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Are We Losing Our Stoicism In The U.S.?

October 8, 2017

 

 

Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy that first appeared in Athens in around 300 BC, seemed to be making a modern revival during the past fifty years or so. This was happening in the U.S. and most western European countries, but recently has taken a backward step, in my opinion.

Ancient Stoicism has just a few teachings; it sets out to remind us how unpredictable the world appears to be. Our time on this planet is so brief that it is imperative that we act to control ourselves. Most of our dissatisfactions with events are a result of our reflective senses rather that reason. Stoicism is not concerned with theory or complicated value sets. It is mostly aiming at helping us overcome destructive emotions, act on what can be acted upon, and accept the consequences.

So what is modern Stoicism, and how does it differ from the ancient philosophy?  We can all agree that Stoicism has some wise and therapeutic insights into human nature and how to heal suffering, which were mistakenly neglected by academia for a century or so. We can also agree on the core therapeutic insight- it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering. We can’t always control or change external events, but we can control our opinion or attitude, and that gives us a measure of self-determination. And lastly, the most important foundation for a good and happy life is not money, fame, power or pleasure, but good character.

 Seneca, who enjoyed great fortune as an adviser to Nero, suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days to pursue poverty. Put yourself face to face with want, but just as an exercise. Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in doubt and rarely in experience. Make yourself familiar with the things, the worst-case scenarios, that you’re afraid of. Empathize with failure!

The Stoics had an exercise called “Turning the Obstacle Upside Down.” What they meant to do was make it impossible to not practice the art of philosophy. Because if you can properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good. When you are given lemons, make lemon aide!

 Remember, everything is transitory.  Right now matters, being a good person and doing the right thing now is what matters. Be humble and honest and aware. Don’t sweat the small things, and everything is a small thing.

I believe that most westerners have pretty much adopted these ideas and philosophies after World War II and are now appearing to be losing this: face failure head on, make something from your misfortune, and don’t worry about the details. The Stoic response to our minority president is not outrage but calm, clear-headedness. It’s not acrimony but action. A Stoic would not spend a lot of time seeking a reason to blame, or complaining about whether Trump deserves to be President, whether it is scary that he is, or all the bad things that might or might not result from it.  Instead they would focus on what is in their control:

Their own actions, what causes or candidates they could contribute to, making sure they are prepared in case of an emergency, protecting the vulnerable, meditating on the worst-case scenario.

            What if the voters who support our minority president, and who consider themselves “forgotten”, are actually not forgotten? I believe they failed because they did not advance the basic Stoic philosophy, they failed to make something of their situation. Perhaps they did not understand what was happening and failed to respond positively to the events. The American spirit hiding within them did not make “lemonade “when they receive “lemons.”

            The NFL recently was sited, again by our minority President, suggesting that they “fire” those S.O.B.’s, who take a knee during the singing of our National Anthem. Stoicism would demand an attitude of empathy, self-determination and character, then move on, “get over it”.  It’s a flag. It’s a song. No one was hurt, rights were not trampled upon. Veterans will still hold a place of honor in our society.

The Stoic response to our minority president is not outrage but calm, clear-headedness. It’s not acrimony but action. A Stoic would not spend a lot of time seeking a reason to blame, or complaining about whether Trump deserves to be President, whether it is scary that he is, or all the bad things that might or might not result from it.  Instead they would focus on what is in their control:

Their own actions, what causes or candidates they could contribute to, making sure they are prepared in case of an emergency, protecting the vulnerable, meditating on the worst-case scenario.

            There were three Stoic disciplines: Perception, Action, and Will.  The formula then for Stoic activism in the present is as clear and as relevant as it was two thousand years ago. Think right. Act right. Accept and understand what is beyond your control. Stoicism is that rare and supremely practical philosophy that two thousand years ago could make a slave the foremost inspiration of a good emperor(Epictetus) and that stood on the battle line when in our own history a regiment of slaves helped preserve(Thomas Wentworth Higginson) and redefine a durable political union in the face of monstrous social forces that would have had it go another way.

            Stoicism has long surged in times of trouble-the decline and fall of Rome, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Civil War, depressions, and periods of strife because it is a philosophy designed for difficult times. It says you don’t control these alarming events going on in the world, but you do control how you respond.

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