Category Archives: Stoicism[post_grid id="10040"]
By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher that lived from 55-135 CE. He came before Marcus Aurelius and after Seneca. Epictetus was a slave for much of his youth and began studying philosophy under Musonius Rufus during his enslavement.
- The Discipline of Desire
- The Discipline of Action
- The Discipline of Assent
If thou would’st master care and pain,
Unfold this book and read and read again
Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see
The past, the present, and the days to be
With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief,
Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.
The Legionary Camp and Roman City of Carnuntum
Carnuntum and the Symbolism of The Meditations
By Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, discusses strategies for coping with pain derived from the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.
We know that Marcus suffered from chronic chest and stomach pains, problems sleeping, and poor appetite, among other symptoms. While it’s not clear what illness he suffered from, modern scholars have speculated he may have been describing the symptoms of stomach ulcers, among other things. Curiously, the historian Cassius Dio praises Marcus Aurelius for the remarkable physical resilience that he showed despite being “extremely frail in body”.
He did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.
- Carefully distinguish what’s directly under your control from what isn’t. This is really the basis of the Stoic approach. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” That became the basis of the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous: “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.” Marcus likewise tells himself, “It is necessary that those who wish to follow Nature and be of one mind with her should also adopt a neutral attitude” toward things like pain and illness, by accepting the sensations and focusing instead on their own response to suffering (9.1).
- Compare the consequences of struggling versus acceptance. The Stoics liked to say that it’s not really pain that’s our problem but rather the fear of pain. Struggling against things we can’t change can add to our emotional suffering. They want us to learn a healthy and rational attitude of acceptance instead. Of course, if there are practical steps that could potentially help your condition then take them. However, Marcus reminds himself, in vivid terms, of the futility of struggling against suffering that is beyond our direct control: “Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams” (10.28). We commonly intensify our emotional suffering by struggling against events in futile ways and growing frustrated with life.
- Remember that it’s not events that upset us but our judgements about them. This ancient Stoic doctrine became the fundamental premise of modern cognitive therapy. Pain and illness are unpleasant but you add another layer of suffering when you allow yourself to indulge too much in negative thinking about your condition. We can learn a great deal from those admirable individuals who are able to view physical illness more constructively. Marcus says that we should remember that unpleasant physical sensations, such as pain, are natural and inevitable in life, but that our conscious mind should not, “add to the sensation the opinion that it is either good or bad” (5.26).
Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. (4.7)
- Practice letting go of the inner struggle and actively accepting painful sensations. The Stoics compared life to a dog tied to a moving cart. If the dog tries to struggle and resist it will be pulled along roughly by the cart anyway. However, if it chooses to run behind at the same speed as the cart, things will go smoothly. If we struggle against unpleasant experiences such as pain and try to resist them or become frustrated or resentful toward them then we often just make our lives worse.
- Contemplate how others cope well with pain and illness and model their attitude and behavior. Marcus must have seen countless examples of others coping with pain and illness throughout his life during the plague and wars that afflicted the empire. Some people cope with such adversity better than others, of course. The Stoics advise us to learn from the example of those who face adversity with wisdom and courage, and emulate their behavior.
Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear. The same things happen to another person, and either because he does not notice that they have happened, or because he wants to show off his strength of character, he is firm and remains unharmed. (5.18)
One of the Stoics’ favorite strategies is to ask what virtue, or resource, nature has given us to cope with a challenge such as facing chronic pain or illness. Contemplating the example set by others is one way of reminding ourselves of potential strengths and coping resources that we already possess.
If you want to learn more about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and how techniques from Stoicism can help you to deal with bad habits, manage anger, overcome worry and anxiety, cope with pain and illness, and even come to terms with your own mortality, check out How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
1. We are naturally social animals designed to help one another.
The Stoics believed that humans naturally form communities and have deep-seated social instincts. We should always bear in mind that we’re adapted to work together for mutual benefit rather than conflict and destruction. Elsewhere, in one of the most famous passages of The Meditations, Marcus tells himself to prepare each morning for the day ahead by imagining all sorts of encounters with troublesome individuals while reminding himself “Neither can I be angry with my kinsman nor hate him for we have come into being for cooperation” (2.1).
2. Consider their character as a whole.
Marcus thinks we should imagine the person with whom we’re feeling angry in different situations – eating meals, sleeping, relieving themselves, having sex, etc. We should particularly bear in mind how their opinions and values shape their behavior throughout the day. When we broaden our perspective beyond the behavior that’s annoying us, we tend to dilute our feelings of anger. We also understand their actions better by placing them in a wider context, and to understand all is to forgive all.
