Stoicism FAQ

  1. What is stoicism?

From wikipedia, which I think provides a great definition:

Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and that external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves

Basically, not wanting material things and finding our sole meaning in acting virtuously which, the stoics propose, is how we can achieve happiness by living the present. Virtue basically means not wanting things.

 

  1. Who are “the stoics”?

From Daily Stoic:

It had three principal leaders. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire, the most powerful man on earth, sat down each day to write himself notes about restraint, compassion and humility. Epictetus endured the horrors of slavery to found his own school where he taught many of Rome’s greatest minds. Seneca, when Nero turned on him and demanded his suicide, could think only of comforting his wife and friends.

 

  1. Isn’t ambition good?

Ambition can be a good thing. The problem is that ambition – having a strong desire to accomplish, is often aimed at a goal that was developed with external influence. We are chasing a goal that we desire not because it is good for us, or will make us happier, but because of outside influences that are directing us to want things.

When we want things, we are necessarily not free. We can work hard to achieve and get those things that we desire (something, success with women, a promotion), but it doesn’t solve the problem that we want things.

Stoicism teaches to stop wanting things. To be an ambitious stoic is to be a by-the-book stoic – to renounce pleasures and most all things society asks us to participate in. Stoicism is internal work with internal reward, rather than working on external appearances or results.

 

  1. Then what do you do all day?

As a stoic, you don’t have to do anything. But you can do anything. The point is to be perfectly content at all times. It’s to find beauty in any moment.

Your Senecas and Epictetuses would probably be big fans of meditation. Simply sitting and being still for large amounts of time. Walking in nature. Appreciating nature. Being in love with someone who loves you and raising a family.

These are things that you can enjoy in the moment and that can keep you in the moment. The stoics stress living in the moment because it means you aren’t living in the future (wanting something different) or living in the past (regretting or wishing things were different). Happiness is found in the present moment, and no other.

 

  1. Aren’t experiences a good thing? Travel, etc?

This largely goes back to the ambition question. Experiences aren’t bad. It’s helpful to be a strong, well-rounded individual. This helps with stoicism because you will be more able to be content in the moment.

There are a couple problems with travel and racking up adventures or other experiences. One is that you don’t need to travel to get a unique experience. There are new experiences waiting for you in nature, at the sports bar down the street, and with the person walking past you in the crosswalk.

When we look to travel to give us new experiences, we ignore the beauty and the variety that surrounds us every day.

Don’t do that.

 

  1. What if I want my children to live easy lives?

People don’t live easy lives. While I think it is important for a person to be happy to be well-educated, most of that education will come outside of school systems. Your peer group and the influences your child is exposed to will have a tremendous effect on his upbringing and his opportunity for happiness.

Does your child start wanting at a young age – the newest toy or video game in the commercial and develop insecurities from children’s magazines? Or is he outside being creative with his friends with sticks and rocks in the park?

Do you work 80 hours a week so he can go to a great college, but put him in front of a screen so that you can stay focused on your job? Or do you go out to the park with him to foster that creativity and enthusiasm for play?

Wanting the best for your child, like most things, can have different meanings. Society’s definition of good life for your child might mean he has access to all the video games and snacks that he wants. Your definition might be he develops a joy of reading and makes friends easily. These require different types of parenting.

 

  1. Can you stop wanting without achieving success?

Yes.

This is a tough one. I’m not poor. I have decent savings. Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome at the peak of its power. It can be easy for us to say “stop wanting things” because we either have it all or have the option to have things that other people want. We have achieved “success”, to some extent, in the material world. Can this stoicism, this virtue, this lack of wanting, be achieved without first having that material abundance?

Stoicism can be practiced by anyone. It is probably more difficult to leave the material world once some success has been found. There is always more you can have. More money, more things, more friends, more status. No one will ever have more than everyone else in all these things. Especially when their metric is determined by others.

Once we achieve some success, we are rewarded. We get the promotion, and we get more money that we can buy things with. We buy a car and our neighbor gives us props on having a cool car. We charm the girl, and are rewarded with an orgasm.

These rewards are temporary, but they reinforce that we are doing the right thing. So, we continue to strive for more money, promotions, cars, and women.

 

  1. Isn’t stopping a pursuit just weakness or sloth?

No.

To change course, to stop a pursuit that you were working on because it no longer aligns with the person you want to be is one of the smartest things you can do.

There is a distinction to be made with weakness and sloth. Your virtue, your rejection of material things, must be genuine. If you are not honest when you are practicing stoicism, you will secretly envy others who achieve success, while you gloat to your friends that you don’t want things and quote the old stoics or my FAQ.

You cannot be happy while pretending to be stoic and virtuous. Honesty is a virtue, and all other virtues are false if you are not honest. To be virtuous in a world that discourages contentment and virtue requires more courage and strength than anything else in life. It is the opposite of sloth and weakness.

The strength is mostly internal. You are not signalling your intelligence or muscles to the world, so you are not externally rewarded for your strength. That is why, from the outside, it can appear as if you are weak and lazy. But if you are honest and virtuous, you will be unaffected when others call you names to try to bring you down. They chose their path, the material path, and yours conflicts with theirs. They live for external rewards, so just as it is important for them to be seen in the new sports car, it is important for them to be seen as strong and intelligent.

Strength and honor.

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