'Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity' by Michael Burton

Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity

by Michael Burton


A picture taken by Michael himself and used on his blog, accessible here.

Editor’s Note: Unlike some of our posts, this is an extended essay.

You are going to die. Also, everyone you know and love will also die at some point, some possibly sooner than you. Perhaps worse still, you are going to experience hardships during the course of your life on your way to death. Some may be quite painful. Whether you live for ten years, fifty years, or one hundred, makes no difference. Fate makes no exceptions. Each of us can expect to have things not go our way at several points during our lives and some of us will lead lives that will be completely unpleasant and consistently experience great pain and suffering. Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us; around every corner could be an accident waiting to happen that could irrevocably change us for whatever amount of time we have left; that we will build things and have them unfairly taken from us or watch them be destroyed. The question is not how do we stop these things, because we can’t, the question is, how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.
Is it possible to find tranquility and happiness in such a world? Many of us cope with the harsh nature of this life by burying our head in the sand and pretending like the realities of death and hardship don’t exist. We employ this strategy until these events are staring us in the face and we are forced to confront them totally unprepared. I believe that this is the worst possible way to go through life and that even though suffering and tragedy are a given, tranquility and happiness are still possible. I would argue that the ancient practice of stoicism provides us with the tools we need to live a happy and tranquil life, regardless of how much pain and suffering we experience or how long or short our lives end up being.
This paper is written for everyone. Whether you have recently undergone a difficult time of your life, whether you are currently experiencing one, or whether you have been lucky enough to be experiencing a period of prosperity, it makes no difference. I have chosen this topic because I think stoic resilience is something that each of us can use at one time of our lives or another. It matters not if you are a Christian or an Atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, or even if you are a practicing stoic. I believe that the teachings of stoic philosophers are of great benefit to everyone because they offer us a way to live our lives with a clarity of perspective that is conducive with both inner tranquility and happiness. In writing this piece, I have unapologetically quoted several passages from influential stoic philosophers at length, whose words I feel cannot be summarized, as there is a power in their speech that deserves not to be broken down or presented in any way other than its original form.
Although the stoic philosophy has much to say on several important aspects of life, I would like to focus specifically on the topic of stoic resilience and look at how the practice of stoicism can guide us through the variety of misfortunes life can and will send our way. In helping us cope with the challenges of the world, I believe stoics have put forward important insights, which when used correctly, can help us go through even the most difficult events of our lives. These insights involve having a precise understanding of control, adopting an appropriate perspective of our lives, and use of the tools stoic teachers advocate to help alleviate suffering and sadness when things don’t go in our favor.
To begin, let us examine the stoic notion of control. Stoics make an important distinction between the things that you can control and those things that you have no control over. I believe that many of us will easily acknowledge that there are things that we experience in our lives that we feel are outside of our control. These kinds of things become immediately apparent when someone hits your car when it’s parked out on the street or when you catch a disease or illness. These types of events readily serve as examples of things that we can experience that lie outside the scope of what we can control.
The stoics however take this deterministic line of thought further by pointing out that; in fact, most of your life is outside of your control. You are no more responsible for catching an illness than you are for the house you live in. Both are a result of something that occurred previously that you have little to no control over. For example, in the one case you are exposed to someone who carries the illness and his or her germs infect you. Whereas in the other, you may have acquired the house with money that you received from a loan you had no control over being granted, someone at the bank could have decided otherwise and then you wouldn’t have had the down payment needed and you’d be forced to consider other alternatives.
It is true that there are times when you may have some control over an event; say for example preparing for a job interview for a position you desire. But even with events like this, the ultimate decision of whether or not you are selected for the position remains outside your control. Likewise, you may feel that you are being prudent and ensuring yourself a long life because of the way you take care of your body through eating right and regularly exercising, yet all this hard work can be taken from you in a moment through an accident or illness.
Likewise, other important factors in determining who you will be such as your gender, race, parents, socio-economic status, country you’re born in, etc. have been decided for you by fate. Some of us will receive fates blessing and be born into good families with disposable incomes in a peaceful part of the world, while others of us will be born into abusive families or families that are struggling with poverty in a war-torn part of the world. Some of us will be born with fantastic genetics and talents that we can nurture into something great, while others of us will struggle with disabilities and achieve very little; most of us will live average lives and attain mediocrity. Epictetus went as far as saying:

‘We are like actors in a play. The divine will has assigned us our roles in life without consulting us. Some of us will act in a short drama, others in a long one. We might be assigned the part of a poor person, a cripple, a distinguished celebrity or public leader, or an ordinary citizen. Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance. If you are supposed to be a reader, read; if you are supposed to be a writer, write.’ [1]

All this considered, you might be wondering, what do we have control over according to the stoics? A stoic would argue that there is one thing that you can control completely, and that is your perception of all the events that are occurring outside of your control. The events themselves are neutral and you make the decision to interpret them as good or bad. Going back to the example of getting a disease or illness, something that you may have tried to prevent, but ultimately, have little control over. A stoic would advise us to recognize that we have very little influence over illness and as hard as we work to prevent illness, sometimes nothing can be done to stop it and so we should waste no time stressing about it and should instead acknowledge that sickness and disease are a natural part of life.
Those events in our lives which present us with some control, such as attending a job interview or trying to avoid illness by living healthily, only require us to give our best effort to achieve the desired result in order to attain tranquility. In other words, in order to attain tranquility we must do our best to get what we want and leave the rest to fate. As an educator, I often tell my students before an assessment that they should not stress out about the test results, as they only have some control over this. As much as they may have studied and prepared, ultimately, they cannot completely control how well they do. Instead, I advise them to study and prepare for the assessment as hard as they possibly can given their circumstances because whether they then pass or fail, they will know that they did everything in their power to get the best result. Tranquility here lies in the knowledge that one did as best as they possibly could in order to show their best ability, irrespective of grades.
This is an important distinction because it hits at one of the key insights surrounding stoic resilience; it is not events themselves that bring us harm, but rather, our perception of these events. Stoics believe that we do ourselves a major disservice by trying to control events that are ultimately outside of our control and that we fail to realize just how many of the things we experience in our lives fall into this category. If an event is outside of your control then why should you stress yourself out about it? Would you stress yourself out because you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? There is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, so why not interpret it in a positive way. Most of us have trained ourselves not to become upset about particular events such as the weather or time of year because we have recognized that we have no control over such matters. This suggests to me that it is possible with the right frame of mind to do this with other events, in fact, most events, it may just take a reminder and some practice.
The serenity prayer does a great job of expressing the stoic idea of control: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In order to harden ourselves to negativity and achieve tranquility, we need to realize that most of the events of our lives are outside of our control, that even when we have some control over an event, the most we can do is give it our best effort, and that the only thing we have complete control over is our interpretations of events, so why not interpret them as positively as possible.
The second stoic insight into resilience I would like to look at focuses on our perspective and directly builds off stoic notions of control. Just as we need to acknowledge our limited scope of control, stoics believe we must also do our utmost to ensure that we live in the present. By living this way we limit the amount of grief or pain we can experience by controlling our perception to look only at what is in front of us. As Aurelius explains:

