This is the first in a series of posts focusing on positive techniques for keeping our heads screwed on straight in troubled times. Growing food, doing stuff with your hands, drinking homebrew with friends–all these kinds of things help keep us grounded and hopeful. But sometimes you need a little more help. Maybe we’ll call these posts “When chickens aren’t enough.”
Whether the world is ending or not, it’s important to have a tool kit for dealing with stress and anxiety. Stoicism, an ancient form of philosophy which has not been too popular of late, but which did have a profound influence on Western thought, and which is refreshingly practical and straightforward, is an excellent addition to your own personal tool kit. I like it so much, I’m calling for a revival!
You might remember this Stoic flowchart below from an earlier post of ours. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but it gives you the gist:
I was introduced to stoicism by Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan (nothing to do with the movie!). Taleb says, “My idea of the modern stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” The stoic learns from mistakes and practices tranquility of mind in the face of chaos.
Stoicism originates with the Greek philosopher Zeno around 308 B.C., but its two most readable proponents are Romans: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. While most contemporary academic philosophers churn out impenetrable, naval gazing prose, the stoics, in contrast, are eminently approachable. Seneca, in particular, is a great read. His Letters From a Stoic and Moral Essays Volumes I and II, are eloquent and practical guides to how to live a rewarding life. And they are a great comfort in times of distress or uncertainty.
Stoicism is often misunderstood as being a cold or glum. This is far from the case. Taleb says,
Recall that epic heroes were judged by their actions, not by the results. No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word…..There is nothing wrong and undignified with emotions—we are cut to have them. What is wrong is not following the heroic or, at least, the dignified path. That is what stoicism truly means. It is the attempt by man to get even with probability…..stoicism has rather little to do with the stiff-upper-lip notion that we believe it means…..The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life’s gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life’s dirty tricks.
Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion and is, in my opinion, compatible with all faiths (Seneca, in particular, influenced early Christian thought) as well as being suitable for atheists and agnostics. And in some ways stoicism resembles a Western form of Buddhism.
Let’s give the last word on stoicism to Seneca himself. Whether we face a long emergency, sudden collapse or many more years of prosperity, I can think of no better guidance than the wisdom of the stoics. Seneca says,
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.
In this age of me-centric Facebook updates, we we have a lot to learn from Seneca’s wisdom.
If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor, if you live according what others think, you will never be rich.
I recommend beginning with Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic–-short concise essays that offer a great introduction to stoicism. All of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are available online for free, but I’m partial to the Loeb Classical Library editions. They are beautiful little books which feature the original Latin or Greek on one side and English on the other. I also recommend Seneca’s Moral Essays Volumes I and II.
Philosophy professor William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is also a nice introduction to the practical application of stoicism to modern life.