Response: Why is Silicon Valley so Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering?

I’ve just read the op ed Why Is Silicon Valley So Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering? by Nellie Bowles in The New York Times.

This won’t be a long response. The essence of her argument appears to be that Stoicism advocates self-inflicted suffering and that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are obsessed with it for that reason. Of course, the premise is false. Stoicism does not advocate self-imposed suffering. Her examples are things like the following:

They [Silicon Valley types] sit in painful, silent meditations for weeks on end. They starve for days — on purpose. Cold morning showers are a bragging right. Notoriety is a badge of honor.

Stoics didn’t sit in painful, silent meditation for weeks on end. They didn’t normally seek notoriety either. Some modern followers of Stoicism, myself included, fast. That’s not the same as starving yourself. Lots of people fast for health reasons and thereby develop self-discipline and acquire other benefits. The Stoics would be against unhealthy forms of fasting, which is what I take “starving” yourself to mean. The ancient Stoics didn’t take cold showers but they did sometimes bathe in cold water. Some modern Stoics, myself included, regularly take cold showers. That’s hardly unusual either – so do lots of other people. It’s healthy, it wakes you up better than a cup of coffee, and it arguably leads to a greater ability to endure cold and other forms of physical discomfort. (I’m pretty happy walking around Toronto without a jacket in the snow because it doesn’t feel very cold to me, although everyone else seems to be wrapped up in thick jackets.) So people don’t do it just to “suffer” but because it’s good for them both in terms of physical health in terms of developing strength of character and self-discipline, etc.

Not all modern Stoics take cold showers or fast, though – I’m guessing less than 5% of them do. The ones who do are no more “obsessed with suffering” than are people who do Pilates, lift weights, walk long distances, go camping in the wilderness, or follow diets. Lots of people do things that require self-discipline and endurance because they consider them healthy or beneficial in certain respects. The Stoics don’t follow regimes in terms of eating, sleeping, or exercising primarily to improve their physical health. They’re supposed to be doing it mainly to improve their character by developing self-control and endurance, etc. However, they choose disciplines that are healthy rather than ones that are unhealthy because physical health is a “preferred indifferent” in Stoicism, i.e., something that’s preferable to its opposite despite not being among the most important things in life. If you’re going to develop self-discipline, in other words, you might as well train yourself to do something healthy rather than unhealthy, even if health isn’t your main reason for doing it.

Anyway, we’re clearly told that this is an article about Stoicism…

So the most helpful clues to understanding Silicon Valley today may come from its favorite ancient philosophy: Stoicism.

A word of advice to readers… Articles like these which claim to be discussing Stoicism (or any similar topic) but make no reference whatsoever to the relevant primary sources should set alarm bells ringing. It’s not clear that the author actually researched the subject by reading the Stoics as there’s literally no mention of anything they wrote. Seriously, there’s not a single quote from a Stoic in the entire piece. Yet their philosophy is being criticized. It is, in fact, being totally misrepresented.

As for the other mistakes in the article, I’ll just cover those by providing a list with brief comments:

  • “Virtue of suffering” – Suffering is not a virtue in Stoic ethics; it would either be classed as something bad or indifferent depending on whether we’re talking about emotional suffering (pathos) or unpleasant physical sensations such as pain, cold, or discomfort.
  • Cicero – Cicero was not a Stoic but rather a follower of the rival Academic school, albeit one who admired some aspects of Stoicism. The article almost acknowledges this but not clearly enough as it seems to focus on him as it’s main historical example of a proponent of Stoicism.
  • “tenets of stoicism” – The word “stoicism” (lower-case) denotes the modern concept of a psychological personality trait or coping style in which upsetting emotions are concealed or suppressed, like having a stiff upper-lip. The word “Stoicism” (capitalized) denotes an ancient Greek school of philosophy. They’re two very different things.
  • “Stoicism has been the preferred viral philosophy ‘for a moment’ for years now — or two decades, by one count.” – I don’t know how you’d quantify this but Stoicism has gone through various periods of popularity. I’d say the seeds of it’s modern resurgence were planted in the late 1950s with, among other things, the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy, during which authors such as Albert Ellis drew inspiration from Stoicism in developing modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). That reinvigorated interest in Stoicism as a form of psychological self-help from the 1980s onward around the time CBT went mainstream. (Indeed, publication data from Google Ngram shows that the popularity of Stoicism began rising in the late 1970s, four decades ago.)
  • “Stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome” – There’s no question that Stoicism was popular with wealthy and powerful Roman elites. However, it’s not a “Roman” thing. Right from the very outset, early Greek Stoicism was popular with the ruling elite. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, taught King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia and other early Greek Stoics had wealthy and powerful students. Moreover, Stoicism was not confined to the elite. Zeno, by some accounts, lost his fortune at sea and lived like a beggar. Cleanthes, his successor as head of the school, was an ex-boxer who watered gardens at night to earn a living. Epictetus, the most famous Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, was a crippled former slave who lived in relative poverty.
  • “Joe Lonsdale […] sexual abuse” – This comes across as an ad hominem argument against the philosophy, i.e., one of the figures the author associates with Stoicism in the article has been criticized on the grounds listed. How does that actually reflect on Stoicism, though? Is Joe Lonsdale even a Stoic? (Not as far as I’m aware after searching on Google.) Is this meant to discredit Stoicism through some kind of guilt by association?
  • “Cicero Institute” – The whole article seems to be premised on the notion that the Cicero Institute has got something to do with Stoicism. Does it, though? I can’t actually see any mention of Stoicism anywhere on their website despite using a Google site search for the keyword .

