Twenty-First Century Stoic -- Stoic Transformation

This is the third and final essay, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the first essay and the second essay.)

Zeno of Citium, the Greek philosopher who first formulated Stoicism in 300 B.C., said that as you advanced in your Stoic practice, you would be transformed in certain ways. He claimed, for example, that there would be a change in your dream life. For years after I started practicing Stoicism, though, I could detect no change in my dreams. And then, about a year ago, I had a dream that was indisputably Stoical.

In the previous essay in this series, I mentioned that I have been trying to withdraw from the "social hierarchy game" and that, as part of this effort, I have been trying to reduce the extent to which I engage in self-promotion in conversations and e-mails. In my Stoical dream, I was walking to meet a friend for lunch. While I walked, I thought about some good news I had just received: "It will be fun sharing this with my friend." But then I realized that my primary motive for sharing this news would be to make myself look good in the eyes of my friend. It amounted, in other words, to a fairly blatant form of self-promotion. "Better to keep the news to myself," I concluded.

That was when I awoke and realized, with some delight, that I had just had a dream in which I was putting my Stoic practice to work. In other words, my conscious practice of Stoicism had apparently succeeded in altering the subconscious portion of my mind that serves as screenwriter for my dreams. This phenomenon, although surprising, was only one of the surprising side-effects of my practice of Stoicism. Allow me to describe some of the others.

Life throws curveballs: your affairs are moving along splendidly when some obstacle is suddenly introduced. Maybe a windstorm strikes your home, and you are without power for a week. Maybe you are at the airport when it is announced that your flight is delayed for hours. Or maybe a routine medical examination reveals that you have a serious disease. Most people respond to such curveballs with disappointment and anger.

The practice of Stoicism, though, gives us tools for dealing with life's unpleasant surprises. It is important, say the Stoics, to keep in mind that however bad your situation is, it could almost certainly be worse. (In doing this, of course, we are engaging in negative visualization.) It is also important to keep in mind that, however difficult your life may be, there is almost certainly someone, somewhere who would love to be living your life. Along these lines, realize that a paraplegic is living the quadriplegic's dream.

But according to Stoic philosopher Seneca, the practice of Stoicism, besides preparing us for life's curveballs, can have the curious effect of making us wish that one of them would be thrown our way. To understand this phenomenon, we need to keep in mind that Stoics spend considerable time and energy developing their ability to respond to life's challenges. If life is kind to them, though, and never presents them with such challenges, Stoics can feel frustrated and might, as a result, find themselves wishing that a challenge would come their way.

Stoics resemble, in other words, a football player who has trained hard all season but has never been put in a game. This player and the unchallenged Stoic might both long for an opportunity to put their training to work.

As a result, if life does throw a curveball at a Stoic, instead of being disappointed and angry, he is likely to perk up: "Aha! A Stoic test! At last, Coach has put me in a game!" Meeting a predicament with this frame of mind changes everything. Consider again the situation in which people at an airport are waiting for an airplane that has been delayed. Many passengers will pout, complain, or engage in angry tirades, but the Stoic will instead devote his energy to figuring out how best to prevent this challenge from disrupting his tranquillity.

Life's curveballs also represent an opportunity for a Stoic to judge the extent to which he has succeeded in acquiring the character traits that he, as a Stoic, will have been trying to develop. Was he kind in a situation that called for kindness? Was he courageous in a situation that called for courage? If he ends up scoring well on a "Stoic test," he will be delighted, even though the test itself might have been quite unpleasant. Thus, a situation that for the other passengers will simply have been a bummer might for the Stoic be the occasion of a minor personal triumph.

Stoic-Shadow-Art-2 In my own Stoic practice, I haven't found myself longing for life to bean me with a curveball -- not yet, at any rate. I have, however, experienced the phenomenon of perking up on being thrown one. I have also gone out of my way to experience challenges that, while not on a par with the sort of challenges life can present, nevertheless provide me with a chance to practice my Stoic techniques for dealing with life's curveballs.

Along these lines, I have taken up competitive rowing, a sport that presents me with interesting albeit "artificial" challenges. It tests, for example, my self-discipline and perseverance, my ability to withstand both mental and physical discomfort, and on rare occasion, my courage. Such athletic challenges pale in comparison to, say, the challenge of being informed that one has a serious illness; at the same time, successfully dealing with these lesser challenges is doubtless good training for the curveballs I might experience in the remainder of my life.

