The fad machine that is the Internet occasionally produces some surprises. Cat videos — anyone could have seen that coming. But Stoicism, an ancient philosophy often caricatured as promoting an emotionless, Spock-like austerity?
Granted, Stoicism has not taken the world by storm quite like cat videos. (Sharing quotes by philosophers over lunch with your colleagues just doesn’t seem to elicit the same kind of glee. Believe me, I’ve tried.) But the current popularity of Stoicism is nonetheless impressive.
There are several blogs dedicated to promoting the modern relevance of this philosophy like Daily Stoic, Modern Stoicism, BE STOIC | be happy, How to think like a Roman Emperor, A Stoic Guide, and What is Stoicism?.
And where there are blogs, there are usually books. One of the most prolific writers in this vein is Ryan Holiday, who has authored titles like The Daily Stoic (and companion journal), The Obstacle is the Way, and Ego is the Enemy. But there are droves of others, such as The Little Book of Stoicism, The Practicing Stoic, Stoicism for Beginners, and Practical Stoicism.
Among Stoicism’s most influential boosters at the moment is Tim Ferriss, whose support has virtually ensured the philosophy’s prominence among people interested in optimizing their life and work.
This surge into prominence strikes me, on balance, as a good thing. Caricatures aside, Stoicism teaches how to mitigate our tendency to swing into negative emotions like jealousy, disappointment, or fear by mastering the thoughts that produce them. It’s a highly practical philosophy bent on helping people to live well though achieving a kind of noble calm.
And it has made a considerable difference in the lives of many people, including mine. James Stockdale’s account of how this philosophy sustained him as a prisoner of war in Vietnam provides one compelling example, and it’s worth noting that Stoicism even has affinity with one of the most common and effective forms of psychological therapy.
But the popular enthusiasm for Stoicism — as with with popular enthusiasm for anything — risks slackening critical thought, emphasizing all the positive features without considering whether this philosophy has any negative ones that should balance our approach.
And to my mind, there is a gap in Stoicism that may amplify the emotional misery it seeks to mitigate.
An outline of Stoicism
To appreciate that gap, it could help to go over two core principles of Stoic thought. (To keep things simple, I’ll quote from just one philosopher, Epictetus, but his writings are broadly representative.)
The first is a view of how emotions work.
By and large, Stoics think that feeling follows thought. Every experience makes impressions on us, but these impressions are neutral until we apply some evaluative judgment to them. We experience positive emotions when we consider our situation to be good and negative emotions when we consider our situation to be bad. According to Epictetus, “people are put off by nothing so much as what they think is unreasonable, and attracted to nothing more than what to them seems reasonable.” (Discourses I.2)
This view of emotion is not universally accepted; a variety of alternative theories exist. But the view does have intuitive appeal. Recall, for instance, the wildly different reactions that you and some of your classmates may have had to receiving a B in school. Some may have been devastated, while others may have been overjoyed. Your own reaction depended largely on whether you considered the grade good or bad for you.
The power of this view may be less about explaining where every emotion comes from than about empowering people to control them. If you find yourself afflicted by negative emotions in connection with a particular situation, you may not be able to alter the situation itself, but you can alter how you think about it. And if you can alter how you think about it, you may achieve what you would have wanted from the altered situation: a state of greater calm.
The second principle supports that move by altering how we think about “good” and “bad” in the first place.
People use these terms to describe far more situations than they should. According to Epictetus, they really apply to one’s moral character, not to the external features of a situation. Here he is again:
“The essence of good and evil consists in the condition of our character. And externals are the means by which our character finds its particular good and evil. It finds its good by not attaching value to the means…Who is there left for me to fear, and over what has he control? Not what is in my power, because no one controls that except myself. As for what is not in my power, in that I take no interest.” (Discourses I.29)
If you act with cowardice, say, by compromising your principles for professional advantage on a tyrant’s staff, that’s bad. If you act courageously by speaking out against the tyrant, that’s good. But if the tyrant fires you or throws you in jail for speaking out, that’s neither good nor bad — at least from the standpoint of one’s character. Instead, it belongs in a third category: the indifferent.