Marcus Aurelius on Hadrian

Hadrian

In book one of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius lists the traits and virtues he most admired in sixteen of his tutors and family members. The person he has by far the most to say about is his adoptive father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, who served as his main role model as emperor. However, Marcus has nothing to say about the virtues of Emperor Hadrian, his adoptive grandfather.

I talk in more detail about the ways in which Marcus apparently sought to be different from Hadrian, and more like Antoninus Pius, in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Many of the things Marcus says he admires about Antoninus can be viewed as implicit criticisms of Hadrian, despite the fact he’s passing over him in silence.

Nevertheless, Marcus does mention Hadrian elsewhere in The Meditations, albeit mainly to illustrate the transience of all things including human life. Hadrian died over three decades before the time when The Meditations was presumably written.

Although Marcus knew Hadrian as a child, his name now sounds old-fashioned as if it refers to a bygone era.

The everyday expressions of earlier times are now archaic; and likewise the names of those who were highly acclaimed in earlier ages are now, in a sense, archaic; Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and a little later, Scipio too and Cato, and then Augustus also, and then Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things are swift to fade and become mere matter for tales, and swiftly too complete oblivion covers their every trace. And here I am speaking of those who shone forth with a wonderful brightness; as for all the rest, the moment that they breathed their last, they were ‘out of sight, out of mind’. And what does it amount to, in any case, everlasting remembrance? Sheer vanity and nothing more. What, then, is worthy of our striving? This alone, a mind governed by justice, deeds directed to the common good, words that never lie, and a disposition that welcomes all that happens, as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same kind of origin and spring. (4.33)

Here again, Hadrian is used along with Augustus as an example of a man of great importance who is nevertheless now dead and gone.

First of all, be untroubled in your mind; for all things come about as universal nature would have them, and in a short while you will be no one and nowhere, as are Hadrian and Augustus. And next, keep your eyes fixed on the matter in hand and observe it well, remembering that it is your duty to be a good person, and that whatever human nature demands, you must fulfil without the slightest deviation and in the manner that seems most just to you; only do so with kindness and modesty, and without false pretences. (8.5)

Here Hadrian’s death is mentioned and that he was buried by a man called Celer. Domitia Lucilla was Marcus’ mother and Marcus Annius Verus his father.

Lucilla buried Verus, and Lucilla’s turn came next […] Antoninus buried Faustina, and his own turn came next. And so it goes on, ever the same: Celer buried Hadrian, and Celer’s turn came next. […] All creatures of a day, and dead long ago; some not remembered even for a passing moment, others becoming the stuff of legend, and others again fading from legend at this very time. So remember this, that either this compound which makes you up must be dispersed, or else your breath of life must be extinguished or be removed from here and stationed somewhere else. (8.25)

Here Marcus refers to men called Chabrias and Diotimus mourning the death of Hadrian.

Pantheia or Pergamos, are they still sitting by the coffin of Verus? Or Chabrias or Diotimus by that of Hadrian? What an absurd thought. And even if they were, would the dead be aware of it? And if they became aware of it, would it bring them any pleasure? And if it brought them pleasure, would their mourners be immortal? Or were they not fated like others first to become old women and old men, and then to die? So what would the dead do afterwards, when their mourners had passed away? (8.37)

Finally, Marcus actually encourages himself to visualize the court of Hadrian and notice how the same things come about over and over again throughout history, albeit in different guises.