Let me describe some of the other ways in which I have been transformed by the practice of Stoicism. In the previous essay, I asserted that if we withdraw from the social hierarchy game, it will have a profound effect on our material desires. I am evidence for the truth of this assertion. I have substantially (but by no means entirely) withdrawn myself from this game, and it has had a profound impact on my desire for "stuff."

Indeed, I have become dysfunctional as a consumer. Drag me to a mall, and I am unlikely to buy anything. To the contrary, I will probably respond by standing there, staring in astonishment at all the things for sale that I not only don't need and not only don't want, but can't even imagine myself wanting.

Along similar lines, I have lost the desire I once had to own a "desirable" car. I currently drive a 1997 Honda Civic that I bought used. I not only don't mind driving this car but have reached the curious stage at which I am convinced that the acquisition of a "cool car" would have at best zero impact on my happiness -- meaning that it not only wouldn't make me happier but might even have the effect of making me less happy.

It is true, I realize, that some people will look down on me for being satisfied with such a car. Thanks to my withdrawal from the social hierarchy game, though, I no longer feel the need to win the approval of these individuals. In fact, if someone refuses to talk to me because of the car I drive, he is probably doing me a favor by shunning me: I suspect that I would have little to gain from conversation with such an individual.

My withdrawing from the social hierarchy game has also had another curious side-effect: besides changing how I relate to other people, it seems to have changed how they relate to me. Before becoming a Stoic, I assumed that the best way to befriend people was to do things calculated to win their admiration -- in other words, to play the social hierarchy game with great skill. My subsequent experience, though, has led me to wonder whether the opposite is the case.

It is difficult to befriend someone who insults you or who clearly thinks of himself as socially superior to you. If you withdraw from the social hierarchy game, though, you will suppress both your insulting tendencies and your self-promotional tendencies. People will therefore come to regard you as "socially safe" -- as an individual, that is, against whom they don't have to compete in the battle for position on the social hierarchy. Such social non-combatants will presumably be easier to talk to, easier to confide in, and even easier to befriend than an ardent social gamer would.

Practicing Stoicism is supposed to make our lives less irritating. I have found that it serves this function admirably, although I certainly wouldn't claim that it has eliminated the old sources of irritation from my life. In fact, it has introduced one entirely new source.

In the previous essay in this series, I explained how, by practicing insult pacifism, I was able to remove much of the sting from insults directed at me. I also discovered, though, that this defense wasn't perfect: on occasion, people's insults managed to pierce my Stoic defenses and get under my skin. On these occasions, I would find myself, hours later, still thinking about the event and what I should have said to my insulter. The cases in question even affected my sleep: at bedtime, I would succeed in pushing insult-related thoughts out of my mind, only to have them rush back in.

Then it dawned on me that, thanks to my practice of Stoicism, I was experiencing what might be called meta-irritation: besides being irritated by the insults, I was irritated that these insults had succeeded in irritating me! If I weren't a practicing Stoic, I would not have been plagued by meta-irritations; then again, I suspect that these irritations are insignificant in comparison to the additional irritation insults would cause me if I hadn't adopted Stoic insult-response strategies.

In connection with my discovery of meta-irritation, I should mention that practicing Stoicism has transformed me into an acute observer of myself. Thus, besides experiencing various emotions (such as feelings of irritation on being insulted), I observe the manner in which I experience those emotions (which observations may give rise to additional feelings of irritation). Besides having thoughts (about being insulted, for example), I pay attention to how I came to have those thoughts.

As a result of these last observations, I have become fully aware of how little control I have over what thoughts pop into my mind. (The mind that I own, like the cat I used to own, appears to have a mind of its own!) Unless I am careful, though, these seemingly random thoughts can end up determining how I spend my days and consequently how I spend my life.

This completes my nutshell description of Stoicism. It is, as I have explained, a philosophy of life that specifies what in life is most worth attaining and how best to pursue it. There are, to be sure, rival philosophies of life: Zen Buddhism is one of them, and turning to ancient philosophy, we find many others. Which philosophy works best for a person depends, I think, on his or her circumstances and personality.

If, as a result of reading the essays in this series, you end up choosing one of these other philosophies, I won't mind at all. I will instead feel that I have done my Stoic duty to make myself socially useful. It is far better, after all, that you live in accordance with some philosophy of life -- even if it isn't Stoicism -- than that you try to live, as most people do, with no philosophy of life at all.

