Why I Am Not A Stoic

by Christopher Lovejoy on February 1, 2021

It’s funny, but the term stoic comes from stoa, which means porch, in reference to a place where thinkers gathered to discuss ideas, and yet, over the centuries, Stoic and Stoicism have come to be associated with a manly reserve and a good and proper masculine repression.

That’s repression, not expression.

Be this as it may, Stoic philosophy deals in ultimate truths, and for this reason, offers a powerful frame of reference with which, by which, and through which to blaze a unique path to a realization of the ultimate in personal fulfillment ~ unique, that is, to the individual alone.

Stoicism, like any -ism, is flawed, but in true Stoic fashion, these flaws can be put to good use. Before I do this, allow me to lay the groundwork for a consideration of the key principles and priorities of Stoic practice, all of which contribute greatly to the realization of ultimate fulfillment.

This Stoic groundwork might serve to build another foundation to such a realization:

1) Summum Bonum (Ultimate Good): be proactive, begin with the end in mind, and remember: “first things first.” For the classical Stoics, the end in mind is simply this: Arête, which translates roughly as “excellence in virtue.” In practical terms, Arête can be expressed essentially as “do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason, regardless of consequence; nothing else matters.”

For the Stoics, all behavior, all conduct, all action can and must be put through the filter of virtue; nothing matters if you succeed in this world, but then fail to uphold virtue (courage, justice, temperance, wisdom) as the sole good; Hell does not lie beyond the grave; Hell is a state of mind, to be avoided at all costs, for what value success if it leads to a life without meaning and purpose?

Caveat emptor: the Sabbatean (pr. sah-bay-shun) “just do it” is anathema to the Stoic “just do the right thing . . .” (see above). Fun exercise: in view of the Summum Bonum of Stoic virtue, prioritize these areas of your life: faith, family, finance, flow, freedom, friendship, fitness, fun.

Bonus question: where does your fulfillment fit in with your priorities?

Critique: the classical Stoics insisted that Arête (excellence in virtue) is the Ultimate Good, but other candidates for the Ultimate Good include Entheos, Eudaimonia, or even Euthymia; who is to say that these candidates might not better serve humanity as the Ultimate Good?

If the Ultimate Good is an end, and virtue a means, can Arête truly be treated as an end in itself? Also, if too much emphasis is placed on virtue, what might this do to the quality and vitality of emotional life? Is there not a risk of becoming too preoccupied with “doing the right thing”?

2) Amor Fati (Love Fate): Love fate to death ~ the good, the bad, and the ugly ~ why? Because, in this very moment, alive with love, trust, and care, there are no problems, only solutions; no obstacles, only opportunities to learn, grow, improve, excel, advance, evolve, and ascend.

You learn to love your fate by getting in the habit of viewing and treating all manner of adversity and difficulty as fuel for the fire of motivation or inspiration to move over, under, through, or around them with relative grace and ease in each and every moment. Ultimately, nothing can slow you down if you can view and treat everything that occurs as taking you exactly in the direction you need to go.

Critique: the classical Stoics insisted that you pay close attention to “what is,” all the better to uphold excellence in virtue, but is such a focus necessarily healthy and vital? If I focus too much on giving “what is” its due, is there not a very real risk of losing sight of “what could be”?

3) Premeditatio Malorum: “what can go wrong will go wrong”, so wear the vest of your expectations lightly by anticipating the worst case scenario in any given situation before it happens, all the better to be prepared to meet it on its own terms; also, expected blows of misfortune weigh less heavily on those who can anticipate them than the unexpected blows that weigh heavily on those who do not.”

In view of this practice, how can we not be pleasantly surprised when life exceeds our expectations?

Critique: this practice can be, and has been, taken too far . . .

Whenever you are devoted to something,
don’t regard it as irremovable but as belonging to the class of things
like a jar or a drinking glass so that when it is broken
you remember what it was and are not disturbed

So in the case of love, if you kiss your child or your brother or your friend,
never let your thoughts about them go all the way,
and don’t allow yourself to be as elated as your feeling wants, but check it and restrain it . . .

Furthermore, at the very moment you are taking joy in something,
present yourself with the opposite impressions;
what harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say:
tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly:
tomorrow one of us will go away and we shall not see one another anymore?

Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24, 84-88, in Long, Epictetus, 248

In my mind, the wisdom of Epictetus is by far the most interesting of all the Stoics. In his Discourses, he offers a treasure trove of wisdom on how to live and live well within the bounds of reason, but the passage above gives me pause; is the emotional restraint really necessary?

