Actionable summary: Know what is in your control and not in your control. Pursue wisdom, justice, temperance and courage.
We can do anything we want to do. At least, that’s what we’re taught by schools, the government, the media, and our parents. And it is an inspirational message. It is also a useless one. As adults, we realize that we simply don’t have control over a lot of things. Whether it’s the declining health of your parents, the job offer from that prestigious consulting firm, or the deliberations of your dissertation committee, we can’t do much in these situations. Not to say the outcome of your dissertation defense doesn’t matter, but the goal is to free ourselves from the hold it has on our mind.
For that is the core of Stoicism: know what is in your control and know what is not in your control. This message has been around for a very long time. It’s the underpinning of Cognitive Behavioral Theory. It’s the core idea of the Serenity Prayer. Epictetus stated in The Enchiridion, that
Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
One can let go of the fear and insecurity, for you are only weighted down by the world if you let it.
In Modern Stoicism, the exercises are the focus: think about control, write down your gratitude, Negative Visualization, live as if the worst case scenario happened. These exercises help immensely. However, there is a deeper philosophy behind them. You don’t need to embrace it, but Stoicism is a beautiful philosophy of life, a personal philosophy. Everyone needs a personal philosophy, whether it’s Cynicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Epicureanism. For they help us in three ways: what to prioritize, how to interpret things, and how to behave. “A man’s gotta have a code,” as a famous philosopher once stated.
Virtue is a core idea in Stoicism. What does it mean to be virtuous? Ah, a good question! The Stoics know what isn’t virtuous (but not necessarily harmful). Wealth. Power. Fame. They would label those as indifferents. There are even preferred indifferents (e.g., children, a good education, health)! Their commonality is that they have no intrinsic moral value. The Stoics have a pithy saying, “Virtue is to live according to nature.” What do you mean “according to nature?”, you may ask. Ah, I must admit that this is a slippery concept for me. I interpret it as meaning as living and growing into an excellent human being, the way we were meant to be. Most of us have a sense of what is an excellent human being. Someone wise, benevolent, fair, and disciplined.
Why did I choose this personal philosophy? Because I’m more of a pragmatist. Because sooner or later I needed to confront my emotions. I needed to make them lead me towards eudaimonia, or self-actualization, rather than destruction. Emotions are not intrinsically bad; they can be a useful tool. But we must clearly judge them. In the sciences, we face a great many challenges: from the cripplingly long hours to the existential dread of grants. Stoicism allows us to be the calm port in the middle of a storm. In a sense, Stoicism and science have the same goals: to truly understand ourselves and the word around us.
Some useful websites: