A Primer on Philosophical Stoicism
It might sound strange to look at a philosophy from 3 centuries BC for a way to strengthen our minds and our spirit, but in an age where social media has validated our ability to get wrapped up in our own sufferings, Stoicism provides some very reasoned wisdom in coping with hardships in our lives.
In fact the reason Stoicism is having something of a resurgence in popularity is very likely a reaction to modern living.
Our society has become increasingly sensitive to stress, in many ways for the better. Therapy is an invaluable tool. Being able to feel connected by sharing our sufferings with others online enables us to not feel alone. We're increasingly confident in revealing what troubles us, and venting and complaining to those around us.
In many ways that is all great. When we have an issue we cannot handle ourselves, it is wise to seek help. But to some extent the more our society encourages to feel free to express what we're feeling, the more we also feel validated in our suffering. We're more likely to complain about the trivial things. We vent about the most minor suffering.
This is where Stoicism comes in.
What is Stoicism?
At its most basic Stoicism is about calm rational acceptance. It shares a lot in common with mindfulness and zen in that way, but in the modern age has lost most sense of spirituality.
According to Wikipedia the beginnings of Stoicism centered around teachings that "destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature."
What this can be broken down to mean is that when we become stressed about our lives, we feel that because we have an incorrect assumption about the level of control we have on the world around us, and an inability to accept that lack of control.
A Stoic instead seeks to accept that which presents adversity as part of nature and the natural world. A part of life.
A Stoic does not raise their voice in anger. They do not become angry. They do not dwell in sadness. They accept what has occurred, and they act.
Sounds like good stuff right?
Well first, before you get too excited, let's break down some potential downsides.
Stoicism Is Not Escape
Stoicism's flaw is its susceptibility to abuse. If you are the type of person to feel helpless, or the type to give up, you have to be very careful to be realistic about what you can and cannot change.
It's one thing to accept that someone backed into your car and that anger will not change the situation. It's a whole different thing, and an abuse of the idea, if you 'accept' things like 'I am just not lucky, I don't have a chance in the workforce', or 'I'm a lazy person so I should accept that I miss bills'.
Our ability to self-deceive is powerful, and we have to work hard to be sure we don't let ourselves fall into the trap of 'accepting' things and claiming they are outside our control when they truly are, in order for Stoicism to be of use to us.
The Core Ideas of Stoicism
Meditation and self control are central aspects of Stoicism. Accepting what life throws at you is no simple task. It requires constant control of your mind, and being able to wrestle with your desire to become angry or sad when life gives you a result you did not anticipate.
With each trouble, you must be able to remind yourself that what is done is done, and you can only change what happens beyond the present moment.
Meditation can build this discipline. For a guide to getting started with Mindfulness Meditation, check out our guide on the NeuroBlog.
To some extent Stoicism is about the concept of living in harmony with the world. Not resisting that which is "natural". Not in a biological sense, but knowing that all occurrences are natural results of the actions that came before. The next big principle helps explain this.
ToThe Stoics believe in fate, spiritual or not. That life is going to be the way it is going to be, and fighting against that is what causes us pain and strife. Whether you personally believe in fate or not, try not to get hung up on the word.
The point is that if it has already happened, move on. That's the way it was determined to be by the actions that preceded it.
Stoicism is not a philosophy that is about social constructs. It is pretty exclusively an individual practice. Ideally people don't even know you're a stoic, they just have a sense that you have your sh*t together.
That's where the discipline comes in. As a stoic you do not complain about trivial issues, unless some good can come from the discussion. Do not complain, but explain.
This is about becoming a strong individual person. Someone who, when friends or family fail, stands strong doing what they believe is right without becoming beaten down. This is not a philosophy that seeks a shoulder to cry on, but seeks to become free of the urge to cry.
More on Stoicism
To learn more about Stoicism, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is seen to be the prime work of Stoic philosophy.
The Art of Manliness also features tons of articles that while not necessarily directly addressing Stoicism, do write extensively on the topics of standing tall in the face of adversity and being a moral, upstanding, and unshakeable person. Ladies, do not be afraid, the title of the blog may be off putting but it's really just all about building personal character. Feel free to skip the articles on moustache maintenance.
That's it from me, if you're interested in the concept of Stoicism get out there, watch some videos, and read some knowledge. Brace yourself for the unknown.