Constantly reflect on how all that comes about at present came about just the same in days gone by, and reflect that it will continue to do so in the future; and set before your eyes whole dramas and scenes ever alike in their nature which you have known from your own experience or the records of earlier ages, the whole court of Hadrian, say, or of Antoninus, the whole court of Philip, or Alexander, or Croesus; for in every case the play was the same, and only the actors were different. (10.27)

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Other Books on Stoicism: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Here are some other modern books on Stoicism that Amazon says are popular with people who pre-ordered my How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber

The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot

A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine

The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth

Live from Carnuntum: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Carnuntum Museum in Austria

I’m delighted to announce a special event to celebrate the publication of my latest book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

I’ll be travelling to Austria for the anniversary of Marcus Aurelius’ death on 17th March and staying in Vienna, where he died (according to some accounts). I’ll also be staying at the Marc Aurel hotel at nearby Carnuntum, the site of the Roman fortress from which Marcus commanded the legions during the Marcomannic Wars, the location where he says he wrote The Meditations.

I’ll be broadcasting videos, creating exclusive content, and doing Ask Me Anything events live from these locations in Austria. (Thanks are due to Adam Piercey, who will be assisting me and shooting video during the trip.)

I’ll be in Vienna on 15th and 16th March. I’ll then in Carnuntum, from 17th-22nd March. Carnuntum is the site of several archeological sites and a museum whose staff have agreed to provide support and answer interview questions about the history of the site for this event.

If you’re a podcaster, vlogger, or blogger, and want to interview me about Marcus Aurelius, or Stoicism, live from either Vienna or Carnuntum, please get in touch now to make arrangements.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Kindle Edition: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2nd edition)

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised)

The revised second edition of Teach Yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is now available on Kindle.

There’s a temporary glitch with the Amazon.com paperback listing’s link to the Kindle so it’s easier to find if you follow the link below.

Kindle Edition: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

Stoic Philosophy as a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

The Behavior Therapist

The latest edition of The Behavior Therapist journal, includes an article I co-authored with Trent Codd titled ‘Stoic Philosophy as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.’

Our aim was to provide a clear description of the relationship between Stoicism and CBT, addressing professional psychotherapists working in this field. We also wanted to make a case for the potential value of Stoicism to their work, particularly in relation to the promise Stoicism holds as a preventative approach, i.e., a form of long-term emotional resilience training.

The full journal is available online, with the article on pages 42-50. I’ve provided a couple of short excerpts below to give a flavour of the content.

Excerpt from the Introduction

Socrates considered philosophy to be, among other things, a form of talking therapy, a sort of medicine for the mind. Within a few generations of his death, this idea of philosophy as psychotherapy had become commonplace among the various schools of Hellenistic philosophy. However, it was the Stoics who placed most emphasis on this therapeutic dimension of philosophy. For example, the Roman Stoic teacher Epictetus wrote, “It is more necessary for the soul to be cured than the body, for it is better to die than to live badly” (Fragments, 32), and he stated bluntly, “the philosopher’s school is a doctor’s clinic” (Discourses, 3.23.30). Today, though, most people are unaware of the extent to which ancient Greeks and Romans conceived of philosophy as a type of psychological therapy.

From the Conclusion

The very fact that Stoicism is bigger and deeper than CBT in its aim to provide a philosophy of life perhaps gives us reason to believe that its benefits may be more lasting than those of existing CBT-based resilience training programs. People who study Stoicism embrace it as part of their life rather than viewing it merely as a set of coping techniques, which they might later forget if they don’t repeat their initial training. Stoicism offers people a permanent alternative to their existing worldview, one aligned with CBT in many regards, which might provide a framework for changes that could endure long after initial exposure to them through books and courses. Our hope, therefore, is that in the future research may be conducted on the potential applications of combined Stoicism and CBT-based training courses as a form of long-term emotional resilience-building.