(Image: detail from Hercules and the Hydra (1475), Antonio Pollaiolo)


  1. I’ve been having a really rough couple of years, and reading your essays has definitely given me some new thoughts on dealing with the curves I’ve been thrown. I will definitely be buying your book and am so grateful BoingBoing featured you. This is definitely a philosophy I had been half-heartedly practicing, but now that I know what it is and can apply it usefully I’ve already noticed changes and more tranquility. Thanks again.

  2. I am reading this book based on your first posting at Boing Boing.

    I have been dabbling around in Philosophy lately and different things have come up. I am very intrigued by Stoicism and so far am enjoying reading it. Practicing it is hard!

  3. While waiting for your book to arrive in the mail, I have been reading the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and I can’t stand his pious servility. (but that may be the politician in him speaking)

    Epictetus has some good advice for me on practical matters though. It has however strengthened my desire to get back in touch with my love for it’s great rival Epicurianism which is more in keeping with my temperament.

    Thanks however for directing my attention back to Greek thought. I can’t wait to read your book.

  4. Thanks for the great series, BB! I just spent the last hour or so reading all three articles and comments. So far I’m finding these Stoic ideals to be fascinating and worth pursuing- but I do have a question about the self-promotion aspect. I am a full-time wedding photographer, and in order to book clients, I have to do quite a bit of self-promotion. Marketing myself as a photographer is not just displaying my work, but explaining why I’m a better hire than the competition, why I’m an easy person to get along with on your wedding day, which awards I’ve won or where I’ve been published. This part of the job has always rubbed me the wrong way, but it’s seemed necessary. What advice would a stoic have for me in my current situation, or anyone applying for a job, for example? There are situations in which you’re expected to do a bit of self-promotion, aren’t there?

  5. Your mind-evaluation practice have strong resemblance to the technique that I have been taught several years back at meditation center, in Burma, during 10 days retreat. Rather than focusing on breathing process – be it concentrating on air brushing against your nose tip or inflation/deflation of belly – or focusing on particular physical object that most people accustom to, it’s a method that one’s observe its own mind. If you feel angry, be aware that you are angry;if you feel sad, be aware that you are sad and so forth. The difference is, it doesn’t have dissecting element as your practice in a sense that there’s no “why” question ensue. You don’t need to ask yourself/know why you are angry or why you are happy. The primary focus of this practice is to make practitioner aware thoughts/feelings are impermanent. For that reason, all it needs is, to be conscious about fluidity of ones own mind.

  6. It’s interesting that you assume that the only reason one could want a nice car or want to tell a friend good news is to accumulate social status.

    What if, upon opting out of the social hierarchy game and giving the matter due consideration, you decided you liked nice cars? The seats are more comfortable, the sound quality is better, they are often less finicky, and generally more pleasant to drive. Obviously, there are some very expensive and socially flashy cars that, objectively, kinda suck, and your stoicism is useful in removing desire for those, but don’t neglect the importance of figuring out what you want for your sake (rather than anybody else’s).

    A similar principle is even more profoundly present in the second example. Good news in your life is good news! It makes you excited, happy. Tell your friend about it so he can be happy for you, happy with you! If the only reason you ever tell your friends good news is to brag, I question the quality of your friendships.

    1. Desiring a nice car because it’s a well built machine is different than buying saying a BMW 5 series simply because everyone at the office owns a BMW.

      All these dynamic are played out everyday in the life of a teenager. A handful of people are aware of this while being young and are able to remember those times and use that as a template for building future relations and personality traits.

      However, most teenagers are not aware of what they do or why they feel the way they do. My best friend and I didn’t like most people in high school, we were to some degree the asocial outcasts. (Even though I knew a large majority a kids in my class and could easily talk to them, I did very little interaction with them outside of school.) We instantly saw the cliques for mostly what they were, a way of being accepted. People conformed for the sake of being wanted and accepted, even if you belonged to the non-conformist crowd you conformed to being a non-conformist….irony was lost on them.

      All the people on the outside would see this as being asocial. Business people would say you are not “playing the game.” Ect…

      In reality you are being true to yourself and showing others a great deal of respect.

      1. I’d absolutely have a great car if everyone else vanished!

        Sure, I’d get a bit lonely eventually, but I’d use my fantastic car to travel the highways enjoying this fantastic continent to my self.

