Misconceptions about Stoicism

Stoicism is a somewhat familiar idea to most people. It's usually characterized as a from of emotional dishonesty, where you put on a brave face, or further to the extreme, deny yourself the ability to feel. My parents were very much of the former school of thought, which may be why Stoicism sits fairly comfortably with me.

In truth though, both of those ideas are antithetical to true Stoicism, although when you read the Stoic 'masters', it's easy to see how people could come away with the wrong idea. In this post I'll go through some common misconceptions and attempt to use them as a way to explain what Stoicism is really about.

Brief History

Stoicism originated with the Greeks, but was taken on with gusto by the Romans, which is where most modern practitioners take their lead from. The three most well known Roman Stoics are Epictetus, a freed slave; Seneca, a businessman, politician and royal adviser; and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor. Their writings make up the core of Roman Stoicism.

Core ideas

Somewhat surprisingly, the aim of practicing Stoicism is to increase the joy that we can experience. The method to achieve this is to "rid ourselves of negative emotions". Phrased like this (as it often is), it's easy to see how the reputation of emotional dishonesty might be accurate. But the devil, and in this case I think, the beauty, is in the details.

The Stoics do not advocate pretending that negative emotions do not exist, nor do they think it likely that anyone will achieve a level of mastery where they are no longer affected by them. Instead, they provide a framework for dealing with negative emotions which allows you to exercise some control over the extent to which they effect your life.

The single core principle of Stoicism is that we can maximize our joy by focusing our attention on things that are fully within our control. Inbuilt into this is the idea that we as adults can reason about our emotions, and take some measures to influence them. Virtually every other Stoic lesson is an extension or example of this principle. As a practicing Stoic then, one should split every situation they encounter into components that are either fully in one's control, or not. Irvine calls this the dichotomy of control.

Here's an example: you've just stared a new job, and it's going to be intellectually challenging for you to get up to speed. It's quite normal for you to be nervous about impressing your new boss and teammates, and to worry that you will fall short. A Stoic would advise you to apply the dichotomy of control: can you fully control what your boss or teammates think of you? No. Can you fully control how quickly you pick up the work? No. Can you fully control the focus and effort you make to get up to speed? Yes, so that should be your focus.

This change of focus, from external to internal, has several benefits. Firstly, it allows you to base your self-judgement on something you can change. If your new boss just happens to be hard to please, that won't interfere with your happiness. Secondly, you will likely perform at a higher level because you're freeing yourself of the doubt and distraction that comes from trying to please others, giving you more time to focus on what's important. Thirdly, a likely (though unintended, and out of your control) consequence is that you will impress these people, because you are able to perform at a higher level.

Misconception 1: Hiding emotions

Stoics can appear to be putting on a "brave face", but in truth they are more likely to have reasoned about the situation they are facing, and chosen to focus on what they can control. In the example above, the new employee isn't hiding her nervousness: she's is minimizing or eliminating it.

Of course not all, or even most, emotions can be completely reasoned away. We all experience fears and doubts, and while the Stoicism gives us a framework to deal with them, it does not expect us to hide those that we cannot reason away.

It does have some advice on who to share your feeling with, however. Seneca advises that you should be comfortable telling a true friend anything that is in your heart. When it comes to public displays of emotion, Stoics would ask: why are you doing this? Is it to gain sympathy? If so, that is something that's out of your control, and so shouldn't be your focus.

Conversely, if you are hiding your emotions to save face, this is also an attempt to control what others think of you, and is likewise a bad idea.

In general, the Stoics preach the value of honesty, particularly to yourself, but also to others. There is no need to seek attention by sharing your distress, but if someone you trust asks you, there is also no reason to hide.

Misconception 2: Seeing the worst in everything

This misconception has a very solid basis in Stoic teaching, although that teaching seems to be misunderstood. The Stoics encourage us to focus on possible negative outcomes as a way to inoculate us if they should occur, and to help us appreciate what we have right now. This seems a little counter-intuitive, so here's an example.

When you watch a film where the focus is on the main character losing a loved one, do you walk away thinking about how lucky you are to have your loved ones? Does it heighten your sense of appreciation, make your love feel more immediate, more intense, more real? It certainly does for me.

The Stoics want us to tap into this, and include it in our daily lives. It's not, as the stereotype goes, about focusing on the bad, it's about being honest with ourselves about what can happen to us, and using that realisation to help us be present and connected.

Misconception 3: Lying to yourself

I mentioned before that there is the perception that Stoics lie to themselves about their emotions. I also mentioned that in reality, Stoicism places on heavy emphasis on truth. Rather than pretending that negative emotions don't exist, Stoics go to great lengths to analyse and contemplate their emotions and the truth of their lives.

As an example of self-truth (and also inoculating against the bad), I regularly tell myself: "one day, either through my death or theirs, I won't have Ange and the boys in my life. The boys may not want to speak with me often or at all when they grow up. They may not group up at all." It hurts, but it's the truth, and it helps me to appreciate them while I have them.

Every night as I'm going to bed, I go over the day in my head, and think of times that day where I felt badly. That is, situations in which I either didn't appply Stoic practice, or where it didn't work particularly well. Then I reason about what I could have done to deal with the situation differently: where was my focus? On what I control, or on what I do not? How could I shift that focus?

I also take the time to think about where I did apply reason successfully. This can be a really pleasing time, realising that I have successfully taken control of a situation that had the potential to disrupt my joy.


There's a lot more to Stoicism than I've covered here. Things get particularly interesting when it comes to wealth and civic duty. Maybe I'll write about those later, when I have a better grasp of them.

I've been reading the 3 Romans on and off for a year or so, after starting with Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life. Epictetus in particular resonates with me: he's concise, witty, and not afraid to use hyperbole or scathing judgments. I'm working my way through Seneca's Letters, which is much more verbose, but also softer and gentler than the more extreme Epictetus. Meditations I struggle with: Marcus is like a prototypical blogger, with ideas thrown on the page willy nilly. There's some good one-liners in there though.

Perhaps it's because of my pseudo-Stoic family traditions, but I've found in Stoicism a philosophy that sits comfortably with me. It has a surprising amount of overlap with Buddhism (particularly with regard to wealth and attachment to the transient), which I always wanted to like, but couldn't quite get the feel for. I'm still very much a beginner - my reason fails me much more often than not - but I'm starting to claw back some of the natural resilience, patience and strength that I had as a young adult, before life got... complicated.

References

  1. William Irvine: A Guide to the Good Life
  2. Epictetus: Discourses incl The Enchiridion
  3. Seneca: Letters from a Stoic
  4. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
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