‘Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small- small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.’ [2]

This kind of thinking is meant to reduce anxiety for a past that is unalterable and a future that has yet to occur. How many of us cause ourselves grief by remembering events from our past that are upsetting, when we should be reminding ourselves that we cannot change what happened in the past, it is dead and gone, we instead need to ensure that we take away any lessons that can be learned and focus only on the present moment.
Likewise, how many of us emotionally look into the future and become scared or anxious for things that have yet to occur and possibly may never come to be. Our imaginations are incredibly powerful and if left to their own devices can conjure up a million ways to disrupt our tranquility for things that have yet to happen, have already passed, or were never within our control in the first place. We are incredibly good at being seduced by negativity and as Seneca wisely points out: “A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”[3]
Here I think it is important to say that the stoics are not advocating that we should completely forget the past or completely ignore the future. Stoics are saying that we must perceive both the past and the future carefully, through a rational lens. We learn by experiencing and remembering, this is how we grow as individuals. What the stoics are advocating is that we should recollect events as learning experiences and not as emotional pitfalls. Any negative event in your past stands as a learning experience and if you can view it dispassionately you will maintain tranquility, while learning from your mistakes. A great way you can do this is to use the control you have over your perceptions to perceive all the events of your life as harboring some good.  As Epictetus tells us:

‘As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusions, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren’t there. Assume, instead, that everything that happens to you does so for some good. That if you decided to be lucky, you are lucky. All events contain an advantage for you- if you look for it!’ [4]

Instead of looking back on a failed relationship with a loved one that you once cherished and thinking about all the negative emotions you experienced as a result of their loss, why not look back and think about all the things you learned from being with this person. You would have exercised your capacity to love and learned something about yourself, you will have had several life changing moments with this person and you will have changed as a result of their company. Look back and find the positives and make use of what happened.  In the words of Epictetus:

‘Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.’ [5]

Similarly, when looking into the future we must also avoid doing this through an emotional lens. If you are going to look at every possible thing that could go wrong in the future and let this impact your emotions, then you are not acting sensibly as you have no reason to believe that things won’t work out the way you wish and so are unnecessarily jeopardizing your tranquility. On the other hand, if you are able to look at any given future event and rationally assess possible pitfalls that may occur, then you are acting preventatively in order to harden your mind against possible threats to happiness and tranquility. This is something that the stoics do advise us to do, as we will see below in our examination of the stoic tool of negative visualization.
Another aspect of perception that relates to stoic resilience revolves around the idea of understanding and acknowledging nature. Here the stoics are talking about a variety of things from what we would understand to be human nature, to the environment, to the workings of the universe itself. Stoics believe that the universe is rational and organized and that the best way to achieve tranquility and harmony is for each of us to acknowledge what our nature requires us to do. Unlike other forms of life like plants and animals, humans have the unique ability to use reason to a high level, and so, the stoics believe that this is our ultimate purpose, to lead lives guided by reason. By doing so we will achieve the tranquility and happiness we desire. As Aurelius points out:

‘Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it- the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s. Except that the nature shared by the leaf is without consciousness or reason, and subject to impediments. Whereas that shared by human beings is without impediments, and rational, and just, since it allots to each and every thing an equal and proportionate share of time, being, purpose, actions, chance.’ [6]

Many people who don’t understand the finer points of stoicism often believe that stoic thinkers advocate the idea that each of us should act like some kind of emotional zombie, oblivious to any form of extreme emotion and cold and unfeeling towards the world. I think this is the farthest thing from the truth. Stoicism teaches us that we should go out into the world and experience as much of it as we can, that we should appreciate every drop of life from the smell of rain to the calm peaceful feeling that can accompany a good cry after a sad movie. What the stoics ask of us however is to use our reason to keep these emotions in check. If we are experiencing something that is distressing us then we need to change our perception of it, to find the good in it. If we are experiencing great joy over something than we need to enjoy it fully but be careful not to become over-dependent upon it, as fate gives and takes as she pleases.
This leads us into the final aspect of stoic perception I would like to discuss, which is the idea that we should care for what we have while it is ours. Everything in this world is on loan and will eventually return to where it came from in time. The stoics would advise us to appreciate the things that we have, while we have them, and realize that one day they will no longer be ours. This mentality is not just applied to possessions but also to people as well. Perhaps Epictetus says it best:

‘Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Has your child died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Has your husband or wife died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from. Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you? The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveller takes care of a room at an inn.’ [7]

