A Crash Course in Stoicism

Short article outlining a basic three-step psychological and philosophical strategy described by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus for coping with misfortune or adversity.

A Crash Course in Stoicism

In his discourse entitled “we ought not to yearn for things that are not under our control” (Discourses, 3.24), the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, described three steps used to cope with apparent misfortunes.  He intended that these should be rigorously rehearsed until they become habitual…

Have thoughts like these ready at hand by night and by day; write them, read them, make your conversation about them, communing with yourself, or saying to another, “Can you give me some help in this matter?”

Later he says:

If you have these thoughts always at hand and go over them again and again in your own mind, and keep them in readiness, you will never need another person to console you, or strengthen you.

Speaking to a group of aspiring Stoic students, he outlines the recommended steps to be memorised and rehearsed as follows.

Step One: Tell yourself it was to be expected.

Your initial response when something apparently “undesirable” happens should be to tell yourself that it was “not unexpected”, and this “will be the first thing to lighten the burden”, according to Epictetus.  This is made easier by regularly anticipating potential setbacks that can happen in life, imagining what it would be like to face typical misfortunes philosophically.  This is sometimes called premeditatio malorum by Stoics, or the technique of contemplating potential misfortunes in advance.  In particular, the Stoics frequently remind themselves that both they and their loved ones are mortal, and bound to die one day, and that life is inevitably transient.  Here Epictetus simply says, however, that when adversity comes we should greet it by reminding ourselves not to be surprised but to recognise that we knew all along that this sort of thing can potentially happen in life.

Step Two: Tell yourself that it is indifferent to your wellbeing.

This is sometimes described as the “Sovereign precept” of ancient Stoicism: Some things are under our control and some things are not.  Only things under our control reflect on our character and therefore constitute our wellbeing, i.e., our judgements and acts of will are our own business and when they are done well we may be described as being wise and good.  Things outside of our control, such as health, wealth and reputation are indifferent with regard to our own character and therefore our happiness and wellbeing.  Epictetus says you should consider where the misfortune comes from, and if it is an external event, tell yourself:

It comes from the quarter of the things that are outside the sphere of volition, that are not my own; what, then, is it to me?

The typical answer Stoics give to that rhetorical question is: “It is nothing to me.”  In fact, one of Epictetus’ basic maxims is that things beyond our volition, outside of our control, are “nothing to us.”  Epictetus also advised his students, perhaps literally, to say very concisely to themselves either “avolitional, not bad!” (aproaireton, ou kakon), to apparent external misfortunes, or “volitional, good!” (proairetikon, agathon), to virtuous responses, and so on.

For Stoics, the ultimate good in life is to possess wisdom, justice, and other virtues, and to act according to them.  The vicissitudes of fate, external events, the wheel of fortune that sometimes raises us up and at other times casts us down, is “indifferent” with regard to our own character and virtue and, in that sense, of no concern with regard to our true wellbeing as rational agents.

Step Three: Remind yourself that it was determined by the whole.

Epictetus describes the third and last stage of the Stoics response as “the most decisive consideration”.  We should ask ourselves who has ordained that this should happen: “Who was it that has sent the order?”  The answer is that it was sent by God, or, if you like, it should be viewed as having been determined by the “string of causes” that constitute the universe as a whole, which Stoics call “Nature”.  The Stoic therefore tells himself: “Give it to me, then, for I must always obey the law in every particular.”  In other words, he sees events outside of his control as necessary, determined by the whole of Nature, or fated by the Will of God, and he actively accepts them as such.  This may simply be another way of stating the importance that philosophical “determinism” has for Stoics, the belief that all things happen of necessity and are caused by the totality of the universe.  When we tell ourselves that events come as no surprise, that they lie outside the domain of our concern, and that they could not have been otherwise, and form part of the unfolding pattern of universal Nature, we may achieve the wisdom and serenity in the face of adversity that Stoics aspire to, and call a “smooth flow of life.”

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