Stoicism is a school of philosophy that was founded in the third century B.C.E. by Zeno of Cyprus. Today, when most people use the term “stoic,” it's to describe someone who is emotionally reserved, not someone who practices ancient Stoicism. While practitioners of Stoicism do avoid emotional reactivity in favor of rational thinking, there is so much more to this ancient philosophy. Thanks to some lauded practitioners, such as professional football coach Pete Carroll, author and successful investor Tim Ferriss, and ex-prisoner-of-war Vice Admiral James Stockdale, Stoicism is regaining the recognition it deserves.
Unlike much of philosophy, which can be (uncharitably) regarded as an academic self-indulgence, Stoicism is highly actionable and has modernized astoundingly well. Stoicism is founded on assumptions about the world and human condition that remain true: life is unpredictable, and we are frustrated by our inevitable failure to control it.
Given this understanding of the world, scholars of Zeno, such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, offered these three basic strategies for living in harmony with our human nature as rational, social creatures:
- Dichotomy of Control
- Negative Visualization
Dichotomy of Control
One of the central precepts of Stoicism is the “dichotomy of control” (which is a fancy way of saying everything is either in your control, or out of your control). According to Epictetus, “[w]e control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing” (Enchiridion). The implication of the dichotomy of control is that, if something is outside of your control, you shouldn’t worry about it. As Seneca wrote in his letters to Lucilius, “What does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?” Running out to meet your suffering, or suffering before anything bad actually happens, only serves to cause you more anxiety than necessary. Suppose you have broken your leg in a freak upside down hang-gliding accident. If you are anxious about muscle atrophy, worry about it once the cast is off and you are in a position to do something about it, and not a moment sooner. Easier said than done, but the point is to identify what is actually in your control, so that your feelings and actions will best equip you to deal with reality.
In this regard, Stoicism is aligned with modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and The Serenity Prayer, a popular mantra among people in addiction recovery. As we stated in a past blog, “A core idea of CBT is that acting in accordance with reality can help you feel better,” because our brains have a way of systematically distorting how we see the world for the worse. (If you are interested in exploring this relationship more deeply, there is literally a whole book on it: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) by Donald Robertson.)
Another Stoic strategy for overcoming the inevitable misfortunes of life, including everything from bad weather to the loss of a loved one, is Negative Visualization. Negative Visitation is exactly what it sounds like: visualizing all of the way something can go wrong. This may seem in direct contradiction with the earlier advice to never worry about anything outside of your control, but it’s actually not. When a Stoic visualizes the future, they do so to four main effects:
- It makes misfortune less bad because its negative effects aren’t compounded by the element of surprise. If you allow yourself to be sucker-punched, you are much more likely to get knocked down than if you see it coming.
- It gives you an opportunity to judge the probability of unfavorable outcomes without the emotionality of anxiety. This forces you to confront the fact that the worst outcomes are often also the least likely.
- It also reminds you to keep things in perspective. For example, maybe you're worried you'll get food stuck in your teeth during a first date. But someone was willing to go on a date with you in the first place, so even if the date flops, you can try again with someone else.
- You are actually better prepared for the future, because you'll determine what could go wrong and then problem-solve in advance.
Coincidentally, before ever having read the Stoic classics, I was practicing Negative Visualization somewhat routinely in my relationship. My boyfriend and I would sit down and ask, if our relationship were to fail, why would that be? We would then work together to figure out how to prevent that outcome, or at least reduce the probability of it. I can testify that this exercise has always resulted in us feeling more grateful and more motivated to invest in the long-term health and happiness of our relationship.
If you’ve ever asked yourself before a job interview, “I wonder what they might ask me that I wouldn’t have a good answer to?” then you’ve engaged in Negative Visualization too!
One final modern application of this ancient philosophy is “asceticism,” or, more plainly, self-denial. I want to start by saying that Stoics believe in moderation, not total austerity. Here is one of Seneca's perceptions for practicing moderation:
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?"
Letter 18: On Festivals and Fasting
When Tim Ferriss does this, he eats nothing but rice and beans, sleeps on the floor, and wears basic clothes (e.g. jeans and t-shirts) for a few days a month. That way, if by some series of unfortunate events, Tim ever couldn’t afford fancy food, shelter, or clothing, he already knows he has the resilience to survive, even thrive, without those things.
I think this practice is what really sets Stoics apart, because while the dichotomy of control and visualizing misfortune are easy to get on board with, it’s not easy to force yourself to deal with immediately avoidable discomfort. Certainly, stoicism is not for everyone, but you can probably find some area of your life where you are willing to deal with high stress to become stronger. Whether you push yourself in the gym or at the office doesn’t matter, so long as you learn to be confident in your abilities and resilient against hardship in general.
Practiced Stoics see “obstacles as opportunities,” and you can too with the proper guidance. To a Stoic, a broken leg is not an excuse to stop going to the gym, it’s an opportunity to focus on your upper body. Bad weather is not an inconvenience, it’s an opportunity to practice controlling your response to events outside of your control. “Misfortune” is a judgement, not a reality, and the best way to train your mind to understand that distinction is to deliberately expose yourself to discomfort by denying yourself of all things not critical for survival.
If you want to learn more about Stoicism in general, but you’ve been turned off from ancient philosophy by being forced to read Plato and Socrates in high school, consider checking out Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss’s book, The Obstacle Is the Way or else any number of podcasts, youtube videos, or Ted Talks by these same people. Alternatively, if you want to dive head first into more applications of stoic wisdom then I recommend Ryan Holiday’s book The Daily Stoic.
Aurelius, M. (2013). Marcus Aurelius: Meditations (C. Gill, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Epictetus. (n.d.). The Enchiridion (J. Harris, Trans.). Harris Classics.
Holiday, R. (2016). Daily Stoic: 366 meditations on Self-Mastery, perseverance AND wisdom: Featuring new translations of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Penguin Publishing Group.
Irvine, W. B. (2009). A guide to the good life: The ancient art of stoic joy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pigliucci, M., & Lopez, G. (2019). A Handbook for NEW Stoics: How to thrive in a world out of your control: 52 week-by-week lessons. New York: The Experiment.
Robertson, D. (2010). The philosophy of cognitive-behavioural therapy /: Stoic philosophy as rational and cognitive psychotherapy. Finchley Road, London: Karnac Books.
Seneca, L. A. (2014). Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae MORALES ad lucilium (R. Campbell, Trans.). London: Penguin classics.
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Written by Sophie Wright
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