Anyone who has read the words of stoic thinkers will know that these are not philosophers who are advocating a life consisting of only pure rationality, but instead, individuals who are encouraging us to live our lives and experience the highs and lows accordingly. What they are asking us, however, is to manage our emotions using our rational capacities in order to avoid the pitfalls of falling deeply into a depression because of misfortune or the loss of something pleasurable that we have become overly reliant upon.
This realization of the transience of happiness when placed on things we have no control over is powerful because it tells us to stay rooted in a moment and drink it all in. The next time you are sat around a table surrounded by people you love take a moment to reflect on the fact that eventually these people you love will be gone, harden yourself to the sadness by realizing that this is natural and you will share this fate one day yourself, and then smile and enjoy every second of time you share with them because of this fact.
Ultimately, the stoics are asking us to be responsible for our emotions, not enslaved by them. To use our rational minds to alter our perceptions to see the positives in even the worst situations. They acknowledge that in times of great suffering it is natural to feel sadness and grief and do not discourage these emotions as they serve a purpose. They remind us what we had and what we have lost. However, we cannot live in a perpetual state of grief and at some point we must move on and in order to do this, the stoics advise us to look for the silver linings in every instance of tragedy. I believe Aurelius sums up this idea perfectly in his Meditations:

‘It’s unfortunate that this happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it-not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfil itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.’ [8]

Lastly, I would like to discuss some practical tools we can all use to help us develop our stoic resilience in order to be able to deal with tragedy and misfortune. As we will see, the stoics did not believe we should sit around passively waiting for misfortune to find us, instead, they advocated the use of several techniques that are designed to prepare an individual for the inevitable realities of life.
The first of these tools is what I would call self-denial. Not self-denial in the sense of ignoring obvious facts, but in terms of denying yourself of simple pleasures. You may wonder how denying yourself of pleasure can make you happy. As we’ve just discussed above, the stoics encourage us to enjoy what we have while we have it and a great way to do this it turns out, is to deny ourselves of these things temporarily, so that when we eventually do lose them completely we’ll have better prepared ourselves for this loss as well as enjoy them more while they are part of our lives.
An example of this in practice could be something as simple a spending a week every year sleeping on the floor rather than your comfortable bed. This many seem silly but anyone who has tried this will most likely tell you that after the first night or so your body adapts and you realize how much of an accessory something like a bed is. They will also most likely tell you that when they went back to sleeping in a bed the first few nights were so much more pleasurable after sleeping on a hard floor.
Likewise, things like fasting, dieting or abstinence from sex or drugs could be used to harden your resilience and build up your appreciation for the things that you don’t necessarily need, but enjoy having in your life. The point is that you’ve laid the groundwork for a situation in which you cannot have or afford the things you’ve become accustomed with, but because you’ve practiced living without them, you’ve lessened the impact not having them will have on your tranquility and happiness. During these times, you will perhaps realize how little you need to actually be happy when you have the correct frame of mind. Seneca best emphasizes this belief in one of his letters:

‘Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out maneuvers, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.’ [9]

Very similar to self-denial, a second stoic tool for building resilience is known as negative visualization. [10] Negative visualization is about actively thinking about any given situation in your future and assessing what could go wrong. If you are in a relationship then you may consider what it would be like if you were to lose your partner; if you are engaging in some kind of risky activity then you may consider possible accidents that could happen, etc. By doing this, the stoics believe that we harden ourselves to possible misfortunes that lie waiting for us in our future. This may seem like it conflicts with the idea we discussed above about living in the moment and not letting a future that has yet to come to be distress you, but we must remember that the stoics discourage looking into the future emotionally, not rationally.
To put this another way, a man who imagines a possible future where he is not selected for a position he desires after an interview using his emotions will likely only cause himself stress and anxiety. He will wait anxiously everyday for bad news that he has not been selected and stress about what he could have done differently. If the man’s visualizations turn out to be correct and he is not chosen, then he only opens up the door for more negative emotional responses to disrupt his mental state. Even if this man is eventually selected for the position he desires, he has spent his time between the interview and the decision in an unnecessarily negative frame of mind. However, a man in the same situation who is basing his projections in reason will consider the fact that he prepared as best as he possibly could for this interview and realize that the decision is out of his hands. He will consider alternative options should he not be selected for the position and be prepared for bad news, but crucially, not necessarily expect it.
Negative visualization is a key concept that is often overlooked because it involves the unpleasant task of thinking things through rationally that may work against you. I don’t believe stoic thinkers are advising us to be pessimists here. We should look to the future positively and hope things will work out in our favor. However, they are pointing out that whether things go our way or not is out of our control, and so, it is therefore prudent to at least consider the possibility that things may go wrong. I would argue that this is not unreasonable as it is far better to be prepared for the worst than blindsided by it. If you go through life assuming that you will get exactly what you want, when you want it, then you are ignoring the harsh reality of the world. Nobody is exempt from misfortune and so you do yourself a great service when you mentally prepare for misfortune by considering how you will react if and when things don’t go your way.  Epictetus reminds us:

‘Think about what delights you-the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them. As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup, so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things-or people-toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stop scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be or what they seem to be. They are what they are.’ [11]

