place to start is looking at Massimo Pigliucci and his contemporary take – https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/massimo-on-stoicism/