        Follow the weather and enjoy the drive!

        Eventually, I’d probably have to set up a truck, and/or a sweet moto-tour bike as the roads deteriorated with lack of maintainence, but I’d probably still seek out various road tracks, and fun stretches between hunting and gathering work sessions.

        I just love a great ride!

        BTW: thanks for the series. Helped me.

    2. I agree that it is POSSIBLE for someone to be interested in cool cars for their own sake and NOT as part of a strategy for acquiring social status. I would quickly add, though, that most of the people who go out of their way to acquire cool cars are in fact doing so as part of the social hierarchy game.

      A thought experiment: if there were no one around to impress–if you were the only person on planet earth–would you still be interested in acquiring a cool car? If not, there is every reason to think that what you are REALLY after (despite your protests to the contrary) is social status. Indeed, if you were the last person on earth, your material desires would likely change dramatically, since there would no longer be any point to playing the social hierarchy game.

      (A similar thought experiment: suppose that everyone in your culture started ridiculing you for owning a cool car. Would you still want one?)

      1. Thank you for the interesting series, William. However, the last essay left with the same question that RedBaron posed: If you receive news that make you happy, why not share it with your friend, even if it presents you in a good light? Unfortunately, you did not address this question in your reply and I would be interested to have you elaborate on this topic a litte.

  7. I have a 94 Beretta and while it runs great I don’t have to worry about it getting dented or wrecked or whatever—its essentially inconsequential, but because of the possibility of brake failure, it needs to be replaced or have some expensive work done. I really don’t want a newer car just because I’ll worry about it and have to pay for collision insurance. So I totally get what you’re saying about a new car being worse. I bought an e-copy of the book and really like the approach—I notice the sky so much more now. Thanks for posting this series.

  8. I enjoyed these essays and I look forward to reading the book. Thanks, BB for inviting the author.

    As for the perceived “bragging,” I imagine it would be hard for anyone to describe various facets of one’s life at length, however humbly, without someone else assuming it’s self-aggrandizement. I suggest that readers think of Mr. Irvine’s writings as a “CoolTools” for the mind.

  9. William, thanks for this series of essays. I’ve been struck by some of the parallels with my up-bringing in a Mennonite community, where there was a strong emphasis on simple living, a strong rejection of consumerism and pacifism (not just the insult variety).

    I see the Chicago Public Library already has a copy of your book, so I’ll look forward to reading it soon.

  10. Overall, sounds like Stoicism is a decent stab at controlling the arisal of negative emotions, and avoiding heirarchal conflict- with one possible exception: It seems to me what is missing is a vantage point of equanimity. Ie. one is still defining things as “good” / “bad” , “better” / “worse” (such as seeking to be challenged by being thrown a “negative” situation as a test). This dualistic thinking I believe can lead to an internal heirarchal schema arising despite one’s best efforts to “withdraw for the social heirarchy game”. Judgements may be tacitly implied, but they are still there.

    take the car thing: if a car is seen as neither cool nor non-cool by the driver, it shouldn’t matter what choice is made (beyond utility; logic would dictate that a prius is likely the more optimal choice than a yugo, based on many factors, including resource management), and the perception of the driver by others should not matter to the driver either. By choosing a honda civic in order to avoid a status decison being made, one is making that status decision himself (by acknowledging the status- based heirarchy of cars as a factor in the decision).

  11. Your observations about the effects of not being in the social hierarchy competition somewhat parallel my own. However, although you pick up some friends because you’re “socially safe” you also pick up some more enemies. These are the people who cannot comprehend the idea that this competition is not the number-one driving goal in the life of every single person on the face of the earth. They often become livid, or even violent, because they either think that you are insulting whatever branch of the social hierarchy that they are in as not being worth competing in (a snob) or that your lack of caring is a back-handed trick to get ahead by pretending to be socially safe (a liar and a cheat). No loss as friends but who needs more enemies.

    The comments about the effects of not being in the social status game on what you consume are exactly like mine. I’m in the IT business and I always use the cheapest, adequate hardware to get the job done as opposed to having bragging rights in the cool guys’ chat room. My main personal system is a $100 used eMac. I get the same reaction that you get about not having the latest luxury car to go out shopping for groceries: surely I must need 64-bit addressing and a Quad 4 GHz processor (at least!) to do my taxes!