Again, what could this practice do to the quality and vitality of emotional life?

4) The Obstacle in the Way is the Way: apparent obstacles contain and provide seeds of opportunity to improve, excel, or advance, and we would do well to view and treat them as such: “the impediment to action advances the action”; “what stands in the way becomes the way.”

In view of this uncommon wisdom, how might we use what seems problematic or adversarial in our lives to pivot, and then practice a particular virtue like courage, justice, temperance, or wisdom? And in so doing, how might we learn more about ourselves and the world at large?

Critique: how much value do you place on living a life of duty filled with obligations? Is there not a real danger of becoming preoccupied with overcoming apparent obstacles, of navigating apparent obstacles, to a point where this is all that you’re doing in and with your life?

5) The Ego is the Enemy: they say that “pride goeth before the fall” and that “you can’t learn what you think you already know”; in other words, hubris and arrogance will eventually catch up to you and bring you down hard and fast. Question yourself: why am I doing this? Am I doing it to serve or support others? Am I doing it to make this world a better place? Or am I doing it for my own selfish reasons?

Is my behavior, conduct, or action fuel for my sense of superiority or is it fuel for my sense of modesty or humility? Is it not prudent to recall, in the grand scheme of things, that I am no one special for the simple reason that the world does not revolve around me, myself, and I?

Does a rude awakening not await those who fail to take heed of this simple advice?

Critique: what if I replace “selfish” with “soulfish”? What do I need for me, myself, and I to come alive and stay alive to my potential? What do I need to live and love an emotionally rich and fulfilling life? Perhaps the ego is not so much an enemy as it is a faculty to cultivate facility.

6) Sympathea: we are but a part, and we have but a part to play, in the larger greater whole; “what’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee”; “we’re all in this together, so think, feel, and act accordingly.” How can I be sure my success isn’t coming at the expense of others? How can I be more selfless and less selfish so as to contribute more and better things to society?

Critique: Beware the muggle or meddler who presumes to speak for the greater whole, in which case, “the good of the greater whole” becomes just one more tiny filter through which a crimped and cramped view of the world is espoused in the name of the Common Good. Beware.

Also, how can I be more soulfish to come alive and stay alive to tapping and tuning my potential as an individuating individual and, in so doing, be pleasantly surprised and pleased to find one of its actualizations being viewed and treated as a contribution to the Whole by the Whole?

7) Memento Mori (Remember Death): consider meditating on your mortality (“I could die at any moment”), not as a morbid preoccupation, but as a key to pursuing excellence in virtue, as a way to thank your lucky stars that you got to wake up this morning to live yet another day.

Consider: “I cherish this life all the more knowing that I could lose it at any moment.”

Critique: flow follows focus, and energy flows where attention goes; how much attention to do I really want to give my own death, even if this attention is not a morbid preoccupation? Might I profit from a complementary practice called Memento Vivere (Remember to Be, to Live, to Be Alive)?

Just to be clear, these Stoic principles, practices, and priorities lay claim to the moral dimension of life in a bid to define persons of value and virtue worthy and deserving of life, but they’re flawed, and if these flaws are not exposed, this does not bode well for individuals and societies.

Metaphysically, the ancient Stoics assumed that they lived in a perfect world order ~ perfectly ordered and perfectly divine ~ and so, who were they to resist or refuse its full expression to the point of experiencing pain, frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction, or discouragement?

Ethically, the classical Stoics truly believed that they could assume near-perfect control of their perceptions, judgments, and actions, even at the expense of caring to enjoy! all of the wholeness, goodness, success, happiness, and fulfillment that this perfectly divine world has to offer.

For whatever reason, they did not care to be caught off guard ~ by anyone or anything.

Sound familiar?

Stoic: come, let us loosen our attachments to the things of this world to cultivate a keen discernment and a sound judgment in response to the events of our lives, even at the expense of love and joy.

Me: wait, even at the expense of love and joy?

Stoic: we live in a world of perfect order; all of the events of this world, internal or external, cause the events that occur in our lives, even our judgments and values, and so, if we attempt to hold judgments and values over which we have no control, we set ourselves up for pain.

Me: I see, so if I can hone my mind to a point where I can open my heart to donning and wearing the vest of my expectations lightly, even in the wake of losing what I value most, I can still, nevertheless, reduce the appearance and experience of pain and disappointment in my life.

Stoic: yes, but only if you remain willing and able to loosen your attachments to what it is you value.

Me: and thereby lessen, reduce, or otherwise dampen the emotional intensity of what it is I value.

