Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Thoughts on Stoicism

In my wanderings through the world of minimalism, I came across someone who'd embraced Stoicism as his personal philosophy — the Stoics being Zeno (who owed a lot to Diogenes), Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius und so weite.

I'd heard of Stoic philosophy and even had to teach about it a bit when I was a school chaplain and discovered this involved taking responsibility for the HPSE (Health, Personal and Social Education) programme throughout the school, including their sex education, how to defend themselves against attack and the the various schools of philosophy. Who, me? Oh, all right. But I found out only what I had to, which was about a paragraph really. So, intrigued by this minimalist, I looked up Stoicism, and at first felt a strong accord with it, until I dug a little deeper, at which point I got bored and wandered off.

The first principle, so I read, of Stoicism, is to discern between what you cannot change (your external, given circumstances) and what you can change (your internal circumstances or responses). Yes, this made sense. I read on. 

The Stoics built their philosophy upon three principles: discipline of perception (taking responsibility for how we see what comes our way), discipline of action (taking responsibility for the choices we make) and discipline of will (discerning what we can and cannot change and taking responsibility for understanding this and dealing with what cannot be altered). I like that.

Then followed a list that seems to have been faithfully transcribed all the way from Epictetus to the present day, of those things you can and cannot change, those aspects under your control and your unalterable externals.

Epictetus says you can control your opinion, choice, desire and aversion. He says you cannot control your body (and any of its parts), property, reputation, position, parents, siblings, children, country — these are the given circumstances to which you can control only your response.

When I read this I stopped. Wait— what? You are so kidding me! Your brain, your central nervous system altogether, your gut, your skin, your vascular system, your teeth, eyes, liver — you can indeed control your body, indeed your body depends heavily on your choices — they literally form it. And the decisions you make in forming and developing your body will substantially affect the mind you bring to making new choices and the quality of responses of which you are capable. Fair enough, you might be born without eyes or arms, or with cerebral palsy, or you might lose your leg in an accident, so it's true circumstances beyond your control can affect your body. But the notion that your body and all its parts are beyond your control is simply inaccurate. I mean, there are some people whose proprioception has got up and left them who depend entirely on the control of will and intention even to pick up a cup of tea.

You can also, surely, control your property, using the best of your intelligence to make it yield the best good for the most people (or simply getting the least out of it and keeping it all for yourself). Minimalism and simplicity offer a very good means of deriving the greatest benefit for the most people out of the property available at any given time.

You also, to some degree, control the choices and actions of those close to you; ideally not by insistence and domination but by influence and example. Ever caught yourself channelling your mother when explaining something to your children?

Your reputation is substantially affected by your own choices and actions; there is certainly an interactive interface with the society in which you are set — but you can change that too, either by influencing it or moving on.

And your position, yes you can leave it just as once you attained it.   

For all I know, Epictetus spoke God's own truth when he formulated this list, but I regard its application in the modern world with scepticsm.

And, can you control your opinions, desires and aversions? Or just the expression of them?

There's a sex and gender aspect to it as well. This is to a hefty degree a straight man's list.

I can imagine that a Roman philosopher might well feel he had no control over his children; his life probably played out in a sphere peopled by other adult males. Women, by contrast, influence their children to a massive degree, because they are with them. In my life, all the people I have substantially influenced were those with whom I walked closely, the members of my household. The ones who remained indifferent or unchanged were also the ones who never really knew me.

And we can have control over our given circumstances of family. LGBT people are thankfully better accepted integrally into society than once they were. During the 1990s when things were very different, I observed with great interest my LGBT friends' ability to create family from those who were not blood relatives — their families of origin having oftentimes distanced themselves, rejected them, or just never taken the trouble to listen and understand.

And then there's this notion of one's body and any of its parts being beyond one's own control. As our Hebe remarked when we were discussing this at home, she could well see why it might suit a straight man to think his body and all its parts were completely uncontrollable. But, as she went on to say, women grow up used to the idea that controlling your body is definitely your responsibility, and living with the consequences of whether you do or you don't.

So, though I found some of what the Stoics (modern and ancient both) had to say accorded well with my outlook on life, I think their list needs attention; there's no need, in my view, to be so fatalistic. Very little happens to us that we cannot change and improve. I would venture to suggest that this may even be the task of life, not only taking responsibility for how we think and feel about our circumstances but also bringing the best power of our strength and intelligence to shape and improve them. You can build your liver, your finances, your position in life and the outlook of your children — for good or ill, and even if you don't think you can.

I respect, of course, your freedom to disagree!


Suzan said...

Interesting as I had never come across the body and control of it in my readings on stoicism. Much to ponder.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Suzan! Waving!

greta said...

this philosophy sounds a lot like the serenity prayer. while i agree with you that there are more things under our influence that we might at first think, i would argue that, ultimately, they aren't under our control. an example: my mom ate a very healthy diet, was never overweight, didn't drink or smoke, walked daily and kept her mind alive by constant reading reading and watching public television. she was close to family and friends and interested in life. and she had a heart attack, dementia and aggressive lung cancer. so, we can do all the 'right' things, attempt to influence our children for the better, practice kindness, contribute to good causes and still end up in a complete and total mess through things we simply can't control. good old acceptance seems like a way to peace, along with the ability to discern what we can change and what we can't.