In closing, I believe that stoicism offers each of us an effective way to deal with the harsh realities of our existence because it asks us to focus not on events outside of our control, but instead on our perceptions towards these events. It may be true that each one of us will cease to exist one day, but this is natural and nothing new. Billions of people, all with lives as rich and complex as our own have come and gone and billions of people yet to be born will also share a similar fate. Fearing the end of your own life, like it is some kind of unnatural evil or something that is being done against you specifically, is foolhardy. Equally foolhardy is to go through life dreading the end of it; consider and expect the end, but don’t let irrational emotions cause you distress. Instead, embrace the moment you currently find yourself in. Likewise, any misfortune that befalls you will have happened hundreds of times to countless people and in the grand scheme of time your situation will not be unique. In this regard, you are not alone. Instead of trying desperately to cling to things that you have little to no control over, focus on your perceptions and view the events of your life as being essentially positive. One man may view the loss of his worldly goods as a tragedy, while another as a chance to start anew, the only difference between them is their perspective.
I think the stoic message of resilience can be summed up simply by saying that we should enjoy what we have while it is ours but understand that these things never belong to us, realize that we have no control over how long these things will last, and that the only difference between happiness and sadness lies in our perception of events and not with the events themselves. If we are able to do this then we will find that happiness and inner tranquillity are possible despite whatever narrative fate has written for us.
Michael Burton is a Canadian secondary school teacher who enjoys writing about philosophy, education, or anything else that catches his eye. Michael’s other works can be found on his blog at https://stoicteacher.wordpress.com/. He can also be reached on twitter @stoicteacher.
[1]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 31-32. Print.
[2]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 32. Print.
[3]Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter LXXVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 134. Print.
[4]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Everything Happens for a Good Reason.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 32. Print.
[5]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Make Full Use of What Happens to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 23-24. Print.
[6]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 102. Print.
[7]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Care for What You Happen to Have – There Is Nothing to Lose.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 24-25. Print.
[8]Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48. Print.
[9]Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.
[10]Negative Visualization is a term I have encountered in the work of William B. Irvine’s fantastic book on stoicism “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” which I feel accurately describes this ancient stoic practice.
[11]Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.
Works Cited
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.
Irvine, William Braxton. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.

31 thoughts on 'Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity' by Michael Burton

  1. Nigel Glassborow says:

    We are being spoilt. Another excellent post.

  2. Patrick Henriksson says:

    Great post! Thanks!

  3. “Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us” […] “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.”
    This sort of “argument” – http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#Exaggeration – is not meant to be taken literally is it?
    No, this beast is what is known in the trade as a “Stoic exaggeration.” It is an example of how modern “Stoics” like their ancient counterparts blow things up out of all proportion to the reality on the ground.
    For the reality is such events happen only to a minuscule proportion of people; such events are _not_ the general rule.
    Of course everybody suffers to a greater or lesser extent: that’s the human condition. And I for one wouldn’t have things any other way, but that doesn’t mean we can blow things up out of all proportion to the facts. Or is such exaggeration now one of the prerogatives of the wise?
    I don’t think either that living and dying for most people in the ancient world can be compared with the easy life that is enjoyed by most people in today’s modern Western societies.

    • IRONHUBRIS says:

      However easy our lives may be at this time loss still exists. That, I am afraid, is fact. We will all of us sadly lose precious things throughout our entire lives and, yes, quite a lot more than a miniscule proportion of us will ultimately lose our lives too. I feel, if you were keen to level criticism at the article, you should really have attacked a less factual element. peace 🙂

      • archielochus says:

        Hi Iron,
        Material loss does not count where the Stoic is concerned.
        The body is little short of a prison-house where the soul resides until its (the body’s) walls come tumbling down. After that even the Stoics aren’t agreed as to what becomes of it. But while the Stoic lives there is nothing for him / her to lose except that which is allegedly under his / her control / within his / her power, that which properly belongs to him / her.
        And what is that? It is some ambiguous and abstract entity / faculty / temper which leans towards immateriality, thus: mind / soul / spirit / reason / sanity / nous / moral choosing / free will / freedom—call it what you will.
        The Stoic paradox is it’s better to lose your life than your temper; and if you do have to lose your life then do it right and don’t complain!
        See my post to Michael Burton for further reply.
        Peace and love to you,

  4. luc miville says:

    Very useful and balanced account of practical stoic resilience training!
    Thank you for this!

  5. Hubert Eerdekens says:

    Life as it is.
    This contribution is to the point; very helpful.
    Thank you!

  6. archielochus says:

    Why was my post wiped?

    • Patrick Ussher says:

      Sorry Archie – posted now. It was automatically held for moderation as there was a link in it. Have just approved it.

  7. archielochus says:

    Thank you kindly Patrick! And sorry to have been somewhat abrupt but I was beginning to wonder… …what with the difficulties I have been experiencing in posting and all.

    • Stoicteacher says:

      Hi Archie,
      Thank you for taking the time to raise this issue and I’d like to respond in kind.
      When I said, “Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us” […] “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.” I meant it not as any kind of argument, but as a statement of fact.
      Part of being Stoic, I would argue, is accepting the possibility of loss as a literal threat to ones tranquility and happiness.
      I’m confused when you say “For the reality is such events happen only to a minuscule proportion of people; such events are _not_ the general rule.” Are you suggesting that death, disease, and misfortune only happen to a small proportion of the world?
      I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that everyone will die at some point and that this is not a possibility, but a reality. I believe it is a hard fact.
      To your second point: “I don’t think either that living and dying for most people in the ancient world can be compared with the easy life that is enjoyed by most people in today’s modern Western societies.”
      Certainly, I think those of us who live in developed Western countries have general conditions which allow us the possibility to lead better material lives than our ancestors in the ancient world, but, I think one of the best aspects of Stoicism is that it reminds us that tranquility and happiness are found from within and should not be a byproduct of the part of the world we inhibit or the time in which we inhibit it.
      Suffering is suffering regardless of the time in which it takes place. The subjectivity of suffering makes it difficult to say that we suffer less than our ancient ancestors as we may interpret modern negative events as having just as much weight as any of the difficulties they faced.
      I also don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there could be an individual from a modern developed country who has easy access to material conditions but inwardly is beset by anxiety, fear, and depression; while an ancient individual who may have struggled at times to acquire basic material conditions but maintained a positive stoic mindset could thus be said to have been far more happy.
      It is not a stretch to say that most of us who are living in the modern western world have access to a wide variety of material goods that are designed to provide us with pleasure and give us an “easy life” as you say. But this “easy life” is no guarantee of happiness as ones mental state is not necessarily dependent on material conditions. Some of the wealthiest people in our world who have the easiest life imaginable are still subject to grief, depression, and anxiety. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us “It’s much better to die of hunger unhindered by grief and fear then to live affluently beset with worry, dread, suspicion, and unchecked desire.”
      Ultimately, I would say that it is not a competition to see who has suffered more. Stoicism is a practical tool that can be used to help alleviate an individuals suffering irrespective of whether said suffering is to a higher or lower degree than those around them and no matter the time or place in which they find themselves. It was a tool used by former Roman Emperors and former Roman slaves alike.
      I hope I have adequately responded to your criticism Archie and I will keep an eye out for any replies.
      Michael Burton

