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!