Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches us how to live a flourishing, equanimous life. Sometimes you’ll hear people say that it will make you “happy”, but that’s not quite accurate considering the way that many people define happiness nowadays. They think that material things will bring them long term happiness. Stoicism disagrees.
The philosophy originated in ancient Greece, spread to Rome, and is now experiencing something of a resurgence in Western culture. My first introduction to it was through the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine. I’m not going to go into the history of Stoicism or put much of a dent in the philosophy here. I am going to introduce you to (or maybe remind you of) one of the basic tenets of Stoicism. It’s the one that I think has helped me the most. Maybe it will help you too.
Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things under our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; while the things not under our control are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember, therefore, that if what is naturally slavish you think to be free, and what is not your own to be your own, you will be hampered, will grieve, will be in turmoil, and will blame both gods and men; while if you think only what is your own to be your own, and what is not your own to be, as it really is, not your own, then no one will ever be able to exert compulsion upon you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, will find fault with no one, will do absolutely nothing against your will, you will have no personal enemy, no one will harm you, for neither is there any harm that can touch you.
With such high aims, therefore, remember that you must bestir yourself with no slight effort to lay hold of them, but you will have to give up some things entirely, and defer others for the time being. But if you wish for these things also, and at the same time for both office and wealth, it may be that you will not get even these latter, because you aim also at the former, and certainly you will fail to get the former, which alone bring freedom and happiness.
Make it, therefore, your study at the very outset to say to every harsh external impression, “You are an external impression and not at all what you appear to be.” After that examine it and test it by these rules which you have, the first and most important of which is this: Whether the impression has to do with the things which are under our control, or with those which are not under our control; and, if it has to do with some one of the things not under our control, have ready to hand the answer, “It is nothing to me.”
Here’s a simplified version of this idea, courtesy of Lifehacker (Stoicism isn’t mentioned in the article, but I think it fits well):
It is also expressed quite nicely in the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:
Grant me the serenity
To accept the things that I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Do what you can about what you can, and forget the rest. When you come across something that you can’t do anything about, think of it Westworld style:
- An excellent mini introduction to Stoicism can be found in this video.
- Wikipedia is a good starting point for a detailed history.
- Massimo Pigliucci and Donald Robertson are my favorite modern Stoic philosophers.
- I little while back, I wrote about my own experiences with Stoicism and mental health.
I’ll be adding more about Stoicism to the maybethiswillhelp.me project, so stay tuned!