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The lessons of modern stoicism

Published: Thursday, April 17, 2008

Updated: Monday, February 2, 2009 12:02

I am a stoic. I guess I never really realized it until my freshmen year of college. In my English class, we actually discussed the stoic philosophy. Almost everyone else in my class was put off by some of the beliefs. I was sitting there, calmly agreeing.

Stoicism was founded in Athens as one of many Hellenistic philosophies. It proved popular and stretched throughout Greece and the Roman Empire. Stoicism stresses that such things as health, happiness and possessions are meaningless. It encourages humans to recognize perfect freedom by removing mundane desires. The philosophy defines virtue as acting in accordance with nature. In the words of Epictetus, "Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy." Stoicism stresses that the outside world is not the determinate in one's mood. The individual is in constant control of how they feel.

In modern times, the word stoic has come to mean unemotional and indifferent to pain. This is because stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason. The stoics never taught to extinguish emotions, but only to avoid emotional troubles by developing clear judgment and inner calm. An individual is supposed to strive to be free of anguish. The idea was to be free of suffering through apathy, which by the ancient definition meant being objective and having clear judgment - rather than simple indifference, as apathy implies today. The stoic concepts are similar to the Buddhist noble truths: all life has suffering, suffering is rooted in passion and desire and virtue can free one from suffering.

I am not a practicing stoic. I do not have a handbook filled with the rules of apathy. Many of my reactions to world events are simply stoic in nature. For example, I do not worry about things - ever. As most people know, worrying is useless. Does it change anything? Does it alter anything? Does it help you? Worrying does not do any of these things. Therefore, I do not worry. Fact: I have a test next week. Fact: I need to study. Fact: I will get a grade. Worrying about my grade or how well I studied does nothing. Therefore, based on this objective reasoning, I do not worry.

I also do not miss people. After four solid months in Texas, I told my mother flat-out that I did not miss her. My definition of missing someone is having thoughts like "Wow, this place is great. Man, I wish my girlfriend was here so it would be even greater. I miss her." These thoughts are again useless. They are akin to worrying. Does my wishing for someone to be beside me help the situation? Does it make that person magically appear into my life? No. Will I see this person sometime again? Most likely. So, in the mean time, there is absolutely no reason to miss people. I will be patient and see that person when life brings me to them again.

I do not understand the sadness of death. Death is a part of life. Being sad over someone's death is on par with being sad when someone is being born. Fact: Everyone dies. My grandmother died over Christmas break. I was the only one in the family not shedding tears. I realize this comes off as cold and heartless. But, my grandmother had a great, long life. I will cherish the memories I had with her. She used to make the best stuffing on Thanksgiving! She sewed me a dinosaur costume when I was little. She never quite learned how to copy and paste. Everyone's life is finite. Being reminded of this does not bring me sadness. If anything, it is a reaffirmation of all the life she once had.

I know what you're saying, "Dan, this stoic thing sounds great! How can I be apathetic and indifferent to bad emotions!" Well, I wish I knew. It is not an active effort on my part. Perhaps it was the eight dogs that died while I was a kid: Bridgette, Rocky, Bobby, Buttercup, Toby, Pierre, Zeus and Ginger. Perhaps it is my logical approach to most problems. Can I fix it? If yes, then fix it. If no, then deal with it. Regardless of the reason, I am glad to have a stoic view on life and I hope people can see the solid reasoning behind it.

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5 comments Log in to Comment

Thu May 6 2010 02:46
A response to Jared:

Stoicism does not promote can not run over a mother and her child......then drive away because "It doesn't matter"....that would be illogical! A true stoic would study as hard as possible not worrying about sleep deprivation, hunger, or illness right up to the day of the test, he would then do the best he could on the test, but would smile wide as the teacher hands him back a failing test. He may even thank the teacher for some inward humor! What shall be shall be.......but always give it your all. I believe the school of thought that you are "Naturally" is closer to Nihilism!

