Common Pitfalls for Inexpert Stoics
Stiff upper lip
Sometimes difficult to distinguish from being Stoic, but boils down to suppressing feelings; always has comebacks (in a fit of anger or a heart condition).
Emptiness. Banishing all feelings, even pleasant ones such as joy, love, engagement and interest, which do not lead to passivity or foolish behaviour. There is nothing wrong with feeling (a consequence of thinking) as long as you do not let yourself be carried away by feelings.
Aiming for nothing. ‘It makes no difference after all, you can always be happy.’ Devoting myself to everything that is good is, according to the Stoics, the most important thing I can do.
Or rather (in order to avoid making the word ‘rational’ appear bad): inventing excuses, smooth talking, explaining away feelings. None of this is belongs to Stoicism!
The Early Stoics were very politically engaged. It is known of Zeno and Chrysippus that they both wrote a Politeia (‘Republic’). The Roman Stoics were also socially engaged; that is quite clear. They had a cosmopolitan attitude and saw all people as of equal standing, which was quite exceptional in antiquity.
By feeling unhappy about particular words or deeds I achieve nothing, and the rest of the world does not benefit from it either. I would be better off using my energy to change my ideas (and thereby also my feelings and my behaviour). Because that is possible— that is the ‘Good News’. (See also Chapter XI)
‘The world is beautiful, people are nice, everything turns out well.’ No, it doesn’t. A Stoic attitude does not mean that I think that everything will turn out well or be better than expected. But it does mean that I maintain the idea: whatever happens, I can make something pleasant/good out of it through thought and action.
Being Stoic is an active attitude to life. Sensibly facing what happens is something different to letting everything happen to me and putting my own will to sleep.
Putting up with things
Saying: ‘it is OK really, the neighbour is worse off than me’ is merely resigning to ‘fate’ and has little to do with Stoicism. Leaning on someone else’s (even worse) fate is, I think, in any case rather questionable. I would consider it a genuine Stoic attitude if in this situation I actively tried to make the best of it, trying to improve my situation and that of others, and doing so without anger, pessimism or bitterness. Possibly together with the neighbour.
Stoicism as a brake
Never reacting enthusiastically to anything, never laughing enthusiastically, putting a brake on all you say: that too is a pitfall. There is nothing wrong with laughing or enthusiasm, or other positive expressions. And for something like anger it is not about avoiding saying particular things in order to swallow my anger, it is about really not thinking about those things. Not because being angry is impolite (think of Zeno, the half-Cynic), but because the ideas behind that behaviour are philosophically incorrect and because I make myself unhappy that way.
Actually, most adults act as if they are Stoic/sensible, while that is totally not the case. And this fake Stoic attitude is precisely what causes so many problems.
Seeing beyond the horizon of ‘me’, ‘here’ and ‘now’ is something you have to learn. Many adults still react in particular situations in the way they did when they were children, at least partly (and for the clumsiest part at that). But they know that this is not sensible, or think that it is ‘not done’, and so they deeply repress their strong, nagging feelings. Children are mostly a lot less complex than adults, because they show their feelings more openly, bottling them up less or not at all. Most adults like children because of this. They have lost the knack of showing their own feelings. Most fall between two stools: endearing childish attitudes and wise, sensible attitudes.
This article is excerpted from Stoic Notes: The Stoics and Other Classical Philosophers as a Source of Inspiration for Happiness and a Better World by Rymke Wiersma. This book was first published in Dutch in 2008. The English translation by Stuart Field will be made available online later this year on the Atalanta website.
About the author:
Rymke Wiersma (Middelburg 1954) studied philosophy in Utrecht for a few years after having trained as a social worker. Together with a small collective she established a printing house, which later became the publishing house Atalanta. Its target audience are ‘thinkers’ as well as ‘doers’. Rymke writes: “A lot of people who want to change the world go about it rather impulsively, while the people who delve into philosohpy often forget the we are not solely spectators, but also actors on the world’s stage. Atalanta tries to reach both these groups of people with it publications.”
I thought that was a helpful list and worth pondering. I would add one pitfall of my own. That is merely reading about Stoicism in an interested but shallow way and expecting some effect to happen. My own discovery is that you have to work at it by keeping a grip on the thoughts that flow through your mind and deal with them. Epictetus makes the point well as seeing them as representations and “I see you for what you are and you are nothing to me.” Picking up on a stoic thought each morning and, in my case, making that a prime thought for the day is also helpful.
My thoughts exactly.
Thank you, this is lovely and a helpful reminder.