Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope
by Andrew Overby
In the world of one’s own thoughts and dreams, the world can sometimes take on new and surprising dimensions: things can be brighter, more interesting, more elegant, even more fun and enjoyable. It’s great to be king. Things move faster and few real-world issues appear in focus enough to darken the pristine imagery of imagination. Dream speeds on as a hare, the world plods along like the slow-going tortoise. To mind the gap in between, human beings need philosophy.
The real world, where time can be measured in centuries or eons, is a place crystalline and perfect imaginings emerge as imperfect wooden forms even under ideal conditions. Hardly surprising is the fact that disillusionment is often the result. This is where the Stoics are uniquely qualified to help.
The Stoics wrote that the world is a place we happen to inhabit for a time, not a place we are destined to lord over or one whose direction we should expect to dramatically influence. It is better, they maintain, to know that while things happen, they do not necessarily happen to us.
Yet Stoics also profess a belief that human beings can and should take an active part in public life, whether as a leading figure, a military general or an administrator of some type, or simply as a concerned citizen upholding his or her own small end of an implicit social contract to better the public good, to paraphrase Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, who oversaw ancient Rome’s vital grain supply but worried about himself and devoting all his energies to public work. Whatever the role, just do the best possible with what you have control over.
A practical example might illuminate how Stoics rectify these ideas that seem to contradict each other. How do we actively live in the world without being ensnared by it?
To echo American general-turned-president Eisenhower, who believed no prewritten battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, how do we keep dreams alive upon contact with the real world?
Consider the now-famous Stockdale Paradox: Vice Admiral James Stockade of the U.S. Navy was held as the highest-ranking POW naval officer in North Vietnam for more than seven years.
Before his deployment, he had studied some Stoic philosophy, which meant he was better prepared for this struggle than many of his fellow POWs. Many consoled themselves with the thought they would be home by Christmas, or by spring, or before next winter, or that the war would surely end soon, or maybe there would be a prisoner exchange. Day by day, their expectations went unmet and their dreams were whittled down to nothing.
In large part, they didn’t survive, their mental health consumed by soul-crushing despair as year after year passed by without relief. This tells us something about what the denial of desperately held dreams can do even to strong and resilient men.
Stockdale had faith in his dream of returning home again but didn’t allow himself to tie his hope to an external circumstance over which he had zero control. Instead, he turned inward and focused on keeping his mind free and resilient even if his body was trapped in a cell.
This is how he kept his head above water and his spirit strong for the better part of a decade. The Stoic teacher Epictetus would be proud.
What Stockdale possessed was not quite optimism, but a profound sense that he would ultimately realize his dream, whether that time was near or far off. Other POWs in Vietnam may have been optimists; Stockdale was firm in his hopeful equanimity.
In 1992, when Stockdale was the vice presidential nominee on a third-party ticket with Ross Perot, his resolute dreaming surely helped him as well—his story of Stoic dreaming probably inspired many of the voters who made this effort the strongest third-party showing America had seen in nearly a hundred years.
Consider also any “overnight success story”making its way around today. Whether it is a newly famous musician or a sports figure just coming into public view, whether it is a famous example like the carmaker Tesla Motors led by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, or even an entire field like the relatively new industry of 3-D printing, “overnight”really means years of work and patience other people are now finding out about. Like Stockdale, individuals like these labored long and hard to unite world with dream.
In fact, Mr. Musk’s other company, SpaceX, the most successful of the companies seeking to democratize access to space and which was the first company to dock with the International Space Station, provides a contemporary example of striving despite setbacks and of resilient hope in the face of opposition—in other words, a Stoical resolve to see a dream through to its fruition.
SpaceX failed in its first three rocket launch attempts, bringing it very close to its demise and giving truth to its naysayers’criticism. Just before it would have folded, the company’s fourth launch in 2008 was a soaring success and SpaceX was back in business, still relying on a “first principles”logical approach derived from probabilistic reasoning that would be right at home among philosophers in ancient Greece, one which says an important task must be done even if the odds of failure are high. Certainly nothing will change if nothing is tried.
SpaceX is currently trying to launch a reusable rocket from a barge at sea (which it has done) and then land the rocket back down on the barge, something that has yet to accomplished by anyone—ever. The company has endured several failures to achieve this goal already.
Instead of concluding that companies have no business competing with governments in rocketry or that it simply cannot yet be feasibly done, the company learns from its failed attempts and immediately sets about preparing for the next one. Its engineers and employees know that each step brings them closer to fulfillment of their mission and they continue to have faith. SpaceX, too, dreams resolutely—like Stockdale, like the Stoics—giving us a live-action view of philosophy in practice.
These examples are not the passing whims or wishes that must be separated from real dreams. They are not idle contemplations, but desperate hopes to increase the crawling tempo of this world. As Seneca wrote, you have time for what is most important in your life, but not including those many temporary things that can cloud your vision. These are not those.
Both Stockdale and SpaceX show us the importance of taking the long view—the longer your time span, the smaller problems feel and reality is easier to accept. In the long run, more desirable outcomes are probabilistic more than they are zero-sum deterministic affairs. Taking the long view can remind us that the cogs of this world most often move slowly.
These examples make clear what Stoics can offer: they give hope and calm in a world often full of trepidation and uncertainty, a sense of peace amid disorder. They represent a path for learning how to handle fear, failure, and rejection. The Stoics teach us how to do everything we can in pursuit of a goal, but to then let go of it.
Whether a prisoner’s release date or a company’s success is near or far, firm convictions and faith in the eventual outcome can carry the day.
The Stoic knows the fickleness of fortune but refuses to let this become an overwhelming barrier. The Stoic sees obstacles rise but refuses to stop trying to realize change, knowing that this is how things change, at whatever speed change may come. It is a cheery and rationally optimistic kind of resignation.
Where world and dream merge is in how a Stoic dreams: he or she dreams not by attaching expiration dates to perishable dreams but by patiently accepting that dreams must be held steadily while the world catches up.
Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.