February 14, 2021

Stoicism Without Tears

I developed an interest in Stoic philosophy without meaning to. Many times I would come across a discussion, a comment, an op-ed and think, as I read, "yeah, that makes sense..." and then the next line would be something like "...a well-known Stoic principle." Eventually curiosity had its way with me and reading more about Stoicism, it generally made sense. Even more, it is a practical philosophy. Never mind navel-gazing ontological mental puzzles--it is meant to be applied every day, to real human beings, living in the real world. Shocking, I know.

There are (of course) rule bunnies who insist on using the authentic Greek terms used by Zeno with fine hair-splitting shades of meaning. Zeno used Greek because he was Greek. I think he'd be the first to say "don't be an idiot and obscure your meaning just to sound superior." (Only, of course, in Greek). Zeno had lots of time to be philosophical because he'd lost his ship in a storm and was dirt poor, so poor he could only make use of the community covered porch (or stoa) as the location of his school of philosophy. And so his students became known as the Stoics, which is Greek for "a bunch of guys hanging out on the porch and thinking about stuff."

To most non-philosophers the term 'stoic' is used to describe someone who doesn't show (or doesn't have) emotion. It's only wrong in the sense that it describes the appearance of Stoicism. Emotion is there--but a Stoic tries very hard to not let emotion be in control of reason. (You can see where confusion might set in.)

So what are the basic principals of Stoic philosophy?

  • Wisdom: Knowing what is and what is not in your control. If it is outside of your control, acknowledge the reality of it and let it go.
  • Temperance: Use rational thought, rather than emotion, to guide your actions
  • Courage: Applying your rational thought to your everyday life, to the things that are under your control, that you have concluded is the best course of action. (Harder than it looks...)
  • Justice: In the sense of judging. How do you know something is outside of your control? If all you do is give up because you believe there is nothing you can do, why not find some convenient railroad tracks to lie down on? And what was once outside of your control (e.g. walking, when a newborn) may not be later. Keep checking, and judging. And do what your reasoned, rational thought says is the right thing.