Stoic: you are free to the degree to which you can view and treat your many and various provocations, temptations, and distractions in ways and by means that are good, right, sound, and proper for you and for everyone over which you may or may not have any real, true influence.

Me: but wait, are not all events in this world caused, and therefore determined, including responses to these events? And if so, what real, true influence does anyone have in viewing and treating, as you put it, their many and various provocations, temptations, and distractions?

Stoic: my one controlling desire in life is ultimately to assume control of control itself, and so, my chief task in life is to “identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which externals are beyond my control, and which have to do with choices that I do control.”

Me: you quote Epictetus, who advised that we look, not to uncontrollable externals, but to the choices that are our own, but as far as I know, he never reconciled the freedom to cultivate such perfect control with the existing perfect world order governed strictly by the law of causality.

Stoic: Spinoza, perhaps a reincarnation of Epictetus, made such an attempt. For him, there is no separation between mind and matter; he took himself and the entirety of the universe as One, as a perfect divine order in which all causes, internal and external, need only be understood.

Me: yes, I innerstand that he took such understanding to the very limits of acceptance.

Stoic: which is where he found his liberation from cause and effect, and from fate itself.

Me: sounds like an awfully austere way to live, where amor fati is the ruling principle.

Stoic: which begs the question for you and your readers: just how much do you value control, of assuming control, of being in control, of raising control to a fine art, where the name of the game is control in light of, in view of, the summum bonum, which is to do the right thing?

Me: when you put it like that, I can see the paradox: give yourself over to death or love your fate to death, even at the risk of losing control. This fundamental choice seems rather stark, does it not? It almost makes me wanna be friends with Dionysus to test the limits of my control.

Stoic: then let me put it this way: when it comes time to pacify yourself after a drunken bout of intoxication, you are free to the degree to which you can view and treat your gut reactions, your failures at frustration, and your all-too-human procrastination in ways and by means that are good, right, sound, and proper for you and for everyone with whom you are involved and engaged.

Me: ouch.

the more I desire, the more I must do to realize desire,
the less I engage and experience life, the less free I am

or

the more I desire, the more I must do to realize desire,
the more I engage! and enjoy! life, the more free I am!

The premise and promise of Stoicism is not so much false as it is flawed. Stoic philosophy is not so much a philosophy of consolation, if indeed it is at all, as it is a philosophy of accommodation to “what is,” one that prides itself on consistently, relentlessly coming to terms with “what is.”

How useful, when roasted meats and other foods are before you
to see them in your mind as here the dead body of a fish, there the dead body of a bird or a pig

Or again, to think of Falernian wine as the juice of a cluster of grapes,
of a purple robe as sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish,
and of sexual intercourse as internal rubbing accompanied by the spasmodic ejection of mucus

What useful perceptual images these are!
They go to the heart of things and pierce right through them,
so that you see things for what they are

~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, bk. VI.13 (translated by G.M.A. Grube)

Can anyone here say “wet blanket”?

I have a confession to make: my journey in life is the journey of a Lover (not a Fighter). Having said this, I remain ever vigilant not to overly indulge the Romantic by reacting unreasonably or irrationally against the Stoic discipline of exercising reason, logic, and virtue in light of truth.

Stoic philosophy, though austere, and perhaps severe, is not without its compensations and dispensations. Yes, pick and choose from its many offerings, as required or desired, to hone the mind, but beware of what it stands for as a whole, while noting its fatal internal contradiction:

I am free to be who I am only to the degree to which I remain in harmony with “what is,” for “what is,” ultimately, is the expression of perfect order, and I am part and parcel of this perfect divine order.

Truth be told, freedom never looked and sounded so unfree.

This is especially true! if you enjoy your emotional intensity.

Rather, going ‘n growing with the knowing ‘n flowing is key:

I cannot be wholly free, and happy, in a perfect world
if I cannot also explore, express, and process the meaning
of my apparent flaws, follies, failures, or frustrations!

Preferably with my rights to privacy and liberty kept intact.

And . . . with a thoughtful attitude of “easy come, easy go.”

Can Anyone Be a Stoic with a Love and Lust for Life?

I must keep assuming that I live, love, and learn in a benevolent and wondrous universe, where genuine wholeness, goodness, success, happiness, and fulfillment are not only truly possible, but wholly intelligible, just so long as I continue to innerstand what is required, even as I remain ready, willing, and able to generate, incorporate, and perpetuate the requisite thoughtfulness and effortlessness.

At heart, I weave dreams effortlessly for my life, even as I tell stories thoughtfully as the author of my life; in spirit, I offer myself up by bringing my dreams to life with and through the stories of my life.

