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.