Excerpt: The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth

Ward Farnsworth The Practicing Stoic

I’m very grateful to Donald Robertson for allowing me to appear on his great blog! I’d like to use the chance to show you Stoically-inclined readers a bit from my new book The Practicing Stoic; perhaps some will find it interesting enough to check out the whole thing. The excerpt below suggests that Stoicism usually seeks to help us toward the sensibility, and toward the kinds of reactions to things, that would come naturally if we had longer experience of them. In effect the philosophy is a substitute for the passage of time. This helps explain the Stoic approach to emotion and compassion. A good Stoic reacts to suffering in the way that a veteran of it would be expected to react: with feeling and action, but probably without much emotion. That’s the synopsis; here’s the discussion—

* * *

I’d like to discuss a criticism that is sometimes made of Stoics. The criticism comes in response to this advice from Epictetus (or to other Stoic claims that resemble it):

When you see someone weeping in sorrow, either because his child goes abroad or his property is lost, don’t let yourself get carried away by the impression that he is suffering because of those external things. Hold this thought in mind: “what afflicts him is not what has happened, because it wouldn’t affect someone else the same way; what afflicts him is his opinion about it.” So far as words go, don’t hesitate to sympathize with him, or even to groan with him if he groans. But take care not to groan inside as well. —Epictetus, Enchiridion 16

That passage provoked this response from Joseph Addison much later:

As the Stoic philosophers discard all passions in general, they will not allow a wise man so much as to pity the afflictions of another. If thou seest thy friend in trouble, says Epictetus, thou mayst put on a look of sorrow, and condole with him, but take care that thy sorrow be not real. . . . For my own part, I am of opinion, compassion does not only refine and civilize human nature, but has something in it more pleasing and agreeable than what can be met with in such an indolent happiness, such an indifference to mankind as that in which the Stoics placed their wisdom. —Addison, The Spectator no. 397 (1712)

Addison’s claim epitomizes a standard criticism of the Stoics—that their philosophy is heartless and at odds with compassion. The accomplished Stoic, if such a person ever did exist, might offer words of consolation but would feel nothing (it is said) for anyone else. The Stoic cannot care about others, or about the world, because that is a form of attachment to externals. This is all a misunderstanding. The Stoics do not condemn feeling. In important ways they endorse it. Stoics value compassion, detest indolence, and are committed to service to mankind—the opposite of what Addison thinks they want. But the Stoic would unhook these commitments from inner distress over any given case. For why stop with that case? There is cause for such distress in every direction, and meanwhile it distracts from the big picture and from anything constructive one might do about it. So yes, the Stoics consider feelings of pity unhelpful to anyone; but their aim is to do the same things without such pity that others would do on account of it. Epictetus’s way of putting the point might sound a bit harsh, but his conclusion isn’t much different in substance from this gentler line from Epicurus:

Let us share our friends’ suffering not with grief but with thoughtful understanding. —Epicurus, Vatican Sayings 66

Still, I would prefer not to defend the Stoics by saying that Addison didn’t read enough of them. There is plenty to refute him in what the Romans said, but diligent searching might find language elsewhere that gives support to some variation on his case. We at least have seen that Stoicism need not entail any of his conclusions. Instead of dwelling further on comparisons of one quotation to another, I would rather use his criticism as a chance to think further about the place of feeling and compassion in Stoicism, or anyway in the variety of it this book offers.

What Stoics wish to avoid are emotions or other states that interfere with the ability to see the world accurately—states of feeling, in other words, that get in the way of reason and arise from (or create) attachment to externals. Stoics have no difficulty with states that do not have those sources and effects. As a convenience, I refer to the good or unobjectionable states as feelings as distinct from emotions. The difference between feeling and emotion is important—or the difference, however it might better be worded, between those states that oust reason and those that are no threat to it and so do not trouble the Stoics. It matters because states of feeling, as so defined, may well be necessary to motivate compassion and otherwise contribute to admirable character. Emotion probably isn’t.

Let’s consider more closely the intended effect of Stoicism on the inner life of the student, and especially on the emotions, by comparing it to the effects of time. Start with the case that Addison describes: a friend stricken by terrible loss. Suppose you lived a life long enough to experience such grieving friends 1,000 times, and imagine your likely reaction when approached by the next friend—number 1,001. Not everyone reacts to repeated experience the same way, so take the most appealing scenario. Your attitude might resemble that of a doctor—a very good one, let’s say—who has had a long career of working with dying patients and their families. In the best doctor of that sort we would find kindness, warmth, and compassion. There would be feeling. But emotion would be unlikely. You would sympathize but you would not go through mourning of your own. You would have seen it all too many times for that.