3. Nobody does wrong willingly.
This is one of the central paradoxes of Socrates’ philosophy, which greatly influenced the Stoics. Socrates believed that no-one does wrong knowingly. It arguably follows from this that nobody does wrong willingly either. This ancient principle of moral psychology is hard for many people to accept but it’s the basis of Stoic forgiveness and empathy, and a key part of their remedy for anger. Marcus notes that everyone is offended when accused of wrongdoing. Even murderous dictators typically believe that their actions are justified, though they may seem morally egregious to everyone else.
4. Nobody is perfect, yourself included.
It’s hypocrisy to criticize others without recognizing your own imperfections – a double standard. Marcus actually said that when you notice yourself becoming angry with another person you should take it as a signal to pause and examine whether or not you’re guilty of similar, wrong-headed thoughts or actions. Acknowledging our own flaws, and bearing them in mind, can moderate the anger we feel towards others.
5. You can never be certain of other people’s motives.
Marcus had studied jurisprudence and acted as a judge in many legal disputes. He therefore knew very well how difficult it can be to know another person’s intentions. Anger, however, assumes an unwarranted certainty. Keeping an open mind, by contrast, will help weaken these feelings so that we can deal with the situation more calmly and rationally.
6. Remember we all will die.
The Stoics like to remind themselves that all things are transient, nothing lasts forever, including our own lives and those of the people with whom we’re angry. Before long both of you will be dead and the whole thing long forgotten. When we think about the bigger picture, it doesn’t seem worth getting very flustered about other people’s actions.
7. It’s our own judgement that upsets us.
This is perhaps the most famous doctrine of Stoic psychology. It became the philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive psychotherapy, which is based on the principle that our emotions are determined to a large extent by our underlying beliefs (cognitions). Marcus reminds himself that it’s not really the actions of others that make him feel angry but his own opinions about them, more specifically, opinions that are based upon negative value judgements. Noticing this fact alone can weaken the hold that strong emotions have on our mind but it should also encourage us to examine our beliefs and question whether there might be more healthy and constructive perspectives that we could adopt concerning the same situation.
8. Anger does us more harm than good.
This was another very common Stoic technique. Other people’s actions might harm us physically, damage our property, or our reputation. However, anger injures our own moral character. According to the Stoics, therefore, it hurts us much more deeply than another person’s actions ever could. Anger does us more harm, in other words, than the things we’re angry about. Focusing on the negative consequences of our anger can help motivate us to let it go.
9. Nature gave us the virtues to deal with anger.
The Stoics frequently reminded themselves to contemplate how a wise person, such as Socrates, would deal with challenging people or events, and what strengths or virtues he might employ in specific situations. We all have inner resources that can be used to deal more constructively with difficult people, such as the capacity for patience, tolerance, empathy, and kindness. Reminding ourselves of these positive qualities and contemplating how they could be applied, can help us find an alternative to anger, and a better way of coping.
10. It’s madness to expect others to be perfect.
The Stoics were determinists who believed that the wise are seldom shocked because they view whatever happens in life as inevitable. There’s good and bad in the world. Marcus tells himself that “to expect bad people not to do bad things is madness because that is wishing for the impossible.” It’s therefore irrational to act surprised but when we’re angry we say things like “I can’t believe someone would do that!” Marcus thinks that’s naive and foolish. When someone acts in a way that’s objectionable we should tell ourselves that is to be expected from time to time. It’s just a part of life. Acting less shocked makes it easier to respond calmly and rationally to events that might otherwise make us feel enraged and offended.
And so we see that Seneca is likening the idea of nature to an imposing sort of spirituality. This is perhaps unsurprising because as far as the Stoics were concerned, nature was not only related to God, it was synonymous.
We also must understand that the Stoic tenant “live according to nature” not only refers to the divine nature within the universe, but it suggests that we ought to live according to our true human nature, which Seneca believed to be a potentiality for absolute reason.
To further his case, Seneca compares lions submitted to the arena. The first lion is one that has been trained and worn down so as to submit to grooming and pampering.
It enters the arena tame and unimpressive. Then there is another lion who enters the arena whose spirit is unbroken, his mane untrimmed, and his ferocity unfettered.
This final sentiment was most likely mentioned as a way of reflecting on the difficulties that the Stoics encountered when attempting to implement their philosophy within society.