In the words of Jim Anchower, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. For the past three years I’ve been trying to put my best library-related stuff into my Library Journal column, and the pressure of trying to come up with interesting stuff every month wore me out some. Since February I’ve been out of the rotation for the Peer to Peer Review column, and for the last three months have used the time I might have spent thinking about and writing that column reading philosophy and the occasional mystery novel. The publication of a blog post about avoiding library burnout from Letters to a Young Librarian gave me the incentive to write a bit about what I’ve been reading.
The past few years I’ve been reading a lot about Stoicism, both the existing writings of the Stoics themselves–Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius–as well as a number of secondary books on Stoicism (I’ve included a selection at the end for anyone interested in further reading). Last summer I intensified that reading, and for the past few months have been trying to practice some form of modern Stoicism. Currently, I’m participating in a Stoic Mindfulness course online and am enjoying it. I also joined a Facebook Stoicism group. I don’t know about avoiding librarian burnout, but I do think that some Stoic practices help dealing with stress at work and what Sartre called the hell of other people.
First, a bit about what Stoicism is and isn’t about. I looked up the Merriam Webster definition of a stoic, which is supposedly “a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” Well, sort of. But just as the philosophy of Epicurus has nothing inherently related to enjoying fine food and drink, the contemporary definition of “stoic” has only a partial relation to either classical or modern Stoicism.
Put simply, Stoics seek a flourishing life devoted to human excellence, living according to our nature as rational and social animals, practicing the virtues of courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. There are several Stoic beliefs and practices that form a system. Bits of the system can certainly be used effectively without accepting the whole, and I’m going to give a brief summary of the some of the major parts as I understand them.
1) There are things that are within our control and things that are not, and we should concern ourselves only with the things within our control.
In our control are our own beliefs, emotions, and actions. Not in our control are events that happen to us, the actions of other people, and what Stoics sometimes sum up as our health, wealth, and reputation. Now, it might seem like some of that is within our control. For example, our health. People try to eat healthy and exercise, and this gives them some control over their health. That’s fine for a Stoic to do. But if I have a terminal disease, there’s really not a lot I can do about it other than suffer through it or commit suicide if the pain gets too bad. And, ultimately, I will die, which is perfectly natural and nothing I can control. Since I can’t control it, I won’t worry about it.
I can’t control events that happen to me, only the way I respond. So, yes, a Stoic “accepts what happens,” but only in the sense that Stoics accept that things happen they can’t control and work to not get upset or angry over those things because to do so is pointless. People can try to control events and can even have some success, but eventually they will reach a barrier they can’t cross. If there’s something I’d like a colleague to do for me, I can ask nicely, I can plead, I can angrily demand, but I can’t force the person to do anything. Likewise with my reputation. I can try to do my best at things, but I can’t control what other people think of me, so I try not to worry about it. I want to worry only about my own choices and actions, since those are the only things I control. I have no control over the past, so I shouldn’t worry about it. I can only control how I act going forward.
2) It’s not things that bother us, but our judgment about things.
This famous line from Epictetus strikes me as a truism, but is apparently one of the hardest things for people to accept. If someone does something and I become angry, that anger is all in my head. It doesn’t somehow inhere in the action of the other person. People can’t “make me angry,” I can only choose to become angry over their actions, which is completely different. If you believe people “make” you angry, you believe they can control your mind. I don’t believe that. This is easily demonstrable if I’m the only one angry. (I use anger as an example because that has always been my most deadly sin.) Adam Smith observed that if we see other people angry we rarely get as angry on their behalf, and indeed might find their anger unseemly. Stoics believe that we should look at events almost as if we were other people, to take the “view from above.” If the same event wouldn’t anger or sadden others, then the anger and sadness are all ours. Anger in particular harms the angry person more than anyone else. Nobody cares about your anger, except perhaps to know when you’re angry so as to avoid you. As La Rochefoucauld noted, we all have the strength to bear other people’s problems.
3) Take a mental step back from events and examine them as they are before applying a value judgment.