    The thoughts about thoughts are very interesting. I’ve always had full access to every thought in my noodle: there’s nothing “sub” or “un” about any aspect of my consciousness. Many people, upon hearing this, assume that since all of their personal problems revolve around lack of self-knowledge think that I’m absurdly claiming some sort of perfection: how could there be any problems other than their own?! Well, for starters, as you note, seeing some mechanism trundling away in your head and being able to affect it in any way are two very different things. This is where your “meta-annoyance” can really get bad. When I’m doing something stupid I know it’s stupid, why it’s stupid and why I’m stupidly doing it. Sometimes I envy the average shmoo who only vaguely sometimes perceives the first of these (after the fact) and who’s protected from the embarrassment of the last through some “cover story” that they tell themselves about how this was all not really that stupid or through plain old cognitive dissonance.

    It’s also very distracting and can make concentration very difficult. I’m not sure I’d recommend you trying to be much more of an observer of your own mind than you already are: there’s definitely a point of diminishing returns here.

  12. I’m sorry to lower the tone here, since the discussion is actually going pretty well. But, is that dude’s helmet-cape tied to his penis?

    1. Yes, his cape is tied to his penis. You have to understand that this is a lesson for aspiring stoics. Any time you face fanged adversity, you can always appreciate it by saying to yourself:

      “Well, at least my cape isn’t tied to my penis.”

  13. Having been raised by a family un-knowingly living this philosophy, I can tell you it has negative consequenses that I think even neurology can attest to. 
    Meditating on negative possibilities has a long term negative impact. The brain can’t tell the difference between meditative states and reality. If you bombard it with horrific circumstances(imagined or real) it will respond accordingly. Your brain wants to protect you from trauma(emotional or physical): If I keep imagining my child dying, my brain will want to protect me from the on coming trauma and I will emotionally detach from the child in order to lessen the impact. This of course accomplishes exactly the opposite of what the philosophy intends. 
    Stoicism IS effective at preparing you for lifes harsh realities, but I believe the cost is too high. 
    Anyone who lives with scandanavians(at least here in Minnesota) has witnessed the stoic philosophy lived out to it’s logical conclusion. 
    I think this approach to life is a natural human reaction to a harsh, life threatening environent. 1000 years ago living in northern Europe was extremely harsh, seeing crops fail, livestock and family members die on a regular basis forced emotional detachment as a method of survival. 
    So much so that when bad things aren’t happening you think of all the bad things that could happen so you don’t become too attached to what you have. This gets passed down to the next generation.  
    I have to fight to keep from pushing my wife and kids away, I had no real emotionial connection with my parents and they had even less with theirs.

  14. I have enjoyed this series of articles very much. It has given me much food for thought and what I hope is a productive line of future investigation and practice.

  15. There seem to be some striking similarities between the thought-life of a Stoic and that of a heroin addict. Talk about removing yourself from the social hierarchy in order to focus on achieving a constant state of tranquility.

  16. I found the last line to be a little nonsensical (and a border line insult to “most people). Just because someone doesn’t ascribe to a popularized philosophy or even have a name for the way they live doesn’t mean that they are living life with ” no philosophy of life at all.”

    1. I think that you’ve misread that sentence. It’s not about naming a system, but about consciously establishing a set of rules to live by. Whether that set of rules is part of a formalized system or part of a personal code of ethics is unimportant. What is important is that you have an ideal to live up to. Indulging every urge is for animals. Humans can do better.

      At least that’s how I interpreted it.

  17. I got a good chuckle reading about your “meta-irritation” at yourself for allowing yourself to get irritated, because that happens to me all the time. Whenever I let myself get annoyed by things beyond my control, I end up kicking myself for not being as good of a Stoic as I would like to be.

    But maybe this “meta-irritation” is a good thing; because, as a Stoic, I’m supposed to be focusing on things that I can control rather than on things that I can’t control. As long as I’m focusing on my own irritation rather than on the things that irritate me, and am thinking about how to rein in my own annoyance rather than how to retaliate against whomever or whatever annoys me, then I am being a good Stoic — just not a perfect one. If I were a perfect Stoic, nothing would annoy me. But, as long as I’m more annoyed by my own annoyance than by the things that trigger that annoyance, I am thinking like a good Stoic.

  18. It’s funny how you describe your wayward mind as a cat. In Zen, it is referred to as ‘Monkey Mind’ and one aim of meditation is to teach the naughty monkey to sit still.