This is essentially a distinction between what we can control and what we can’t.
The thing about character, according to most Stoics, is that it’s always under our control. All sorts of things can happen to us, but nothing short of death can take away our power to choose how we engage with a situation. By contrast, the situations themselves are often well beyond our control.
These two principles can come together in a daily practice of reflection that — in general — conduces to calm: Suppose you feel distressed by something. You should try to articulate the beliefs you hold about it. Specifically, consider what features you have judged to be bad. Then ask yourself whether those features are within your control. If they are, very well. Your distress may be a reaction to your character flaws, and such reactions can support ongoing growth. But if the situation is beyond your control, your task is to adjust your thinking. Say to yourself, “This situation isn’t good or bad. It just is.” Bit by bit, you redirect your circle of concern to the things most truly within your control.
This practice is embodied in a popular prayer, recited at the start of every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
But what about when the difference is unclear?
Stoicism relies on a neat distinction between things we can control and things we can’t, but in many cases, we have partial control. Your actions may contribute to an outcome, but not definitively. You are just one element in a more complex causal chain.
A banner example of partial control is climate change.
On one hand, we really do contribute to its severity in proportion to the carbon emissions of our lifestyle. If you live in a tent, walk to work, and eat a local, vegetarian diet, you are objectively better for the planet than someone who lives in a McMansion in the suburbs, flies business class every week for work, and eats hamburgers at fast food chains. Extra points if your tent is near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and you work as a highly effective campaigner for corporations and governments to slash their emissions.
On the other hand, no single person is helpful or harmful enough to determine the course of climate change on their own. Planetary warming is the outcome of systems, created by a transnational web of policies, fed by millions of individual actions. And apart from systems-level change, we will stay on course for tremendous harm.
Recognizing partial control is important because it creates a dilemma in which noble, Stoic calm is impossible.
We could concentrate on how little control we have over the outcome, shrug our shoulders, and do whatever the hell we want to maximize our pleasure and convenience. That’s a calm of sorts, but gotten on the cheap — ignobly, one might say. And I suspect that at least a twinge of bad conscience follows most people who adopt that course.
We could instead concentrate on the element of control, and live as though everything depended on us. But that, too, could be detrimental. For one thing, there’s a risk that this single pursuit could subsume everything else of value in our lives. You may have known activists who have made themselves insufferable and one-dimensional in pursuit of their cause. And as we kick against an intractable machine long enough without much to show for it, there’s a chance that fervor can move into abject disenchantment.
Few of us go to either extreme, but elements of this conflict seep into everyday life, without a neat and obvious solution.
Now, someone through and through committed to Stoicism might respond to this with a couple counter-arguments.
The first counter-argument might accuse me of misunderstanding Stoicism. The emphasis on control is really a shorthand to focus our attention on our character as opposed to external affairs — and character is just a subset of all the things we can control. The issue with partial control arises when we lose that focus; it never applies to character.
But this counter-argument equates the focus on character with turning away from external affairs, which seems untenable. As the serenity prayer suggests, an entailment of courage — a matter of character if ever there was one — is to change the things you can. Character is not just about calibrating how you think and feel about your situation in passive detachment, but about proper engagement. Hence the vigorous political activity for which ancient Stoics like Cicero and Seneca are famous.
The second counter-argument might, instead, contest my concept of partial control as being too muddy. The concept is really a high-level summary of complex situations that have elements of both control and its lack, but even in those situations, we can often disentangle the elements.
Sometimes it can be as straightforward as distinguishing inputs (which we control) from outcomes (which we don’t). The task of good character would be to consider the inputs we’re responsible for, act on those to the best of our ability, and resign ourselves to whatever follows. In the climate change example, we would focus on moderating our own emissions and attempting to influence systems-level decisions to the best of our ability, all while knowing that we are but one person.
There’s wisdom in that argument. In larger matters especially, we all have to make a judgment call about what we should reasonably do.