Thu Feb 11 2010 00:28
I'm also a modern stoic, but, unlike you, I actually know what the word actually means. Stoicism bases itself on the four cardinal virtues, wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. It also strives to understand the processes of nature through logos, or reason. Reason, and logic, are not entirely attributed to apathy-especially your apathy- it is true that one must strive (let me emphasize strive) to rid oneself of destructive emotions, but that falls under the virtue of temperance. Moderation is one of the main virtues that a Stoic must follow, and that means balancing everything (whether they are desires or other tangible or intangible elements), and your mere apathy regarding your own life-and those around you- just describes you as a someone who denies the meaningful aspects of life, aka a nihilist. A stoic would strive to improve himself in accordance to the four cardinal virtues that are attributed to the just soul, but would not strive to attain and follow a philosophy that does not let itself be "worried" by death and studies. Let it be known that stoics were all scholars that made it their goal to further nourish their intellect and rationalize every aspect of life, (see Plato's Allegory of the Cave). So it is insulting for stoicism to describe what you do as this same philosophy, I suggest reading a bit more on the subject before making a public statement of your apathetic style of living.
Saul B.
Thu Jan 7 2010 15:35
Jerald, I don't think you understand. Stoics can still have goals and positive emotions. I think what you're describing yourself as is a nihilist. A stoic would still presumably strive to make good grades and better himself. Also, stoicism highly prizes reason and logic so it probably doesn't jibe well with Christian theology.

I strive to be stoic though it's often hard to control negative emotions. They're natural after all. I used to suffer from severe depression but lately it's been rare to even be mildly sad. I'd say this philosophy is working very well for me.

Your name
Fri Jul 31 2009 01:17
It's difficult to reconcile an approach to living from Reason to someone who elects to approach life only from emotion, as many do. It's even more challenging to offer this explanation in the context to one's reaction to the loss of a loved one. A phrase that I recall places life in the metaphor of a journey: "He began, he traveled, he reached his destination." There's no cause for sadness when a journey is successfully completed.
Sun Apr 26 2009 22:56
Wow, I read this article and I see myself in you.

Like you, I am just Naturally Stioc, not trying or making an effort, it is just the way I am. My Grandma Died years ago and I was 14, I was at her funeral and I carryied her coffin. but I did not cry nor did I ever wish she'd be still alive. I knew she was suffering to live, and her death did not come as a surprise to me. I Love her and did not Wish her to die. But Life Happens, and Unfortunately Death happens too. And as a Believer in God, of the Christian Faith, I know that death is not the end and she will live on enternally with God and Christ. And as a Child of God, I will too.

But that is not the only event that dysplays my Stoicism. It happens every day. Little things such as spilling my milk, biting my tounge, Jamming a finger or toe, Accidents.... I know that if I get mad or Upset over these little things, that it would have been a waist of Emotion and Time. I only say something or Express something if it is Pratical and Useful to do so. And I live with my dad, that can get anyone angry very easily. But I have learned to Hide, or even get rid of that anger even before the thought of expressing it comes through. And also like you, I do not miss anything or anyone. My mom Asks me Constaintly if I ever Miss her, or Miss living with her. And being the Truthfull person I am, I Bluntly say No. She gets all mad before I can explain why.

And, Wow, I was probably the only Student in Highschool that Liked Tests. I never studied for them either. I just never had any reason to worry about the grade I would get. Teachers thought that I did not care, that was not the reason. the Reason was that it did not matter, weather I pass or not. Thus I did not Worry if I passed or not.

And I have taken the phrase "It Doesn't Matter" as my personal Motto, I think I say it at least say it every day. People don't know how to take it if they ask me a question and I respond with "It doesn't matter". They get Confused. But a Stoic would understand the Phrase Perfectly. Thanks for writing this and confirming that I am not the only one that is Stoic by Nature.

if you want to respond to my comment, you can email me.

my address is: jerald.d.konkel

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