Pen Wilcock said...

That last thing you say — "good old acceptance seems like a way to peace, along with the ability to discern what we can change and what we can't." — that's Stoic philosophy in a nutshell (from what little I've read). I think Marcus Aurelius was one of its best loved proponents, and it is exactly for the sensible, calm, reasonable and also courageous approach to life he advocated that he was so loved. The Serenity Prayer is, as you say, Stoicism exactly. These are the aspects that make it so attractive to me — it is a wise, rational and peaceable perspective on life, and I think it helps people to be gentle and responsible. In particular, I think it must be helpful when (as happened to your Mom), the challenges of serious illness or accident or other misfortune overtake you.
But — there is always a "but", isn't there! — I feel a strong caution against simple acceptance of our circumstances, even when it leads to peace. More recent research, with findings that run counter to what we have always believed to be healthy diet (see the work of David Perlmutter, William Davis, etc) suggest that with what we now know, we might be able to successfully prevent and address the very illnesses that so cruelly affected your Mom. The grace to accept with serenity and courage is a blessed thing, yet the curiosity to go on searching and asking questions and precisely *not* accepting the big illnesses as inevitable, may be a different face of blessing.
Perhaps, as is so often the case, balance is the thing? To do our best with what we have, and to continually seek information and understanding, but then — knowing that we are only mortal — finding the inner strength to accept what (at least given our present state of knowledge and insight) we cannot change. And I guess sometimes we have to accept in ourselves and our circumstances what we *should* be able to alter, but for some reason or other we can't manage it at the moment, we don't have the resources we need to make the necessary change.

greta said...

there is a difference, don't you think, between resignation and acceptance? i agree with you that, while we may accept what life has handed us, it doesn't mean that we don't keep searching for answers to life's problems. we look within ourselves to see what our own spirit can tell us and we also look outside ourselves for the wisdom and clarity that others can share with us. balance, as you said, is key. here in iowa we are prey to tornadoes at this time of year. the weather folks get better and better at predicting where the tornado is heading and give us a lot more warning. when the sirens sound, we take shelter, arm ourselves with gloves, shoes and flashlights and also accept that this is simply part of living where we live. we say the serenity prayer softly to ourselves and hope for the best!

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh my goodness, I love what you've said there! Yes, the difference between acceptance and resignation — walking the line between is surely the perfect balance, not to be fatalistic but realistic. I also love what you say about *both* looking within for the sense of things in our ow spirit *and* heeding input from others — this is discernment. And the example you give of the tornado preparation; practical and prompt, but then ultimately placing our trust in God and keeping hope buoyant; I think you may have the secret of a successful life right there! Thank you!

Suzan said...

I have thought about this for a few hours. Stoics existed with limited knowledge about human workings. People had to accept that their children died young in many instances. There were hospitals to go too or supermarkets to shop from. If you stored enough for one year and experienced three bad seasons it was tough. Our modern life is less harsh but it also brings its own complications.

At present I am fascinated by neuroplasticity. Our convententional wisdom is challenged on a daily basis.

God bless

Pen Wilcock said...

Ooh — Suzan! Thanks for that!

In case anyone else (like me) thought, "Uh . . . 'neuroplasticity' . . . is . . . what?", here's a definition:

"The brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment."

Yes! Adapting to present reality. I think this is where the present-day form of Stoicism lost me — in quoting Epictetus's *legitimate* need to accept the circumstances *of his day*, as if we lived with the same parameters and paradigms, when we do not.

What you say there, "modern life is less harsh but it also brings its own complications" is a big challenge for us, I think. It's the global interconnections that have made it less harsh, isn't it? Resourcing our lives from elsewhere (eg green beans from Kenya in the UK supermarkets) brings responsibility on a bigger scale than most of us are capable of meeting, I suspect.

Maybe a responsible life, in modern times, includes a new kind of fasting — from levels of complexity that encourage us to turn a blind eye, keeping our lives small and simple enough to know what it is we need to be stoical about?

greta said...

fasting from levels of complexity - now that is going to give me a lot to think about. so many things spring to mind: my little laptop at which i am currently typing, television in general (this one is pretty easy!), listening to the news, buying only what is necessary, travelling only when necessary, refusing invasive and unhelpful medical interventions, limiting social interactions to dear friends and family, simple clothing - less, less, less. honestly, it may be the only way to stay sane in these trying times!

thanks, suzan, for 'neuroplasticity'.

Pen Wilcock said...

What you outline there offers breathing room — the space to make decisions advisedly and reflectively — which also feeds in to the modus operandi of stoicism, weighing and considering, a process of discerning and taking responsibility.