Friday, October 28, 2016

Stoicism made Simple

Stoicism Made Simple

Yesterday I suggested that one reason for  Stoicism’s continuing appeal  is that it is greater than the sum of its parts. In this article I will explain why I think this is the case.


Part 1: “Serenity Prayer” Wisdom

Would you agree that trying to change the unchangeable is one way to lead  a life of frustration and misery? And that if instead you  focus on what you can and should change, that's a better path to a good life,  achievement and serenity? I written elsewhere about how the Serenity Prayer  can help a lot  in all sorts of situations, like losing your wallet or being stuck in traffic.
The Stoics take Serenity Prayer wisdom a step further.  They assert that there are really only two things you have control over – what you think and what you do.


Part 2: Look after your thinking


“It's not events that upset you but how you interpret them” Epictetus, Enchiridion

You are walking down the road and a friend ignores you. How would you feel?


The answer is: it depends on your thinking. If you think “How dare she ignore me!” you will most likely feel angry.

However, if after reflection you instead think “I don’t know why she ignored me. Perhaps she is distracted. Or perhaps I have upset her. I should give her a call”  you will feel concerned rather than angry.

As Epictetus told us, it’s not the event that matters, but how you interpret it. In the first case, you are focussing on her reaction, which is now in the past so you can’t change. This type of thinking fails the Serenity Prayer test. The second response, however, focuses on what you can control – finding out whether she was upset with you and responding appropriately. So the lesson here is to watch our thinking and reflect only on those aspects of the situation under our control.

The Stoics advise us to be vigilant, putting each thought and judgement (“impression” in their jargon) to the test of whether it relates to something within or outside our control.

"Be not swept off your feet, I beseech you, by the vividness of the impression, but say 'Wait for me a little, O impression; allow me to see who you are, and what you are the impression of; allow me to put you to the test.” Epictetus, Discourses, 2:19
   
The Stoicism Today team (with a particular debt to Donald Robertson) calls this skill “Stoic Mindfulness”. Practising it enables you to get less caught up in unhelpful thinking. Donald has developed a  Stoic self-monitoring record sheet to help you develop this skill.

Part 3: Live like an excellent human being

As well as being able to control your thinking, the Stoics argue that you can control what you do, how you live. But how should we should live? The Stoics argue that we should live “according to (human) nature”. Whilst there is much debate over what this boils down to in practice, the most plausible interpretation is that it means living according to human nature at its best, which for the Stoics meant living according to the virtues.

“Virtue” is a problematic term, conjuring up  all sorts of unhelpful connotations– but what it meant for the Ancient Greeks and Romans was living like an excellent human being. Larry Becker compares it with living life in an excellent way like an excellent conductor of an orchestra conducts – like a virtuoso at living.

So how in practice can we live like an excellent human being or like a virtuouso at living?  A starting point for the Stoics are the cardinal virtues – wisdom, courage, self-control and justice.

Wisdom  means using our faculty of reason firstly to understand how to live  in general and then to use it in practice. This will knowing how and when to use Serenity Prayer Wisdom and Watching Your Thinking According to Professor Chris Gill, the other Stoic cardinal virtues are really all varieties of wisdom, knowing how to act and feel in various situations.
Gill writes that :-

 “[Courage]  is knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); self-control knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; justice)knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection.”


Let’s now see how these three parts of Stoicism fit together.

A friend appears to snub us in the street. We use Serenity Prayer wisdom to not dwell on what we can’t control and instead focus on what we can – our thinking and our deeds. Which virtues are relevant? Maybe self-control not to send an angry text, courage to ask if anything is the matter and justice to make amends if we have done anything wrong – and wisdom to know all of this. Or consider a political issue – for example Brexit. 

Original thought: "I am worried that I or my friends or loved ones won't be able to stay in the UK" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: Decisions made by government
What I can control: How I relate to my friends or loved ones
Stoic reframe: "I can't control what happens with regards to employment law though I could try to influence it by campaigning. More immediately, I can be as supportive as possible to those I care about, being a rock for them to lean on, helping them emotionally and in practice ways."
Stoic emotion: Concern and full of purpose

Other examples, which I have written  about elsewhere (follow the links if curious) are how a Stoic would have advised Basil Fawlty to respond when his car would not start and how to respond in advance  to the possibility that Donald Trump could be elected president.


These three parts of Stoicism form a logical and helpful framework for living. Of course what I have presented here is Stoicism Made Simple – there are lots of other parts of Stoicism you can explore – but I hope that even this very simplified version of Stoicism can be useful

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