Your journey through life is uniquely yours. It might be heroic, artistic, creative, or entrepreneurial, but then again, it might not. Maybe your journey is the journey of a common laborer, a manager or an executive, a scientist, or a professional such as a teacher, doctor, or lawyer.

The journey of soul invariably intersects with one or more aspects of the human predicament, one way or another, and it is up to each of us to identify which aspect(s), so as to transform karma (the fate of heart and soul) into dharma (character is destiny; purpose unifies destiny).

I invite you to peruse the list that follows, one that I composed myself for my own benefit, to identify which of the items on this list jump out at you, that call out to you as that which attempts to serve you throughout your life as a theme for your life, in need of deep processing . . .


the human predicament,
stretching from A … to Z

a is for acrimony, amorality, apathy, arrogance
b is for betrayal, boredom, brutality, bypassing
c is for calumny, compromise, cowardice, cruelty
d is for depravity, deviance, distraction, duplicity
e is for eccentricity, envy, estrangement, evasion, evil
f is for failure, fanaticism, frustration, fundamentalism
g is for gaslighting, ghosting, gossip, greed, gullibility
h is for harassment, helplessness, hopelessness, humiliation
i is for ignorance, immaturity, indifference, indulgence, insecurity
j is for jealousy, jeopardy, job from hell
k is for KMA, knavery, kraken
l is for lack, laziness, limitation, loss, lust
m is for malaise, malignancy, manipulation, mediocrity, misery, misfortune, monotony
n is for naivety, narcissism, negativity, neglect, nonsense, notoriety
o is for obscenity, obscurity, obsession, obstinance, outrage, overwhelm
p is for passivity, persecution, perversity, poverty, provocation
q is for quackery, quandary, quarantine, quarrels
r is for rancor, redundancy, regression, repression, restraint, restriction, ridicule, rigidity
s is for savagery, scapegoating, scarcity, severity, sloth, stupidity, suffering, suspicion
t is for tension, terror, timidity, toxicity, tragedy, travesty, trickery, tyranny
u is for underwhelm, unworthiness, usurpation, usury
v is for vanity, venality, viciousness, violence
w is for wariness, wastefulness, weariness, wickedness, worthlessness, wrathfulness, wretchedness
x is for xenophobia
y is for yoke
z is for zealotry

note: this list is by no means complete or even comprehensive; feel free to add to it for your own benefit

Let’s take an example.

Suppose persecution has been an underlying theme in your life, either in the role of persecutor or persecuted, one that simply will not leave you alone, one that slithers like a serpent into and out of your days, calling on you to step up and step out of your comfort zone to meet it at least half way. The question is inevitably begged: how does one even begin to process and release something like this?

Does it require a leap of faith? It might. Does it require a gentle and graceful pivot or transition? Maybe. Does it require that I stand in my truth, my love, my power, or some combination thereof? Does it require a new and fresh approach to life? Or does it require slogging it out? Or does it merely require that I withdraw my attention from that which no longer serves me and my mission in life?

Pick your questions with care: good questions offer choice; great questions inspire action.

Now couple this preamble with a notion or vision of your masterpiece day. How do they interact? How might they intersect so that you can see what a joy it can be to transform your karma (the dark weight in your life) into dharma (infused with the light of truth, love, and wisdom)?


where do I falter and where do I flatter?
where do I wither and where do I wield?
where do I shrink and where do I shine?

I can entertain the notion that the universe is a perfect divine order, one exquisitely designed to push me into crafting story for my life that is heroic, comedic, or romantic, even if this means helping me turn my life into a drama, tragedy, or horror to bring me out of complacency.


Universe to muggle: “please, I beg of you, stop doing what you do over and over and over again, while expecting a different result, and be more entertaining ~ or at least more interesting!”

Drama, tragedy, or horror? Which of these three are you waiting for? Or, which of these three might you presently be living through? Now ask yourself: “What is my integrating desire? Which notion or vision guides the course of my life? What is the ruling principle for my life?”

Also, in the wake of outlining the major events in your life, ask yourself: “if character is destiny (hint: it is) in the story of my life, what could my character possibly do next that is, if not entertaining, then at least interesting, motivating, compelling, inspiring, or even fascinating?”

Feel free to explore and express to your heart’s content in whatever way you see fit.

And . . . do so with all of the emotional intensity of a heart on fire for life and love.

/

take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle,
especially of the wise,
what they run away from and what they seek out

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.38

/

play with the constraints and restraints
that you yourself have imposed on you!

~ yours, in awe and wonder

/

clay? play!

~ Bashar

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