Today’s blog post is a continuation of my last one. Yesterday I shared parts of a Marc Manson’s blog post (https://markmanson.net/why-i-am-not-a-stoic) that describes what Stoicism is. Today I will share parts he likes and dislikes:
What Stoicism Gets Right
- Focus on things you can control, ignore the rest.
Epictetus was a slave who arose to become one of the most important Stoic voices of the Roman Empire. Perhaps his most famous and important idea was that of only focusing on what you can control.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”2
This idea has persisted throughout the millennia in various forms. Perhaps you know it better as Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer:”
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Psychologists sometimes differentiate between something called an “internal locus of control” and an “external locus of control.” People with an internal locus of control tend to believe that they are responsible for most of what happens in their lives. They focus on what they could do better or what they can influence in pursuing their goals.
People with an external locus of control are the opposite: they blame others for their problems, find excuses to not pursue their goals, and generally bitch and moan about the world until you’re ready to put your head in an oven.
Reams of evidence show that people with internal locus of control tend to be happier, less anxious,4 make better decisions, accomplish more of their goals, yada yada.5
In fact, this notion of “focus on what you can change, ignore the rest” is so powerful that it’s been the core of just about every self-help movement, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Tony Robbins. It’s so ubiquitous that the genre is literally named after the idea. Samuel Smiles, the author of the 1859 book titled Self-Help, wrote the book because he wanted people to understand that, “God helps those who help themselves.”
- Accept pain and don’t chase pleasure.
The Stoics rightly noticed that most of the stupid shit people do, they do because they think it’s going to make them feel good. People have a tendency to overestimate the benefits of something that feels good in the short-term and underestimate the costs in the long-term. Chasing things like status and wealth and excitement can backfire terribly.
The Stoics also correctly noted that most of the good things in life are painful and require some degree of sacrifice. Therefore, they framed their idea of virtue in terms of being able to resist short-term pleasures for some long-term gain.
This is just incredibly practical life advice that has become ubiquitous throughout the world. The Stoics were just some of the first to clearly explain it.
- A good life is a virtuous life.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an extremely long article where I explained why valuing highly abstract principles such as honesty, integrity, courage, etc.—or what the ancients would call “virtue”—was, psychologically speaking, probably the healthiest thing we can do, both for ourselves, but also for our relationships and society.
I won’t try to sum up the arguments here. Instead, go read it if you’d like to understand more.
Read: How to Grow the F*ck Up
- Materialism – what is real can be calculated and measured.
Now we’re getting into the philosophical weeds.
One of Plato’s core beliefs was that the physical world was merely an imperfect reflection of a deeper, metaphysical realm of ideas.6 Plato’s ideas were later adopted into Christian ideas of a permanent “soul” and ideas about spirits.
The Stoics and Epicureans famously took a different tact. They believed that nothing existed other than what we can see and experience ourselves. Once you’re dead, you’re fucking rat meat, bro. There’s no soul, no heaven, no spirit world to save you.
For these beliefs, the early Christian church would go on a rampage and burn thousands of books, libraries, and people. Whereas Plato’s beliefs about a parallel world of ideas and the soul were integrated into Christian theology and preserved, Stoic and Epicurean ideas would take over 1,500 years to be rediscovered, oftentimes by accident.7
Eventually, these materialist ideas did make it back into Europe in the 15th century, where they were soon devoured by hungry minds of the Reformation. These texts would then get passed around and soon inspire the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. Then everyone lived happily ever after.8
- Memento Mori.
Finally, the Stoics were fond of a practice they called Memento Mori, or “Remember that you will die.” While that sounds dark and like something a kid with too much eye makeup would say, there’s a real practical application to thinking about one’s own death.
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
As I wrote in my book, thinking about one’s death forces you to consider what is truly important in your life. It’s only by imagining not being alive that you can properly prioritize everything you are doing while being alive.
This is another idea that shows up in a number of traditional religions. I was first exposed to the idea in the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying, where meditation is described as a means for preparing for one’s death. But it’s an idea that has found its way into modern times from philosophers such as Nietzsche and Camus to business leaders like Steve Jobs.
The Problems With Stoicism
- It is impossible to detach from our emotional reactions and remain rational.
