Today we are going to start off with one of the most important tenets of Stoicism… but before we do, a quick historical recap for those just joining us.
Stoicism is a brand of philosophy that focuses almost exclusively on the areas of ethics, virtues, and the very difficult task of living a good life. Stoicism as a way of life would originate in Greece, as most philosophy does, in the later years of the Hellenistic age and would gain momentum right up to the height of the Roman Empire.
The founder was Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher who began his lecturing days not long after the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE. While Zeno was the founder of the Stoicism, he is often eclipsed by some of the more prolific stoic authors. Among these are Epictetus, Seneca the younger, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
While the lessons from Stoicism will pop up a few times in the classics challenge, this one is perhaps the most important one to start with…
You may know it as the Serenity Prayer, now popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs:
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.
What is interesting is that it almost perfectly summarizes our first rule of stoicism. The first thing we have to do is recognize what we have control over and what we do not.
Let’s say you are stuck in traffic, the cars are stacked one on top of the other for miles. Now, you could very easily become disheartened by such a situation. Perhaps the stress could get to you and you could start tearing out your hair. But now let’s ask another question.
Do you really have any control over the traffic?
Of course you do not. There is nothing in your power that you can do. You cannot split the traffic as if you were Moses splitting the Red Sea. You cannot fly out your window and escape I 95. We must recognize that the situation is out of our hands, there is nothing to be done.
We can apply this principle to all sorts of things. Whenever you are in a stressful situation, we must ask if we have any meaningful control. The answer, very often, is no.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus said as much as this within his Discourses. The philosopher suggests that much of our anxiety stems from our desire to have things that are not within our power to give.
“A lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power.” -Epictetus (Discourses)
So we are often wracked by anxiety when encountering situations whose outcome we cannot control. Will we ever escape the gridlock on the freeway? Will the lute player receive an applause after playing the lute?
We don’t know. More importantly, we can’t know. All we can do is manage our reactions and maintain our stoic demeanor. Oh, and we could just try to play the lute as best we can. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen.
Again, in the words of Epictetus:
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us [eph’ hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
So for yourself, take a moment to analyze what you have don’t have control over, and find ways to accept that…as well as the things you can change and alter (and remember, that includes your reactions to things outside of your control).