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Travis Hume (Applying Stoicism)
Communities and Collections

The Stoics maintained that to achieve enduring peace and happiness we must carefully balance our approach to things outside our minds (i.e., our choices, desires, fears, judgments, impulses). For example, as far as we are simply living, physical beings, its appropriate to appreciate the advantages of things such as health and wealth, but it isn't appropriate to depend our peace of mind upon their being there. Taken too far, and appreciation can change imperceptibly into a dependence; putting us under undue influence by others. Likewise, its appropriate to try to avoid disadvantages such as poverty and sickness, but it isn't appropriate to do so with the mindset of avoiding it at all costs, due to similar risks.

There are examples too numerous to mention of incredibly powerful and wealthy persons that were nevertheless considered miserable and restless, past and present. Despite having everything most could hope for, including the means to avoid or postpone frightening things, it still proves to be not enough. Why is this? Its because we (humans) are not simply living, physical beings.

We are capable of reason, and reason entails that we do much more than simply strategize to avoid mental and physical pains or pursue satiety and pleasure as means and circumstances allow. Reason prompts us towards Virtue, and disinclines us towards Vice, and in so doing, provides constant opportunity to develop; only when our reasoning ability is misapplied to serve our preferences do we suffer instead.

Service roles sometimes require helping those that may see us as obstacles at best. Though they may raise their voices, use vulgar language, or become belligerent, we are at the very least guided by the framework of those roles in the form of policies and procedures. As practicing Stoics, we are aiming to do more than simply endure and address this treatment: our goal is to turn something deeply unpleasant into material for peace and understanding.

Consider that each person necessarily behaves according to what they consider to be good or evil; if these judgments change, their choices change likewise. So long as it appears best to a person to behave in such-and-such-a-way, they will continue to do so unless they become convinced that its no longer beneficial, or there is a better way. If our intentions are appropriate, and our own behavior is philosophically consistent, we can serve as a model for that change.

"This person is behaving this way because it seems best to them. Their words are sound and air, and aren't damaging unless I assert them to be. They aren't upset at me directly, however it appears; to them, I likely represent something that is getting in their way. If I react in the way they expect (and possibly hope for), by also becoming agitated, I am giving them undue influence over my mind, sacrificing an opportunity for my own growth, and failing to help them through force of example."

"The first duty of a philosopher is to cast off self conceit; it is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows. When we go to a philosopher’s lecture, we go filled with our own arguments, but our purpose in going is to learn new principles that we think we don’t know.

We want to learn what philosophers talk about, some because they wish to be considered witty and others because they seek to profit from them. It is absurd to think that a man will learn anything except what he wants to learn or that he will make progress in anything if he does not learn.

Our knowledge and use of words and ideas is often misleading, yet unless we all use words in the same manner we will be talking at cross purposes as rhetoric teaches the sophists. How can we possibly adjust our primary conceptions to match the appropriate facts without articulating them both clearly and arranging the facts with our conceptions?

Say Plato makes his definition of “good” conform to the concept of “useful” while you make your definition conform to “useless.” Can you both be right? Another makes his “good” apply to “wealth,” and another to “beauty,” to “pleasure” or “health.” Are they all right? If we all used terms correctly and expressed our thoughts well there would be better understanding and fewer criticisms, quarrels and wars.

If you wish for nothing but what Zeus wills, which is sure to occur, then no one can hinder you, no one compel you; you will be as free as Zeus himself. You students who relate your dreams to one another and then return to your habitual behavior, the same old will to get the same to avoid. What have you learned?

We must discard the self deception that we know anything useful before we can approach philosophy as we approach any other study, with an open and eager mind. How else can we progress?"

- Epictetus, The Discourses, Book II, 17

Should something unexpected and unfortunate happen, without a clear cause or a resolution, it would be in our best interests to exercise immediate, continuous control over our thoughts. Tell yourself the truth: "This is an impression, and may not at all be what it appears to be. Even if it were, I should call to mind the innumerable people that have experienced similar, either enduring and moving beyond it, or in the end having no more consideration for it after their passing.

The circumstances that lead to this situation, as well as the situation itself, occurred for how long without my knowledge? - Yet I wasn't impacted until I became aware of it; the only difference or change being my judgment. Does it benefit or befit me in any way as a Stoic to give in to the impression that this is something evil? If I can overcome this AND (to the best of my ability) turn these events around, I will; but I should take great care to remind myself that overcoming this is within my power, while turning these events around depends on more than just my initiatives."

The very first impressions of something that seems terrible are the most severe, which is why it is critical in the opening moments of an event to philosophically "hold your ground" and address it.