Before I dive into this, I should note that there’s a lot of debate around this subject, not just today, but apparently even back in antiquity.
One of the core concepts of Stoicism is apathy. Today, we understand apathy as a kind of laziness, but back then it meant something closer to “unaffectedness” or “detachment.”
The Stoics argued that because emotions are excited by external events, and external events are outside of our control, we should therefore detach ourselves as much as possible from being affected by them in an effort to remain rational. Seneca wrote about the process thus:
“Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it;… in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer…. So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, – for the reward is… virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.”9
So, the problem isn’t that stuff harms you (or others). It’s that you decided it harmed you (or others).
Obviously, there is a lot of truth to this. In fact, I’ve argued in my books that this realization is at the heart of building resilience.
But does this mean we should be entirely indifferent to harm? Should we have no opinions or judgments about our emotions at all? What if someone kills our family member? What if someone is sexually abusing a child? Aren’t these righteous reasons to get angry or indignant or hateful? These questions arose in the Stoics’ time and the question of how much we should detach from our external experiences has been up for debate ever since.
From the get-go, people criticized Stoics of being heartless “men of stone.” Many Stoics argued that it wasn’t that you got rid of all emotions, it was simply that you trained yourself to be unmoved by them—that you are always able to pursue virtue in even the most heated of moments.
But, even then, that’s probably just unrealistic. With modern psychology, we know that emotions penetrate much deeper into our conscious thoughts than we originally thought. Much of what we experience as rational thought is still highly laden with emotions. It’s actually impossible to separate the two — and worse, when we believe we’re detaching from our emotions, we’re often simply tricking ourselves. Not only is being unaffected by our emotions probably impossible, but often we find that people who try to resist their emotions usually need a lot more therapy than those that embrace them. Paradoxically, it’s only by engaging and expressing our emotions that they lose power over us.
- It is impossible to be entirely rational.
I think one of the reasons the Stoics went astray on the emotion question was simply because their understanding of human psychology was much simpler than it is now.
Plato famously posited that the human mind had two parts: a horse and a chariot. The horse was our emotions and the chariot was our reason. Everyone back then assumed that the goal was then to tame and train our inner horses to behave and do as they are told. In my book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, I refer to this as the “Classic Assumption” and I explain why this is wrong.
The more we understand about the mind, the more we understand that much of what we consider “rational” is merely the side effect of cognitive biases, prejudices, and faulty perceptions—you know, emotions.
I’ve written at length about how our minds often hijack us when we attempt to be rational and how we’re incredibly short-sighted in much of our decision-making. You can read two articles that describe these issues below:
Read: The Cognitive Biases That Make Us All Terrible People
Read: The Law of Unintended Consequences
But wait, it gets worse.
Sure, you might say, most of us are bad at making decisions. But we have things like mathematics and logic and science! These tools correct for our inherent irrationality.
Well, yes and no. On a practical level, sure. It’s important to apply the principles of scientific experimentation in our own lives to make sure we’re not getting carried away and doing something dumb.
But on the other hand, even these rock-solid fields of logic have been undermined and shown to be contradictory in the past 100 years. Whether it’s Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem showing that all mathematical sets are internally inconsistent, or Derek Parfit’s incredible proof demonstrating that the ideas of self-interest and individual identities are logically inconsistent, in terms of knowing what’s objectively true in the world, the Skeptics were kind of right: we don’t know a damn thing.
- We should give a fuck about some external things.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention what is perhaps the most common ethical argument against Stoicism: shouldn’t some external events affect us? Shouldn’t we care if someone threatens to kill our friend or our boss takes credit for our work or our mother gets cancer?
I think there’s a fine line between prioritizing what you can control and focusing on what you can control to the exclusion of all else and that line is left muddy by the Stoics.
We should care about starving kids in Africa and the oceans warming and federal reserve interest rates and the fact that we’re proud of our new jacket. This is simply being human. The question is not about shutting out the outside world, but rather having the correct prioritization for the things that happen in the outside world versus our internal thoughts and feelings.
I understand that this criticism is debated, and many, including Ryan Holiday, vehemently argue that the Stoics did not mean that we should totally remain indifferent to external events. But, to me, the fact that this clarification needs to happen in the first place is an issue itself.