As Pierre Hadot reads Epictetus and Marcus, this is part of the “discipline of assent.” An event happens, say, someone makes a remark about me. Maybe a fellow librarian calls me “fatty, fatty four eyes” in an attempt to anger me. The event itself is that someone said something about me. Whether I believe the person thereby harmed me or not is a value judgment that I apply, usually almost instantaneously. I “assent” (apply a value judgment) to the “impression” of the remark (in Stoic jargon). But with practice it’s possible to mentally step back and consider the situation. Has that person really harmed me? Stoics believe that rude or insulting people are in fact harming themselves by making themselves more vicious. Vice-ridden people who can’t control their actions are like children who haven’t learned to behave properly. Mentally, I might say to myself, “do the actions of rude children warrant my anger or my pity?” Someone else might try to insult me doing what they can control, but I’m only insulted if I choose to find the remark insulting. With a lot of practice, that’s within my control.
4) Act justly for the common good.
This is part of the “discipline of action.” Instead of always considering myself above and before other people, I should try to think more universally. Despite the irrational misanthropy of some people, human beings are social animals and are born into the world dependent on other people. The Stoic philosopher Heirocles conceived of a circle of concern, and Stoics practice to extend that circle of concern steadily outwards from themselves, to their friends and family, fellow citizens, and eventually to everyone in the world. Stoics were the first cosmopolitans, citizens of the world. Check out this panoramic view of the Andromeda galaxy, a 61,000-light-year stretch of the galaxy nearest ours of the 100 billion galaxies in universe. Think about how insignificant our lives and concerns are from a universal perspective. Think also that most people, just like you, act in a way they believe is good and believe things they they believe are right. Think of all that humans have in common, including their ultimate death and insignificance from a cosmic standpoint. And then ask yourself why your selfish concerns are somehow more important than everyone else’s in the world.
5) Learn to desire that things you can’t control happen as they do.
This one’s really hard, the “discipline of desire.” Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus are explicit that our lives will be happiest if we not just grudgingly accept things that happen beyond our control, but learn to desire that they happen as they do. Nietzsche wrote about the “eternal return,” and asked how we would feel if we knew we would live the same life over and over again and things would always happen as they do now. His life-affirming answer was amor fati, the “love of fate.” Stoics also try not to be averse to things happening they can’t control. Many, perhaps most, people fear death. But for the Stoic, death is nothing to be afraid of or avoid. We all die. It’s natural. We can’t avoid death. We can only control the way in which we deal with it. Stoics practice doing this by imagining things happen that ordinarily one might consider bad, such as the death of a loved one, and trying to emotionally deal with the impermanence of the world. Confer a line from the movie Gladiator, where Maximus is (supposedly) quoting Marcus: “Death smiles on us all. All a person can do is smile back.” Or an actual quote from Marcus: “The universe is change. Life is opinion.”
6) Cultivate apatheia.
The Stoics, like all ancient philosophers, had a goal of eudaimonia, sometimes translated as happiness but perhaps best translated as a “good life,” or a “flourishing life.” This isn’t to be confused with “the good life” in the sense of having wealth or possessions or infinite leisure, as some people use the phrase, because Stoics are indifferent to wealth. You can achieve eudaimonia whether you’re rich or poor. The chief difference of the Stoics was their desire for apatheia, which shouldn’t be confused with apathy. Whereas the Epicureans sought ataraxia (tranquility), the Stoics sought apatheia (“without suffering”; equanimity). It’s not all emotions that Stoics shun, but only the pathological ones, the ones that make us suffer, such as anger, extreme grief, depression, and anxiety. Good emotions, on the contrary, should be cultivated along with apatheia: love, joy, etc.
7) Be here and now.
There’s a lot of popular writing in the west extolling Buddhist mindfulness, which I’m all for (and heartily recommend this book, which is a sort of translation and commentary on the Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutta). But there’s also a western tradition of mindfulness. Roman Stoics had the phrase hic et nunc, “here and now.” Be always mindful of what you’re doing and of what’s happening to you. Monitor your responses to outside events, and to make sure you’re responding appropriately, not with knee-jerk emotions. Stay aware that you’re doing what you should be doing, and not lost in worries or ruminations about things you can’t control. It’s the hardest easy practice anyone will likely ever try.
8) Meditate on your actions.
