Applied Stoicism

At this link is a twenty-page description of Admiral James Stockdale’s application of Stoic ideas in a harsh environment. It is called, “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in the Laboratory of Human Behavior”:

Some highlights:

“[A] Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are ‘external,’ beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement.”

“To live under the false pretense that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; you’re asking for disappointment. So make sure in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference, not with contempt, only with indifference.”

“Consider ‘reputation,’ for example. Do what you will, reputation is as least as fickle as your station in life. Others decide what your reputation is. Try to make it as good as possible, but don’t get hooked on it. Don’t be ravenous for it and start chasing it in tighter and tighter circles.”

“For Epictetus, emotions were acts of will. Fear was not something that came out of the shadows of the night and enveloped you; he charged you with the total responsibility of starting it, stopping it, controlling it. This was one of Stoicism’s biggest demands on a person. Stoics can be made to sound like lazy brutes when they are described merely as people indifferent to most everything but good and evil, people who make stingy use of emotions like pity and sympathy. But add this requirement of total responsibility for each and every one of your emotions, and you’re talking about a person with his hands full.”

These ideas are completely fascinating, but I would part ways with them on some points.  I don’t think emotions are acts of will, and I’m not sure what specific mental acts are implied by taking responsibility for your emotions. For myself, I don’t feel ashamed of my emotions. I feel irresponsible if I act on or speak from negative emotions, but I don’t feel irresponsible merely for having them. They come; they go. They arise; they dissipate. In my own experience, mentally acknowledging negative emotions seems the best method for weakening their power. Holding in your mind an overly strict duty to control your emotions could add pressure to your inner mental life, or could set you up for inevitable failure, which could then become an additional source of stress.

This is a boiled-down list of the Stoic techniques for controlling one’s emotions or thoughts, that I know about so far. They’re quite good:

1. We have the power as thinking human beings mentally to reframe how we think about our lives and things that happen to us.

2. We can mentally reframe stressful events as opportunities for something different, or as opportunities to practice good qualities.

3. We can mentally reframe stressful events in terms of their temporary nature and insignificance in comparison to the grand sweep of history.

4. We can reframe how we think about negative events in terms of their compositional elements. For example, an insult can be thought of as a vibration in the air. 

5. We can be diligent about remembering what’s in our control and what’s not, and not getting stress if it’s something outside our control.

6. We can rehearse what could go wrong in advance. It’s unexpected events that cause some of the most unhelpful emotions, but it’s possible to prepare for these events beforehand because we know that most misfortune isn’t actually unexpected, but entirely likely, and eventually, for some things, like death, certain. There is a passage in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, saying that when you wake up in the morning, remind yourself of all the negative people you might encounter during the day. The idea, as I understand it, is that should you actually encounter any of them, you won’t feel taken by surprise and overreact.  

7. We can remember the implications of the temporary nature of life–I found a version of this idea in both Marcus Aurelius and Victor Frankl–which are that the only thing really worth living for  is compassion and kindness to other people. 


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