#2: What Stoicism Isn’t
Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine
Stoicism has gotten a bad rap. People think of the Stoics as emotionless beings—as grim, wooden individuals whose goal in life was to stand mutely and take whatever life could throw at them.
As we saw in my previous post, though, this perception is quite mistaken. When we read about the Stoics or read their works, what we encounter are individuals who can best be described as cheerful. They were very good at finding life’s sources of delight and savoring them to the fullest. They had friends and spouses. They were loved and in turn requited the love they received.
It wasn’t emotion that the Stoics were opposed to; it was negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear. They had nothing against positive emotions such as delight and even joy. Thus, the phrase joyful Stoic is not the oxymoron many people take it to be.
Although Stoicism was invented by Zeno of Citium, a Greek, the doctrine was subsequently modified by the Romans, including, most prominently, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus. The writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are not only readily available but can often be found at the top of Amazon’s ancient philosophy best-seller list. The writings of Musonius Rufus used to be difficult to obtain, but my colleague Cynthia King and I tried to remedy that by publishing a translation of them. (Cynthia did the translating; I did the editing and publishing.) It is the writings of the Roman Stoics that I, as a 21st century Stoic, find most useful.
Another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics routinely make reference to the gods in their writing, theirs was a philosophical rather than religious doctrine. Religions are primarily concerned with our having a good afterlife. Stoicism, by way of contrast, is primarily concerned with our having a good life. What Stoicism offers us is a philosophy of life or, as it is sometimes called, a philosophy for living.
In this philosophy, the Stoics tell us what in life is most worth having and provide us with a strategy to obtain it. What is most worth having, they tell us, is tranquility, and what they mean by this is an absence of negative emotions in our life. In their strategy to obtain this tranquility, they provide us with various psychological techniques that I describe in my Guide to the Good Life and that I will expand upon in this blog.
Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.
It is important to realize that Stoicism is not some kind of cult. To practice it, you will not have to turn over your worldly goods to a guru. You will not have to give up your day job. You will not have to dress in an unorthodox manner—although practicing Stoicism, by making you re-evaluate the way you are living, might affect the way you dress. All you have to do to practice Stoicism is put Stoic strategies to work in your life.
And even this can be done in an incremental manner. You can try a strategy and see if it works. If it does, you can move on to the next strategy. If it turns out, though, that Stoicism is not to your liking, you can abandon it. And if you have practiced your Stoicism in a “stealthy” manner—which is what, in my Guide, I recommend that you do—no one need be any the wiser.