      • archielochus says:

        Hi Michael,
        Yes, you have more than adequately responded to my critical observation and thank you for taking the trouble; but I must just say a little more about what you said, which was, again, “Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us” […] “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.”
        To begin with, there is some confusion in what seems to me to be an extravagant choice of words / use of language.
        “Our reality is such that at any moment” the “possibility” of “events” occurring is a “reality”. And the said “events are not a possibility, but a reality” so “how do we best live in [such] a world[?]
        Surely “reality” is the wrong word. Its usage confuses the issue. What you mean to say, please do correct me if I’m mistaken, is that it is a certainty that at any moment events might overtake us. How do we best deal with that situation which one must stress is not merely possible but is definitely certain?
        But how do you know that it is a certainty or a reality? Where do you get your information? And to whom does it apply? The implication from what you say is that it applies to everybody; but is that really true? Or is it something of an exaggeration?
        Needless to say I don’t dispute the commonplace that all human beings are mortal. But, I must point out that no person can be conscious of his or her _own_ death, just as no one was conscious of being born. We entered the world without knowing and we will depart from it the same way. There is nothing extraordinary or profound about that. Neither is there anything to fear. Maybe some people do find that problematic. I’m not one of them. Life is there to be lived.
        Now it is said that we are the only creatures that are aware of the fact of our mortality, of our eventual death, but try as I might, and I have tried, to make sense of that, I cannot. My attempts to contemplate death have led only to dead-ends (no pun) of meaninglessness. I cannot grasp or make any sense of death or of life. The meaning and understanding of both is beyond me.
        I have no answer, I am speechless, when it comes to the riddle of life—a matter by the way which I have dwelt upon way too much already. And it got me nowhere. Not that there is anywhere to go. But as Epictetus might say, ones business is to pass over the bridge not to build ones house on it.
        But to deal with the point at issue in another way, yes, at any moment we _might_ lose our lives… etc., but there again, and it can be stated with equal validity, at any moment we _mightn’t_ lose our lives… this is also “our reality”.
        I think that if we were to place “what might happen” in one pan of a set of scales and “what mightn’t happen” in the other and ‘weigh’ them they would in all probability balance each other out.
        That suggests that thinking about what might or what mightn’t happen in the future—and I should just say it is impossible to seize the present moment (for obvious reasons; only the Stoic sage has that power!)—is basically an exercise in futility: a waste of time and energy. What will be will be.
        We might be struck dead by lightning, or win the lottery, or be in the right / wrong place at the right / wrong time. There again we mightn’t. And what difference does any of that make to us? Why do we worry ourselves over what may never happen?
        And now having said that I must go on and seemingly contradict myself by saying that the odds are stacked heavily in favour of “mightn’t” winning the day for the simple reason being that most people living in Western societies lead dull, boring, routine, uneventful, “mightn’t” lives, or, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, they lead lives of quiet desperation.
        That’s the way it is in reality—Stoic or not Stoic. From the cradle to the grave nothing out of the ordinary happens. People are born into the world, they go to school, they go to work, they buy houses and cars, get married, have a couple of kids, etc., etc.. That is the reality, the certainty, for most people, even modern Stoics. There are few if any Stoics living today that would put up with dossing down in some cold and draughty ancient-world stoa.)
        (And meanwhile our cities contain small armies of homeless vagrants many of whom are too busy wondering where their next crust of bread is coming from to go in for the sort-of negative visualisation Stoic-minded thinkers talk of. Maybe the homeless have even more right to style themselves “Stoics” than the rest of us who live in cosy houses with all the latest gadgets.)
        So, yes, I am saying precisely that, the vast majority of people in the West lead mostly uneventful lives. They may on occasion complain of their ennui but that is the price paid for material well being. As for the death of loved ones, that is not to be regarded as some sort of misfortune but as par for the course of life. And I’d say that most people naturally get used to the idea of death. They don’t need the counsel of philosophers.
        The same goes for disease and illness. We don’t need to tell ourselves that at any moment we may get ill and die. We know that. Of course initially we’re shocked if something untoward comes to pass. But we get over it. That’s the reality. People aren’t stupid.
        And yes there are some people who need help and one should not deny them.
        But Stoicism was never a universal panacea for the ills of humankind. It was the philosophy of the Roman ruling class.
        But I think I’ve said my piece; apologies for rambling on.
        I wish you the very best,

        • Stoicteacher says:

          No problem at all! I am always excited at the prospect of answering comments or criticisms regarding my work! One always hopes to be able to provoke some kind of discussion!
          To explain what I meant when I said, “Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us” […] “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.”
          I mean that in the world in which we find ourselves, death is not some kind of abstract idea but an actual event that will one day occur to each and every one of us.
          When I say “at any moment” I’m not purposely trying to be over-dramatic, but state that at times death can come instantly without warning. Perhaps a heart failure in your sleep or a brain aneurysm while you stare at your computer screen. Each of us knows we will die and although it may be unlikely that we will be killed instantly in the next moment, we cannot be certain. I think that some of us have got it in our heads that we will be able to see death coming from a distance, when in fact it can strike at any moment, with little to no warning. It may be improbable but it is not impossible.
          When I follow this up with “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.” What I mean to say is that there is no question that both you and I will die at some point, it is not a possibility that one of us will not. That is a statement which many people will have trouble saying out loud with regards to themselves. It has been my experience that many people do not like to think about or consider death and thus I am trying to provoke the reader to start to consider this situation.
          Ultimately, I’m trying to say that I believe death for most people is an obstacle in the way of meaning, happiness, and tranquility, and instead of confronting the notion of death they ignore it. Thoughts about death remain an event which they may be aware is in their future, but is locked up in an area of their brain’s which they don’t often visit, and therefore, when they are confronted with death through the passing of a loved one or the awareness of their own impending death, (say for example they are diagnosed with a disease or have a near fatal accident) they are ill-equipped to cope effectively.
          I may be wrong here but it seems to me like you are interpreting my words “Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us” […] “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.” to mean something more than simply a aside on the nature of death. As you say:
          But how do you know that it is a certainty or a reality? Where do you get your information? And to whom does it apply? The implication from what you say is that it applies to everybody; but is that really true? Or is it something of an exaggeration?
          I am simply talking about death and therefore I am confident that death is both a certainty and a reality. My information coming from the thousands of years of recorded human history about individual people living and most certainly dying. Death has not seemed to make an exception out of anyone yet and so I am confident it will not in the future and no this is not meant to be an exaggeration.
          Reading what you have to say about your own views of death, I think you have a healthy attitude towards it. I agree with you that death is more of a problem for the living, as the dead are no longer capable of anxiety about the matter and cannot dread the fact that they are dead. However, as I have said above, I believe a great many people find the notion of death distressing and therefore simply ignore rather than confront it. I am reminded of the great quote by Isaac Asimov “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
          You bring up some great existential questions about the meaning of life and the meaning of death that I would love to examine but I don’t feel as though this is the correct place for such a discussion as I would like to devote significant time to thinking and writing about this matter.
          I think, returning to what you’ve said, that there is a key difference in your point that yes we may die at any moment, but we may also not die at any moment (to paraphrase). That difference is that at some point we will die and the time that we will die and the manner in which it will occur are complete mysteries to us. Death overshadows us.
          I would also disagree with you when you say that to look into the future for events that may or may not occur is an exercise in futility and that we shouldn’t worry ourselves over what may never happen. Not doing so can have dire consequences I believe.
          If we applied that logic to say riding in a car than you could make an argument for not buckling your seat-belt, because although there is a possibility you will get into a crash, there is also a possibility you will not get into a crash. Obviously, most of the times you get into a car and drive there is a large chance that you will not need your seat-belt, but, it is better to have it on because it only takes one minor error behind the wheel to demonstrate why we wear them.
          The very fact that we are able to look into the future and interpret possible threats to our mental or physical well-being and then take measures to prevent these threats is essential to both our survival and to our well-being.
          With regard to what you’ve said about the monotony of the average Westerners life, I would just say that I agree that many of us lead uneventful lives (I believe I say something along those lines in the piece itself). However, I also believe that each of us has the ability to achieve more in ways that others may not be able to recognize.
          Speaking for only myself, I am working to constantly improve my abilities as a teacher and a writer. I fall short at times but it’s a process I’m committed to seeing through. Being published on Stoicism Today is one step along the way towards reaching my full potential as a writer and thinker.
          Far from being agitated by your criticisms I am excited at the opportunity to respond to you as this obviously benefits us both (and anyone else who happens to be reading this). Perhaps we have taken one step closer to the truth of the matter or at least attempted to.
          My last point in this long rambling reply (which I apologize for) is that I would also disagree with you that it is impossible to live in the present moment. I would say that it can be incredibly difficult to put aside ones thoughts and worries, but I do not think it is impossible. I’d like to share with you my favorite quote said by Rousseau on the power of living in the moment.
          Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. Always ahead of us or lagging behind, they recall a past which is gone or anticipate a future which may never come into being; there is nothing solid there for the heart to attach itself to. Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment; I doubt whether any of us knows the meaning of lasting happiness. Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: ‘Would that this moment could last for ever!’ And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state which leaves our hearts still empty and anxious, either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come. But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul. Such is the state which I often experience on the Island of Saint-Pierre in my solitary reveries, whether I lay in a boat and drifted where the water carried me, or sat by the shores of the stormy lake, or elsewhere, on the banks of a lovely river or a stream murmuring over the stones. What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God. The feeling of existence unmixed with any other emotion is in itself a precious feeling of peace and contentment which would been ought to make this mode of being loved and cherished by anyone who could guard against all the earthly and sensual influences that are constantly distracting us from it in this life and troubling the joy it could give us. But most men being continually stirred by passion know little of this condition, and having only enjoyed it fleetingly and incompletely they retain no more than a dim and confused notion of it and are unaware of its true charm.
          J.J.Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Fifth Walk(P. France, Trans.) London:Penguin, 1979. Pp.88-89.

          • archielochus says:

            Thank you again for a good response. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. And good luck with the writing career! Now, please forgive me, but I must come back once more to the view you champion and which I cannot but take exception to:
            “Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us” […] “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.”
            This time for one thing I am simply going to say, it is _not true_ that “at any moment…” etc.. And in any case there is nothing—not even Stoicism—that can prepare us for every possible eventuality.
            I say it’s not true in the light of what follows.
            First, I refer you to the excellent Wikipedia article on death https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death in which I find the following statement (under the subheading _Senescence_):
            “From all causes, roughly 150,000 people die around the world each day. Of these, two thirds die directly or indirectly due to senescence, but in industrialized countries—such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany—the rate approaches 90%, i.e., nearly nine out of ten of all deaths are related to senescence.”
            That doesn’t startle me. By the way, the whole article is well worth reading, but the sense of meaning I get from the selected passage is one that is distinctly at odds with the view you hold with; a view which I feel might well amount to little more than a thinly disguised “Stoicised” version of what is essentially a Christian message.
            I am thinking of the much hackneyed cartoon figure, the merchant of doom, the lonely man, who walks the streets of the city carrying a sandwich-board upon which is written: “Repent ye, the end is nigh, it is a certainty that at any moment death will strike, prepare to meet your maker before it is too late.” When I lived in the city these clichéd characters actually did walk the streets. I saw them with my own eyes. But having been out of the city now for some considerable time I cannot say whether they still do.
            In relation to these doom merchants, these latter-day prophets, the question arises in my mind, What is there that can possibly prepare us for something that strikes out of the blue, something we believe—if we are Stoics—we have no control over? And then of course the Stoic will tell me that I _do_ have control over my deliberations, only, _after_ the events themselves have occurred, via my free will. But what use is that “faculty” to me when I’m already dead?
            And if I live will the dim prospect of a final happiness like a great and glorious sunset be sufficient to get me to repent of my sins?
            To get to the point, if what the quote from Wikipedia article says is true, and I don’t doubt it is, it would seem that the case, where the vast majority of people is concerned, two thirds worldwide, and nine tenths in the West, is one in which death does _not_ appear at any moment out of nowhere. And to think the opposite of what these statistics demonstrate, namely, that _it_ is the reality, that _it_ is the certainty, is surely to live haunted by ghosts.
            I don’t think that latter remark is too far-fetched, is it?
            What this means according to the way I read it is that here in the affluent West only 1 in 10 will suffer extreme loss; the sort of extreme and tragic loss exemplified in, for example, the sudden death of loved ones. But maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the statistics. Maybe even Epictetus was mistaken when he said that tragedy is the stuff not of ordinary mortals but of kings.
            Sure the reality is all sorts of catastrophes occur in life but most people don’t seem to be in the vicinity of them at the time they occur. The world is a big place after all. And everybody has his cross to bear, yes, but misfortune so-called, the sort of grave misfortune we are discussing, does not seem to have been equally distributed.
            Misfortune is something that does not seem to be visited upon everyone alike. Many seem to escape its clutches. Wealthy propertied families, which are little more than corporations, are pretty certain their descendants will be looked after; that the family will only rarely fall upon hard times during the history of its existence. There are exceptions of course but exceptions do not make cases.
            Again, people born into families where there is a history of cancer or some other specific disease are prepared for the possible eventuality that they themselves, like their parents and grandparents, may well fall victim to what they and the medical profession rightly regard as “historical causes”; that there is a “family history” of such and such.
            No everybody apart from the mentally sick lives believing in and experiencing a world which is orderly and ordered; things don’t happen at random—leastways “random” means only that they don’t know the cause; but they do know that there are laws of physics that won’t suddenly change tomorrow. The sun will rise tomorrow, as it has always done, and so on…
            But I’m beginning to get lost in the forest of words! Enough!
            Best wishes,

          • Patrick Ussher says:

            Sorry – links held it back automatically again!!

    • Nigel Glassborow says:

      In another Post you say “I know my posts are frequently moderated. I may be wrong but I have to surmise that ex-Stoic whistle-blowers like me are seen as a threat by those who want to exploit Stoicism and the gullible herd in order to gain a livelihood and / or achieve fame for themselves. So now you know.”
      And you describe this as being ‘somewhat abrupt’.
      Looks to me like downright paranoia.
      Your current life philosophy is obviously not working for you. Quite clearly, at the very least, you could do with a course of CBT and possibly even returning to the Stoic fold so as to relearn how to cope with life and so avoid such irrational mood swings – your two posts being only 90 minutes apart.

      • archielochus says:

        No, its not paranoia. My latest post on this thread to Michael is yet another that is “awaiting moderation”. Perhaps you could explain that for me – preferably without being facetious. And no, I don’t need a course of CBT any more than I need a course of ECT or a pre-frontal leucotomy!
        PS I’m interested now to see if this post to you gets moderated.

        • Nigel Glassborow says:

          When I had a similar problem I used the contact bit to talk to the team privately. Apparently the moderation is an automated system. In my case it was that I had included a link and this means that the post is automatically set aside for moderation – obviously meant to try to stop trolls and spammers etcetera. If your problem is not including a link and you are still having your posts delayed for moderation I suggest you ask the team what other triggers cause stuff to be passed along for moderation and then try to avoid such in future.

          • archielochus says:

            Thanks Nigel!
            I’ll exercise my “faculty” of patience for the moment; I prefer not to bother the moderators over somewhat petty matters. But if the post gets wiped for some inexplicable reason I’ll do as you suggest.

  8. Ali says:

    I would think a major principle of modern Stoic practice involves respect for our fellow citizens and their various sentiments. The Stoicism Today team work tirelessly to educate us and we are also treated to wonderful articles on a range of topics written by people from all walks of life. For many people this blog offers therapeutic support often needed in today’s challenging world. Also, it as a place for constructive discourse in our quest for more knowledge. I hope fate permits this special place to remain that way.

    • Nigel Glassborow says:

      For me, your comments were very timely. Being guilty of having joined in on the game of word fencing of my own free-will I had come to the conclusion that the time to withdraw and to get back to only dealing with people offering serious discussions was fast approaching.
      My only defence for why I join in such games and mirror the approach of the ‘opponent’ is that, while such word fencing can appear to be pointless to the onlooker, sometimes some serious point will emerge from the apparent hostile challenges – a bit like brainstorming.
      But you are right – this is not really the platform for such games. I thank you for your reminder.

  9. archielochus says:

    “Likewise, you may feel that you are being prudent and ensuring yourself a long life because of the way you take care of your body through eating right and regularly exercising, yet all this hard work can be taken from you in a moment through an accident or illness.”
    Just out of curiosity, did you ever read Luigi Cornaro, a 15th-16th century Venetian noble; his, Discourses on the Sober Life? According to this centenarian, a sober and temperate man does not get ill; and if an accident befalls him he soon recovers.

    • Stoicteacher says:

      I have not read Luigi Cornaro but that sounds fascinating.
      Don’t get me wrong I didn’t mean to imply that we should all be living lives of excess and indulgence just because we could be the victim of an accident or illness.
      I think we should try to lead healthy lives and make responsible choices, we should think that doing so will result both in our feeling better and also in our general well-being.
      I just wanted to make the point that I believe we should not be under the impression that going to the gym every few days or drinking green tea every few hours will give us some kind of protection should fate decide that it is our time.