So far these speculations involve no Stoicism. They are just observations about the way that long experience might affect the sensibilities of anyone. But the result of this thought experiment, if accepted, is a state of mind about the same as what the Stoics seek. The resemblance is natural. Time and experience are the teachers of life. They gradually bring about wisdom. Adam Smith said it this way:

Time, the great and universal comforter, gradually composes the weak man to the same degree of tranquility which a regard to his own dignity and manhood teaches the wise man to assume in the beginning. —Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

My claim here is the converse. If the Stoic says we are fettered to externals, or vice, or emotion, it may be as accurate to say we are fettered to our inexperience. Only the novice is inflated and grasping and fearful; but we are all novices. Life is regrettably short because it does not allow us enough trials to become as wise as we would wish. Stoic philosophy is a compensation—a substitute for time, or simulation of it. Stoicism means to offer the wisdom while skipping the repetition; it tries to get by contemplation some of the lessons, immunities, and other features of character we would acquire naturally if we lived long enough. The “wise man” of the Stoics thus resembles one who has had long experience of life—far longer, perhaps, than anyone is able to have in fact. Stoicism is the philosophy of a thousand trials.

The connection between Stoicism and the consequences of time can be extended. Think of the effect that repetition has on other emotions. What is frightening at first usually becomes nothing, or loses force, with long enough exposure. The source of the fear doesn’t change; the mind does. Or imagine making a fortune and losing it a thousand times over, or loving and grieving a thousand times. You might not stop caring about these things, and might not want to. But you would probably gain a sense of equanimity about them and meet them with a certain detachment—with feeling but with reason, and thus without emotion. Little would likely be left of greed and vanity, either, after so much gain and loss. Experience is humbling. Instead you might have other types of joy—the calm kind that comes from appreciation and understanding.

To return to the point: the absence of emotion prescribed by the Stoics in response to a thing is also what we would expect naturally from long enough exposure to it. Feeling and compassion can survive and even grow with long repetition and experience. Emotion does not. The sifting between emotion and feeling that comes naturally with experience resembles what the Stoic aims to achieve by the practice of philosophy.

Connecting the Stoic disposition to the quality of character that arises from long experience is productive in several ways. First, it helps make the Stoic ideal less otherworldly. The long-experience view allows Stoicism to be viewed as an extension of the life we know—an effort to go farther down the road of being human, not to affect godliness. Stoicism tries to give us what we would gain with more difficulty, but naturally enough, if we had more time.

Second, the experience-based view makes the goals of Stoicism more familiar and easier to understand. Everyone has had small experiences of inurement by experience and the difference between feeling and emotion that can result. We don’t need a dozen lifetimes to get the idea of it. One can compare the first experience of grief with the tenth, or the first encounter with an amusement with the fiftieth, or the first kiss with the hundredth. These experiences need not lose their meaning or be had without feeling. We might say instead, in the most attractive case, that the feelings at stake mature and change. But even then such events do eventually lose their emotional charge and become no threat to reason. There are cases in which emotional inurement is harder to come by, of course. I only mean to say that the process of it, and the qualities of the Stoic “wise man,” are familiar enough to most people on a modest scale.

Third, the long-experience view of Stoicism clarifies the Stoic ideal as admirable. In the personality formed by many trials we find the qualities of the finished Stoic represented in an attractive way. There is nothing ugly in the type of character produced by long experience, or at least nothing necessarily so. It can be unattractive; sometimes experience jades us and dulls our capacities. But there is nobility in it when joined with compassion. Stoicism demands this. It seeks to create not just the mind matured by many trials, but the best version of it—the doctor who has learned with the passage of much time to care well and energetically for the patient, not the doctor who is bored.

Fourth, viewing Stoicism as similar to long experience can help to solve some conundrums. Sometimes the general principles of the philosophy can seem tricky to apply to particular facts. Stoics discourage the emotion of anger, but what if you are the victim of some grotesque injustice? Isn’t it then right to be angry—and maybe even important, since the anger will motivate efforts to stop the injustice from happening again? One can reason through that kind of problem with precepts that this book has discussed. You might say that the Stoic cares about justice and doesn’t need anger to motivate a reply to a violation of it, etc. But our current idea offers a shortcut. If you want to react to injustice like a Stoic, react like someone who knows it by long experience—not someone who has adapted to injustice and no longer cares, but perhaps someone whose life’s work is the correction of it. Those sorts of people, in my own experience, tend to meet injustice with feeling but little emotion. Their equilibrium isn’t upset by a fresh case of wrongdoing. They deal with it too often to respond that way. They are resolute, tough, and active in style; and (to return to our question) when the injustice afflicts someone else, they are highly compassionate. They have, for these purposes, become natural Stoics. The best lawyers can be like this.

