#4: Are You a Born Stoic?
Copyright ©2014 by William B. Irvine
In my Guide to the Good Life, I describe what I call congenital Stoics. These are individuals who, on reading my book or reading the works of the ancient Stoics, discover that they are already practicing Stoicism; they just didn’t realize it. I myself seem to have been a congenital Stoic.
This raises the question of how they came to be Stoics. Did they learn Stoicism from other people, reinvent Stoicism by analyzing human behavior, or were they simply born with Stoic wiring? My initial assumption was that most congenital Stoics had arrived at their Stoicism through a combination of the first two of these approaches: they examined the behavior of the happy individuals they knew, figured out what they were doing right, and started imitating them. This, I think, is what I had done. But on watching the people around me, I also became convinced that there are people who seem to be congenitally un-Stoical. Allow me to explain.
A Stoic, congenital or otherwise, will regard anxiety as a bad thing. He will therefore, in accordance with Epictetus’s advice, refuse to worry about things he can’t control. He will instead focus his attention on the things he can control and will control them to the extent possible. Among these things are his goals and his character.
A Stoic will “deal with” the things he can’t control not by worrying about them but by engaging in what I call negative visualization: he will spend time contemplating the bad things that can happen to him. He might, for example, allow himself to have a flickering thought about how much worse his life would be if he lost a loved one or friend. But he will not spend time worrying about these things, since that would be a pointless waste of time, and as the Stoic Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”
There is a very important difference between contemplating an unfortunate event and worrying about or, even worse, dreading that event. A Stoic will routinely contemplate his own death, but it is an event that he will neither worry about nor dread.
One of the most profound Stoic discoveries was the realization that contemplating the bad things that can happen to us can make us appreciate the things we have. By doing this, it can transform us into individuals who are delighted to be alive. By way of contrast, spending our time worrying about the bad things that can happen to us is a recipe for a miserable existence.
Recent psychological research indicates that some people find it easier to engage in negative visualization—and more generally, to feel optimistic about their life and circumstances—than other people do. This is apparently because of the way their brains are wired.
In that study, summarized here, psychologists first tested 71 women to see whether they tended to think positively or negatively. They were then shown graphic images, such as a knife being held to a woman’s throat, while their brain activity was monitored. They were asked to imagine a positive outcome to the scene shown—that the woman, for example, broke away from the assailant. According to lead investigator Jason Moser, "The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions. This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively."
From this research, Moser doesn’t draw the conclusion that it is impossible for such individuals to become positive thinkers. He does suggest, though, that it will take them more time and energy to achieve what, to many Stoics, comes naturally.
Does this mean that Stoicism isn’t for everyone? Not at all. It means that some people will find it easier to adopt the philosophy than others will. For some people—including, presumably, most congenital Stoics—following the advice of the ancient Stoics will be easy. For other people, it will require conscious effort, and there will be a tendency to backslide. From this, of course, it does not follow that the effort should not be invested.
That said, there are people for whom Stoicism clearly won’t work. Consider a woman who, because she is mentally ill, spends her days gripped with anxiety. The application of Stoicism requires rational capacity which, in a mentally ill person, will be compromised. Consequently, what this woman needs isn’t philosophy but medication.