      • archielochus says:

        Hi Michael,
        I did get out a response to your post (the one in which you include some words from Rousseau) yesterday around midday but I notice it is still “awaiting moderation”.
        It’s still there; maybe you saw it?
        But be that as it may… I feel now that I’ve made my point and I don’t think anything is to be gained by my doggedly keeping at you.
        And so I’m going to leave it at that. It’s been good exchanging views with you.
        Best wishes,

        • Stoicteacher says:

          Hi Archie,
          I haven’t seen it yet, but as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve made it a habit to check for comments at least once a day.
          I’ll keep an eye out for it.

          • Stoicteacher says:

            As I understand that you’ve most likely moved on and consider this discussion closed I’ll keep my reply brief (or as brief as I can). However, if you feel compelled to reply please don’t hesitate, I by no means want to shut down what has so far been an interesting discussion. Otherwise, I’ll leave this as a reply to anyone who happens to be reading the comments (if indeed there is anyone out there doing so).
            With regards to your point on “Senescence,” I don’t doubt that a great many people die of natural causes. My point is that an individual cannot be assured that they will be within that 90% that will die of these causes. There is no guarantee of it happening, only a likelihood.
            This is why when I said, “Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us” […] “how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.”
            The word “could” is key. I have not said, “At any moment we will lose our lives.” I am saying that there is a possibility, however unlikely, that you may be struck by a bus tomorrow suddenly. That you “could” die at a moments notice.
            I don’t think the acknowledgement of death whether it is instantaneous or as a result of a slowly developing biological necessity, is meant to facilitate repentance in the Stoic philosophy. Instead, I would argue that as a Stoic who is an atheist, the knowledge, awareness, and acceptance that I will die one day acts as a motivational force in my life. I do however understand that one can interpret stoicism in many different ways (whether as a person of faith or as an atheist).
            Although I may be reasonably certain that since I live in an affluent part of the world I can hope to live a decent amount of time, this is by no means guaranteed and so the acceptance that tomorrow may be my last day (again however unlikely statistically) is enough to motivate me to cherish and value my time and those around me.
            Instead of doing something like passively watching television, it motivates me to engage in an intellectual pursuit (such as writing) because if tomorrow were to be my last day on earth I’d rather it be spent doing something active. As the saying goes, I’m not putting off for tomorrow what can be done today.
            When you say: “the question arises in my mind, What is there that can possibly prepare us for something that strikes out of the blue, something we believe—if we are Stoics—we have no control over? And then of course the Stoic will tell me that I _do_ have control over my deliberations, only, _after_ the events themselves have occurred, via my free will. But what use is that “faculty” to me when I’m already dead?”
            I would respond by saying that I believe you have it right up until you say that you only have control over your deliberations only after the events have taken place. I think you have control of how you interpret events both leading up to an event as well as after the event.
            Say that you are one of the 90%, according to the wiki article, that is lucky enough to die at a ripe old age. As you reach your 93rd year of life you would most likely be aware that you don’t have much longer on this earth and so the coming knowledge of your death can either be interpreted as one of the biggest tragedies of your life or as the end of a natural process which began when you were born 93 years previously. Your interpretation of your impending death can make all the difference in the world with how you spend your remaining time, whether it is beset by fear and depression or whether it is full of happiness and joy.
            Addressing your final point about the unlikelihood of dying instantaneously, I would go back to my previous point that if 1/10 people died in a car crash wouldn’t it still be prudent to put on a seatbelt. Just because it is unlikely that ourselves or our loved ones will die instantaneously, shouldn’t we not still take measures to prepare for it. There is no harm in doing so, and in fact, it can be quite beneficial as by constantly preparing for the loss of a loved one you in turn come to understand what they mean to you and appreciate them while you share time on this earth together.
            I would also point out that not everyone views death as dispassionately as you seem to. I believe that many people would feel intense depression, stress, and anxiety if they knew that a loved one was dying, whether as a result of an accident or from old age. Death is a mystery to us all and I can understand the fear of it, having considered it at length myself. However, the practice of Stoicism has really helped me get over that fear and come to realize that I must live in the present and not fear that which I cannot control.

  10. archielochus says:

    Just a couple of final points from me…
    You’re right, nothing in life is guaranteed, but that’s no excuse for alarmist scaremongering especially where young and impressionable minds are concerned. Okay so perhaps “alarmist scaremongering” is a bit strong; let’s just say “alarmism” then.
    For me such alarmism is excessive and unnecessary; it is tantamount almost to moralising with a big stick. It was surely this “hard and brutal truth” way of the Stoics that was a significant contributory factor in its downfall towards the end of the militaristic Roman Empire. Is it any wonder people in their droves went over to Christianity with its message of eternal life and love?
    (By the way, I too am an atheist.)
    Moving on… you say:
    “The word “could” is key. I have not said, “At any moment we will lose our lives.” I am saying that there is a possibility, however unlikely, that you may be struck by a bus tomorrow suddenly. That you “could” die at a moments notice.”
    But that doesn’t help me at all! In fact it increases the ambiguity.
    Firstly, you say you’re not saying we definitely “will” be struck by a bus; you speak of a “possibility” in which case you are saying that one “might” be struck by a bus, but you’re not very sure; then you go on to qualify that with “however unlikely”, i.e., that it is less than likely that it will happen; fourthly, you say it “may” happen which means that it is “likely” it will happen; and lastly with your use of “could” you return to it being less likely “however unlikely” to happen!
    To close; I think it is fair to say that it is not enough for us to show how knowledgeable we are in relation to the sayings of the ancient wise. I could after all teach my parrot to repeat the sayings of Epictetus! No, what counts is—taking individual circumstances into account—how well we live.
    Best wishes,

  11. Angela Gilmour says:

    Really helpful post – shame Archie’s negative comments just go on and on – talk about labouring the point!

  12. Stoicteacher says:

    Glad you found it helpful Angela. Thanks for taking the time to read it!

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