A reader of my blog recently wrote to me to ask if I think that practicing Stoicism is easier for men. The poor woman had experienced terrible postpartum depression after the birth of her son and still wasn’t feeling like herself several years later. She was very distressed about how her depression has affected her Stoic practice. Her husband on the other hand, seemed to have no problem being nonplussed about almost everything. He was calm even even in the face of things that caused her to feel depressed.
Her question was timely for me. I’m pregnant, and I have been finding myself more upset than I might typically be in various circumstances. This concurrence of events lead to me thinking about what they might mean in a Stoic context.
Now, to be clear, even though these experiences I just mentioned – pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period – are uniquely female, I prefer to frame the question in terms of personality or temperament rather than in terms of gender. I’m more interested in analyzing how Stoicism can help both males and females than I am in focusing on gender differences, which has unfortunately become a wedge issue.
So, does Stoic practice in fact come more naturally to people with certain temperaments or abilities? The question ultimately raises a series of other questions. First, how much control do we have over how the body affects the mind at various times during our lives? Do our temperaments actually matter to Stoic practice? And finally, are Stoics born or made? Let’s examine these ideas in more detail.
Can We Control How the Body Affects the Mind?
In the Discourses 1.1, Epictetus establishes his famous dichotomy of control, arguing that some things are up to us and others are not. The body is categorized by Epictetus as not in our control or at least not fully within our control. But Epictetus suggests that the mind is within our control.
This leads us to wonder how much control we have over the various ways the body might affect the mind – in terms of hormone changes, neurochemistry, blood sugar levels, and and other bodily functions which can directly affect our mood and emotions. It seems clear that we don’t have complete control over the biological functions that can trigger irrational emotions or passions – defined by the Stoics as anger, hatred, fear, depression, strong desire, and so forth.
But this isn’t the whole story. Regardless of where our emotions come from, the Stoics argued that the first movement of passions is largely involuntary. This is true for everyone, not just for people currently experiencing mood issues and frequent irrational emotions. In On Anger II.4.1-2, Seneca suggests:
I wish to instruct you in how passions get started, develop, and reach the point of exasperation. The first movement is involuntary, and it is like a preparation, or a threat, by the passion; the second movement is voluntary and controllable, and it consists in thinking that vengeance is necessary, because I have been offended, or that someone has to be punished, because he has offended; the third movement is arrogant, it does not want vengeance because it is necessary, but because it wants it, it has already annihilated reason. We cannot avoid the first impulse by reason, in the same way as we cannot avoid those physical reactions I mentioned earlier, yawning when others yawn, or closing our eyes when someone suddenly points a finger at them: these things cannot be overcome by reason; perhaps they may be attenuated by habit, or a constant attention. But the second movement, the one that springs from deliberation, is also countered by deliberation.
So while we might not be able to avoid all of the physical or biochemical triggers of our passions, we have control over the second and third stages where reason comes into play. We can take a step back and deliberate with ourselves as Seneca suggests. We might remind ourselves that we are probably feeling especially irritable because we haven’t eaten in many hours and our blood sugar is low – a phenomenon colloquially referred to as being “hangry.” Or we may have woken up in a very sad mood. We can remind ourselves of the things that we have to be grateful for in our lives.
Maybe this is easier said than done, but we do have some control over our thoughts and we can work to direct them as Seneca suggests. And while this whole process of managing assent to emotions is more involved for those who seem to experience frequent irrational passions, there is a positive dimension here too; it means that we will have more opportunity to better ourselves using Stoic techniques, which segues nicely into the next topic.
Do Our Temperaments Matter When it Comes to Practicing Stoicism?
In Discourses 1.2, on how a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character, Epictetus notes that while our natural strengths and weaknesses do affect us, we should nonetheless stay true to our own characters rather than seeking perfection:
But that which is great and superior perhaps belongs to Socrates and such as are like him. Why then, if we are naturally such, are not a very great number of us like him? Is it true then that all horses become swift, that all dogs are skilled in tracking footprints? What then, since I am naturally dull, shall I, for this reason, take no pains? I hope not. Epictetus is not superior to Socrates; but if he is not inferior, this is enough for me; for I shall never be a Milo [a great athlete], and yet I do not neglect my body; nor shall I be a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, do we neglect looking after anything because we despair of reaching the highest degree.
The sense of this passage seems to be that first of all, there are few who are great like Socrates – both extremely rational and willing to die for integrity. He is the exception rather than the rule. But the rest of us shouldn’t give up on trying to lead a good life because we aren’t just like Socrates or yet a sage.
Epictetus may not be Socrates, but that is no reason for him not to be the best Epictetus possible. He need not compare himself to anyone exceptional in order to be virtuous, or give up on trying to improve himself just because he isn’t the epitome of perfect reason.
Are Stoics Born or Made?
Epictetus continues to offer insight into the question of how we develop excellence. He implies that Stoics are made via practice regardless of any seeming good fortune in terms of temperament or ability (Discourses 1:2):
Some person asked, how then shall every man among us perceive what is suitable to his character? How, he replied, does the bull alone, when the lion has attacked, discover his own powers and put himself forward in defence of the whole herd? It is plain that with the powers the perception of having them is immediately conjoined: and, therefore, whoever of us has such powers will not be ignorant of them. Now a bull is not made suddenly, nor a brave man; but we must discipline ourselves in the winter for the summer campaign, and not rashly run upon that which does not concern us.
Here Epictetus notes that the great strength of the bull didn’t just appear overnight. Even though he may have been born a bull, it took the him years of development, building his muscles and so on, to become the mature creature that he is today.
Like the bull, we aren’t born brave or born Stoic philosophers. We must build ourselves up in order to become what we are meant to be, which requires work over the course of many years. Epictetus goes on to suggest that we make use of the challenging times in our lives to develop necessary courage and discipline. We can work at responding to challenges with increasing levels of virtue and skill, while turning our attention away from things beyond our control.
So yes, perhaps there are those rare individuals who possess naturally equanimous temperaments or special abilities. But that is no reason for us to measure ourselves by their standard, or to give up on becoming the best version of ourselves that we can. Other people’s good fortune is squarely beyond our control. And as Epictetus notes, even these seemingly exceptional people didn’t just become excellent overnight – they spent years developing into what they are. We must conclude that all of us must work to better ourselves regardless of any good fortune in terms of temperament or ability.
Epictetus leaves us with an optimistic message which shuts down any notions of perfectionism. There is no point in beating ourselves up over our shortcomings. Regardless of our individual struggles or our natural temperaments, as long as we are making progress, that is good enough for Epictetus. It should be good enough for us too.
Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She is a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and son. Her website is Common Sense Ethics, which now has an associated YouTube channel.