It isn't necessary to be at the mercy of each person or event that confronts us. We have the capability to see to the core of each external thing and dispel notions of desire and fear associated with them. The more extreme the happening, of course, the more vicious or enticing the situation(s) may be. Yet, in the given moment, once we acknowledge that we alone are ultimately responsible for our own good or evil, the illusions lose their power. We are then free to be acting - instead of merely reacting - agents. It is not up to us how things may ultimately turn out, preferred or otherwise, regardless of the full weight of our efforts.

We may make reasonable preparations and take careful courses of action, but we are not the sole drivers - we are one source of causes among many. Yet this isn't a cause for despair, resignation, or sadness; quite the opposite. When we can (paraphrasing Marcus Aurelius) "See things with sober eyes, like one waking up and seeing the dream for what it was," we are able to concentrate more fully and accurately on philosophically consistent behavior. If we want unshaken, enduring peace and happiness, it will only come within, and by these efforts.

"Will you not be patient with persons who err in small or large things? Will you not be patient with your own brother, a son of Zeus and born of the same seed as you? See yourself, you have been appointed to a superior place and straight away you have become a despot! ..."
- Book I, 13

"If the greatest harm that can befall a man is the loss of what is best in him, and right moral purpose is his best, isn’t it enough for a man to lose his moral purpose without incurring your anger besides? Would you punish the blind for not seeing? Pity him, but do not be offended or angered. ..."
- Book I, 18

"... Man’s nature is such that he cannot bear to be deprived of what is good and he cannot bear to be involved in evil. So long as you place your good outside of yourself, you will be faced with obstacles you cannot alter or overcome and will live with frustration and disappointment to no purpose."
- Book I, 27

- Epictetus, The Discourses

We may reach a point in our lives where many preferable things seem to be happening to us. We may find ourselves in conditions many would say are "good." Stoicism not only stresses to be mindful of its principles and practices when in a "bad place" or worse, but also when we happen to be in a "good place." When left unchecked, as they concern external things, the sentiments of fear and anxiety incline us away, while sentiments of desire and pleasure incline us toward. We can easily become quietly subverted by desires towards external things through inaction to examine and contend with those feelings as they come about.

Appreciating something preferable for the time we have it can easily feed vices if we take for granted that our preferences are under control. When this awareness is maintained, we will be able to anticipate and blunt fear and anxiety if or when our "good fortune" suddenly changes; something that would otherwise be far more grievous to our state of mind due to being both potent and something no longer properly prepared for. Paraphrasing Marcus Aurelius, this mindset is key to "being able to live well, even when in a Palace."

The behavior of every person is driven by what they believe is good (helpful) or bad (harmful) to them. If they believe that someone or something is an obstacle or responsible for an obstacle that prevents them from getting something "good," or helps them avoid something "bad," they will necessarily feel inclined to rail against it. The opposite is also true: if someone or something appears to be or appears to promise something "good," or help to avoid something "bad," they're inclined to praise it.

When externals are categorized into "good" or "bad," the behavior of the person changes based on their perception of the circumstances; sometimes rapidly, and many times. The circumstances themselves don't change however, no matter how many persons perceive them, or how many times, or how often the perception of those persons change in regard to them. This shows that the only variable in any given circumstance is a person's own judgments; the same judgments that inform behavior.

When we see another person behaving erratically or angrily over what appears to us to be inconveniences (towards us or towards others), we should quickly remind ourselves of the thought process that leads a person to behave in that way; that "this is how it appears to them, and at this moment they view me as an impediment in some way. They don't understand that i'm a friend by Nature, and they have no chance of that understanding if I react in kind."

For the time that we are here, in many of our waking moments, we will be confronted with any number of situations we would prefer to avoid, in conjunction with those we would prefer not to associate with. Stoicism suggests we deliberately maintain a careful balance between public engagement and private self-care.

We should want to place ourselves in positions that provide chances to exercise our skills as practicing Stoics, and this can commonly be accomplished through conventional jobs/careers; cautious all the while that we don't permit the poor behaviors or habits of others to confuse this effort.

Its prudent to take time away from the crowd when able and as needed (e.g. during short/lunch breaks) to reorient, consider choices made until that point in the day, take note of what may happen during the remainder, and prepare your responses. If you can maintain this state of inner care throughout the majority of the day and to its end, missteps included, you've made progress.

Paraphrasing Epictetus, "do not suffer a hundred blows only to give in to the last one."

"Everywhere and always it is in your power to adapt to the present condition, to behave justly to those about you and apply your skill to your thoughts so that nothing may steal into them without being well examined."

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Bk. VII, 54
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