We can end this part of the discussion by reversing our earlier thought experiment. You are grieving and can be consoled by either of two friends: one for whom your calamity is a new experience, and who is full of emotion about it on seeing your grief; or one who has seen it a thousand times, and so has warm and caring feeling but not emotion. I would take the second, but at any rate see no basis for admiring the first one more. The second one is the Stoic.

* * *

That is enough about heartlessness. By way of addendum, though, I wish to spend a few more words on the relationship between Stoicism and experience; for the discussion a moment ago mentioned some tradeoffs that deserve further comment. If experience erodes emotion, some might consider the erosion a loss, and then dread repetition precisely because emotions don’t survive it. One can think of cases where those who have been through an experience many times may seem less wise with respect to it. They can’t see it freshly; they barely notice it; they don’t appreciate it. They have been corrupted by adaptation.

It might be fairest to say there are different types of wisdom, or sensibilities helpful on different occasions. There is the sensibility of the veteran who has seen it (whatever it is) too many times to be emotional but has other advantages: perspective, good judgment, and the ease and warmth that arise from long familiarity and knowledge. Those are great virtues. They are central to Stoicism. But they aren’t the only ones, and aren’t always the ones most wanted even by a Stoic. There is also the sensibility of the newcomer to a subject—one who has the advantages of the amateur, such as appreciation of what is at hand.

These claims about the effects of experience and inexperience can be restated in terms referenced earlier in the book. The Stoic seeks the most useful perspective on all occasions. I have emphasized here that, with respect to emotion and adversity, Stoics want the kind of wisdom that we associate with long experience. But in certain settings they seek, in effect, the attitude of the newcomer.

“When then shall I see Athens again and the Acropolis?” Wretch, are you not content with what you see daily? Have you anything better or greater to see than the sun, the moon, the stars, the whole earth, the sea? —Epictetus, Discourses 2.16.32

Don’t imagine having things that you don’t have. Rather, pick the best of the things that you do have and think of how much you would want them if you didn’t have them. —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.27

In effect we can distinguish two kinds of mistakes. We fail to appreciate some things because they are too familiar. We overreact to others because they aren’t familiar enough. In the first case we suffer because we can’t see old things as a first-timer would. In the second we suffer because can’t see new things as a long-timer would. The Stoic is more concerned with the second kind of mistake than the first, but understands them both and tries to move from one point of view to another as appropriate to the situation.

One can revisit many topics in this book and reinterpret them according to how much repetition (of a hypothetical kind) would be found in the ideal mindset for dealing with them. Acceptance and satisfaction, and therefore detachment from desire, can often be furthered by the newcomer’s perspective—by learning to see familiar things as if they weren’t familiar, and to touch them without callouses on our fingers. That same perspective can help us see that a convention is idiotic or unjust in ways too familiar to be commonly perceived. Emotion and adversity (and sometimes desires, too) call for the opposite view—that is, for an attitude toward the subjects of those states that would be found in someone with long experience of them. When considering whatever one loves or hates—when considering any reaction to anything—it is instructive to ask how much of it is owed to the number of times one has encountered the subject, whether it be many or few.

* * *

Stoicism should not be overestimated. Reflection cannot produce all the qualities of character and feeling that long experience does, nor can it reverse them, which may be harder still. But Stoicism should not be underestimated, either, because reflection can help with some of this. The point may be seen in settings that do not involve emotion as well as in those that do. When one has studied novelty and thought about it for a sufficiently long time that it loses charm and is less likely to cause you to do foolish things, that is Stoicism, and it is to the good. (Or replace “novelty” with “luxury” or “status”—all the same.) The alternative is to be taken in by novelty again and again until it is finally drained of its charm by many hard lessons about its unimportance, maybe late in life. The sage saves the trouble.

Ward Farnsworth The Practicing Stoic

New: Introducing How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Free email course! I’m pleased to announce a brand new email course based on my forthcoming book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Follow the link and submit your details to join. You’ll receive weekly emails with free videos, excerpts, comics, and loads of other resources about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which you’ll be able to discuss with other participants. Look forward to seeing you on the course!

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