A Crash Course in Stoicism
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved. This is an abbreviated version of an earlier blog article.
In his discourse entitled “we ought not to yearn for things that are not under our control” (Discourses, 3.24), the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, described three steps used to cope with apparent misfortunes. He intended that these should be rigorously rehearsed until they become habitual…
Have thoughts like these ready at hand by night and by day; write them, read them, make your conversation about them, communing with yourself, or saying to another, “Can you give me some help in this matter?”
Later he says:
If you have these thoughts always at hand and go over them again and again in your own mind, and keep them in readiness, you will never need another person to console you, or strengthen you.
Speaking to a group of aspiring Stoic students, he outlines the recommended steps to be memorised and rehearsed as follows.
Step One: Tell yourself it was to be expected.
Your initial response when something apparently “undesirable” happens should be to tell yourself that it was “not unexpected”, and this “will be the first thing to lighten the burden”, according to Epictetus. This is made easier by regularly anticipating potential setbacks that can happen in life, imagining what it would be like to face typical misfortunes philosophically. This is sometimes called premeditatio malorum by Stoics, or the technique of contemplating potential misfortunes in advance.
Step Two: Tell yourself that it is indifferent to your wellbeing.
This is was described by Shaftesbury as the “Sovereign precept” of ancient Stoicism: Some things are under our control and some things are not. Epictetus says you should consider where the misfortune comes from, and if it is an external event, outside of your volition and control, tell yourself:
It comes from the quarter of the things that are outside the sphere of volition, that are not my own; what, then, is it to me?
The typical answer Stoics give to that rhetorical question is: “It is nothing to me.” In fact, one of Epictetus’ basic maxims is that things beyond our volition, outside of our control, are “nothing to us.” Epictetus also advised his students, perhaps literally, to say very concisely to themselves either “avolitional, not bad!” (aproaireton, ou kakon), to apparent external misfortunes, or “volitional, good!” (proairetikon, agathon), to virtuous responses, and so on.
Step Three: Remind yourself that it was determined by the whole.
Epictetus describes the third and last stage of the Stoics response as “the most decisive consideration”. We should ask ourselves who has ordained that this should happen: “Who was it that has sent the order?” The answer is that it was sent by God, or, if you like, it should be viewed as having been determined by the “string of causes” that constitute the universe as a whole, which Stoics call “Nature”. The Stoic therefore tells himself: “Give it to me, then, for I must always obey the law in every particular.”