    In this way Zen practice is a good complement to Stoicism.

  19. Re consumerism : My wife had a good chuckle this weekend when I explained to her what it’s like as a man (like me anyway, a tinkerer and builder) to walk into a hardware store as we entered the local big box hardware store. My mind -instantly- draws my eyes to the tool section (which is strategically placed near the doors) and begins wondering “What tool do I need? Let’s buy something that cuts things apart or joins things together!” I have a shop well stocked enough that I can fight this urge, but I often still feel the pull of novelty for its own sake. I get this way in electronics stores as well. Fortunately I’ve had enough things break and/or fail in some way that these days I will put off purchases for literally years. There are things I’m drawn to again and again which I don’t get because I just know it won’t make me happier for any great length of time.

    Re the new car. I’m generally in your camp but I think I would allow that someone who really just enjoys a car for what it is, as a thing unto itself, isn’t getting a car to play a social game. Perhaps someone enjoys the lines of a particular make or model, or the sound it makes, or just enjoys going fast (safely!). If you enjoy the very particular way in which a car or other object does what it does, I say you should get it and enjoy it to the fullest. Surely enjoying the aesthetics of a thing outside of what anyone else has to say about it isn’t outside the bounds of Stoicism. I get the idea it’s not, but that a lot of people will think being Stoic is another form of being ascetic for its own sake (which you seemed to repudiate in your first essay).

    Thanks again for this series.

  20. William thank you for the beautiful posts. I bought your book right after reading your first post and now practicing it in my daily life. I found that the philosophy really suit my personality really well and quite delighted upon realizing that I have been practicing them long before I even know about stoicism.

  21. You might want to explore the Buddhist concept of non attachment, it’s seems less negative. Next time you are insulted try thanking the insulter for giving you this experience.

  22. Will becoming a Stoic prevent me from being irritated by the word “meta”? I’m not sure that I have the mental power to overcome this one.

  23. The cognitive behaviorists offered an excellent practical application of Stoic principles. Albert Ellis had a large impact on me in college with his “new guide to rational living”. He also opened up the world of stoicism to me that I still meditate on and bring up in conversation.

    I still smile when I hear these truths. Thanks to William and boingboing for reno…presenting things that never grow old and renewingly (sic) fascinating!

  24. Your 3 essays are a great distillation of your book, which has inspired me in a (mostly) Stoic direction since I read it a few years ago. What resonates most for me is how the Stoics reframed good and evil as features of individual intentions, but not of external events beyond one’s control. So being stuck in traffic, insults, “bad luck” and even horrific disasters can become “good” when they present us with opportunities to prove our character. In that context, I like your analogy of the football player training to be “tested”, who is happy when the coach puts him into the game. Some of the ancient Stoics, such as Epictetus, would substitute their god Zeus for the football coach in your example.

    But there are two Stoic paradoxes that I struggle with: For one, there is a tendency to replace the “social hierarchy” game with the “aren’t I above it all” game or even the “how am I doing?” game. Just as you can have “meta-irritation” about getting irritated, you can get overly self-involved (in either self-praise or self-criticism) about your efforts at self-improvement or your compassion for others. You might become so self-absorbed that your efforts at helping others are not as genuine and deeply felt as they could be — because your efforts are merely means to another end: proving to yourself how great you are.

    A second Stoic paradox comes from the focus on “internals” over “externals”, an attitude that can lead to a form of solipsism. There is a risk that if you judge your actions only by your intentions, then why should you ever care at all about what happens in the “external” world? So long as you learn to rise above negative emotions, why should anything else matter? I realize that the Stoics claimed to believe in the virtue of hard work and in helping others. But doesn’t the Stoic focus on internals mean you need not really care in the end whether you succeed in helping the little old lady across the street, quarterbacking your team to a Superbowl win, or commanding your army to victory in a defensive war of national survival? In the end, so long as you trained decently and put in your best effort, that’s good enough for a Stoic, right? And while Stoic detachment might just help give you the calm and focus you need to succeed, it seems to me there is an equal risk that too much “tranquility” could ease up too much the pressure you need to put out when the stakes are high.

    So while I admire the Stoic attitude, certain real world stakes are just too high to trade for the satisfactions of Stoic tranquility. I’ve developed this argument further in my blog on Hormetism, an applied variant of Stoicism that puts more emphasis on the “external” manifestations of self-improvement and toughening ourselves to survive in a stress filled world.

