Stoicism
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"When meat and other dainties are before you, you reflect: This is dead fish, or fowl, or pig; or: This Falernian is some of the juice from a bunch of grapes; my purple robe is sheep’s wool stained with a little gore from a shellfish; copulation is friction of the members and an ejaculatory discharge.
Reflections of this kind go to the bottom of things, penetrating into them and exposing their real nature. The same process should be applied to the whole of life.
"

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations VI.13
170-180 CE

"Gee, Marcus - you really are the life and soul of the party..."

Pretty much nobody
Ever


I have considered myself a Stoic for pretty much of my life, because the idea of someone who "stoically" resists (or at least tries to resist) temptations of any kind always resonated with me.
But this is only the most superficial part of Stoicism, and it may also be considered its "dark side", because it tends to result in people who believe that they are better than the rest of population, as aptly pointed out by Addison:

" 'Tis pride, rank pride, and haughtiness of soul: I think the Romans call it Stoicism."

Joseph Addison: Cato, A Tragedy

The fact I used this quote on the front page of this site was more as a form of self-effacing sarcasm than actual awareness of what else being a Stoic means (or should mean).

More recently (first half of 2014) I discovered the work of
William B. Irvine, a Philosophy professor who has moved from "pure philosophy" work to "application of Stoic advice to the problems that arise in modern living".

From reading his A guide to Good Life (and then going back to the source, so to speak, with Marcus Aurelius Meditations) I got a much better picture of what Stoicism entails.

I now realise that Stoicism is - at its core - an eminently rational philosophy, one that - just like Zen - can easily coexist and even reinforce other beliefs: being a stoic catholic or a stoic atheist is perfectly viable.
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Ninku (忍苦) - the Japanese
term for Stoicism

It's basically a set of principles to make the most of whatever life throws at us:

"
The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in as much as it, too demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset"

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations VII.61

While most of the ideas still resonate with me, and some of the "exercises" suggested by Irvine are more or less second nature, I have now realized that I was missing at least three important elements.

The first one is that Stoicism - being rational and based on logic and common sense - assumes that human beings are basically social creatures and therefore gives ample advice about how to try to get along with other human beings, no matter if they are Stoics or not, and specially stressing the fact that Stoics should not assume that they are "better" than anyone else, no matter how strong they are in resisting the lure of ice cream or other carnal vices.
This is definitely something I should get better at.

"
Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them."

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations VII.59


The second one is that the concept of "penance" is not really part of it. Stoicism strongly urges people to avoid indulging in excesses of any types, and prescribes exercises like walking barefoot for a day or fasting but these are never a way to "punish" your body for something: they are more like a form of training so that when you have to face some physical discomfort (like having to go hungry for a bit) you are more prepared, and less afraid of any kind of duress.

"
In the management of your principles, take example by the pugilist, not the swordsman. One puts down his blade and has to pick it up again; the other is never without his hand and so he only needs to clench it."

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations XII.9


This second point is also strongly connected to the idea of trying to always find a sort of "silver lining" in each and every situation you can find yourself in. Irvine in particular gives excellent examples of how you can better endure illness (your own or your loved ones') or grief.
And this can be done (or should at least attempted) even if you do not believe in any form of transcendence or afterlife. You should simply learn to roll with the punches and always look for an opening.
This is, again, something I would like to get better at - basically the glass is not half empty or half full. It contains exactly as much liquid as circumstances allow, and even if it is absolutely empty and dry, you must learn to appreciate that having an empty glass is infinitely better than no glass at all, because you can always find uses for it, like putting a rose in it or breaking it in pieces to cut the rope that restrains you.

The third point, and one that I believe most people miss when thinking about stoicism, is that the main point is not "suppressing" emotions. What a Stoic should aim for is a sense of quiet
contentendness, not an emotional coma. Positive emotions are encouraged, but even in these you should always avoid excesses.
This part is possibly the most difficult to "get right", especially when you have to deal with passion towards another person (being in love is probably the only thing that Stoicism can't really deal with: death, poverty, illness and similar forms of disgrace you can somehow manage, but falling in love apparently is just something you should try to avoid) - both Marcus Aurelius and Irvine tend to skirt around it without really discussing the matter.
A Stoic should try to form a family and raise children, because this is the "rational" thing to do for human beings, and that's more or less it.


Here is how Adam Smith summarizes Stocism in his "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" (1759):

"Human life the Stoics appear to have considered as a game of great skill; in which, however, there was a mixture of chance [...] In such games the stake is commonly a trifle, and the whole pleasure of the game arises from playing well, from playing fairly, and playing skilfully. If notwithstanding all his skill, however, the good player should, by the influence of chance, happen to lose, the loss ought to be a matter, rather of merriment, than of serious sorrow. He has made no false stroke; he has done nothing which he ought to be ashamed of; he has enjoyed completely the whole pleasure of the game. [...]
Our only anxious concern ought to be, not about the stake, but about the proper method of playing. If we placed our happiness in winning the stake, we placed it in what depended upon causes beyond our power, and out of our direction. We necessarily exposed ourselves to perpetual fear and uneasiness, and frequently to grievous and mortifying disappointments. If we placed it in playing well, in playing fairly, in playing wisely and skilfully; in the propriety of our own conduct in short; we placed it in what, by proper discipline, education, and attention, might be altogether in our own power, and under our own direction. Our happiness was perfectly secure, and beyond the reach of fortune."




    • DirectingMind - another site providing Meditations - this one is based on the translation by George Long, and offers HTML, MarkDown and JSON versions.


Related links:

  • Letters from a Stoic blog - newest article is from 2013, it was designed as an an adaptation of the ideas of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, writing a post for each of his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium ('Letters to Lucilius about Ethics'), taking up one or two points from the letter each time.
  • Stoicism Today. Stoicism Today started with a workshop at the University of Exeter, U.K., in early October 2012 to explore the applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, followed by forming a team of seven academics and psychotherapists working together to explore what the ancient philosophy as a way of life, Stoicism, still has to offer today.
  • How to be a Stoic - Massimo Pigliucci’s blog. It also includes information about Stoicon - the yearly Stoic convention.
  • Indifference is a power - Lary Wallace for Aeon Magazine