Another parallel with Buddhism is Stoic meditation, but instead of meditating silently trying to empty the mind, to have a “mind like dead ashes,” Stoics meditate upon their forthcoming activities (in the morning) and their actions of the day (in the evening). Marcus wrote that he awoke and reminded himself that he has the work of a human being to do, and he wasn’t made so that he could lie in bed under warm covers all day. A warm bed on a cold morning is one of my favorite things, and during the winter I often reminded myself of Marcus’ pep talk. Wake up. Review what you have to do. Some of it might be difficult. You’ll encounter heavy traffic or unpleasant people. Think about it all beforehand and imagine dealing with it all with equanimity. Practice in your imagination the way you’ll want to respond when things happen.
In the evening, review your actions. Were you rude to someone? Did you get angry when someone cut you off in traffic? (I should note that my workplace and home life are fairly peaceful, and I find myself struggling with apatheia the most when I’m commuting.) Is there anything left undone that you should have done? Did you do everything as well as you could, and if not, could you do better tomorrow?
9. Virtue (arete) is the only good, vice is the only evil, and both are the result of our choices.
Like most ancient Greek ethics, Stoicism is a version of “virtue ethics.” Virtue is the usual translation of arete, which means something like excellence. So the virtues would be various human excellences. Etymologically, ethics is about character (ethos in Greek), so virtue ethics is about forming an excellent character through the proper use of reason and the practice of other virtues, especially courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. For the Stoics, the only good or bad things are choices we make. Everything else is an “indifferent,” which can be used virtuously or viciously. Thus, nothing inherently “bad” happens to you, because only things you choose to do viciously are bad. Neither do inherently “good” things happen to you, because goodness is part of our our choices, whereas things that happen to us are subject to our judgments about them. Thus, at every moment, our choices define the sort of character we have.
Then try some Buddhist meditation, too, because it’s good for you.
Okay, that’s a basic explanation of Stoicism as I understand it, leaving out some of the more technical language. When I first started reading Epictetus’s Handbook (my first classical Stoic text), a lot of it seemed commonplace to me, but I hadn’t realized how much Stoicism I’d imbibed through Nietzsche, existentialism, Thoreau and even the New Testament. Also, there are some remarkable parallels with Taoism. Though not so clearly articulated, #s 1-3 above were mostly ingrained in me already. I struggle a lot with #s 4-6, and find that continually recalling #7 and practicing #8 helps. Complete mastery of Stoic beliefs and practices would make one a sage, but the Stoics weren’t sure that any actual person had attained sagehood. Everyone giving it a try are progressors, just trying to get by in the world as best they can. All non-sages are fools, but there are fools who know they’re fools trying to do something about it, and fools unaware of their folly.
Primary Works (there are many translations of these. I’m including ones I own.)
If you want public domain versions of all these, taken mostly from the Loeb Classical Library translations, try the 99-cent ebook Stoic Six Pack. It has all of Seneca’s letters instead of just a selection, but I think starting with a selection is probably better.
Epictetus’ Handbook is short, compact, and full of wisdom. I’d recommend starting with it, then perhaps Marcus’ Meditations, selected letters of Seneca, then back to Epictetus’ Discourses, just a bit of each every day instead of all at once. Seneca has some useful essays as well, particularly On Anger. If you really want to branch out, there are works recommended in the books below.
Beginners might want something less scholarly and more therapeutic. I’d recommend these:
Irvine’s book is the first one of these I read, and the one that got me started reading the Stoics proper, but ultimately I think he gets it wrong. His modern Stoicism is, I believe, really a modern Epicureanism drawn from the Stoic sources that sound most Epicurean, where the goal is tranquility rather than equanimity. In many of Seneca’s letters, he quotes Epicurus and draws Stoic lessons from him, under the belief that all true sayings belong to everyone. That’s my impression of what Irvine’s doing here. It’s a good read, though, and a modern Epicureanism would be a good thing. I’d also recommend his books on desire and insults, both of which have a lot of Stoic influence.
If you want something a little more focused on the historical philosophy of Stoicism, this is a good introduction:
I particularly enjoyed the chapter in Sellars on the “philosopher’s beard.” I didn’t know that in the Hellenistic period, Greek philosophers in the Roman Empire (e.g., Epictetus) tended to wear beards while most Romans shaved. It was part of living the philosophical life. I’ve had a beard for most of my adult life because my face breaks out in a rash when I shave, but maybe my face was just being philosophical the entire time.
These are both solid works of classical scholarship that provide an influential interpretation of late Stoicism, especially the “three disciplines” of Epictetus and Marcus. If you like thick scholarly books in philosophy, you’ll likely enjoy these.