    I’m interested in your thoughts about this.


  25. Hi, Todd. Here are my reactions to some of the issues you raise.

    First, it is probably impossible to drop out of the social hierarchy game entirely. To do this, you would have to overcome a few billion years of evolutionary programming. Hard to do in one lifetime! Just like it is hard to overcome the programming that tells you to eat when you feel hungry.

    Second, it is one thing to be internally delighted by your progress as a Stoic. Why not? It is harmless delight, and the Stoics were not opposed to delight. (In fact, they figured out ways to increase their delight at the simple and readily available things life has to offer–like the blue sky.) It is another thing, though, to boast publicly about your Stoic progress.

    I realize that in writing these essays, I can be accused of doing just this. But in my self-appointed role as twenty-first century Stoic teacher, it is, I think, permissible for me to describe, in a very personal way,the impact Stoicism has had on my life. And having done this, I hasten to add that despite the progress I have made in my practice of Stoicism, there is much work that remains to be done.

    Third, the Stoics did work very hard to attain various goals, and I take this as evidence that they in some important sense cared about attaining those goals. They found a way, though, to reduce the number of negative emotion that pursuing these goals would cause them.

    One basic strategy was to “internalize” their goals: instead of setting for themselves the goal of accomplishing X, they set for themselves the goal of doing the best they could in an attempt to accomplish X. (For more on this strategy, see chapter 5 of the Stoics book.) By doing this, they were focusing their energy on something they had almost complete control over–how hard they tried–rather than on something they had relatively little control over–how their plans turned out. And no matter how things turned out, they could walk away with this thought in mind: “I did my best, and it would be foolish for me to chide myself for not having done better than my best.”

  26. Fascinating articles, and uncommonly though-provoking discussions in the comments. I enjoyed following this personal philosophy primer and as a follow up I’ll read the book, brush up on some half-forgotten Epictetus I read years ago, and check out Marcus Aurelius.

    Thank you William, and thank you BB for the choice of guestblogger. This is book promotion at its best: I felt intrigued and delighted by the writing long before touching the actual book! Talk about engaging the reader.

  27. The problem I can see with *always* projecting a calm and serene exterior is that we, as social animals, depend on other people to provide services to us. And a sad fact of life is that often such people are not always motivated to provide excellent service without the goad of a possible negative reaction. If I were a morally ambiguous waiter at a restaurant, for example, and one of my customers was obviously a stoic, I would risk waiting on the other customers first because I would know that the stoic wouldn’t give me any grief about it. Or at worst I would delay the stoic’s meal as long as I could to see if I could make him angry. So it seems to me that while you are seeking tranquility, at least where other people are involved you may be helping to create more situations where your tranquility is challenged. I can see these techniques being useful in some situations. But, as with most things in life, moderation seems to be the key.

  28. I’m a bit behind on this, but I am curious about the author’s take, or any other commenters, on self-promotion when it comes to work. For those that have jobs where you are basically selling yourself or your services (such as designers, marketers, etc), is self promotion in conflict with stoicism?

  29. Will B., your essays came at a very opportune time.
    I’ve been waiting for the political disaster that seemed inevitable, and this morning– well, there it was.
    I’ve been calling myself a Stoic for some years now, based on readings of Marcus and Epictetus, and admiration of the “Stoic Conspiracy” during Nero’s reign, and by the calm strength shown by the Roman Stoics (with the exception of Cato the younger.)
    But I’ve let it lapse, and these essays are bringing me back to the wonderful utility of this ‘ancient’ philosophy.
    I’m very much looking forward to reading your book, and I may have found a mentor.

  30. very interesting reads, i look forward to owning your book soon.

    I believe i have been following a form of this for some time, and while i dont ever intend on fully becoming a ‘stoic’, i am sure i can take away many valuable lessons and ideas


  31. I love this series! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I recognized a lot of my own behaviors and thoughts as being stoic as I read this. I was living the stoic philosophy without even realizing it, especially the parts about not letting situations upset you (e.g., plane delays), adjusting your perspective to realize that you really don’t have it as bad as you might think (love this quote: “…keep in mind that, however difficult your life may be, there is almost certainly someone, somewhere who would love to be living your life.”), and letting insults roll off of you without taking them personally or offensively. Because of the latter principle, I have fostered an approachable persona and people feel safe to say anything to me and to critique me.

    Thanks again for this wonderful set of articles.


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