But that call is always, to some extent, arbitrary and therefore unstable. If you draw a line for yourself in one place, you know that you could easily have drawn it a bit further out, beyond your current level of exertion. Such knowledge may gnaw at you until you do in fact revise the line and begin the work of evaluation again, without rest.
I led this section with a big example like climate change because it’s fairly easy to understand the dynamics of partial control there. But another example, one more consequential for everyday life, further illustrates why partial control makes it difficult to find serenity.
For that, I’d point to our relationships with people we love.
One crucial aspect of these relationships is attempting to make life go well for people. If a relationship is to have any longevity, we move beyond just enjoying someone’s company and toward actively benefiting them in concrete ways. Maybe it’s just listening when they’re troubled. Or maybe you stretch yourself financially to help them achieve a goal. However it manifests itself, love draws us into acting on whatever is within our control. And to some extent, we can be effective.
But we also encounter the limits of control in love, sometimes poignantly. First and foremost is the need for restraint. Attempt to control too much in your beloved’s life and you become a tyrant — even if you began with (so you tell yourself) the best of intentions. And then there’s the impossibility of ensuring the outcomes we would like for our beloved. There are just too many factors in play — their responses to our support, the role of others in their lives, whims of fate, and so on.
This partial control can trouble us because love invests us in outcomes, in life really going well for the people we care about.
A quick thought experiment can help to illustrate the point.
Suppose someone smashes the window of my parked car, searching for something to steal. (This actually happened recently.) The repair expenses, lost items, and all-around inconvenience make this a misfortune, by any account. But it’s easy enough to perform a Stoic meditation and classify the event as something outside my control, indifferent to me. Though I would prefer that it hadn’t happened and continue to take as many precautions as I can, I also know that things like this come with being a city-dweller, like an occasional, extreme weather pattern from which no one can decisively shield themselves, and there is no point in getting upset over something like that.
Now alter the picture a bit. Suppose that person searching for something to steal were to assault my spouse and leave her grievously injured in an alleyway. This, too, would be outside my control — as far outside as the smashed car window. As before, I could say to myself that things like this happen on occasion, and no one can decisively shield themselves from them. But despite all that, I could never consider the event indifferent. I care too much about my spouse for that to be remotely possible. Her injuries would be my injuries.
Love invests us in outcomes, even when we cannot control them. In fact, it typically guides us into situations of partial control, whose outcomes are inherently uncertain. This is obviously true for relationships, but it’s also what leads us to care about things like, say, climate change.
This suggests some very high stakes for the discussion.
For someone swept into the popular enthusiasm for Stoicism, it would be tempting to map — or force-fit — the world into categories of things you can control and things you can’t. I don’t think people would necessarily be robotic about this. But philosophies — especially those like Stoicism, geared toward meditative practice — tend to be jealous for mental space; once adopted, they rub against contrary ideas until one of them cedes ground.
An extreme (though not inconceivable) outcome of this approach would be to force-fit into those two categories anything with partial control. For matters of environmental concern, that may just lead to poor adjustment to the situation. But for love, which necessarily walks a line between control and its lack, force-fitting would turn love into something else entirely, either the tyranny of too much control or the coldness of too little engagement.
Put most starkly: You can have perfect Stoic calm. Or you can have love. But you cannot have both.
How then to live
This doesn’t mean that we should write off Stoicism completely. For situations in which the scope of our control is clear, meditative practices like the ones I’ve described can be immensely helpful. (And other valuable Stoic practices that I haven’t described, such as pre-visualization, stand apart from the critique.)
But if we wish to have room for love and similar things of value, we have to make room for partial control.
At minimum, this means opening yourself to the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, of never being able to etch in some venerable tablet of stone the role that is yours to play in a situation, knowing that you may always be called upon to extend yourself further — or rein yourself in — and holding yourself in this discomfort despite the occasional desire to alleviate it with simpler categories for understanding your life.
More crucially, it means opening yourself to potential devastation by your investment in outcomes beyond your control — outcomes that can range, with the cruelest of swings, from mundane surprise to life-altering cataclysm. You open yourself knowing the danger involved but knowing also that, though though this openness may cost you peace, it affords a life worth living.