Whenever I get backed into a corner, stoicism usually bails me out. Now this very old discipline, which dates back to ancient Greece, gets a bad rap nowadays… even though it appears to have gained a foothold in certain circles.
Personally, I think that these criticisms miss the point. Too many get hung up on terminology, or get lost in the seeming determinism that stoicism supposedly presents. Some have found comfort in its zen-like nature till this day, however, in my humble opinion, I think that many reject stoicism simply because it runs directly against our first-world, technologically driven society.
Now, more than ever (which could be an exaggeration), we are “me” driven. And everything in the world corroborates this. Social media is a famous example. It has fueled our vanity and narcissism. And with the technological-bureaucratic-political complex (for a lack of a better description) that dominates modern society, the self has been made more static than it has ever been. (again, possibly an exaggeration)
I’m not going to beat this horse to death. I talk about this subject in pretty much every other post. But we are trapped within ourselves, and usually venues like social media provide a coping device to handle such staleness, thus fueling our narcissism. Now many, but not all, accuse stoicism of also being a selfish philosophy.
And that may indeed be some people’s interpretation.
But I’ve never seen stoicism in that light. In fact, I’d say that stoicism taught me that most people are preoccupied with themselves rather than having any concern for the welfare of others. As of right now, no one is thinking about YOU. Which sounds pessimistic, and that’s another criticism of stoicism.
HOWEVER, all of that is missing the point.
I keep saying that reality isn’t a set of static objects. It’s only through the human mind that creates a distorted version of reality which presents an unchanging world. Reality shouldn’t be viewed as a museum of observable objects, but is actually a stream that moves forward in spacetime. Therefore, the self (which includes both body AND mind) functions the same way. It’s only an illusion that the brain or some unconscious force, OR some cultural limitations (or all of the above), that creates a sense of “self”.
And because this self permeates all aspects of life, we come to view the world as a series of events that happen to US. And we attach all sorts of material objects to this ego. Our house, our car, and all of our possessions become a part of who we are. When something happens to those objects, it happens to US. THEREFORE, most of our actions are done in the name of preserving this self.
This causes us to fret over things that we cannot control. Some have interpreted stoicism as embracing a passive approach to a deterministic world. Again, this is missing the point. Stoicism, at least in my interpretation, isn’t about being passive towards the world, but about accepting things we cannot change. There’s a major difference. It isn’t about simply doing nothing and letting things happen around you. Our beings are a part of this world. The being must flow forward with the world, and not against it. Meaning, take part in action, but do not obsess in the past. Things that happened in the past are unchangeable, and are outside of our control. Therefore, embrace a possible future, and remain forever conscious in the present.
So stoicism supports a mindfulness of the here and now, which seems to echo other philosophies and religions…most notably Buddhism that also practices a form of “no-self”.
The past often becomes a burdensome anchor, that weighs us down and prevents us from growing. Too often, we can’t let go of the past because our identity is too closely tied with it. So again, we fight events in the present because we see them as an attack on the identity. Living in the past and clinging on to a static identity IS, in fact, embracing a passive and deterministic view of the world. This leads us down the path towards anxiety, vanity, and general discontent with the world as it is. We’re fighting against the stream, rather than flowing with it.
The only remedy is to remain ever conscious of the world as it is right now. We are forced to confront reality as it appears to us. This also means that we remain ever cognizant of the choices that befall us. Choice doesn’t fade in the stoic system, instead we are FORCED to live with the freedom of our choices.
This of course sounds alarmingly similar to existentialism. And it’s true. Instead of mindlessly drifting through the world, buried in the choices that were made in the past and clinging onto a false notion of self, we become FORCED to live free. It’s only when our sense of static identity is dropped do we actually achieve free will.
Because of this freedom, we become ultimately responsible for our actions. Again, echoing existentialism. No one else can be held accountable for our desires. We are also held accountable for our failures. This means that our happiness, our well-being, our shortcomings, and numerous other qualities are fully within our control. Granted, many things are not in our control. However, we can choose to accept the things that cannot be change, or we can choose to allow those things to control us. The choice is ours.
I guess we can say that passiveness is not a virtue (at least not in my own version of stoicism). But this philosophy is designed to help us see our relation to the universe and how we are to grow and change with it. NOW, I can already hear the criticism and I hope to address some of that. Some might see this “stream” as flowing into a pre-determined direction until we achieve a form of “absolute knowledge”, again making sound like a Hegelian or whatever.
I don’t support that notion, and hopefully I’ll be able to address that in the future. (And still figure out where the hell I’m going with this)